SkyTV comes to my sofa!
My life’s been mostly TV-less. Lots of films, preferably in actual cinemas, but very little TV. Due to a) living square-on to a sharp edge of the notoriously reception-unfriendly One Canada Square (I can see the giant silver obelisk from my balcony) and b) there being nothing good on. (Whenever I visit my parents all that seems to be showing is ballroom dance competitions hosted by a guy I thought’d died in the 80s.)
The visual language of television is very different to that of movies – so little narrative, so many ads – and I’ve just never had much interest in it. Until now, checking out broadband deals and discovering I can sock away TV, phone and Internet in a single £50 monthly lump. So tonight, all this will change. Because I’ve just gone for an HD package, and dozens of pin-sharp 1080-line channels are mine for the taking.
In the fridge, there are a large number of bottles of Guinness, the sweet Nigerian stuff, none of that 4% shit here. In the oven is a pizza. Around the kitchen are strategic reserves from the great manufacturing facilities of faraway Frito-Lay. I am ready to enter the strange twilight existence of… the Saturday night television viewer.
In the interests of research, I’m going to spend a solid eight hours channel-surfing. Trying to work myself into the same state of uncritical catatonia experienced nightly by 90% of UK citizens.
Trying to be like them.
Trying to experience the slack-jawed drooling of the British underclass.
Tonight, I shall become one of the lumpen proletariat. And perhaps, in doing so, I shall understand them.
Here we go.
(Bear in mind this blog may sound like I’ve just been reanimated after a century in the freezer and am awestruck at the way everyone gets around without horses.)
ACT ONE: The Beginning
7pm. National Geographic and Discovery Channel. That’s my kind of television. A historical piece about Port Royal, a documentary on Henry Morgan, and another on the way 20 Americans heroically faced down four Somalis off the African coast. (I sense a theme.) They’re well-narrated, with high production values, and enjoyable. I am amused by the way the subjects and themes keep being re-introduced by the presenter: it’s to provide catch-ups for people who’ve just switched channels or returning after a break. (In the UK they’re shown without commercials.)
I grant you one thing: HDTV is amazing. Rich colours, great detail, and – now 37 channels broadcast in it – the content to match; I can’t help but think the waving fields of corn, exquisite cityscapes, and wide-angle wildlife were made for High Definition. (And Sky only broadcasts in 1080i, not 1080p.)
And the Live Pause feature is awesome. Computer and phone marketers could learn a lot from Sky: the way they understand that the most important element of user experience is simply response time. Hit Pause during a broadcast, and there’s no wait for the hard disk to whirr up or the software to answer: it’s just instant. Five minutes later, I’m watching TV from five minutes in the past. And doing so enables me to skip commercial breaks by fast forwarding into the future, i.e. getting back to the present. I am impressed by the feature, and saddened by my mangling of tenses.
The evening has started well. But there’s a long way to go.
ACT TWO: The exhibition(ism)
At 9pm, I start on the Big Numbers: the niche channels and special-interest shows far down the listings. Many are adult. Basically, the format is a girl squirming and jiggling on a soft surface, with constant invitations to phone or text for money. They all have names like “The Boudoir”, “The Pad”, and “Babestation”. Many are trend-blends of several media: the girls take calls on air and read out texts from viewers in real time.
And on every channel, the girls’ training includes looking directly at the camera – directly at me. Coaxing, cajoling, pleading me to dial premium-rate numbers and send £2 texts.
This is truly unnerving. It’s as if she knows I’m watching her, knows my address and birthdate and why I’m at home on a Saturday night. And given that it’s a Sky box – capable of phoning home and keeping detailed logs of everything I’ve watched and bought – she possibly does.
It’s a different paradigm to Internet porn. For a start, it’s titillation not sledgehammer: the girls roll around, cast you glances, play with straps and hold phones as if they’re warming a dildo. And secondly, it seems to go on forever. 30 minutes and up of the same bed. For the girls, it must be serious work; looking both interesting and interested for up to an hour, when all they’re seeing is a cameraman who’s seen better days.
Thirdly, the costs for anyone addicted to this stuff seem extraordinary. It’s free to air, but the small print (there really is small print at the bottom of the screen) notes that texts cost £2, pictures £3, and calls £1.50 a minute. And that’d hardly be the end of it; once they’ve got your mobile number all sorts of adult content, probably charging you without your permission by some legalistic interpretation of Opt-In, would come gushing into your SMS Inbox. I can imagine even occasional viewers spending £200 a month on this stuff. This isn’t a cathode ray tube, it’s a crack pipe.
(I know TVs don’t have cathode ray tubes anymore, but the simile with ‘pipe’ was too good to miss.)
11.20pm. I’m still watching. All the shows are the same, but bizarrely I’m developing my favourites. Babestation Xtra – a chatshow about what’s on the main “Babestation” channel – has occupied most of my time so far. If you listen they’re talking complete crap; I should be like the non-toker in the room of hysterically laughing potheads (which has happened many times and annoys me to the point of violence) but I’m not.
The percentage content of sheer inwardness should even be celebrated; this is media about media, creating content out of nothing, form from void. This is not merely creative; it is deific. (See, I’m doing it too: making up my own words.) These girls are creatives, as much as Rodin or Picasso. They have seen the world and found it wanting, so they have created Another. And for just £3 you can get a JPEG of it on your phone.
My journey is almost complete. I am, indeed, becoming One Of Them. (Not one of the girls on screen; I mean one of their audience.) Comfortably numb. Utopian, in the sense of being happy where I am for I know nothing better. The Socialism Stalin and Marx dreamed of.
SLAP! I change position on the sofa… then go back to the same position. After all, it’s kind of me-shaped now.
I think I’ll stay here.
I am content.
While I know intellectually she’s not going to do anything beyond snap the odd stocking top and – oh wait, there are boobies too – I can imagine what a thrill it must be for the inveterate couch potato. To see her onscreen, dial a number, and watch her answer and talk back. It’s hardly a new TV technique, but … they must get to know these girls individually, develop their favourites.
If I felt lonely now, I’d feel less lonely now. These girls are becoming my friends. Changing channels actually makes me feel guilty.
Midnight. They get nakeder. “Honey”‘s underwear is G-stringlike, barely-there, and the 180s – where she flips from front and back and when the imaginative may, with ambition and alcohol, just about snatch a glance of the holiest of holies – almost make me want to reach for my phone. Well done girl. You’ve proved that few men can withstand your charms if you persist.
In a world of 1000-minute deals and broadband where content far stronger is available for free in endless terabytes, she’s somehow built a business that monetises what’s become a commodity by sheer force of her personality. Writhing on a bed somewhere in Romford.
This is surreal. I have to get out. Goodbye, Northern Lasses. Goodbye, Essex Girls. Goodbye, Babestation.
Wait – it’s repeating. I’ve seen this bit before. Click.
Wait. Just a few minutes more.
Act 3: Remains of the Day
1am. I’ve been here so long, the video’s looping. I definitely saw here do that turnover before. It’s so obvious I can almost hear the studio hand yelling OK, On My Mark, Get Ready… Turn! Stomach to Back… NOW!
OK, well I’m up to 15 units and the girls are looking better despite being uglier. They’re very average-looking girls, in the main: perhaps that’s to be celebrated. With reflective lipgloss and the right lighting, you too can have your few moments of fame, gyrating nightly to a few unhappy thirtysomethings with a remote in their other hand. “Reede” for example wouldn’t attract a second glance in the street, but onscreen she’s just filthy and fully in control. The boobies are out rightaway. Not good. Not good.
But it creates a genuine sense of up close and personal. After all, the audience for these shows is probably in the low thousands, a few guys without girlfriends with nothing else to do on a Saturday. (I stare into the abyss; it stares back at me.) The girls create a very good impression of actually taking calls from viewers, although if I dialled I’d doubtless get through to some less toned individual the other side of the camera.
Goodbye Michelle. Goodbye Morgan. Goodbye Geri. I switch back to the listings, with a pang.
2am. The rest of the dial is a strange mix of teleshopping and advertising. Long informercials the likes of which I haven’t seen in over a decade; cheap enamelled jewellery for the proles to spend the dole on; it’s a catalogue of teased hair and peroxide and the channels are blending into each other.
And blending into me.
My eyes are heavy. The heating is too warm and the sofa a womb. The remote is like a childhood teddy. The images on the screen no longer mean anything, but they comfort me.
I am become television. I have achieved my goal. Nothing else matters. My world ceases to exist beyond the sofa, and its only channel of communication is the glowing rectangle in the corner.
“Thank you for watching Late Night with Chris. It’s 2.15am and I’m signing off… NOW!”