Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Fifty-Seven Channels

This afternoon, I did something intensely un-American. (Certain websites just woke up and took notice, I’m sure.)

Gave up television.

Well, nearly. I cut my cable TV package down from nearly a hundred channels to about a dozen. Eighty bucks a month becomes twenty. Pow. And I’ll try that for a couple of months, and see if maybe it’s not a great idea to Throw The Baggage Out.

This would be easier for some than for others. I thought it was going to be difficult for me until I thought hard about just how much teevee I actually watch. For the last several months: far less than I thought.

(True, I’ve made a name for myself, for jumping onto the local social media engine and doing the ol’ live-blog thing during high-profile and much-watched events like the Olympics, the Tournament of Roses Parade, and the Super Bowl, which could only be achieved by turning on the telly. I’ll figure something out…)

Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on,” sang Bruce Springsteen all those years ago; at the moment, the update might be “nine hundred fifty-seven channels,” but still, relatively speaking: he would still not be wrong.

In fact, on several Sunday evenings last fall, I would sit down to watch Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison visibly loathe each other, while commenting on the NFL game highlights of the day. And I would realize that the last time I’d put the TV on … was the previous Sunday when I had turned on NBC to watch them hate each other. No wonder I didn’t have to change the channel.

So I made an assessment of the TV programming that, without benefit of cable-TV service, I would not be able to watch, and would therefore kinda miss – and the programming that I thought I would miss but whose absence, as it turns out, might not make that much impact on me – and the programming that I could access elsewhere.

And I got a window into, among other things, how running-scared the television industry really might be nowadays.


National broadcast network news operations are now mainly overseen by network entertainment divisions, which oughta give you an idea. With few exceptions, local network-affiliate news operations are at least as full of fluff pieces and corporate-media-approved content as they are full of actual substantive reporting on local current affairs. With very few exceptions, there aren’t many reporters on my local stations who are actually from around here, which might lend a little depth and perspective to their work.

I’ll pop over to the BBC News website and be perfectly happy, I think.

C-SPAN: worthwhile … but again, I rarely dive for the TV when a House Judiciary Committee hearing is on. Which might say more about me than the Committee. But in C-SPAN’s zeal to present events unedited, without commentary or analysis, an awful lot of politically-expedient but factually-deficient stuff is allowed to pass, unremarked-upon. Here’s a campaign speech, totally un-fact-checked! Fun! To paraphrase Winston Churchill, C-SPAN might be the worst idea for a TV channel except for all the others that have been tried.

Once, MSNBC was my default. The erstwhile “Countdown with Keith” was required viewing. Melissa Harris-Perry’s weekend roundtables are refreshingly full of the kinds of people you never see on the stodgy ol’ “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation” news chats. I’ll miss the ham-handed Chris Matthews or Rev. Al Sharpton not at all. I will miss the hyperkinetic Chris Hayes and and the arched eyebrow of Lawrence O’Donnell some; but given the current efforts to gradually rein in MSNBC’s left-leaning programming, those gents may not last long either. I know where to download podcast versions of kindly Doc Maddow’s flagship program, and that’ll do.

I bailed on the Weather Channel when they started naming storms, when the actual National Weather Service asked them not to. I can run to the National Weather Service website for forecasts (don’t even have to wait till “weather on the 8s”); and if I need a human to present and interpret the weather, I’ll dial up the website of New England Cable News’ Matt Noyes, who may be the best teaching meteorologist on TV.

Education, and Culture?

PBS, and specifically WGBH, one of public television’s “Original Six” -grade local affiliates? Well, NOVA. And Great Performances, when they’re great. “Downton Abbey” hasn’t grabbed me, but that may not be its fault. Public broadcasting needs to survive, because it has a better chance of presenting material that commercial sponsors might not consider worth supporting. Opera at the Met, and little tiny creatures of the Barrier Reef! Cool! … But how many times in the last decade have I specifically aimed to watch an episode of NOVA? A handful, at best. PBS’ website is full of archived wonderfulness. It’ll get traffic.

The Discovery Channel, History Channel, Learning Channel? Lately they’ve become largely mis-named.

Food Network: pardon my jump-the-shark whining: a decade ago, I could spend an evening doing teacher prep accompanied by Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse and Iron Chef (the original Japanese version, thank you): three hours during which I might actually learn something about food and cooking. Now, thanks to the (how to say this?) non-subtle Guy Fieri and the suits who run FN, it’s all Dives, Diners and Cupcake Contests, all the flippin’ time. Pass.


At no time in the last decade have I subscribed to HBO, Showtime, or any of those premium pay-cable channels. I am content to watch them during my occasional visits to hotels. I won’t miss them … because I haven’t yet.

FX, USA Network, TNT, TBS? Packed solid with hour-long dramas that occasionally catch my interest, and with World Broadcast Premieres of a lot of movies that I didn’t spend 18 bucks on, at the theaters, to begin with. (Occasionally it’s nice, and faintly ironic, to sit for a complete three hours and confirm that I’m glad not to have spent money on any of the “Transformers” flicks.)

(I will confess that my current rather serious Marvel Cinematic Universe fixation was aided and abetted by my sudden ability to see Captain America and Iron Man and Thor upon my little teevee set. Not to mention “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter”, about which I’ll ramble in future posts. There is, however, this neat little invention called the public library, and the DVD section therein. Local, convenient, … free …)

Comedy Central: If I need to see a “Daily Show with or without Jon Stewart” segment, I can be sure that a link to the video will appear on my Facebook news feed. No worries. Syfy: now that the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot has ended (yeah, guy: several years ago!), all they’ve got are “Ghost Hunters” and complete weekends of rampaging giant alligator movies. No great loss. Game Show Network: if I need reruns of “Match Game”, or other brief glimpses of 1970s fashion disasters via “Password” or “Tic Tac Dough”, that also is what the YouTube is for.

The frantic, hyperactive Disney Channel? For me, just one thing: the new “Star Wars Rebels” animated prequel series, which is not nearly as cheeseball as it could have been … one of whose assets is the really intelligent use of adaptations of John Williams’ musical score from the original trilogy … and I can watch that online.

BBC America I kinda miss, since my cable provider inexplicably took it away from my TV set several years ago. I miss the “Doctor Who” reboot, and “Top Gear”. But again: the public library.


The local pro sports teams on TV … are also on the radio, wherein I can use my imagination. If I need video highlights, they’re often posted on YouTube almost immediately. Big game with playoff implications? That’s what sports bars are for.

The Golf Channel: … yeah, I might miss spending wintry Sunday afternoons watching folks shoot rounds of golf someplace that looks very warm and sunny. I’ll admit that.

Now, the elephant in the room:

As a kid, when I visited my grandparents in their new Florida home, I discovered the amazing invention of cable TV. No more adjusting rabbit-eared antennas: a perfect picture all the time. You kids, you have no idea that this is a big deal; but it is. Another big deal was this subset of the new invention: something called ESPN. All sports, or sports reporting, all the live-long day.

For a long time, even if ESPN had been nothing but Sportscenter all day long, I’d have watched. This was the equivalent of being a Star Trek fan and finding a channel that showed nothing but. This is gold, Jerry! Gold!

But at some point, something shifted. Might or might not have been precisely when the ABC/Disney corporate conglomerate bought it up; I’m not sure. But as soon as corporate America gets its hooks into you, your priorities are made to change; either that or you’re made to go away forcibly.

And so has it been with ESPN. Presenters? For a great long time it was Bob Ley, the late Tom Mees, Charley Steiner, Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, the late great Stuart Scott, and yes, the early version of Chris Berman. Somehow, ESPN’s idea of on-air talent became the smarmy Kenny Mayne, the bumbling Lou Holtz, the insufferable Stephen A. Smith, the positively nasty Skip Bayless, and a cast of Sportscenter anchors doing pale impersonations of their forebears.

The actual content? Well, since forever, commercial sponsors have been part and parcel of TV presentations, and radio before that (including “Texaco Star Theatre” and “Philco Radio Time” – and daytime TV dramas got the “soap opera” nickname from the soap companies that originally bankrolled them). Got that. But if I have to sit through another round of the “GEICO Halftime Report”, “Coors Light Cold Hard Facts”, “Bud Light Freeze Frame”, “GMC Keys to Victory”, “Budweiser Hot Seat”, or “Gatorade Cooler Talk”, I will in fact scream. At what point does it cease to be sports journalism and become commercial lip service?

In fact, so much of what passes for televised entertainment is decided upon by the suits in corporate America, bankrolled by the suits in corporate America, and sponsored by the suits in corporate America. Come to think of it, so is most of what passes for televised information – the news.

The theme emerges: beyond the Roku- or Hulu-esque services that I haven’t even investigated yet, I suspect that online resources will more than make up for the lack of pictures flying through the air in my living room. I happily pay for Internet access every month; as the FCC recently suggested, the Internet really is a genuine utility now. It truly pays for itself, by the time I’ve used it to communicate with people, research topics, track down information about local businesses, generate route maps for road trips … and track down information and entertainment over which television used to hold a monopoly. It’s possible that I’m the latest one to this party … but I made it in the door, finally.

The loss of one lone person’s cable TV payments will not affect the corporate suits or their bottom line a bit. It’ll affect mine, though; and that more than seven hundred bucks a year could come in handy somewhere else.

It’s something small I can do. Occupy My Living Room!


April 15, 2015 - Posted by | television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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