Have more and more channels really given you more choice?

In Spencer Howson’s most recent bmag column he talked about the analogue-to-digital switchover and made the very salient point that, once upon a time, if we missed one week of a show we’d more or less let it go. That, after all, is what “Previously on…” segments are for. And while I can’t relate to watching fewer shows these days as a result (the number of shows I’ll watch at least an episode of in a year is usually at least fifty or sixty, and half or full seasons of at least two-thirds of those), an email from one of his readers about giving up TV got me thinking: why is there assumed superiority in the act of giving up television?

For a start, I found it awfully telling that the reader, Susan, said that she would still watch ABC programs on iView if they interested her. Part of this attitude is attributable to the digital shift; the most significant reason, however, is that commercial television is for the birds. While there are reasons to tune into Channels 7, 9 and 10, they are becoming fewer and farther between if you’re looking for quality programming. Some alarming 2012 statistics show that the decline of commercial broadcasting is heavy:

The biggest reductions have been experienced by TV channels in Australia, where the top five channels shown in the major cities now account for less than half (49%) of audiences. Three years ago, the top five channels in Australia had 75% of share.

Said declining channels will air terrific shows in terrible time slots, pushing and pulling them from the schedule without concern; see 7’s treatment of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation as examples of where it’s clear they’re chiefly airing them out of obligation to their content deals with studios and networks. On the other hand, you have 10 airing The Americans, one of the best new shows on TV with a highly marketable spy hook, months after it ended in the US.

If you’re trying to create reasons for people to bother sitting through ads, this isn’t the way to do it. Sure, plenty of people get pleasure out of watching numerous episodes of Chuck Lorre-produced turds on 9 every week, but if you’re looking for envelope-pushing, engaging, compelling, intelligent, clever TV, you’re not going to find it book-ended by Swisse vitamin ads. It’s no wonder that networks here — and in the US — find themselves afloat often solely because of their reality TV assets. If it weren’t for The Voice or My Kitchen Rules, what would the television landscape look like?

Reality TV is perfectly fine, and it’s here to stay for the forseeable future so there’s no sense griping over it. But after the endless self-congratulatory circlejerk that The Voice became (or at least wore through its novelty to reveal) was too much for me, I stopped watching the show itself and started watching the performances online. I can’t tell you how relieving it was to no longer have to listen to Ricky Martin’s new age, spiritual bullshit, or Joel Madden at all. I then gave up on watching the performances because, removed from the drama of their surrounds, there’s very little point. And now there isn’t a single thing I watch on commercial TV. They drove me away.

But I’m at the point where I don’t have time for commercial TV. I can watch everything I want to watch when it suits me, without as many ads, and almost always far sooner. Why would I even bother? Why would I put away Six Feet Under to watch House Husbands? Why would I turn off Bunheads on Fox 8 (SAVE BUNHEADS!!!) to watch, well, anything on Channel 10? I’d love for there to be a reason to, but I honestly can’t see it.

The cast of Bunheads exercising their televisual superiority.

To be fair, they try. Channel 7 recently gave Hannibal an under-promoted shot, but it’s far too edgy for that channel’s Mrs. Brown’s Boys audience. And that 10 even bothered airing The Americans is a point in its favour, though its sad to see it not be the hit it deserves to be. I’d love to see the ABC get their hands on daring, bold programming like these shows, or BBC America’s Orphan Black, or Sundance Channel’s Rectify, and so on. I’d love to see them on a channel where they’re more likely to find an audience. But that audience is tuning out.

Which brings me back to bmag reader Susan, who gave up TV to turn on the radio, listen to CDs, read unopened books, and investigate local libraries’ DVD collections, saying she was eating and sleeping better as a result. There’s a pervasive idea that TV is more of a shackle than any of these things; sure, you can do other things while you listen to music or the radio, but reading a book is just as, if not more, time-consuming than most TV shows. Not to mention that the depth and breadth of TV available today can provide experiences as varied and rich as literature. Meanwhile, there are still people writing smug, snotty articles such as this ‘Watching TV Is Turning You Into A Broke, Greedy And Overweight Zombie‘ at Business Insider, which is shooting the messenger if ever a messenger were shot.

This notion of “giving up TV” carries a subtle implication that is as archaic as it is unfounded: that TV is lesser. Like any creative medium, TV is what the viewer makes of it. The difference is that TV habits still quietly whisper into our ear that turning the box on and flipping through channels is all we have. It’s like walking into a book shop in an airport and assuming that all you’ll ever be able to read is the renowned Dan Brown, The Twilight Saga and Jodi Picoult. There are fewer shows than there are books or films, but the percentage of quality remains roughly the same.

It’s easy to find out what is and isn’t worth watching. As well as Wires & Lights, there’s the in-depth coverage of The AV Club, terrific critics like The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum, as well as coverage on sites ranging anywhere from Vulture to Hitfix to a burgeoning critical voice at TV.com. More than ever before, TV is a self-curatorial medium thanks to cable, streaming, iTunes, DVDs, and ‘other’ methods if you’re so inclined. The other benefit of this is that it reinstates self-discipline, giving you the power to choose what, when, and where, while broadcast networks dictate exactly when you have to be on your couch.

If you’re ever turning your TV on and finding yourself unsatisfied, seek out something else just as you would a gallery exhibition or a fascinating piece of theatre. It works just the same. It’s fine to give up on the mode of delivery, but the medium of television is as vibrant as ever. There are worlds and worlds of great, enlightening television out there — if you’ll allow yourself to visit.