House-sitting for my parents for a week, I spent most of my time in the company of Sky+. Unlike most of the time I’ve spent there since moving out, it happened I was in the grip of an horrific cold, so that I could do little except lie around bemoaning my condition to myself – & watching TV.
I want to pile up strenuous verbs – that I gorged, choked, stuffed myself with TV. But the sense even of action, of a willed excess, of grasping sensation never arrived – & not just because of the painkillers & exhaustion haze. The trope still exists of television as the great conduit of the anaesthesia of images: the viewer passive, undiscerning – he reacts the same to Wagner and Ferrero Rocher ads – slumped on his (no doubt too large) sofa, flicking in automatic rhythm; the massed nature of the images cancels out the intimacy or significance of the individual image – indeed, this is built into those images, as in the news shots of anonymous American troops standing around in any given hot dry country, numbed by distance. Time simultaneously distends & fragments itself; the critical faculties are as asleep as his hand trapped under his arse. The poor slob! While I want to critique this image – for the obvious reasons – a little later, I want first to try & distinguish the strange affect – or affectlessness – I’m talking about from this.
What strikes first is the breadth. I remember the excitement of having cable installed in the early 2000s: over a hundred channels – & even the shopping networks possessed novelty. But there was still only a handful of them, a few scraps of genre, I actually watched – Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon in its halcyon days, occasionally UK Gold, and the four terrestrial channels. With first a Virgin Media box & then Sky Plus, we have roughly five hundred channels, including most of the previously unimaginable film channels & even the verboten adult channels, if I could be arsed to look at them. Holding in mind what’s showing when, even in cases where you have specifically determined to watch something on at a set time, The listings mag is hard to parse; scrolling through the seemingly never ending TV Guide is onerous. You find yourself scanning through the mini-guide at the bottom of the screen or randomly changing channels until you alight on something that seems worth watching.
This isn’t quite the same thing as the old saw, “[X number of channels] & nothing to watch”. Nor is it the same as the syndrome Geoff Dyer describes, of checking what’s on the other side to find what you want, not knowing what it is but knowing you’ll know it when you see it. There is, in fact, a fair bit to watch. But it’s spread across such disparate channels, playing at such strange times & in such a staggered way – in the middle of series whose plots you don’t know or formats you can’t grasp (what would someone unacquainted with the codes of daytime television make of Bargain Hunt?) – that it more closely resembles a temporal mist, signal itself as a kind of interference or noise.
Which is where the record button comes in. Taping always used to be an event: I taped midnight art movies or soft porn or the handful of shows I couldn’t bear to miss but wasn’t there to see (Six Feet Under was one of these for a while; so was The Wire years later, during its brief BBC2 stint). You barracked people for changing the channel. Now it requires the same nudge movement with which I might pick my nose. The hazards of this are well-known: stockpiling huge amounts of TV to watch on dazed afternoons with the curtains closed, time slipping away; alternately, recording too much to ever have the time to watch, the recorder becoming a kind of surrogate viewer – well, at least the box has seen it.
Sky Atlantic and Film4 often seem to have been programmed with precisely this facility in mind. The Sopranos & Six Feet Under on at post-2AM, while, during the time when people are actually wake, showing blocks of Blue Bloods. (I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually watches this show & yet this allegedly prestigious channel loves it.) Rivette, Ray (Satyajit & Nicholas), Powell & Pressburger in the middle of the day or the crypt of morning – &, at primetime, the umpteenth repeat of a lesser Judd Apatow film or Brit-com (is there anyone now who would actually choose to watch Paul or Blackball?) The viewer collages what they can according to their capabilities of watching, perhaps stopping & returning to actual live TV to catch something in particular (in my case, the astounding negative Dionysianism of Man v. Food, about which I want to say more another time). By contrast, many of the specialist channels repeat the same blocks of programmes for differently timed audiences: Food Network shows the same two episodes of Nigella Express three times a day, in the morning, afternoon & at primetime; Sky Atlantic’s post-midnight programming seems completely random, but they do show the same episodes of their HBO dramas twice a week. Choice, pinioned between conflicting optional modes of viewing, becomes the minimal determinant of an automatic process: I’ll watch this next because it’s something to watch &, well, I’ve got the time. The grand power of the selfish-rational individual – extending from education & health down to washing powder & biscuits – is a function of the technology, of the unavoidable social fact of the broadcast, which is always-already occurring & cannot – unlike pre-satellite TV – be lost.
In Mad Men, as in Delillo, TV is an ambient presence, a tinge to the air leaking the outside into the domestic & working sphere. (Recall how few urban exterior sequences there are in Mad Men: it’s a show of what Adorno called the bourgeois interior’s “ontology of hell”.) It is a continuous signal that bleeds around the edges into the “white noise” of Delillo’s novel – meaningless information, the trance of the signifier; time pools & courses but it doesn’t stop flowing. In terms of attention & content it has its ups & downs – both the pointed broadcasts from Vietnam & the Dick Cavett Show – but these exist neither as abundances nor scarcities; TV simply is. It is still to some extent caught up in the irreversible time of 20th-century moving-image, a form of time it shared with Fordist production. By contrast, Sky Plus produces a strange simultaneous sense of profusion & starvation. In the quiet safety of the home there’s so much to watch in the atemporal moment of watching. But turn on the TV & try to find something to watch & you’ll have a hard time.