Saturday, March 9, 2019

Television Changing Again

Streaming television "programs" is out.  Watching other people is in.

We are thinking of cancelling our Netflix subscription (again - I usually cancel it when we go away) as it has gone up to $8.99 a month, and it has been several weeks since we watched anything on it. The problem with Netflix is that it stopped being a movie channel long ago (when it had the lucrative STARZ contract, and a huge back catalog of movies to surf from) and turned into just another network television station - albeit one you can stream.

But that advantage is minimal.  With TiVo (a new invention the President has!) you can watch regular television anytime you want to - so in effect, the "watch what you want, when you want" advantage is not limited to streaming - and never was, provided you know how to program a TiVo unit.

So that leaves content.   And the content on network and cable television really sucks.  Maybe it is because I am older, but I find I cannot watch a lot of programs for more than a few minutes before I say, "really?" and turn it off.  Unless the program becomes comfort food, where you tune in to see the beloved characters (e.g., M*A*S*H, Blue Bloods, etc.) you lose interest in the thin plot lines and bad jokes pretty early on.

Netflix had a lot of great movies back in the day.  Then they lost the STARZ contract and started making their own content or licensing content from others.   And a lot of this stuff just ends up being "regular television".   For example, "Grace and Frankie" has a great lineup of stars to watch, but the writing is terribly thin, the jokes predictable, and the setups almost painful.   I could barely watch the last season - and I am not sure I need to see another.   Usually a television show peaks in the second season and goes downhill from there - they fire the writers after the second season, then cheapen the production values (location shooting, salaries, etc.) to make more money.  You know the fix is in when one of the big stars unexpectedly leaves.   That's how the system works.

"Kim's Convenience" - a Canadian television production - seemed funny at first.  Knowing and working with a lot of Korean-Americans, I thought the premise was interesting.   And at first, it was funny and poignant.   But I noticed over time that it slowly morphed into The Simpsons, Korea-style.  And by that, I mean the latter 10 years of horrible Simpsons episodes.  "Appa" started to lose his carefully crafted accent and mannerisms, and each episode turned into yet another "Jerk-ass Appa" episode much as The Simpsons morphed into Jerk-Ass Homer.

I hope they don't produce another season of Kim's Convenience, but they likely will, so long as the ratings are high and the money is pouring in.   The show is not as ground-breaking as it first might seem.  It uses the same tired old tropes and plot devices that situational comedies have used for generations.   Will Sam and Diane finally get married? (Cheers) - the same gag is used in Kim's Convenience.  Sexual tension makes for a good plot line and keeps viewers "engaged" for season after season.   Will Jung ever reconcile with his father (Appa)?  Stay tuned!   Of course, you know, once this sort of tension is released, the series is essentially over.  So they will keep the gag going for season after season, if they can get away with it.

I've tried watching older programs from the 1960's and 1970's, which are sometimes available on YouTube.   Dragnet is fun to watch, only because of the comfort-food aspect of the characters, and also to marvel at the amount of smog in LA at the time.   Life was indeed simpler back then - or so its seems on YouTube.  But most of the other stuff we watched at the time, in retrospect, was utter dreck.  Hogan's Heroes? - hard to watch, particularly when you know that the star was beaten to death as part of a kinky video sex ring.   The rest falls along the lines of My Mother the Car, or The Mothers-In-Law - basically unwatchable.  Even "beloved" series like The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, or I Dream of Jeanie are difficult to watch, other than to see the comfort-food characters.  The plots and dialog are, well, embarrassing.

And again, as I noted before, this is largely because back in the days of three networks, they had to write shows to the lowest-common-denominator, which was about an 8th grade level.  So the humor is low, the jokes are lame, and the dialog is forced.   Even "groundbreaking" shows like All in the Family are pretty silly, in retrospect, even if they tackled contemporary issues.

So what does that leave?   In recent years, networks have embraced "Reality Television" and ratings have soared.   They are cheap shows to make - you get a bunch of unknown people who will work for cheap, put them in a situation, and then make hours of video, prompting the people to fight and argue with each other.  You then edit it together to make "compelling" video from it and put it on the air.   And folks lap it up.   It turns out, what people really want to see is spying on their neighbors.

In that regard, YouTube has moved onto the next level already.   Most of what is on YouTube are videos made by ordinary people (even I have a "channel") which people watch, not necessarily for the content, but to pry into the lives of others.  One of the biggest stars on YouTube (and indeed, television in general) is an 8-year-old boy who made $22 million dollars simply by unwrapping and playing with toys.    That's it.   No plot.  No dialog.  No writers.  No big production costs.  Dad runs the camera, and the kid plays with a toy.   People watch.

And it is strangely addictive.  It is like the car-crash videos you see on YouTube (Russia's major export, besides oil and gas).   It is interesting to see real people in real life, get into a crash (and hopefully come out OK) as opposed to some convoluted stunt on regular television, where cars do ridiculous things (jump canyons, or explode in mid-air when they go off a cliff).   Reality television on the networks was just the start.  The future is in reality-reality television.

And it need not always be car crashes, crimes, or people arguing.   Many folks like to watch gentler fare - such as the aforementioned kid with his toys.   We've found one channel where a kindly Australian gentleman carefully restores Matchbox cars - one channel of many devoted to restoration of these as well as Mattel Hot Wheels.  Why is it hypnotizing to watch someone working at their hobby?  It is hard to say.  For us, I guess it is partly the nostalgia about toys from our youth.   But there is something about the voice and music and images (as well as the final "reveal" comparing the restored and unrestored vehicles) that seems to trigger something in the human brain.

Maybe we are headed to a new reality like that in Fahrenheit 411 where, in the future, we all watch each other on television.   If so, it might end up being a very boring show.

But overall, I think television is changing yet again - before it has had time to settle on any one mode.   We stopped watching network and cable television over a decade ago - when the ad-to-program ratio approached 50/50.   Netflix was a lot of fun for a while, but it seems that committing to a two-hour movie, or worse yet, a three-season series, is just too much hassle.  And with content like Birdbox (the most ludicrous dystopian tales ever made!) it seems like Netflix is morphing more and more into just another network channel, despite its Oscar pretensions.

But perhaps it is just me that is changing.   Unlike the average American, who watches about 4.5 hours of television a day (which means about two hours of advertising) we usually watch maybe an hour a day - if that.  And most of that is commercial-free, although YouTube is sneaking commericals in, here and there, usually only 3-5 seconds in length.   Although I notice they are slowly getting longer and longer - and even interrupting longer videos.   It is only a matter of time before YouTube screws the pooch as well - and everyone moves on to the next big thing.

Who knows, maybe looking out the window will replace YouTube channels.  Or maybe reading a good book - printed on paper.

Anything is possible!