Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Fishing with John Lurie

Imagine sitting in a restaurant (it’s easy if you try) and being told that the entrée you selected comes standard with twenty or so side-dishes that varygreatly in their ability to provide gustatory escort to the main dish. You might well feel put-out upon realizing the impact this all and sundry approach to dining would have on your final tab. On the other hand, among these culinary interlopers might be some savory concoction that wins you over with its unconventional appeal.

This, as demonstrated in a rather disjointed analogy, is how the cable companies serve up heaping helpings of news and entertainment to its subscribers. Insight's Classic Cable lineup is a veritable smorgasbord of programming from which the viewer can gorge himself. Except that even the most ardent of TV viewers have shown themselves to be finicky about what they consume.

A recent study showed that on a standard 88-channel cable package, the average viewer only watches 17, meaning that the other 71 channels reside in click-over country – that vast expanse of TV wasteland where the cast of Saved by the Bell perform in the final throes of celebrity.

In an age when consumers will no longer fork over $15 for a CD's worth of filler just to hear one or two hit songs, people are starting to question the distribution model for cable television.

Actually, the big push for an a la carte menu of channels comes from parents' advocacy groups who no longer want to pay for the possibility of having their children stumble upon the latest beach house bacchanalia showing on MTV. After years of being told to exercise their right to remote and change the channel if they didn't approve of what is showing, they've decided a more sensible approach would be to send the offending channels into exile.

I can't say that I disagree with their approach. It also makes sense from a consumer standpoint. Why pay for something that you don't want. And if it means that our cable lineup shrinks by a few dozen channels as viewer preference trims away the fat put on by too many late night infomercials, then so be it.

The only way that quaint little boutique channels ever made it into our homes in the first place is because their parent company, usually a media organization, used their clout to get it added to a cable company's regular lineup. With a sufficient number of potential viewers able to dial them up, these channels could generate a sufficient amount of advertising revenue to stay afloat. The bastard offspring of ESPN, MTV, and NBC, in their various manifestations, are all the product of this type of nepotism. So who needs them?

Well, we do. Or at least we might have if only they would have tried to maintain some type of niche appeal.

Take NBC's little sister the Bravo Channel. At first she was the cool bohemian chick on the block who dressed in black and had great taste in movies. On Friday nights she'd show Slacker (not to be confused with Slackers) or My Life's in Turnaround, followed by another episode of Fishing with John. I'm not sure if you're familiar with John Lurie, the NYC jazz artist who has been described as the epitome of downtown cool, but watching him drop a line from a bass boat while engaging in fishing banter with the dazzling eccentric Tom Waits was infinitely more interesting than anything Ross and Rachel did during their entire 10-year Friendship.

This was the promise of having too many cable channels - eccentric, offbeat programming that the networks avoided for fear of confusing the masses. But alas, it didn't last.

Now the Bravo Channel is wearing Chanel, working on Madison Avenue, and keeping her eye on the bottom line. She's riding the Texas Hold 'Em craze for now, while James Lipton gives the full master thespian treatment to John Goodman's role as Fred Flintstone. And John Lurie and Tom Waits are fishing alone.

Even with the threat of increasingly homogenous entertainment, I think that we are destined to see a shift towards more on-demand programming. What this will do to the fitness equipment industry or the careers of Christy Brinkley and Chuck Norris - I can not say. I just hope that in this future realm of television that is sure to be dominated by constant re-airings of Pretty Women, that there exists some space for a show such as Mystery Science Theatre 3000, lest future generations get the impression that our age was given to idolatry of impossibly beautiful hookers.


Anonymous said...

Raspberries to you for disparaging Saved By The Bell.

That show was (and is) the fulfillment of TV's potential for societal good.

Just watching it makes you smarter, man.

Anonymous said...

most channels on my set go unwatched. i have heard you can negotiate with insight for a more user-friendly channel line-up, to get more of what you are likely to watch; haven't tried it yet. i'd consider giving up tv entirely if not for my 13 year old, who is currently getting her education there.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Anon 4:16

Your fondness for Saved By the Bell doesn't have anything to do with the movie Showgirls does it?

Wat Tyler said...

I'd like a la carte to: (1) get rid of the shopping channels; (2) get rid of the religious channels; and (3) quit subsidizing ESPN viewers - let them pay full freight for it.

Occula said...

I just had to post to mention that you had me at this post's title. Anyone who hasn't witnessed a seasick Tom Waits stuffing a pre-caught red snapper down his shorts just hasn't lived.

Iggy said...

If the desire is to save money using a la carte. A few recent reports suggest this won't be the case. If your just wanting to pick and choose what you'd like to view in your household this should accomplish that goal. But then again so will channel blocking.