An Ode to Cable

Jan 25, 2014

Oh cable, I could not part with you!

I came close, though. You know how it works: you negotiate a one-year deal, and then when the special rate eventually expires, some even-more-obscene amount quietly drains from your bank account. That’s your cue to get on the phone with the customer service representative at Evil Empire, Inc.

“You knew this was going to happen. You agreed to it,” remarked the customer service dude the other day when my husband finally got through the phone tree and the hold system.

“Oh yes. I knew it would happen,” hubby coolly replied. “And I knew what I would do, too. Please transfer my call to a Retention Specialist, with whom I will wrangle a new deal patched together from all your ridiculous promotions.”

So the cycle continues. But must it? That is the question we asked more keenly than ever this year. By cobbling together Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, and perhaps a large aluminum foil sculpture on our roof, could we do without cable TV entirely? Of course we still need high-speed internet. Obviously. But maybe we could pry apart our “bundle” and jettison cable TV—along with the telephone land line. I mean, how long will we keep living in the dark ages?

Apparently, one more year. We did wrangle a new deal. But afterwards, we looked at each other with steely determination and vowed: this is the last time. Next year, we will join the five million “zero TV” households in the U.S. (note: this means zero cable TV package, not zero video entertainment). In fact, we may ditch our landline as soon as this fall, when we negotiate new contracts with that other Evil Empire, the cell phone company.

Meanwhile, I have one year to revel in all the glories cable TV bestows upon my life. Oh cable, how effortlessly you indulge all my shallowest impulses with your casual trashiness!

People who have already “cut the cord” find that they still watch plenty of “content,” but their TV watching has become a “purposeful event.” That may sound like a good and noble thing, but what I appreciate most about cable is precisely the utter purposelessness of late-evening surfing. I have plenty of purpose in the rest of my life, and plenty of serious art and culture. I figure 45 minutes at the end of the day for brain-puddling indulgence in low-brow culture is probably healthy for me.

And so very enlightening. For example, who knew that people pay $5000 for wedding gowns (Say Yes to the Dress)? Or ride across the countryside rooting around in barns for antiques (American Pickers)? Or make a perilous living on fishing boats (Deadliest Catch)? I don’t watch any of these shows, but it’s good to know there are people who behave more ridiculously than me, or have stranger obsessions than mine, or who are otherwise further out there. Makes me feel well-adjusted.

Also, I can feel superior while skipping the channels in Narcissistic Infomercial neighborhood, noting amusing titles such as I Hate My Butt, Don’t Let Your Neck Reveal Your Age, Bra Revolution, or Hey You with the Hemorrhoids. (Two of those are real. Guess which ones!). Or, I can feel vaguely multicultural while zipping past Arabic news or Korean soap operas or the Spanish-language channels, though I might pause for a moment of amusement to watch Harry and Hermione speak Spanish to Professor Snape.

Eventually, though, I have to settle down somewhere. How about a movie I’ve seen a hundred times before? Oh, this is comfort TV at its finest, the macaroni and cheese of entertainment. I can catch a half hour of Back to the Future II or Star Wars IV or Men in Black III or Pitch Perfect. And if we get to a part I don’t like, I can switch to another channel and watch a half hour of, well, probably Harry Potter and the Whatever It Is in This One.

I have discovered some fine new films this way—for instance, the fabulous disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow. It has everything: an estranged father who lumbers through a blizzard to rescue his son, a sweet teenage romance that inspires a young man to retrieve penicillin for his ailing love despite the snapping jaws of wolves, a grumpy Vice President who eventually has to admit he was terribly wrong to doubt the seriousness of climate change and now has to suck up to Mexico so that refugee Americans can take shelter there, and a white-knuckle-inducing special-effects storm that completely trashes New York City and leaves the Statue of Liberty up to her armpits in snow. Life would indeed be poorer without this movie.

As much as I appreciate aimless surfing, I usually have one current favorite that I watch “purposefully.” My latest is The Incredible Dr. Pol, a reality show about a 70-year-old veterinarian with a practice in central Michigan. I’m not sure why I love this show. Is it because hardly a segment goes by without Doc Pol inserting his arm into the back end of a cow? Is it the timeless appeal of gross-out: the horse castrations, the surgical repair of oozing lacerations, the generous gushing of various animal fluids and solids, the removal of porcupine quills from the snouts of very dopey dogs? Or maybe it’s the characters. Not one person on the show is Hollywood beautiful. No one has perfect teeth or even good hair. Instead, we see regular people with practical skills, ordinary relationships, and mid-Michigan accents. Wow.

As for the really good content on cable, the classy, artful stuff that Jeff Munroe discussed last week, I can already get that through other providers, so I don’t have to fear its absence from my cable-less future. Losing the sports broadcasts is trickier, as I do enjoy Michigan football and a little March Madness. But at least this summer I’ll still be able to catch the World Cup, and this winter I’ll browse the more obscure Olympic events. Who could bear missing the curling prelims?

And so cable, for the next year, I will indulge you with relish, knowing in my soul that the real answer to the question Can we do without cable? is Are you kidding? You would be much better off without it. We need 300 cable channels about as much as Solomon needed 300 concubines, not to mention 700 wives. I’d like to think cable TV is somewhat less entangled in idolatry, but I’m not so sure.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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