Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Real Price of Pay TV

My dad is fond of talking about the early days of television, when he would sit, dazed, in front of his family's newly purchased black-and-white set, watching test patterns. Not actual programming, mind you, just test patterns, so powerful was the allure of this new medium.

I fear that soon I'll be doing the same.

Dave and I don't subscribe to cable (or satellite) TV. I know what you're thinking. Gasp! When we confess this deficiency to strangers, they react as if we've a) admitted to driving a horse and buggy or b) told them we have cancer. Disbelief mixed with a tinge of pity.

It's not that I don't like or care about TV. I love TV, especially really good TV, which these days is more and more often confined to cable, along with really, really bad TV. Mock "Dancing With the Stars" all you want, but cable made a "star" of Kate Gosselin first.

I just don't feel like paying for something that's supposed to be free. I mean, if television had existed at the time of the Declaration of Independence, I'm pretty sure our Founding Fathers would have agreed that we, the people, had an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of "Mad Men."

At least that was the prevailing wisdom when I was a kid. Then cable came along, and by cable, I mean MTV, and suddenly we were all willing to pay for something that had previously cost us absolutely nothing. Kind of hard to believe in today's climate, where the Internet and its model of free content has all but wiped out institutions like the Chicago Tribune. How is that in one medium, we're patently opposed to shelling out so much as a penny to read a newspaper's online edition, something that we gladly subscribed to in print, but when it comes to television, we'll throw open our wallets to keep up with the Kardashians? If you have the answer, alert the execs at the New York Times.

Normally, I don't mind being a non-cable household. It feels kind of retro cool, like I'm standing up to The Man. But just to make sure that I don't fall into a pop culture black hole, I keep conversant with the latest cable offerings via Entertainment Weekly and Netflix. Never seen "Top Chef" but I can speak Padma Lakshmi. I make do. I get by. Besides, so many cable programs are watched by such a tiny fraction of the population, in any large group, I'm likely not the only one who hasn't caught onto "Caprica."

Then, damn if baseball didn't go and sell the early rounds of its playoffs to TBS. College football followed suit, handing off its bowl games to ESPN, the highest bidder. And that's just not right.

We all know we live in a fractured nation. There's hardly a topic that doesn't polarize these days. Used to be that we could lay those differences aside and gather around the boob tube for major cultural events, like "Who shot J.R." or the Rose Bowl. No more.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are the New Year's Days we spent at my Aunt Mary Jo's, where my entire extended family would gather to celebrate my cousin Holly's birthday and settle in to watch bowl game after bowl game after bowl game. Perfection would be a victory for my grandpa's beloved Notre Dame.

This year, I sent Holly birthday greetings on Facebook.

It's sad enough that my family has grown apart geographically. I saw my youngest brother, Matt, at Christmas for the first time since the previous year's holiday. Maybe, if you don't like your brother, you'd consider that a positive turn of events. I happen to love mine and think this a sad state of affairs.

Now television has to go and take away the precious few moments that have the potential to bind us all together, no matter where we are.

Last night, our home team, the Ohio State Buckeyes played Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. Normally, when the Buckeyes square off, I can picture Matt in St. Louis, dying with every dropped pass or fumble. I know my dad will be watching in Toledo or Florida, depending on the month of the year. I'll be pacing our living room in Chicago, ducking into the hallway if the outcome looks like it's going the other team's way. Physically we might be separated but mentally we're connected.

But this year, the Sugar Bowl was on cable. So off Dave and I went into the bitter cold night--the kind of cold that makes your teeth hurt, the kind of cold meant for snuggling under blankets with a cup of hot cocoa--in search of a bar with a big screen TV tuned into ESPN. We wound up at Bad Dog Tavern, where the bartender happened to be an OSU grad. The game was on half a dozen flat screens, and he cheered with us as the Buckeyes turned a near catastrophic fumble into a miraculous touchdown. We stayed through the first half, long after we had exhausted our order of food and drink. As we left, I smiled at the woman in the OSU jersey, sitting at a table near the door.

This morning I logged on to email to see a flurry of "Go Bucks" messages. It seems the game, which OSU had well in hand last Dave and I knew, had turned into a nail biter. We'd not only missed the best part, but missed out on the conversation. Curse you, NCAA.

My point, and I do have a point, is where does this end? Does the Super Bowl wind up on TLC? The Oscars on E!? Election night coverage on FOX News, and only FOX News? Oprah is now only viewable on her own network. How will the poor, tired, huddled, non-OWN households receive their daily dose of inspiration?.

When every event has a price of entry, you're bound to leave some people out. The more exclusive, the more who are excluded, and the less we have in common as Americans. Shared cultural experiences have the capacity to cut across racial, economic, religious and political divides. As they become more scarce, we are each more alone in our own little silos.

I say this not just because I'm too cheap to pay for cable. I say this because I think we're losing a little piece of ourselves as a society everytime something that once was accessible to all becomes accessible to a few.


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