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What's in the box? - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
j4
j4
What's in the box?
My dad offered me his spare set-top box today; my parents have bought some kind of new all-in-one thing that does... whatever a set-top box does, and also records TV. So it's like a video-recorder, but more so...

Hi. My name's j4, I'm nearly 30 years old, and I don't know what a set-top box does. I think it's a thing that lets you get lots of channels, like a satellite dish but not as ugly. I thought you had to pay for the lots-of-channels, but apparently you don't any more...

No, enough. It isn't funny, it isn't big, and it isn't clever. I don't feel proud of not knowing; I just don't know, and (I may not be proud, but I'm not ashamed either) I haven't been interested enough to find out. I'm not the Onion's area man about this, you know; I just don't watch TV. I think the last time I deliberately watched TV (rather than being in and out of the room when somebody else was watching TV) was some time in 2004, maybe earlier. It's not that I "don't watch TV" in the way that some people "don't watch the commercial channel" or "don't listen to chart music"; it's more that I "don't watch TV" in the way that some people don't play golf, or don't knit. Nobody assumes any kind of implicit moral judgement on the part of people who don't play golf ... do they?

But I suppose saying "I don't watch TV" is more like saying "I don't read books" or "I don't listen to music": it's the medium rather than the message; a whole genus rather than a narrow genre. But the "don't" isn't a "won't": it's not that I dislike TV, it's just that it doesn't occur to me. I read books; I listen to music; I watch DVDs, occasionally; I watch all kinds of rubbish on YouTube; I use the web (and I do see that as -- at least sometimes -- a distinct medium, rather than a delivery mechanism for other media). But switching the TV on just ... doesn't happen.

It used to happen; I watched loads of TV as a teenager -- so-called 'alternative' comedy, sitcoms, the occasional documentary, and the sort of slushy black-and-white films that would be shown on wet weekend afternoons. Lots of musicals. I've seen The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle twice, which is probably two times more than most of you. Then I went to university, and didn't have a TV (there was one in the JCR, if you wanted to try to watch "University Challenge" or football while seemingly hundreds of rugby players and boaties shouted at the tiny screen), and just didn't miss it. It wandered out of my life and never quite wandered back in. I'd watch things occasionally while I was at home -- Countdown over dinner, TOTP2 at Christmas, the odd bit here and there -- but it just didn't seem to stick any more. Not a formal closedown, just a slow fade to a glowing dot in the middle of a screen in an empty room.

People talk about television as a passive medium; and I suppose in a way it is, though no more so than listening to a CD. But to me the process of finding programmes to watch seems incredibly active; it seems to require deliberate effort in a way that finding books, music, and (especially!) stuff on the web just doesn't seem to. I know it's partly to do with the muscles one's used to exercising -- cycling seems like minimum effort to me, because I do it every day, whereas I'd find running or swimming far more labour-intensive simply because they use different muscles -- but I just can't imagine going to the effort of reading through a TV guide, selecting the programmes I might want to watch, arranging my life around being in the house when those programmes are on (or finding a blank video, programming the video recorder to record those programmes, and then finding the time to watch them at a later date).

I suppose I must go through a similar process with books, somewhere along the line (though nearly all the books I've read recently have been prompted by trying to keep up with my boss's recommendations, on some obscure point of principle which has become more like a game, or perhaps a kind of quasi-cerebral arm-wrestling or antler-locking ... ah yes, the many reasons why people lend each other books, that's a post for another day). But I feel as though there are already so many books I am actively interested in reading that I am no longer convinced I have enough life left in which to read them, even if I stopped working tomorrow and did nothing but read, eat and sleep. It's not a question of choosing a book to read; it's more a question of wondering which of the many millions of books I want to read happens to fall into my path in some physical instantiation during the couple of minutes when I'm between books (and these days I'm usually in the middle of two or three books at once). Working at Oxfam helps, here; it's a rare week when I don't see a cheap copy of something I've been meaning to read, or heard mentioned, or read a review of. I do hear people recommending TV programmes, of course; but it just doesn't seem to impact on my mind in the same way. I don't know why.

Every argument I try to construct as an explanation can be counter-argued. Easier to read while doing other things? My mum watches TV while doing the ironing; my grandma has a TV in the kitchen which she watches while she's cooking. Requires blocking out a chunk of time? Video; pause button. Easier to take a book with you on a train? I could probably watch TV on my iPod if I wanted to. Easier to read in the bath? Okay, a TV in the bathroom might be tricky, but it's certainly not impossible...

But the question, I suppose, is whether I "should" seek out television programmes to watch. Whether I should embark on a process of cultural (re-)education. I don't feel culturally detached as a result of not watching TV (perhaps because there's so much TV that other people's attention is spread thinner: it's less frequent that there's a single programme that everybody watches) but in general I'm all for trying new things (or re-trying old things when I start to worry that I'm avoiding them for spurious reasons). I'm not sure when I'd fit it in, in between the other things that fill my time; but I could try, in the same way that I'm forever trying to slide other things into every scrap of interstitial time, trying to fit an hour into the gap between two minutes. I'm just not sure why I'd single out TV rather than something else. It's not a question of "why should I watch TV, given the nature of TV" but "why should I watch TV, when there are so many other things on my list of things to do/see/try/taste". I could say the same of, well, golf.

(I have tried playing golf, once, very briefly. It wasn't much fun, but then I have all the aptitude for ball-games that a dolphin has for cycling. At least TV-watching generally takes place indoors.)
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Comments
classytart From: classytart Date: November 5th, 2007 11:52 pm (UTC) (Link)

Gwyneth Paltrow's head!

Digital freeview is excellent. I watch very, very little TV, simply because I'm not often at home to watch it, but when I do want to mindlessly watch something, having the extra channels to flick through is good. And the Channel 4 channels are all very good - I've stumbled upon a fair few interesting shows on there.
brrm From: brrm Date: November 5th, 2007 11:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
It is probably a Freeview box - we have one. Used to be Ondigital, which was subscription-based.
Our main advantage gained therefrom was a significant increase in picture quality from a tabletop aerial, though you also get things like BBC three, BBC4 (don't ask why those are different), ITV2, ITV3, ITV4, ITV.... Oh, and radio channels including Radios 1-7 (6 music, what's that?), which are better quality than DAB (digital radio).
covertmusic From: covertmusic Date: November 6th, 2007 12:36 am (UTC) (Link)
And More4 (which is pretty ace, mostly for the Sorkin reruns), E4 (Big Brother TV, but has Scrubs), and now Dave.

Which has a rubbish name, but is wall to wall Stephen Fry right now, and thus very good. :)
lnr From: lnr Date: November 6th, 2007 12:11 am (UTC) (Link)
We have a ginormous telly. And apart from my secret addiction to Strictly Come Dancing which not even *I* understand I think we actually watch the telly maybe once or twice a month. And even then it's usually the football.

We watch loads of DVDs though :-)

It's worth keeping your freeview box though even if you don't use the extra channels much (though note what Art says about getting the radio on the telly - always seems weird to me). A few years time they'll be stopping transmitting normal telly and you'll need the box (or a new telly) to watch anything at all.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 6th, 2007 12:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
A few years time they'll be stopping transmitting normal telly

Well, yes, I was going to give up on TV completely then! :-}

A big TV for watching DVDs would be nice. But I still hope that the price of projectors will come down enough that I can use my laptop and just project onto a whole wall... then we can even do that for watching things like OTTERS HOLDING HANDS on teh YouTubes.
From: rmc28 Date: November 6th, 2007 12:38 am (UTC) (Link)
We have a box that does what your dad describes. We've had it for 2 years and I now watch tv much more than I ever did before because of it. It was a godsend for the first few months of Charles's life, when I spent large amounts of time feeding Charles and being exhausted on the sofa (it took me a while to figure out how to easily read and feed at the same time). But apart from that it generally ensures that anyone sitting watching tv in the living room is probably watching something good rather than whatever dire trash is shown at "popular" times. (This was particularly a noticable benefit when Kate was living with us, as she had a habit of destressing by watching an hour or two of tv between vet school and vet revision.)

I think my single favourite channel on Freeview is "UKTV History" which shows documentaries 8am-6pm, often repeating them in 3-4 hour blocks during the day. Almost everything seems to be BBC-output, but it is great for just "putting on" if I have no effort to choose something, or, when I do have some oomph, recording every episode of e.g. something by Michael Palin or Adam Hart-Davis.

Tony and I have been finding recently that shared watching of fun stuff is a good low-effort no-babysitting-required way of spending time together. Less effort to watch 1 30-min or 45-min tv episode of something than an entire movie. And we have both got hooked on "Heroes", and watching the next episode each week is quite exciting.

As to "should", I dunno. There are some very good things available to watch, but I know what you mean about trying to find time.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 6th, 2007 12:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
it generally ensures that anyone sitting watching tv in the living room is probably watching something good rather than whatever dire trash is shown at "popular" times

Does that matter? I mean, if you're watching to destress/unwind, does it have to be "good" TV?

Tony and I have been finding recently that shared watching of fun stuff is a good low-effort no-babysitting-required way of spending time together.

Owen & I tend to just sit on the sofa together with laptops, spodding / looking at stuff on teh YouTubes / listening to stuff on MySpace etc. (God, that makes us sound like we want to be some kind of poster-children for Web 2.0. It's not quite as Nathan Barley as it sounds.) I suspect Owen'd be quite happy to watch TV instead. Like I say, it just never occurs to me as a thing to do/suggest... whereas I can quite easily just waste a couple of hours on the web.
hairyears From: hairyears Date: November 6th, 2007 02:44 am (UTC) (Link)
TV... Who the hell's got the time? That being said, I do find time to read. And to internoodle. Work, even.
redbird From: redbird Date: November 6th, 2007 02:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I fell out of the habit of watching television, mostly from four years at university with abysmal reception, which was long enough to lose track of almost everything being broadcast.

Then I fell out of a train, hit my head, and discovered that watching TV was no longer comfortable for me. So in my case it really is the medium--just as someone with a different physical problem might not ride a bicycle.
julietk From: julietk Date: November 6th, 2007 08:01 am (UTC) (Link)
I rarely watch TV (with the exception of The Simpsons if I'm in from work on time) - have taken instead to downloading things I'm recommended & watching them on the laptop when I'm sewing/knitting on my own. (e.g. Heroes).

The Freeview box does significantly increase the likelihood that if you *do* sit down thinking "watch something for half an hr" there is something reasonable on. (Also it has BBC Parliament, which dogrando seems to have developed a strange private addiction to.)

It is more work, though. Although sometimes decidding which book of the many on the Pile to read can be hard work.
hatmandu From: hatmandu Date: November 6th, 2007 08:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm nearly 30 years old, and I don't know what a set-top box does.
The irony is that the plural, webby viewpoint you're describing seems to be the way things are going, and marks you out as a Young Person.

I used not to have a telly, despite living on my own, slightly isolated in Wiltshire; I miss those days a bit, in that now I have one again I do get sucked into watching stuff. But I guess the ratio of DVD/BitTorrent to live TV is about 3:2.

But I think the take-home message here to everyone is: NEVER, EVER play golf.
j4 From: j4 Date: November 6th, 2007 12:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I reckon using BitTorrent marks you out as a Young Person. I wouldn't even know how to do it.

I think the take-home message here to everyone is: NEVER, EVER play golf.

I did try golf very briefly once on a work away-day thing, before shamefully exaggerating the extent of my havfever in order to get out of it and go to the bar where the interesting networking was taking place (also beer). But then I have all the aptitude for sports involving balls, hand-eye co-ordination etc that dolphins have for mountain biking.
cartesiandaemon From: cartesiandaemon Date: November 6th, 2007 09:16 am (UTC) (Link)
Come to think of it, I have a TV, but essentially don't watch it. I mainly watch:

* New series being released, currently Doctor Who and Heroes (though TV is barely necessary for this, it still feels right)
* I've got an evening free, is anything on later? I generally scan for films, and shows I know.
* I'm bored and depressed right now, am I going to get lucky and find something nice on right now? I used to occasionally, but don't really any more.

But I'm still not plugged into whatever pop culture people pick up if they watch TV regularly. And many of my friends actually don't watch TV at all. Picking up interesting tid-bits, and documentaries, and surprisingly good shows I hadn't thought of, as many people described, is well worth it, but I haven't done.

I get the feeling if you wait a few years, you may find TV left behind. I bypassed videos almost entirely. And now think more about downloads and dvds. But, though someone else has probably covered it by now, a brief update of how I understand the current status of TV provision:

* Analogue. Channels 1-4, broadcast by big towers.
* Digital. Planned as a replacement for analogue, also broadcast by big towers, not-new TVs need a cheapish box to decode it. Has the terrestrial channels, and all the extra free channels, bbc3 and bbc3, itv2 and itv3, E4, More4.
* Set-top box. Refers to the previously mentioned boxes (in theory could refer to any extra decoding, but in uk will mean for digital).
* Terrestrial. Literally means not-satellite, but probably used to mean analogue, or analogue and digital.
* Satellite. I think mainly/only from company Sky. Variety of extra paid channels available.
* Cable. Like satellite, but come along cables.
* NTL on demand. One of several combined services appearing -- here I'm definitely behind. But the idea is you have a cable connection, and they have a database of programs, and you can download many when you want them, for free or a small charge, like from the internet, but all the faff is handled by the provided equipment.

So if you have a TV, it's worth having digital, there's a wider variety of stuff, a greater chance of catching what you want.
lnr From: lnr Date: November 6th, 2007 09:43 am (UTC) (Link)
You missed out five?!? I know it's a bit rubbish, but still.
oldbloke From: oldbloke Date: November 6th, 2007 09:55 am (UTC) (Link)
It may get FilmFour, which is nice.
It certainly gets CBeebies...

Your parents' new box is wizzo. It gives you live pause, so if somebody phones or comes to the door you just hit pause and carry on when they've gone, even though you never explicitly asked to record the prog. And with that comes live rewind, handy for those "what did she say?" moments.
And you can start watching something you're recording before you stop recording it (widely used by ad-skippers to make a cuppa when the prog starts, and reach the end of the show at the same time the broadcaster does).

katstevens From: katstevens Date: November 6th, 2007 10:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I love Freeview - I rarely watch anything on the terrestrial channels these days! I rarely get in from work in time for Hollyoaks on C4, but Hollyoaks First Look on E4 is half an hour later (hurrah) and if I've been out in the pub the previous day, I can watch the 'previous' day's Hollyoaks on C4+1 then watch today's Hollyoaks on E4+1. Complicated I know, but seriously Hollyoaks is brilliant.

The other channel I watch quite a lot of is Five US, for episodes of CSI and House. And Hits!TV of course, for my pop music fix (I don't listen to the radio so this is my main non-interweb source of new music). I can't remember the last time I saw anything interesting on BBC1, but BBC4 sometimes has some interesting stuff.
imc From: imc Date: November 6th, 2007 01:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can't remember the last time I saw anything interesting on BBC1

I can: The Sky at Night last Sunday. Although now of course that's more a BBC4 programme that they happen to also show on BBC1 for backward compatibility.

Why is it called a "set-top box" when it's usually under the television set?
vinaigrettegirl From: vinaigrettegirl Date: November 6th, 2007 12:07 pm (UTC) (Link)

with a nod to the wonderful Ms. Wendy Cope,

There are so many kinds
of awful shows.

We have a set-top box too. 'II recuperates from his day with some television, he being a bit of a film buff and having more tolerance for later nights and cr4p TV (his phrase) than I have. We watch a bit of the CSIs and House on Five US, together. Otherwise, we use the (very small) set for DVD and video watching, if we watch things at all. Neither of us would spend actual money on Sky or anything like that because there are indeed so many other things to do/say/talk about.
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j4 From: j4 Date: November 6th, 2007 05:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
But how do you know that 99% of it is shit? Or are you just applying a particularly fierce local variant of Sturgeon's Law? :-}
(Deleted comment)
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