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Begrudgingly, I Still Love Cable Television

“83 channels of ecstasy/I love my cable TV” – “Weird Al” Yankovic

A few days ago I got a text message from my friend Rob back in St. Louis. He and his family “cut the cord” some time ago and live fully on a streaming lifestyle. Recently, he’s been traveling around with his son for baseball tournaments and sent me this message:

So, we “cut the cord” many years ago and so all we do is stream and occasionally we will watch live over the air TV. But traveling all over the place this summer for my son’s baseball, and staying in hotels, I got back to my old channel surfing roots. So my question to you is this: why is it, in 2022 when most anything we would want to watch is available to us at any time we want to watch it, it is SO SATISFYING when you stumble across something on traditional TV? When we were somewhere waiting to find out if my son’s game that day would be rained out or not, Beverly Hills Cop was on Showtime and it was AWESOME!!!! But it shouldn’t be, I could watch that at any time.”

So, I’ve thought about this a lot. To the point that anytime it’s even considered to get rid of cable, I don’t, for these very reasons. (Also, our internet package is tied up into our cable bill and canceling cable, then getting internet service on its own, doesn’t really save that much money.) In fact, Brian Truitt at USA Today recently asked me for a quote about if I missed the days of video stores, specifically VHS, to the streaming model of today. My gist was: No. Driving (or getting my parents to drive me) to the video store only to find the pan and scan movie I wanted was rented was a pain in the ass. Streaming, in general, is much better. (Though, the streamers are a whole different subject.)

I’ve dabbled in this subject before because I find it fascinating. In that, so many of the movies we consider classics today from the ’80s and ’90s weren’t even big hits at the box office but found their lives on what seemed like never-ending cable television loops. And I truly believe that’s why so many movies over the last ten years have kind of drifted out of the cultural consciousness because these aren’t playing in front of as many people on those aforementioned never-ending loops.

So, I’ve put a lot of thought into my friend Rob’s question and I decided, well, why not just make the answer public since I think about this all the time anyway?

Rob used the example of Beverly Hills Cop, a movie that still plays a lot on cable (I know this from experience) and, yes, I usually watch it every single time if I’m flipping through channels. So why was he so excited to see Beverly Hills Cop, even though he could watch it anytime he wants with streaming? Well, Beverly Hills Cop is a good example because many, many people enjoy this movie very much. But it’s very few people’s favorite movie. So, with streaming, a person would have to make a conscious decision to sit down and watch Beverly Hills Cop from start to finish. Which most people aren’t going to do because, when choosing a movie, most people pick something new they haven’t seen, something old they haven’t seen, or literally their favorite movie.

It would take a surprising amount of effort to decide, “Yeah I want to watch Beverly Hills Cop right now.” Actually deciding to watch a movie is exhausting. A person has to do something. As opposed to coming across a movie on cable. This is the opposite. It’s a passive experience. A person gets to stop flipping channels. Instead of stressing about what movie to watch, instead it’s a relief to find something familiar.

Then there’s the aspect of picking up a movie we’ve already seen somewhere in the middle, but hardly ever at the beginning. People like this. We don’t have to waste time with the setup we’ve already seen numerous times. We basically get to start right in the middle of the action. And there’s nothing we can really do about it. There’s no guilt. “Well, this is when I happened to tune in.” But with streaming, no one is going to fire up Beverly Hills Cop and start it during the strip club scene when Axel, Billy, and Taggart bust a robbery. On cable, watching Beverly Hills Cop is a 45-minute, maybe hour-long experience. On streaming, it’s the full hour and 45 minutes.

I do think the communal aspect factors in too. The other day I watched a Blu-ray of Hal Ashby’s last film, 8 Million Ways to Die (which isn’t on streaming) and there is the sense that I might be the only person in the world watching this particular movie at this particular time. At the very least, I was the only one watching it on the exact schedule it was on. And that’s fine, but there’s something fun about knowing that when Axel and Bogomil take out Maitland, you’re watching that scene with a few thousand other people. Streaming feels lonely. Cable still feels like we are watching with others, and it’s an experience that can be shared with friends and strangers via Twitter, WhatsApp, texting, etc.

I’ve seen people bring up the idea of streamers having a “random channel.” Anytime I hear this idea I feel like Peter Gibbons in Office Space right after Bob Slydell asks him if he’d be interested in a hypothetical, “stock option, equity sharing program,” to which I reply, “I don’t know, I guess.” The problem with that is, it’s still just going to have whatever the streamer has to offer. Netflix isn’t exactly filled with a library of classic movies these days. Also, the streamers would want to promote their new stuff, so a Netflix “random” channel would be The Grey Man and Red Notice all day. Also, this would be one channel. There’s no flipping. It would be, “watch whatever is on our random channel or pick something else,” which defeats the purpose. And let’s say every streamer got on board with a random channel … sure, that sounds fun, at least a minute trying to navigate to a new app to “change the channel.” (Though, a friend of mine had a fun idea for HBO Max: a “this used to be played on a constant loop in the ’80s and ’90s” channel. Something like that I might be interested in, maybe.)

Combine all this with the fact cutting the cord isn’t the money-saver that it was promised to be once you add up internet charges and the price of every streaming service subscription. (And these streaming prices keep going up!) So now it’s some hodgepodge of cable, plus a few streamers, and most of them I get free … because I have cable.

So, as it all turns out, I am “stuck” with cable still for the foreseeable future, something I still enjoy.