I’m not really a binge-watching kind of guy. I’d generally rather read than watch a ton of television. This is true whether in my home, on an airplane, or in a hotel room. The same is true – gasp! – for reading on the web vs. video, be it a news report or an advertisement. It’s not that I am some elitist snob (about TV anyway). I consider two TV shows within the past ten years, Mad Men and The Sopranos, some of the greatest literary creations ever. Great TV…and even better writing and acting. And I watch a fair amount of other TV including sports and movies.
But I wouldn’t normally plan to watch a bunch of the same shows at once, or a long stretch of even different shows. (I don’t include the bi-annual Twilight Zone marathon on Sci-Fi (It will never be SyFy to me!) as binge-watching.) It wasn’t always this way. As a kid, sadly I watched multiple hours of TV per day during the summer, and could name most of Channel 5’s daily lineup of reruns from I Love Lucy to the Partridge Family off the top of my head. Back in those halcyon days of pre-cable, with only 7 VHF over-the-air stations and no VCR to keep me warm, when non-popular shows came and went, whether I liked them or not…they went into a virtual graveyard never to emerge.
With the disappointment of a loved show being cancelled, I even dreamed a business in my head that “great episodes” of different, less-popular shows could eventually be marketed somehow in a collection (an audiocassette for TV?) to watch. This way, even though the series itself might not have been a hit, someone could see the cream of the crop, as it were.
I planned for the infamous “Real Families” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati to be on these collections. WKRP’s radio ad salesman Herb Tarlek’s family is featured on a “reality” show,” but the producers surprise the Tarleks and show-up one day early for filming. Hilarity, including the Tarleks trying to lose the producers claiming they are driving to church, only to end up with the church “closed” (it was actually s synagogue on that Sunday) ensues. The clip’s unfortunately not on YouTube, due to some “rights” thing and all. I recall because WKRP featured a ton of contemporary music airing on its radio “station,” they could not offer a DVD/video collection without going to the many different labels and negotiating for DVD rights, which hadn’t been dreamed up during the show’s tenure (1978-82). Ultimately they found some work-arounds, securing some rights and changing others to generic music. Some of my other media-related business ideas, like audiotaping TV shows for a library, or later, a “stereo hard drive” (something like an iPod) never took off, well at least not for me…
But let’s come back to the present. Santa was nice enough to bring me an Xbox One for Christmas. In addition to committing unspeakable crimes in the community of Los Santos when playing Grand Theft Auto V, I also downloaded a number of video apps, including ESPN and connecting my Amazon Prime account. While I already had an Apple TV for watching ESPN sports among other things, the native app for Amazon video within the Xbox One allowed me to discover more deeply all the Amazon Prime video that I never knew existed when I was just happy for their free shipping. And one night, by chance, I discovered The Wire.
The Wire is an HBO showed which aired for five seasons between 2002 and 2008 on HBO. Set in Baltimore, it’s a gritty drama showing the underbelly of the urban experience, manifested in the police force, the illicit drug trade, and the middle-class. I’m only halfway through Season 2, but already deem it is one of the greatest dramas ever in TV, and I put it right up there with Mad Men and The Sopranos.
I won’t be able to render a full verdict until I have seen it all, but the politics and bureaucracy within the police force, the city, even the drug “empire” resonate well with any one who’s ever worked in a big company. The writing and the acting, and even-handed portrayal of the big and little moral dilemmas of the characters from multiple walks of life are very powerful motivators to keep watching, if not a binge, then at least a daily dose. As the Jesuits once told me, you know you’re hooked when you care deeply about the characters. And I do.
If this was so good, how did I miss it when it aired? And why I am discovering it now? Mike Vaccaro, my favorite New York sportswriter, who also happened to blurb The Naive Guys novel, often wrote about The Wire in his column but I had never watched it.
While my vivid memories of my post-college years of the early 1990s helped shape my narrative for The Naive Guys, my memories of the early aughts are not as vivid. (Apparently we humans are not just great manipulators, but great manipulators of memories, too.) During a time of intense work travel, an Executive MBA program that took up weekends for class and most any-other spare time, as well as some family illness, that time seems a blur to me. During a time after marriage but before children, “spare time”…was not spare. Yet with school-age children now, I can tell you had a lot more free time before kids than now!
It was more than just being busy, though. This was a time…when my broadband was an “ISDN line” (cable modems and wifi had not reached my co-op building) and I neither had the landmark product Tivo nor DVR through my cable provider. VCR and scrambled cable channels didn’t play well. Being “busy” (and a “before children” kind of busy at that) and the nascent video business model limited what I could watch efficiently. I also lost out on the smash hit Lost around this time, too, and figured it was too much to get caught up on its intricate, complex plot in later seasons. I do remember “buying” a football game from my alma mater Boston College to watch on the PC, though. And in a few years later, eventually, in 2006 with DVR, I came upon Brotherhood, a Showtime crime drama set in Providence, with a Billy Bulger-like congressmen and his Whitey Bulger-like criminal brother. If not quite of the league of The Sopranos or The Wire, it was plenty damn good in its three seasons.
Today, while hearing the Top Ten at Ten, from a local radio station featuring ten songs from January 1985 (including The Firm’s “Radioactive,” General Public’s “Tenderness,” and Glenn Frey’s solo effort of “The Heat is On,”) it made me realize that was the month, thirty years from today, my family finally broke down and paid (or coughed up) the money for cable TV – basic service plus the premium package for HBO and SportsChannel, which had the pay-TV rights to the Mets. My father wanted to watch his sports, as he still does now every night in his 90s. My mother, on the other hand, resisted cable, not just for the fee, but because of the “dirty” movies on HBO. Her fears proved correct as she caught her teen son watching The Hitchhiker one night, sort of a filthy, low-rent Twilight Zone! :-)
That time thirty years ago opened a world of 40 channels to me, of uncut and uninterrupted movies, and even more sports coverage. But now, among increasing new forms of video content (some with large amounts of eyeballs, like the YouTube “stars”) and over-the-top OTT video services like “Crackle,” all sorts of video-provisioning devices (AppleTV, Roku, “sticks” from Amazon and Google), and increasing new-cord-cutter friendly business models on “TV” (HBO Go unbundled, Dish Sling TV), it’s a horn of plenty of video out there! Springsteen’s “57 Channels and Nothin’s On” is now…5.7B individual websites of personal “video” for every human on earth?
After the dotcom bust of 2000 where all the internet capacity from telcos seemed overbuilt, now perhaps there may not be enough video, “professional” and user-generated, to meet demand. Perhaps, just perhaps, every movie EVER with a decent print, and every TV show ever filmed, whether 100 episodes or only 3, will soon be on demand, some free and ad-supported, and others for a fee, whenever and wherever you want. It won’t just be the “best of the best,” but the bottom of the barrel too.
Anybody remember the groundbreaking days of ESPN in the early 80s where they showed a lot of high school sports, less-famous college athletic contests (archery?), and Australian rules football, given they didn’t have the tonnage of sports airing on existing over-the-air networks? Well, times have changed: the first ever official college football national playoffs and championship were aired this year on ESPN, shattering all sorts of cable ratings. ESPN grew up, and so will the rest of the video business.
What’s known as TV will get both deeper and wider, bringing us the opportunity to see the shows of our memories (not all live up or stand the test of time), some we’d rather forget, discarded gems of video, things and experiences from the universe we never thought could be captured on video, and more importantly, the opportunity to watch what we want, when we want, wherever we want it, with much of the “rights” issue being straightened out. We’re not there yet, but it’s quite a leap from 30 years ago, itself a big leap from the thirty years prior (the 1950s) and the revolutionary three-camera set-up institutionalized by Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy.
What will it look like in 30 years? It’s going to be fun to find out!