I’ve been thinking about television lately. It’s not like I spend an inordinate amount of time watching TV – my relationship to the medium is mostly moderated by Tivo. The damn thing crashes every two to three days (I know, that’s not normal, I need to figure out why, but WHY do I have to figure out why?!). But still, I love it. Never would give it up. It’s like the Macintosh, you know? Finicky, but great in bed.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about television. And here’s why.
The other day I was at my gym, on my way back from a yoga class. Yeah, I know how that sounds, but don’t bash it till you’ve tried it. OK, so I’m walking past the communal flat screen in the men’s locker room, the screen that is usually tuned to CNBC or ESPN – both lowest common denominators of male communality. From time to time an old movie might be on, or a perhaps a rerun of Cheers, but 98 percent of the time it’s sports or business. Given that the remote is shared among half-naked men who barely know each other, CNBC and ESPN are pretty much the safest bets to be found.
But that day, as I strolled past the screen in a post yoga haze (it’s not unlike getting stoned, without the tendency to talk like a Berkeley sophomore), sports and business were nowhere to be found. Instead, the set was inexplicably tuned to Fox News.
Now, I will acknowledge a bias here. I don’t like Fox News much. It strikes me as an intellectually dishonest form of news, but then again, one could argue that about any news outlet. Regardless, what the damn channel had on was simply impossible to ignore.
At first glance it was clear that Fox was covering a trial, and the coverage was live (that was declared in traditional cable news fashion – an unavoidable “LIVE” in the upper right hand corner of the screen, if I recall.) Fox had split the remaining real estate into three windows. In the lower right was a man, head down, clearly a beaten soul, clad in what appeared to be a prison jumpsuit. He had the demeanor of an admonished child, but this child had the countenance of an alcoholic, or an insomniac, or possibly both.
In the center was a live feed of a judge, a man who was, well…. struggling to explain his point. Watching him speak, it seemed he was attempting to justify a decision he didn’t much like: he seemed to be praying for an eloquence that escaped him, some way to express the reasoning behind the decision he was about to impart. He had been speaking for some time, it seemed, and given he had not yet found his groove, he also seemed prepared to speak for some time to come. An air of impossibility encumbered his demeanor – this was a man grasping to explain something that, in the end, simply cannot be explained.
In the lower left corner were the victims. They were nameless, mute, anxious, determined. I recall the central figure was a motherly woman, but I could be wrong. For this telling, it matters little.
And in the center at the bottom, as is the practice of cable news, Fox had placed a headline, something along these lines: “Murderer To Be Sentenced For Killing 14 Year Old Girl.” To the right of the headline was a thumbnail picture of an adolescent woman, clearly the victim. She was blond, as I recall.
In a second or less, Fox News had communicated this simple fact: A Man Will Be Condemned Today. Stay Tuned, And Watch It Live.
At that moment, in that locker room, there wasn’t a man – clad or not, dripping wet or dressed and ready to leave – who didn’t stop and stare at the screen. It was a captivating – and exploitative – moment. We were watching, “LIVE”, mind you, a judge struggling with whether or not to sentence a man to die. How could you NOT watch?
So what happened? I have no idea. I turned away. I couldn’t watch anymore. Maybe that’s just me, but it felt, well, too intimate. But as I showered and got dressed, I thought about that moment. And it made me wonder – what might television be like if moments like that Fox News coverage became, well, instantly searchable? What if there was some kind of TelevisionRank that noticed, in real time, what people were paying attention to, right now? Where moments like the condemned man rose to the top of a television index in real time, so that at any time, anyone could ask of the web: What are people watching, right now?
Wow. Now that would be powerful. Is it possible? Oh hell yeah, it is. And it’s coming in the next five years, I’ll wager. It’s pretty much Technorati mashed up with Neilsen, YouTube, and Comcast. And when it happens, we’ll never see television in the same light again. I, for one, can’t wait.