Fitting Network TV for a Toe Tag

We don’t have cable TV in my household.

Rather than pay the cable bill every month, we buy a few DVDs when they hit the bargain bins, or we just check them out of the library. My wife also makes regular trips to Blockbuster. I’m not a TV-free purist. I’ve even browsed through websites giving plot summaries of Lost and the new Battlestar Galactica, and I’d probably give Code Monkey a shot and check out how The Simpsons are holding up (now that it’s been about five years since I’ve seen a new episode).

My kids don’t watch Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel, but they did go through their Barney phase, their Wiggles phase, and we’ve bought every one of the VeggieTales shows (except for a few compilation sing-alongs).

Last year, a grocery store cashier made a friendly reference to SpongeBob Squarepants, and when my son made it clear he didn’t know the character, the cashier gave him a look of genuine pity. (Since then he’s seen an episode or two on the TV in a play area in a Burger King, and I agree they’re better than lots of the stuff I watched when I was a kid, in the era of NBC/ABC/CBS, just because I was too lazy to get up and change the channel.)

While strapped down in the car during long rides, my kids are likely to have conversations like this:

Peter: You’re a Union artilleryman. Your officer tells you to go into a forest and hunt for rebels.
Carolyn: I’ve got a musket.
Peter: The forest is dark.
Carolyn: I pull a flashlight from my pack.
Peter: Flashlights haven’t been invented yet.
Carolyn: I pull a candle from my pack.
Peter: You need a match.
Carolyn: I have one in my pocket. I light it.
Peter: It went out.
Carolyn: I light another one.

This will go on for hours, with Peter making sound effects, and Carolyn sometimes trying to insert comedy — her character will faint, or have to go to the bathroom at times that are inconvenient to the plot, or find a group of lost babies.

I feel rather pleased that my children are likely to run around the house pretending to be civil war soldiers, or Doctor Who (from the 1970s Tom Baker era), or even — and this gives me a real thrill — re-living the “Captain Gearhart and the Magnificent Blimpship” bedtime stories I’ve been telling them for several months. (My six-year-old daughter loves adventure and romance, and my ten-year-old son loves technology… no genre holds their combined attention quite like steampunk.)

This is a form of interaction that they’ve developed on their own.  Even when they aren’t buckled in on a car ride, they will often narrate their actions, possibly because when they were little and I would make adventures for them with their toys, I always had the characters discussing their motivations, so that the play unfolded with words as much as actions.

When I say that I tell them bedtime stories, it’s really more like I will briefly set up a scenario, for example, Count Catastrophe lures Smart Carolyn from the Moon into his lair and promises to give her a clockwork doll (that has a clockwork teddy bear in its backpack), if only Smart Carolyn will agree to aid the count in his dastardly plot to win control of the moon.

Then, once the “plot time” is over, the “interactive time” begins, and the kids role-play within the story for a while, occasionally vetoing their suggestion (“No, Moonbot does not have rockets that pop out of his legs. Try something else.”), and trying to end with a cliffhanger that makes them wake up wanting to talk to each other about what’s going to happen next.

Several times, I’ve had my daughter weeping because the characters seem to be in so much trouble.  When I have a particularly good night of story-telling, I have to write down the key points so I don’t get them mixed up.

Truth be told, I can’t remember the last time I had a spare moment and chose to put on a DVD for myself. My wife buys me movies for my birthday and Christmas, but they stack up faster than I watch them.  I still haven’t watched the special edition of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that she gave me a year ago, or the bargain VHS of Star Trek: Insurrection that we picked up in the grocery store probably six years ago.  (I just checked Wikipedia… that movie came out ten years ago!)

When I want to kill time, I’d rather browse Wikipedia or YouTube, or (gasp!) try some classic literature. This summer I returned to The War of the Worlds and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (both of which I head read as a teenager), and just yesterday I finished Moby Dick for the first time.

TV is just not my preferred medium. Every time I read a story about the declining viewership for broadcast TV, I feel a bit of schadenfreude.

So I found the recent Wired article on the survival of the TV business to be enlightening.

Ben Silverman, NBC’s head programmer, may fret when one of his network’s shows struggles against a basic-cable hit like Bravo’sTop Chef or the Sci Fi Channel’sBattlestar Galactica.
But his boss, NBC Universal C.E.O. Jeff Zucker, will rest easy, because his company also owns Bravo. And the Sci Fi Channel. And a whole lot more. The notion that the “500-channel universe” is a pie being cut into ever-tinier slivers ignores the fact that the vast majority of what we watch fills the coffers of a small handful of megaliths, just as it always has.

Take a closer look at that pie:

  • Besides Bravo and Sci Fi, NBC Universal also owns
    USA, the highest-rated ad-supported cable channel; MSNBC; CNBC;
    ShopNBC; Oxygen; Telemundo; and one-third of A&E Television, itself
    a conglomeration that includes A&E, the History Channel, and the
    Biography Channel.
  • Disney owns ABC, ESPN, SoapNet, ABC Family, its own one-third share
    of A&E, and half of Lifetime. It also, of course, owns the Disney
    Channel, the top-rated basic-cable outlet of any kind.
  • Viacom and CBS, though now traded separately on Wall Street, are
    both controlled by one man, Sumner Redstone. CBS owns Showtime, the
    Movie Channel, and half of the CW. Viacom’s list of properties includes
    MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Spike TV, BET, and Comedy Central.
  • Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. owns Fox, Fox News, FX, and, well,
    everything with the word Fox in it, from Fox College Sports to the Fox
    Reality Channel.
  • Time Warner owns the other half of the CW, as well as CNN, TNT,
    TBS, TCM, HBO, Cinemax, the Cartoon Network, and TruTV (formerly

So a half-dozen companies own not only five broadcast networks but
also a majority of the cable channels that anyone actually
watches–including all 10 of prime time’s highest-rated cable networks,
which together accounted for more than 18 million viewers a night last
year. To anyone worried about where network viewers have gone: They may
have left the building, but they haven’t escaped the compound.