“American television sucks!” M announced the other night and I can understand what he means. Every night we flick through the channels but find nothing we want to watch. He ends up settling finally on some movie on cable that he’s seen three times already and I go off to do some chores or surf the net.
American telly was on my list of the things I thought I’d really enjoy in the US. When I moved to the UK, the house I rented didn’t have Sky and there was no option of cable in that part of the country, and I found the transition from the abundance that is American cable to the meager four UK terrestrial channels really quite a shock to the system. Over time, I did adjust — so well that when I eventually moved to an area where cable was an option, I didn’t bother. BBC1, BBC2, ITV, and Channel 4 kept me quite happy all on their own.
But while I’ve been away, American television seems to have undergone a change that has left me quite lost. Fifteen years ago, most of the creative programming came from the big three networks — NBC, ABC, and CBS — with Thursday as the sure-fire best night of the week. It was easy to find something engaging to watch on one of those channels. Meanwhile, the cable channels concentrated on niche markets, movies, and reruns — acting as a back-up for those rare nights when the networks let you down.
Now, however, the programming on the big three networks seems disappointing — nothing at all reaches out and grabs me — and the cable channels have really come into their own with original programming. But I don’t know these cable channels — they’re all new and strange to me. And there are so many of them, I don’t know where to look. I think the gems are out there for me to find — the sitcoms, the dramas, the documentaries — but hidden as they are amongst shopping channels and sports and news and all the other stuff, I find myself wholly unable to pick them out. After fifteen minutes of aimless button pressing, we give up — and he ends up stuck on that dumb movie and I wander off and do something else.
It’s sad to admit, but television is a comfort, and one that really helps when life feels unsettled. It makes unfamiliar surroundings feel friendly (there’s a reason we all turn on the TV as soon as we walk into a hotel room) and it helps us to unwind when life is stressful. And those two words — unfamiliar and stressful — perfectly describe the last five months for us. It’s not the most earth-shatteringly important thing in the world, but it would be really nice to be able to sit down and watch something really engaging on the telly, something we really want to watch… The sooner we can come to grips with American television, the better.