Sunday, 16 November 2014

Zero Choice in a Multichannel Age: Sky TV and the Decline of Culture

I watch very little TV and yet I find it strange to admit that given how much TV I watch in a week.

When I say I watch very little TV, I mean rarely do I tune into a TV channel and watch whatever they're showing. Instead, I watch things I recorded a long time ago (and stored digitally) or I watch things I've nabbed from the internet, such as my current interest in the work of  the late Christopher Hitchens whose interviews and debates are readily available on Youtube and I highly recommend.

billcunninghamLast night, I had a chance to look over Netflix and found myself still awake at 4am after watching a double bill of excellent documentary films. The first was a sheer left-of-centre fluke that I would never have found myself watching had I not been randomly browsing through the Netflix catalogue. ' Bill Cunningham New York' is about one of those people that makes life seem better simply because they exist. Cunningham is a street photographer working for the New York Times. His interest is fashion but not the rarefied fashion of the catwalks but the fashions of the street. Yet, if that sounds precious, then I should say that fashion usually ranks up alongside with New Age goat yoga in the list of subjects that interest me the least but I was pretty quickly captivated by Cunningham's energy, his upbeat but edgy manner, and the sheer enthusiasm of the film which is about intelligent outsiders living in modern New York as much as it's about glitz, ditz, and high heels. It's a documentary I can't recommend more highly. Cunningham is just a great human being and the kind of person that should be affixed to space probes as an example of the high watermark of our kind.

rintThe second film is only available via Netflix, it being a Netflix Original. It's called 'Print the Legend' and documents the rise of the 3D printing business, particularly the rise of MakerBot. If, like me, you enjoy cutting edge technology and long films filled with great yet occasionally flawed characters, then you should give it a try. It's also, sadly, going to be the closest I get to 3D printing technology in the next decade.

If you've not tried the month's free trial over at Netflix, these two documentaries make it a compelling opportunity. And, no, I'm not getting paid to promote Netflix. This is a rare thing on the internet these days: an honest recommendation.

Perhaps it's because mainstream cinema has become so juvenile (I find myself feeling weary with anything that comes from Stan Lee's imagination) but, in the last few years, I've found myself increasingly drawn to the form of the long documentary. They seem to fill a gap in my life that normal TV no longer satisfies. Back when I had access to Sky, I'd often watch channels such as Discovery. At the beginning, they were great places to go and find long programmes about difficult or unusual things. You could watch a two hour documentary about something bone dry but interesting. They were the early days of satellite and cable and they were showing anything to fill the hours. Then things began to change. Channels that were previously happy to fill their schedule began to chase viewers. The documentary channels, previously dedicated to factual programming, perverted their terms and began to run programmes which weren't at all factual. They were shows about hillbillies talking about alien abductions and effete men scaring housewives with tales of hauntings. They were shows about three toed ancient civilisations and space creatures helping the Egyptians to build the pyramids. They were shows that would make me throw the remote control across the room and mutter darkly about crystal banging idiots intruding where they weren't wanted.

Once these abortions of programming were allowed, the factual channels also found they could run reality shows. They soon became crowded with scuff knuckled series about renovating hotrods. I look today (Sunday) and I see that the History Channel has devoted 12 solid hours of 'Pawn Stars' followed by 'Storage Wars'. National Geographic is showing 'Hitler's Jurassic Monsters' and then endless 'Yukon Gold'. Animal Planet HD is showing a solid run of 'America's Cutest Pets'. Discovery itself is showing 'Auction Hunters', followed by 'Yukon Men', 'Gold Divers', two episodes of 'How It's Made' (not a bad show but endlessly repeated), but then variously, 'Trawler Wars' (an endlessly repetitive show about fishing) and 'Mystery Investigator: Olly Steeds' who is today searching for Atlantis. Atlantis! F.F.S.

Like so many people I know, we recently ditched Sky after many years. When Sky started out in the UK, you might have paid anywhere between £10 and £30 per month for its channel line up of a few dozen channels. They now boast about 700 channels. Their most basic line up of channels is £21.50 a month but once you start down the Sky path, you quickly discover the only limit is your bank account. You need Sport channels? That's an extra £24.50 a month. Movies? Just another £16.50. Want to watch any of those in HD? Just another £5. You want more than the basic line up of channels? Well, that's £33 a month instead of the £21 but if you want one of the football club's official channels, that' s another £7. Before you know it, you're blowing through £100 a month and because you're blinded by all the choices they're offering, you forget to ask yourself once simple question:

Are you actually going to watch any of this crap?

'Choice' is one of the great scams of our age. It was Thatcher and her cronies who told us that we should always have choice because choice produces healthy competition. In the long term, there might be a case for that argument in a few limited situations. However, the evidence of the last two decades makes me question the logic. When they opened up our local bus service to competition, about five or six companies fought for the business. We endured a decade when the local bus service was provided by some very questionable companies driving buses that were apparently built by 'Death Trip Motors Inc'. We travelled around in anything from old holiday coaches to converted vans that rattled and fell apart at every pothole. That was the result of choice and competition. Yet soon the bigger companies began to buy out these smaller companies to the point where we now have two bus companies who effectively run a monopoly and charge upwards of £2.50 just to travel one stop. Unless you're travelling across the county (also £2.50), you don't use the buses  and the term local service begins to have a hollow ring when you can no longer afford to pay for local journeys. In other words: choice destroyed the local bus service which now caters to none but the few workers who have to pay the toll or pass holders who get free travel  funded by local government.

I do not doubt in the slightest that if it were not for the license fee, the very same would have happened to our TV. We're promised choice but there is really very little real choice available on Sky. Often the choices are mutually exclusive. If you're watching Nigerian TV  then you're probably not going to be watching the Irish Channel. Is Fashion One going to appeal to the same people who enjoy Forces TV or Flava TV. Now we're heading towards the rump end of the year, we've got Blissmas (Channel 376) showing nothing but Christmas rot, which is probably not going to appeal to audiences watching any one of the countless Muslim channels.  If you subscribe to LFCTV, you won't be subscribing to MUTV. If you enjoy the Gay Dating channel, you probably don't watch Babestation or any one of the endless pornographic channels where women flash their cleavage throughout the day.

The point I'm making is that unless you're a Christian Irish-Nigerian homosexual hetrosexual who is currently serving in the armed forces and looking forward to Christmas when you're hoping to get a Liverpool FC shirt to compliment your official Chelsea sex toy shaped like John Terry,  then you're unlikely to look at your TV guide and be overwhelmed with choice.

Yet not only are the real world choices fewer than advertised, so much of the remaining programming is of such a lamentable quality that you'd be hard pressed to say it's actually worth the money you spend. Those that complain that the license fee is actually a form of taxation are the same people who would happily turn our libraries into private enterprises and shrug their shoulders when the non-fiction section is ripped out in favour of a karaoke bar. They oppose the license fee on ideological grounds and not because they could deny that the BBC actually do produce (some) quality programmes that represents the best of our nation. Most of the few channels on Sky that provide quality programming are simply replaying much of the BBC back catalogue. Gold is a perfect example of that (though as if to disprove my point, today showing 'Only Fools and Horses' and 'Allo Allo'). Dave is another, though when I now look, I see it's also showing 'Storage Hunters' from 11.30am to 6pm.

To sum it up: 99% of the programming for which you are paying Sky exorbitant amounts of money is indistinguishable from bullock muck. And the very small fraction of programming which you enjoy in a month would not look as attractive if you were consciously aware that you were paying £2 - £10 an hour to enjoy it. I assume that most people who pay for the Sports package are really paying for the football, in which case, it's probably cheaper to buy tickets and attend the games yourself than pay £25 a month to watch your team who, if you're lucky to follow one of the bigger teams, might be televised once a month. Often, you'll pay £25 a month and never actually turn over to the sports channels because you're not interested in volleyball or American Football or yachting or any other of the lamentable sports they cover. Add in the cost of paying for sports channels during international breaks and the summer and the real price of following your team begins to look ridiculous.

Finally, if you do enjoy football, you also now face the competition of BT Sports. Choice might be a fascinating point of political theory but the reality is that poor football fans now have to pay two subscriptions to watch the matches which were, until recently, confined to one channel.

It's blackmail yet so many of us succumb to it. Hell, even I succumbed for a long time. Now I watch very little live TV and I collect and treasure the things I know I'll enjoy. I'm even slowly weaning myself off football, which just rots the soul as you see the excesses of these tattooed louts paraded in front of our eyes. Above all, I just try to avoid the marketing spin and the scream of the loud but banal. There's some great TV out there if only you're willing to look. Just look beyond the places where Sky precede everything with a pound sign.

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