Picture this: It’s the aughts. It’s daytime during the week, and you’re at home for the day. You have nothing to do, so you turn on your tv and flip the channels and discover that there’s nothing on but cheap tv. You stop on Maury, a trashy syndicated talk show hosted by Maury Povich. Povich usually has couples arguing over the paternity of their baby or spouses accusing each other of cheating. But this episode isn’t about DNA testing. Nor is it about women having their philandering husbands take a polygraph test. Nope. Maury’s doing a topic that was then entirely new for him: He had on guests–almost all of them women–with weird, over-the-top phobias. One woman is afraid of bubble gum. Another is afraid of hair. Yet another is afraid of Styrofoam. Or there’s the woman who’s afraid of pickles. And who can forget Shawn, the six-foot-tall, 270-pound man who’s afraid of peaches?
Maury lures these guests on his show with promises of curing them of their phobias with the help of hypnotherapist Boris Cherniak. But before Povich puts Cherniak to work, Povich torments his guests by making them confront their phobias in front of the live studio audience. As the dreaded object is brought out, loud, eerie, minor-key piano music is played in the speakers, and the live tv studio erupts into laughter as the guest is chased around the studio with the object of their fears. The purpose of this show is not to help people. It’s clearly a 21st-century freak show made on the cheap with the intent to make people laugh. (If you don’t believe me, consider that the episode comes back from its commercial breaks with an image of Povich bearing a sinister smile transposed over these fearful people.)
Amazingly, People Still Watch Cable
Fast forward ten years, and I am amazed that people still voluntarily watch cable tv, riddled with cheap, trashy programming, commercials, and outrageous cable prices. Although that latter issue was at least partially solved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s March 1, 2016, introduction of affordable, $25-per-month basic cable plans and option to pick and pay for specialty channels and packages, cable tv viewers are still beholden to schedules and, for the most part, commercials. Digital recording doesn’t entirely solve those issues, for one must remember to record and then, when watching, fast forward through the commercials.
I Cut the Cord
Five years ago I cut the cord. I was paying almost a hundred bucks a month for cable, although that cost included HBO and movie specialty stations. I would rush home to make sure I could watch Jeopardy, which aired only at 7:30, or I would have my Tuesday-night comedy lineup on CBC. And I can’t forget coming home on Friday nights to watch Real Time with Bill Maher. So I switched to Netflix, which, five years ago, was the only available streaming service. Canadians now have access to far more–think of Amazon Prime Video, CraveTV and the plethora of options soon coming, including Disney’s streaming service, with its rich catalogue, most notably the Star Wars movies. Disney+ is anticipated to be the biggest threat to Netflix, which is expected to generate a $3.5 billion (US) cash loss in 2019 on top of its debt, estimated to have been over $20 billion (US) by July 2017. However, Netflix is still spending $6 billion (US) in original content, much of it high quality. And although Orange is the New Black, its highly acclaimed and watched comedy-drama, saw its final season released this year, Netflix has other stellar original programming that viewers can watch–commercial free–on their own time. Just think of Stranger Things, the Marvel tv universe, Mindhunter, or GLOW. (I should also include the first two seasons of House of Cards.) And with the introduction of relatively cheap smart tvs–with streaming services built right into them–I’m at a loss as to why people stick to cable.
I’m still with Netflix. My tv is 12 years old, so I stream Netflix from a blue-ray that also streams YouTube. I enjoy watching good tv shows and movies, but my tv viewing habits have changed. I watch far less, and when I do watch, it’s to a much less rigid schedule. I suspect that this is because of the daunting task of choosing what to watch. Unlike the olden days, when we had a tv guide or could simply remember our go-to tv shows’ weekly schedules, there is no set schedule to streaming. Also, when I turn on Netflix, I’m bombarded with hundreds, if not thousands, of titles before I get to a show that looks interesting. I will binge watch a tv show, but once I’m finished, I have to choose a new show. Or I have to wait an entire year for the show to release another season of 13 episodes. (I just noticed that Manhunter‘s second season has just hit, and I still need to set aside time to watch it.) It’s even harder to pick a movie to watch because of the vast amount of movies in any one streaming service’s catalogue.
Trash TV at its Worst
As hard as it is to chose a show on a streaming service, consider the experience of watching cable tv. Take this phobia segment of Maury: Povich had 18-year-old Emily on his show, and Povich informs the audience that Emily has two fears: She’s afraid of both cotton balls and Styrofoam. Povich, in his khaki pants and sweater, acts sympathetically. “Did something happen with the cotton?” he asks. “Did you get something stuck in your ears when you were cleaning it out?” “I don’t know,” Emily responds, her body and voice both shaking. While this conversation is happening, the sound of Styrofoam is playing in the studio speakers. They cut to a dimly lit video of Emily explaining her phobia. “It gives me a panic attack,” she asserts. Hands playing is Styrofoam is intercut with Emily crying, “It’s enough to ruin my life.” They cut back to the studio. “When’s the last time you opened an aspirin?” Povich asks in a caring tone. “I have to deal with the headache if nobody’s around.”
“Well,” Povich says, “You know you have to confront your phobia. This is the famous ‘Maury cotton ball man.'” A man covered head-to-toe in cotton comes out and chases Emily, who runs back stage, where crew members have buckets full of cotton. I don’t know if Povich still hosts these shows, but this is the sub-par level of tv people were watching ten years ago.
Where Do I Go from Here?
It’s now summer, and I’m watching tv even less. I work all day, the days are warm, and because the days are long, the sun is out closer to 9PM. I’m not spending my evenings watching tv, so if I am streaming a show, it’s a half-hour show at 11PM, just before I’m ready to go to bed, but even so, it’s not everyday. I prefer to keep busy. I’ll go to the gym. I’ll go to an outdoor concert. I’ll take my cat for a walk. (Yes, my cat goes for a walk!) I’ll sit on the balcony and read a book or magazine. And there are Netflix shows that I plan on watching, but it probably won’t be until winter, when it’s dark and cold outside. Case in point: the last season of Orange is the New Black, whose last season was released just a few weeks ago. When I first got Netflix five years ago, it was November, and Orange is the New Black was one of the first shows I watched. I watched the first season over the weeks leading up to Christmas, and on Christmas Eve I watched the season’s last episode–set on Christmas Eve–when the inmates are having a Christmas Eve pageant and mute character Norma sings a Christmas song as Piper is attacked in the prison’s yard as it snows.
So it’s only right that I save the series’ final season until this year’s lead up to Christmas. But in the meantime, I’m in no hurry to watch tv. I’d rather keep it real. I’m living in the real world.