57 channels and nothin’ on

by Steve

I remember as a kid we only had the four channels and I was incredibly envious when I saw those features on TV about how Americans have thousands of channels to choose from. Even if there was nothing on, as was inevitably said, just imagine that choice – surely better to have loads of channels to not watch than just a handful?

A few friends had early cable TV, then a few got satellite and it all seemed incredibly exotic and decadent, flicking through loads of channels, channels you’d probably never ever watch for more than a few moments.

There seems to be an odd almost-sub-culture of vintage channel surfing videos on YouTube. Clearly, plenty of people in the late 80s/early 90s found the act notable, or entertaining, enough to record on a VCR. Watching back now it obviously fires all the old nostalgia synapses. Some moments are recognisable, others just look familiar, even though I’m sure I didn’t see them at the time – obviously the older videos are from American TV, what with that being the main market where you could channel surf properly.

Watching the videos now they seem more than just a fun historical curio. There are almost a folk art. The footage appears to be a form of collage. There are some odd juxtapositions, some jolt, some work surprisingly well – the nature of chance in channel surfing working both with and against the bigger picture. Solemn news broadcasts are bookended by infomercials and forgotten sitcoms, the serious and the trivial. Sports reports followed by nature documentaries see a mirroring in movement and muscle-mass. Big-budget music videos and no-fi public access.

Now I live in an age of hundreds of channels, and nothing has changed in the sense that there is still nothing on. And yet, we also live in an age of EPGs, TiVo, SkyPlus, catch-up services, boxsets. We don’t consume TV in the same way. We are far less likely to just flick from channel to channel to channel. Perhaps this is a good thing. It is now easier to just watch what you want to watch. Yet there is also less chance of happening upon something different, or just breaking down the normality and hegemony of TV broadcasts by channel surfing – making our own edits, quick cutting our own entertainment, as artists and critics, creators and judges.