overthinking the idiot box

May 31, 2005

A chronicle of that most co-dependent of relationships: a girl and her TiVo

Bride of TiVo
Losing Control Isn't All Bad

by Liz Shannon Miller

Worth two hours sans TiVo?
I'm writing this column the week before it will be published, because according to several different sources, I'm supposed to set a good example for the writers I harass about turning in their pieces on time. This means that today is May 23rd, and in two days Lost will be coming to something resembling a grand conclusion. Because it's more fun to watch TV in a big group, I'm planning to go to a friend's house to watch it, and this means that I am preparing for that most gruesome of fates — two hours of non-TiVoed television.

I'm not the first writer to whine about this, but it is a subject worth discussing, the downshift from TiVoed TV to real-time broadcast. It puts the difference between the two experiences into sharp relief. It reminds us TiVoed folks of exactly what we've been missing.

Having control over the time and pace at which you watch TV really does change lives, but there are aspects of the real-time viewing experience that I do end up missing. For one thing, my perception of the craft is dulled: the structure of a broadcast television script is totally determined by the number of acts, the twists and turns of plot guided by the commercial interruptions. Thus, the gifted screenwriter is focused on making sure that when a show breaks for commercial, it's on a big moment, chock full of suspense, intended to keep the viewer invested for another ten minutes. It's a subtlety of structure that can be lost on the TiVoed viewer, impatiently skimming forward past the ads...

Ah, advertising. While the bulk of commercials are useless, there is the occasional 30 second gem that I regret missing. Commercials often have a unique opportunity to be funny and/or ground-breaking — remember the 1999 GAP ad that stole The Matrix's freeze-time thunder? Or the Terry Tate, Office Linebacker ads that introduced the world to Rawson Marshall Thurber's reinvention of physical comedy? (I admit that Dodgeball didn't live up to the promise of Terry Tate, but what could?) Not to mention the more irreverent ads. It was only by accident (I undershot my skimming through The Daily Show) that I ended up seeing Comedy Central's reaction to the news that Dave Chappelle was hiding out in South Africa:

A lonely answering machine quickly fills with messages: "Dave? Um, where you been, man?" "Dave, please give us a call..." "Dave, when you don't call it feels like you're a thousand miles away...well, according to the papers, a little over 2,000..."

Awesome, and nearly lost to my overzealous fast-forward button.

When all media falls under the viewer's control, the happy accident of a great commercial becomes a rare commodity. Though I really don't need the reminder that Paris Hilton is a nation-wide joke, commercials like the new Carl's Jr. porn can serve as an informal census of the cultural forces that currently hold America in thrall. Without this sort of repeat exposure to such inanity, the TiVo viewer is a less clued-in TV viewer, unaware of whatever catch phrase has brainwashed the viewing public recently.

During the day, I kept time by the echoing CHUNG-CHUNGs that indicated the top of the hour, and the beginning of another Law & Order rerun.
It's not just the lack of commercials that makes the TiVo experience a distancing one, though. I live in a claustrophobic grouping of apartment buildings — my bedroom window is maybe ten feet away from the next building over. Because no one closes their windows in Los Angeles, throughout the day and night I can always hear what other people in my neighborhood are watching. When I first moved into the building, there was a unity that came from that. At night, I could hear the people next door shrieking over the same plot twist or fumbled ball that had me on the edge of my seat. During the day, I kept time by the echoing CHUNG-CHUNGs that indicated the top of the hour, and the beginning of another Law & Order rerun.

Now, I'll be sending out another round of emails before curling up with the remote, and in the distance I'll hear the distinctive "boo-BEEP" that always precedes my neighbor's descent into Wisteria Lane or Springfield. But it's 9:34 PM on Monday, and we're separated by more than walls.

Thus, the occasional downshift to real-time programming almost becomes a relief, especially in the company of good friends, with commercial breaks lush with discussion and exclamation. It makes me all the more eager for Lost this Wednesday, when I'll be totally in sync with the West Coast. Three states of viewers, all wondering what the hell they'll reveal about that island. And there's a rush to be found there, the thrill that comes with not quite knowing what's about to happen.

Sure, my fingers will itch for the ergonomic design of the remote. But sometimes losing control isn't such a bad thing.

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