The Truth About Cable TV

A writer subscribed to Netflix and for a moment thought his childhood dream about cable TV came true. But then capitalism interfered.

When I was a boy, the telephone hung on the wall of our living room. One had to press a button to get a free line signal. I can still hear its snap and afterwards the sound of the round dial plate. When my grandparents, who lived next to us, were on the phone, ours was dead, and vice versa. I knew all the numbers of my friends and family by heart, I still do, and when I didn’t reach one of my friends at home, I dialed the number of our favorite bar. If they were not there, I had to jump on my bicycle and ride it to where I supposed them to be. More often than not we would eventually meet up. We could not have imagined something like SMS or What’sApp, let alone that in a few years everyone would carry a phone and a computer with them all the time.

The TV set in the living room was brown and heavy, as if designed for weightlifters. It had a panel with eight buttons on it, yet we only pressed 1 or 2, for FS1 and FS2, the two channels of the Austrian Broadcasting Company. (Talk about real socialism.) Every time one wanted to change channels or volume, they had to get up and walk to the TV. We studied in the newspapers what would be on TV, and I would be at the sofa right on time to watch Knight Rider, MacGyver or soccer.

When I learned from my parents that we, too, would get cable TV soon, I was more than excited. I was thrilled. I thought cable TV meant being able to watch whatever I wanted to watch whenever I wanted to watch it. I was utterly disappointed to find out the truth about cable TV. And the truth about our heavy TV set: We could have received more channels, yet our device only allowed for eight, which still meant six new ones, German of course. And whenever there was a movie I wanted to watch, I hated it being disrupted constantly for stupid commercial breaks. That was not the promise that had settled in my brain. That was not the freedom I had imagined.

When I was not a boy anymore, I found myself being a writer in residence — instead of a famous soccer player — on the campus of the Bowling Green State University in Ohio. It was terribly cold, the Niagara Falls a little bit farther north were frozen, I worked on a big novel and didn’t want to write, read or sweat at the gym all the time. I subscribed to Netflix. For a second I thought my boyhood dream had come true. For little money I was able to watch all the feature films and TV series and documentaries I wanted to watch whenever I wanted to. The people who invented it, I thought, without ever doing the slightest research, must have been my age and must have had my dreams when they were young – even though they must have had more channels to choose from.

Of course the dream was betrayed, capitalism interfered. There is not only one streaming service, there are many competing. One cannot choose out of everything there is, due to legal contracts, differing from country to country, or because one production has an exclusive deal with one streaming service or none at all, hence we get redirected to DVDs we could buy. And if we drew a world map of the productions available one might think there were no filmmakers outside the US and Europe. Let us imagine, just for a second, a streaming service in a free society, that is a society not run by capital, the pursuit of profits and ever-rising shareholder values. Maybe you had to pay a small fee for subscribing, maybe you had to do something else, like let an actor or an actress, who happens to be in your vicinity for a casting without expenses covered, crash on your sofa, maybe you had to clean some streets once a month or once a year or teach someone something you’re good at. Anyway, you would have access to everything that is produced worldwide. And the producers, that is everyone involved in the strip you’re watching, would get their shares according to views or ratings or whatever. If there was money involved, the benefits would flow back to new productions or filmmakers or actors and actresses – or to the cleaning of the streets or medical aid if there was the need. Strange: Why would we rather envision the end of the world than a world in which what we watch is not produced for private profit? Why do we constantly watch portrayals of the end of the world in one way or another but never the construction of a free society with different modes of production and cooperation?

I happen not to think that my dream was the dream of a privileged Western boy. I happen to think that it was and is the intrinsic dream of the constellation itself. What is there to entertain, educate, touch, should be accessible to everyone. All this is also in the interest of those who produce something to entertain, educate, or touch. Of course this accessibility would, likewise, generate new forms of watching collectively, of talking about what one saw afterwards, of discussing and enjoying a shared experience. Don’t be afraid: You would still be able to watch alone or with friends in a living room, on a sofa or a bed. The communists are not going to strip you of your laptop and your right to loneliness.

The other day I watched Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World“ on Netflix, a documentary about the beginning, the dreams and the dark sides of the Internet. There was a young scientist specialized in artificial intelligence. Their team had constructed robots that play soccer on their own. The robots look like cans, are maybe 20 centimeters high and dart quickly on wheels that can move in any direction. They have sensors and a device to kick the ball. If there is a free kick, they play through all possibilities before actually kicking. They learn from mistakes, which means they never repeat one mistake. They are interconnected: If one robot learns, the others do too. But still there is Robot 8 which miraculously and inexplicably happens to play better than all the other robots. In 2050, the scientist says, they should be able to beat the world champion. Hold on: If they were still that small and quick, the human players only had to pass over their ‘heads‘ to get near the goal and score rather easily. Then again the robots would be so quick and intelligent, that they would score almost every time (every time?) they get the ball. Which again means they would score every time they had to concede a goal. Beautiful, Herzog says as the young scientist holds Robot 8 into the camera. Yes, the young man says, we love Robot 8.

When I was a boy I did not dream of playing soccer against robots. But maybe one day Robot 8 will burst the gigantic bubble. For who should be paid what if Real Madrid wanted to buy it? Who would sign commercial contracts with whom? Surely Robot 8 wouldn’t have to take a shower after the game. Maybe an intelligent robot would make a formidable referee. It would be hard to insult. But most probably we have to uncover the dreams that inhabit technology and the fabric of our society. And dream louder of a free one. And fight for it. Not only with smart phones.