When I was growing up, we had two TV channels in my area: ABC, the government-run channel, and Capital 7, the commercial channel. While I don’t really want to go back to that world, I do remember it with a certain amount of nostalgia. While the number options was obviously abysmal, there were some interesting social benefits: on average, 50% of the people you talk to (provided they were watching TV at all), were watching the exact same show as you. This meant there was always something to discuss. Even when the shows were bad, the conversation was there (in fact, this was probably when it was at its best). The conversation normally went something like this: “Wasn’t yesterday’s episode of Voltron terrible?” “Sure was – worst this year I reckon!”.
Compare this with today’s world where many people have 200 or more cable channels to choose from. Even after you take into account that 90% of those channels are inherently unwatchable, the number of options is still sufficient that it’s highly unlikely that your friends or colleagues were watching the same thing as you. This brings up the horrifying prospect of needing to talk about something else: politics, philosophy, or heaven forbid, whatever it is you’re meant to be working on.
Social issues aside, there are some personal downsides to having so many options to choose from. When I first moved to the United States I had 100 odd analogue cable channels with no Electronic Program Guide (EPG). Since I often didn’t have a TV guide handy, watching TV consisted of slowly cycling through the channels, looking for the holy grail of something worth watching. Unfortunately Murphy’s Law dictated that most channels would have ads as you switched to them, meaning that you either needed to wait 2 minutes for them to finish (only to find out that the show was crap anyway), or switch past it (probably missing the only thing worth watching).
Eventually I switched to digital cable and my Windows Media Centre PC equipped with an EPG. While this avoided the tedious channel switching, I still found the number of choices overwhelming. If I didn’t immediately recognise the title in the guide as a show I liked watching, I’d keep looking. Consequently I spent three years watching the same 5 shows plus the occasional movie. There were probably dozens of shows I dismissed that I would have really enjoyed, but like so many things in life, now I’ll never know.
Of course, the world of television is undergoing yet another massive transformation. With devices such as Windows Media Center PCs, TiVo and other DVRs, it no longer matters what time shows are on. This makes it even less likely you’ll have something to talk about the next day at work (and even if your colleagues share the same taste as you, they’ll likely be 2 episodes behind and will beg you not to spoil it for them). And as shows are increasingly made available online, it won’t be long until the concept of a particular show being on at a particular time is dead forever.
So is this really progress? In most ways, yes – I love being able to watch Top Gear whenever I please, whether recorded on my Media Center or downloaded from the web. But I will always miss those days when there was always a guaranteed topic of conversation with anyone you may happen to meet, and that was how bloody awful last night’s viewing was, and how great it would be if we had more than two channels to choose from.