17 Mar Why We Won’t Buy Cable

Last week, Jill and I bought a digital converter for our old analog TV and joined, finally, the digital “revolution.” Mind you, ours is not HD-TV, just digital, which allows us to access – so far – about 30 stations, three times as many as before. All we wanted was access to WNET, Washington DC’s public broadcasting station, which is so much better than Maryland’s PBS—because Maryland’s is especially fond of pre-empting our favorite shows, like “This Old House,” with endless reruns of the Celtic Woman special (a blonde lassie flailing at the fiddle while strapping lads stomp wild Celtic mating dances around her) or the Yani special or the Those-Great-Doo-Wop-Hits-From-the-Fifties special, all of which convince us that Maryland’s PBS has decided that its target audience is between the ages of 60 and 80. It’s confounding. By contrast, the DC station shows vintage movies and indie films and Front Line and lots of other, intellectually stimulating stuff that we can’t get our MD station to air. Actually, the MD station’s programming has become something of a controversy in our state. Jill and I are seriously thinking of sending our PBS donations to DC.

So we were stoked about the prospect of getting WNET. All we needed was an antenna. Nearly everyone we know has cable. But we refuse to get cable—for two reasons: it’s expensive and addictive. Whenever I travel, I often spend my nights sitting on my hotel bed, surfing the 100 cable channels for something good to watch. Rarely is there anything worth watching. And still I surf and surf until, hours later, I drop exhausted onto my pillow, feeling mildly depressed and slightly dirty, as if I’d spent all that time cruising triple-x stations. Or playing a nickel slot machine all night without a win.

And then there’s the scam of “basic” cable as opposed to “premium” cable. If you want a station like Turner Classic Movies, you pay a hefty extra fee each month. We already get our movies through Netflix. And you can’t get first-run movies any faster on cable (or not much faster) than through Netflix. And cable can’t offer as broad a selection as Netflix. As you can see, I’m pretty adamant on this topic. All my arguments aside, my refusal to get cable comes to nothing more than my own weakness. I simply can’t trust myself to live in a house with cable TV—I’d be watching it eight hours a day.

Jill was hoping we’d get cable so that she could watch Animal Planet. But she’s a good sport and went along with my insistence that we get an antenna and make the best of it. Both of us like the idea of an antenna, it’s so retro. We also liked visiting Baynesville Electronics, one of the largest independent electronics supply stores on the east coast. It got its start in 1955 and still retains a retro look, like something out of the 1960s. And it’s crowded with all kinds of cool gear, including big TV antennas. Best of all, the staff is knowledgeable and will show you how to do stuff, like splice wires or read your installation diagram.

$200 later, we walked out with an antenna, a five-foot antenna mast, a fifty-foot down-lead cord (to the TV set), a chimney bracket (for the mast), 100 feet of aluminum cable (for the lightning rod), and the lightning rod anchor. Yeah, it looked kind of complicated. The antenna itself is a bristly array of aluminum rods and fins that, once assembled, extends six feet from the mast. After I strapped it to our rear chimney, I had to run an aluminum cable down the side of the house and stake it deep into the dirt in the back yard in the unlikely event that lightning strikes the antenna. Then I strung a guy wire from the antenna to a cinder block (on the roof) to keep the wind from turning the antenna like a weather vane. I aimed it south to D.C. It pulls in great reception. So many new channels that — guess what? — Jill and I have been wasting way too much time cruising the selections. We found one that plays nothing but old TV series, kind of a poor man’s Nickelodian. Another shows only winter sports, mostly skiing. Another broadcasts Japanese news in English. Yet another is all Chinese. We assume that these channels come from D.C., whose incredibly diverse metro area must be the size of Chicago’s.

While on the roof, I was surprised to see other antenna perched atop neighbors’ houses. They looked old. Surely their days are numbered now that digital TV is upon us. The rooftops of every neighborhood of my youth were studded with TV antennas, of course. Our new one does homage to that quaint past. At the same time, it stands in defiance of cable’s monopoly and our voracious consumer culture, both of which make it hard for us to resist the alpha-wave-inducing eye candy. Walking through Sam’s Club the other week, I couldn’t resist gaping at the big-screen TVs and wondering if our life would be just a notch richer if we owned one of those spectacular sets. Who needs to go to the movies anymore?

At bottom, there’s something honest about an antenna because it announces all that we take for granted or ignore, i.e., the mass of electricity we’re dumping into the atmosphere every second of every day. An antenna is nothing more than a crude aluminum net erected to catch the haphazard wash of radio waves spilling over the earth’s surface. We live in a world so fraught with electromagnetic radiation – from cell phones, computers (wireless, anyone?), radios, televisions, garage doors, any and every remote-control device, and, of course, the sun — that we ourselves must be bombarded and perforated with radio waves every minute of our lives. I don’t know that this is a good or bad thing. It’s the ocean we swim in.

Sometimes a rogue signal will cause our garage door to open seemingly by itself. One time this occurred while we were on vacation and a neighbor happened to read one of my online posts that announced that I was traveling. He emailed me about the garage, a message I picked up on my wireless laptop. Then I was able to call him on my cell phone and have him close the door.

If you haven’t seen the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon episode called “Metal Munching Mice,” you should seek it out. Broadcast in 1961, not long after television had taken over America, it lampooned our obsession with the boob-tube. The plot: Boris Badenov recruits a troop of six-foot mechanical monster mice (from the moon) to eat all of America’s TV antennas. As a result, the country’s economy tumbles, since nobody is watching TV commercials anymore, and everyone starts leaving the U.S., since there’s no TV to watch. Boris plans to take over the country but, at the last minute, he is foiled by Bullwinkle, who discovers he has a mesmerizing power over the moon mice when he begins to “sing” like Elvis Presley.

The premise of the “Metal Munching Mice” was the assumption that the stalwart, ubiquitous TV antenna would never disappear except under the most outlandish of circumstances. As we watch it disappear now, we should grant that sixty-some years was not a bad run for this modest technology, especially considering the rapid growth of everything surrounding it. Really, it’s surprising its obsolescence took so long. And still, as our roof demonstrates, it’s not quite gone.