The Last Days of Television

I likes me a little “Daily Show” four nights a week, usually followed up by some “Colbert Report,” too. I also like to check in on the fading days of the still excellent “West Wing,” and of course I tune in faithfully for “The Sopranos” on Sunday nights. This evening, I watched a TiVo’d episode of the FX Network’s “Thief” for the first time, and I was impressed enough to want to give it another try. And this fall, I fully expect to be a devotee of Aaron Sorkin’s forthcoming “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which is almost assuredly going to be excellent.

TV is good. I’ve said it before, but I really do believe that it has come light years since the programming of my youth, the general awfulness of which can usually be neatly summed up in just two nasty words: “Matt Houston.” In spite of the continued prevalence of reality television, I honestly do believe that there’s loads and loads of truly original, compelling and smart programming on the air today.

More and Better

And, as we as a society become ever more fixated on the shallow distractions of celebrity and fictional drama and comedy, I don’t see that changing. TV is just going to keep getting better. And I’m just going to watch more and more of it. And none of this is has even yet accounted for the one hundred and sixty-two Yankees games they’re beaming into my living room six nights a week until we close out the World Series in October (fingers crossed).

Still, given this glowing endorsement of the medium that I’ve just made, I’m pretty close to a decision that’s going to derail all of that: I’m pretty sure that sometime in the next few weeks, I’m going to cancel my cable television subscription.

Reasons Why

For something that I don’t really want to spend a lot of time using, cable television is really expensive. I don’t watch nearly enough of it to justify its exorbitant cost. Let’s say I spend about US$50 per month on it, which is a fair way of breaking down the connivingly packaged bundle price that my cable company charges me for basic cable, premium channels and ‘fast’ Internet access.

Even if I spent, say, US$30 per month on a single season’s worth of any given television show on DVD — and I have no shortage of such shows to choose from on the shelves of any DVD retailer — that would still be way more television that I could watch in a single month. In the end, I’d save twenty dollars a month and I’d own the programming! Forever! The economics of subscribing to cable TV just don’t make sense for me.

But there’s more, too. It’s nothing revelatory to say it, but TV is a huge drain on my free time. And I feel like there are so many, many more things I could be doing with my free time than watching television. I could be writing this book about design that I’ve been tinkering with for a few weeks now. I could be putting together this podcast idea I’ve been talking about with a friend. I could be creating that new Web site that will serve as an outlet for my writings on popular culture that’s been in the back of my mind for about a year… or any one of a half-dozen other viable, original design and Web ideas that I’m sure could be huge successes, if I could just find the time.

So I have two great reasons to cancel my television subscription. Now I just have to do it.

  1. Do it man. You won’t regret it.

    I’ve been relatively cable free for a while now (admittedly, I watch cable at The Girl’s) and it’s nice. It really is. But I’ve never been one for TV much (aside from LOST and travel/food network stuff) and it’s great.

    There are indeed much more productive and creative things you can do when you’re not glued to that screen.

  2. I’ve been without cable TV my entire life — I live in the boonies, where we don’t even get electricity or water (yes, we have solar power, and yes, we have a water well).

    I’ve been exposed to cable a few times (ironically, when I go to Thailand), but I’ve never seen reason to get it. Would I like to get National Geographic? Sure. Would I like to get The History Channel? Sure. But all in all, I’m glad we don’t get cable, because 95% of it is useless drivel.

    And, to me, the Internet has made TV somewhat pointless. If I’m bored, I don’t turn on the TV — I go on a forum or press the Random Article link on Wikipedia. And you know what — I learn more either way. Steve Jobs was right when he said that the TV is where you go to turn your brain off, and the computer is where you go to turn your brain on.

    So you have my total support.

  3. I can attest, just from my own experience, that giving up TV has made me much more productive. I still pop in DVD movies and television shows on a regular basis, but it’s on my schedule, and not more than an hour or two at a time.

    The only drawback is having to wait so long for the great shows to come out on DVD. (cough… Lost cough…)

  4. I dropped the mainline a while ago as well, and after a brief episode of the shakes, I now appreciate the extra hours tacked onto my day.

    I did add some rabbit ears during the Olympics, which I probably never would have watched otherwise, with 70 other channels or Tivo. And now, since I have three whole channels to choose from, I’m learning spanish from Telemundo!

  5. $50 for cable, premium channels and Internet? Man that’s dirt cheap. I’m paying $55 just for internet over here in Portland. I’m sure for a baller like you that’s chump change.

    I’m indifferent on this matter because I don’t watch much TV, but I’m not ready to give it up by any means.

    It doesn’t affect my productivity that much. During the week I come home from my full-time job and work on projects for a few hours and then usually turn the TV on, but not every day. Also, I have Tivo (I have DirecTV) and I watch my favorite shows on my time, which is the same as scheduling time to watch DVDs.

    Maybe you should invest in DVR if you haven’t already. If you get DirecTV you can get a Tivo Box for free after rebate.

    Oh yea, Yankees suck….Atlanta Braves 2006 World Champions!
    (I’ve always wondered why they are called “world” champions when MLB is only in the US and Canada)

  6. Long-time reader, first-time commenter…

    Being the oldest of four children, my mother cancelled all television signals coming into our household when I was in the 6th grade. Before that point, I had never watched that much television to begin with. The news in the morning, ESPN after school, a little MTV.

    However, my siblings were a different story. They were the epitome of that “children watch 8 hours of television a day” statistic. Usually glued to the TV whenever they had a free moment.

    I spent my adolescent years without TV and never really missed it. I read the newspaper in the morning, I spent more time online, etc. I was able to process information about my world more efficiently and more intelligently. Even in college, when I had expanded cable television staring at me all the time from across the futon…I never really watched more than you do. With the exception of Mr. Stewart & Colbert’s show, I rarely make time to see anything else. Everything worthwhile can be obtained online or through print. Everything comes out on DVD. Everything can be downloaded later, etc.

    The results of life without television have been plentiful (even then and now). Throughout high school and my college years, I usually was more aware than the next guy about current affairs and better read than he or she. This spilled over into other parts of my life as well. I was able to get things done better and faster. Rather than being submissive to television, I am able to apply additional knowledge gained from actively seeking out information in almost every facet of my everyday life.

    There are tons of articles in academic journals about how television adversely affects almost everything about our existence, etc, etc. Although, few pose a viable solution besides removing TV from your life altogether.

    If you want to see results, try a “media fast.” Take a few weeks over this summer and don’t watch any television and see how much more you’re able to effectively accomplish in your life. Those results will most-likely give you all the reason you need to cancel the subscription.

  7. The only series worth having cable for are Battlestar Galactica and Hustle. Everything else is stuff to watch in an info consuming veggie state.

  8. Red Sox 6-1 baby! I was disappointed in Thief (I was a huge Homicide: Life on the Streets evangelist), but I recommend The Shield — still getting better but totally brutal. But in 100% honesty, hands down the best show on TV at present is currently America’s Top Model. No lie.

  9. I have been pondering the same issue lately — to give in or give up the cable TV package. Do I really need all of those OnDemand channels? With iTunes offering more and more of a variety of television series and the simple fact that you can pretty much find anything you want whenever you want on Netflix – there really is no reason to have the cable channels. I too have been thinking of reducing my Time Warner package down to the bare necessities – cable TV/Internet, nothing more – to save money and be more productive in my free time. I was also even thinking of taking that a step further and reducing my Netflix package down from three to two DVDs per month. And after reading all of the comments here, I feel even more confident and encouraged to do so!

  10. I’ve wrestled with the same idea myself, but I keep coming up with two reasons to keep the TV around. One, my provider makes it cost-effective with their bundling, so that if I get rid of cable TV but want to keep my internet connection, the price on internet jumps up. Yeah, I’d be saving money, but not *that* much. Two, with all the projects and new ideas, a decent “zone out” TV show (Hustle!) is the easiest way to distract my thoughts and take a break. Activities I’d enjoy more (reading, museums, etc) always seem to trigger my brain into overactivity, where TV definitely shuts it down.

    Not the smartest or most productive way to spend an hour, but sometimes a little zoning out helps recharge for later.

  11. About 5 years ago I got married and had my first child. When my wife and I moved into our first and still only house together, we didn’t have the cash flow to pay for cable, that and the house was built in ’45 and had yet to be wired for cable.

    Flash forward 5 years and we can now afford cable, yet we still choose not to do so. Anything child friendly and educational is available over the air or on DVD. We’re expecting our third child in about a month and I’m glad that we’ve not yet caved in and gone the cable route.

    We spend much more time doing valuable things together and I do get to focus on design work most evenings, which I love doing and which also helps to pay the bills. Most importantly we’re not stuck in front of the television searching in vein for something good to watch, only to realize hours later, that there isn’t anything good to watch, or that we just spent hours watching something that was, well, no good.

  12. Cut the tether and allow your soul to soar. Unfortunately, we currently have cable now, but there have been years where I’ve lived without it. My wife pays the cable bill and she really wants it, so it’s difficult for me to get it shut off.

    I like some of the shows I watch. I like the recording function of the cable box, which allows me to watch more shows than my schedule allows. However, the more I watch, like you realized, the less I do with my life.

    The bad thing is, whenever I watch less television because I’ve disconnected cable, I don’t miss it. The only thing I ever really miss is watching the NFL and NBA, but I still get plenty of NFL games on regular tv.

    It goes without saying, but television really is one of the horrible unmentioned terrors of modern society. Really, there is nothing much to be gained from watching 98% of what’s being aired.

    What’s the difference between spending five hours in a television cocoon, or spending five hours a day in a drunken stupor? Really, that’s not a rhetorical question. People who watch a LOT of television are simply numbing their senses via a different method.

    That said, I’m watching the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica on DVD and I’m loving it. If I’ve gotta numb my senses and waste my time, this is the way to go I guess. Only thing better would be to watch BG and drink a few at the same time.

  13. As someone who makes his living in the television (and film) industry, I think that television gets a particularly bad rap. First of all, you can exercise your free will and turn it off if you don’t want to watch it. Also, there are some terrific things that TV has to offer beyond Arrested Development and Lost. (Actually I think Arrested Development is way over-rated). For example, after putting down a terrific new book by the Beatles recording engineer last night I flipped on the TV and found a great show about the downfall of organized crime. I learned a lot. Then I watched Futurama and went to sleep.

    Additionally, living on the west coast, through DirecTV I’m able to get all of the Redskin games for a nominal fee on HD, which is awesome. If you’re a sports fan and you’re not watching on HD, you really are missing something.

    It’s quite popular for the “intellectual” community to bash TV as a waste of time and an opiate for the masses. While it’s true that there is a lot of junk, most of the books, movies, and dare I say internet content, is junk too. So when I’ve got what I want out of any of these be it entertainment or information, I put it down and move on to the next distraction to occupy my time.

    And to all those who stick their noses up at television I say balderdash.

  14. Thats really smart. I remember in elementary school there was a program were we would not watch tv for a week to raise money and awareness. Now lets see if you really do it. Good luck

  15. Since the Leafs are out of the playoffs, Go Jays. And the internet works great for TV viewing, I’m going to join Vinh and reduce the amount of TV I pay for Probably back to basic for the summer. Who knows it may be permanent if the summer goes well. Maybe I’ll finally update my website. And save enough money for a down payment on a new Mac Pro Desktop that should be coming out in September.

  16. My wife and I are a DirecTV/Tivo household. I’ve been wanting to axe it for a while, figuring we’d be better off, but she’s wanted to keep it. While I work FT (independently now), she takes care of our 2-year-old son Logan during the day and having the ability to turn on the tube and watch a show definitely helps her take a load off.

    As someone mentioned here, the ability to go “mindless” from time-to-time is one that she finds valuable. Even popping in a DVD isn’t the same thing.

    Last year we came back from a three-month stint in London (where she’s from) and hadn’t paid our cable bill so it was disconnected for a brief bit. During that time I took on downloading the shows we liked using iTunes and BitTorrent to see if that would work.

    We were able to find most of the shows we’d liked (in great quality formats), but it just wasn’t as “mindless” as she’d sometimes like.

    We’re now looking at saving some money, so we might yet axe the satellite and Tivo — I, however, want to make sure that the $65 or whatnot that we save doesn’t come at the cost of piece-of-mind for her, when she wants to relax.

    Also, our son watches a wee bit of TV (The Wiggles, Thomas the Tank Engine) and having those shows recorded automatically on a daily basis is a nice bonus, rather than watching the same damn DVD.

    And, for those of you with kids, there are times where dropping the boy in front of a nice show and having him chill for 20 minutes makes all the difference in the world when the other option is tantrums.

    Are there any others who’ve gone the Torrent route?

    And, other than a Mac Mini and a video iPod, are there any good options for pumping Torrent files through the TV set?

  17. Hi Anthony Baker,

    I have a 4 year-old (with another due in August) and I fully understand the advantage of parking the kid in front of the tele for a little while while the wife and I cook dinner or unclog the toilet (which I do a lot more than before the kid) or what have you.

    However, as Khoi pointed out, with the money you save, you could buy two or three dvds each month and have money to spare from that $65. Most kids’ dvds (discounting Disney movies) cost about $10 a pop. We have more than enough to keep our son busy when we go the tele route instead of asking him to play with his toys.

    I bet between a subscription to Netflix and a couple of new DVDs a month, you’d save $20 and more than enough television programming. And that’s not even accounting for what you download.

    Go ahead. Take the plunge. [this coming from a guy who can’t reconvince his own wife to cut the tel-umbilical cord]

  18. I’ve thought about going without cable and actually did recently when I moved, I only had basic which didn’t even provide me espn. But without cable I wouldn’t be able to get my yankees, which like you I will watch all the way through october when they hopefully hoist the trophy. Other than those games and espn, with the occasional mindless mtv show that i find myself sucked in by, there is no reason for cable. However, i will miss the sometimes showing of such classics like Roadhouse they show often on tnt, tbs or usa. Later.

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