May 11, 2003


Unique, if less than stellar, insights into the minds of other cultures can be gained quite simply through the magic -- and monthly expense -- of satellite television.

Dear reader, as we gaze around the darkened room, we note that the time is of the kind that lurks prior to dawn, a chronological lady of the night, if you will. It’s early. As we tear our uneasy gaze from the gentle glow of the laptop screen, we see that the television programme guide on the big screen indicates the following: American Tractor Pullers Association – Motoring. A further click of the information button disappoints, revealing only the scant underwear of programme details, that the ‘American Tractor Pullers Association (ATPA) is the largest sanctioning body of professional truck and tractor pulling in the United States.’

I haven’t actually elected to switch to that sporting channel right now. I prefer to make judgements and form opinions on the least amount of information possible. The comic possibilities that way are vastly increased, and you always can fall back on that old defence: “but I didn’t know.”

It would seem that a whole hour is dedicated to the magic and machinery of the ATPA. Right now, PAS7/10 is floating approximately 20 000km above us (actually, to be technically correct, it’s floating 20 000km above India. That’s why your DStv dish faces a more horizontal, than vertical, direction, and tends to look like it’s trying its best to eavesdrop on the neighbours. Assuming you still have neighbours.)

Nonetheless, millions of dollars worth of technology sits in a comfortable geostationary orbit high above, faithfully relaying signals from ground stations to suburban cocoons, 24 hours a day. A satellite is good for about 20 years, before wear and tear (presumably from those reckless greys) starts to have an effect, at which point the satellite’s orbit is allowed to degrade, and it ends its ponderous, reflective existence in a fiery salute upon re-entry. Or, if you’re unlucky, your back yard.

But no such ignobility exists for television. Fear not. Television, as a communications device, a culture, and a phenomenon continues to spawn love, hate, understanding, prejudice, and low-priced weight loss programmes at 576 lines, roughly 25 times a second, every moment you are alive. And for quite a long time after that too.

We have succeeded in creating moving picture art. Moving pictures that are colourful fashionable vignettes of the world around us (and sometimes, on the Discovery Channel, of the world in us). And yet these vignettes are so intolerable to us, that we cannot stand to see them still. They have to move. They have to be replaced many times each minute, at a speed that evangelises our persistence of vision to fool us into thinking we are watching continuous motion. Only then are we happy. For to stare at any still image for too long might result in unexpected thought, contemplation, and a bathroom break. The phosphorescence of the cathode ray tube never did work as well as ink on paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself a television connoisseur. I regard television as a superb access medium for performance. It is relatively cheap, approximates our reality closely enough that the willing suspension of disbelief has now become an outright ban, and most importantly, it comes to you. Here, boy. Good TV, good TV!

So I guess that’s it. Over the last few years I’ve noticed that the quality of televised filmed entertainment has become absolutely stratospheric. Where previously it took sticky floors, popcorn, and silver particles on acetate flying past a lens at high speed for there to be any sort of credibility to the on-screen rendition, now it’s simply a matter of pressing play. If your lounge floor is sticky, so much the better.

Not, I hasten to add, that the amount of absolute dreck has lessened either. But simply because there’s more bad stuff, should never remove attention from the fact that that the good stuff has increased in volume too.

If I’d lived a couple of hundred years ago, my television experience would have involved a long walk, a theatre in the round, airborne fruit, and up-close-and-way-too-personal knowledge of a large amount of my fellow human beings. Now, that long walk is no more than the distance from the kitchen to the lounge, my theatre in the round is comfortably replicated with 5.1 audio, and I get to choose my fellow viewing-experience companions. Occasionally, the fruit still flies.

And of course, that delightful habit of the digital realm, in which it keeps getting smaller, and cheaper, and easier (factors which previously would have sent us scurrying out of a budding relationship), only serve to offer us the opportunity to experience a wider array of information, on our terms, at our leisure. We can record the broadcast media, time-shift it, pass it around to our friends, space-shift it, and consume it once, repeatedly, or not at all.

As I look up, I see that ATPA is no longer on. Their curtain has fallen, and NBA Playoffs have filled the gap. Ah well. Next time. And there will be a next time.


  :::  a Written ritual performed at 04:13 AM   :::   ritual observers [1]   :::  


I am very disappointed with the ABC's decision to feed SA viewers with a canned version of the sports news. It is impersonal and glib and the local sports news lacks depth and insight. watching the Channel 2 news is no longer a priority in this house.

Posted by: A Rosenthal at March 24, 2004 10:20 AM
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