The Serendipitous Pleasure of Cable Television

So many of my friends have abandoned cable television (or satellite) for view-on-demand platforms like Netflix or Hulu (if you are lucky enough to live in the US). I admit to having enjoyed the convenience of Netflix (even if there offerings here in Canada are quite dated), I cannot argue with the pleasure of being able to watch an entire season of a favorite show in one sitting. But I don’t think I would ever want to completely convert my television viewing to an on-demand system. Besides the lack of options, if I am not set on a specific show or movie, I have a hard time figuring out what I want to watch when browsing through the menu. After spending hours on itunes looking to rent a movie or two for a recent 32 hour train trip (16 hours each way) I was hard pressed to find much even after a hundred recommendations from friends and colleagues, I settled on 4 titles that I admit to being happy with in the end. But that is not saying much in terms of the hundreds of options I had to choose from.

While it is nice to watch what you want when you want it, what I like most about cable television is the ability to simply flip through channels, pausing on something that catches your eye, watching for a few minutes, waiting to see if you get sucked in. I am the first to admit that more times than not, I am irritated at how much I pay for the channels that I have and so many times am disappointed that nothing is on when I want to watch television. But I would not trade my cable bill for the serendipitous moments of viewing bliss. Movies that I would never actively choose to watch (or pay for) playing on late night television end up being a lot better than I would have imagined (or perhaps it simply entertained me to the right degree for that moment in time….). For example, it was around midnight a few weeks back, and I was not tired, didn’t want to read or work, so I flipped through the channels and stumbled on the 1993 Tom Cruise film The Firm. I don’t much care for Tom Cruise, and I have never read a John Grisholm novel – needless to say – it was not a film I would have ever chosen to watch if I had to pick it out of a menu. But I must admit – I really enjoyed it. Or just the other night, everyone had gone to bed, and I turned the television on thinking I would watch some Home and Garden Television (my favorite channel along with the Food Network) for mindless background television, and I stumbled upon a new documentary on the Bones Brigade (skateboarding team from back when…). While I know that I would have chosen that one on my own – but stumbling upon it made it that much sweeter to watch.

Beyond the sense of serendipity I feel when I flip through and land on something I never thought I would enjoy watching, or stumble on a documentary I never knew existed, I also enjoy plotting out my work & life schedule around the time slots of my favorite shows. While it would be nice at times to be able to watch them all at once when I have a lazy Saturday ahead, I like that the shows are paced for me. I enjoy the anticipation you feel when you are forced to wait until next week to see what happens. I like to use them as rewards – knowing that my show comes on at 8pm, hustling to get my work done before then. Of course, I could do the same thing with on-demand viewing, but I am nowhere near as disciplined to wait – and not having a choice of when I can view it makes it feel that much more special (at least to me). Perhaps I am the odd one among my friends, but I still enjoy my cable television =)

[A nod to my friend Nikki Porter, PhD, and her poignant dissertation “Isn’t it about time? American television networks in the face of temporal and institutional challenges 1970-1985” ]


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