Pulling the Plug

"Did you see this?" I ask Jess. She's sitting across from me at the kitchen table. We're engaging in a rare moment of weekend peace. The kids are watching "Danger Rangers," their lips hanging slack from chewing mouths on the couch. Fresh coffee. Newspaper. Bagels.

"Nine percent of the people in this survey watch SIX hours of TV a day!" I hand her the paper, which she scans, reading ahead of where I'd stopped in shock.

"Yeah, but 19 percent say they use the net that much. Who the heck spends 6 hours a day on the net?" The mockery in her voice is cutting and sharp.

"You wound me madam," I reply, snatching the paper from her. "That's it. We're getting rid of the thing."

"The net?" She's just making fun of me now. Laughing, I throw my napkin at her.

"No not the net. What do you think I am? Crazy? No, the TV!"

According to the survey in question, released by IBM in August, internet-hours are starting to, or already have overtaken TV-hours. Twice as many people in the sample cross that six hour near-addiction line when it comes to the web vs. the TV. And this is just for personal stuff, not for work.

Which part of this you find shocking and disturbing really depends on the kind of person you are. My wife's question is a fair one - what do I do on the net all day. The answer is "a lot more than I can do on TV." My connection to the Internet is effectively perpetual. Certainly during any hour I consider "work" I am connected. E-mail updates constantly. Instant Messaging is pinging off and on. Skype calls come in. Internet-radio plays in the background (and if not, iTunes is feeding last.fm my listening habits). This before I open up a web browser and surf, research, or just procrastinate, and the connections are essentially identical to my phone if I am forced to leave the basement.

The distinction between this work-time and my play-time is nebula-thin. If I fire up the 360, it is of course connected as well, and the screens to my left and right maintain their constant connections to media while my fingers and attention are straight ahead. And this play-time is usually work-time in disguise. I can quite often compose a particularly useful piece of text in my head while playing something relatively unintellectual (Peggle anyone?)

In both cases, work and play, what drives the experience is self-selection, immediacy, and multi-tasking. To some extent these things can be true of TV as well - between changing channels, Tivo, and my laptop, watching TV is an experience not dissimilar. But there's an intensity and involvement in consuming net-media that simply isn't replaced by the coax/cable-box pair.

---

"Well, what would we be giving up really?" she asks. My wife will humor me on almost topic for 10 minutes, so I can judge nothing from this response.

"Cable. We call Time Warner, cancel, and take the box back. We save about 80 bucks a month." Pulling the money card is a cheap trick. She's a flat out sucker for saving money. Still, she looks skeptical as she leaves her chair to get herself another cup of coffee.

"It's like the coffee really," I continue, as she puts another little K-Cup in the on-demand coffee maker. "Almost anything we really want to watch - Lost, Battlestar, Heroes - they're all available on demand on the web. At least they were last year."

Last fall our PVR computer started acting up, and for a month or two we were forced to either watch TV live, or find our favorite shows on the web. It was surprisingly easy, and while we could have played them through the computer hooked to the big TV, what we actually did was snuggle on the couch watching shows on her laptop. It was a good thing. It felt like we were watching a play. I felt far more connected than when we were staring out into space, each with our laptops open, half-paying attention to the show, much less each other.

She quickly sussed out the root problem.

"Really it's about the kids. We're not going to go hunting for Hannah Montana on the Internet for her to watch on Sunday mornings."

Like most parents, I imagine, we let our kids watch TV not out of any delusional belief that the stuff is good for them, but because it's easier than parenting. I say this as someone who is quite confident of who I am as a parent, but I'm also not in so much denial that I could call kids TV anything more than the culturally sanctioned nipple-full-of-coke it is. More often than I'd care to admit, I have stumbled down the stairs on a weekend morning, children in tow, to turn on the TV.

Sunday mornings sleeping in. It's a hard thing to give up on purpose. But I steel myself. "Nope," I admit. "But is that a bad thing? That our kids watch less TV?" Yet another cheap shot. In the Guiness book of of rhetorical questions "should you're kids watch more TV?" is way up there.

She goes for the kill.

"What about football?"

Boom, headshot.

There really is no replacement for watching football on a Sunday afternoon or a Monday night. But as we've aged, we watch less and less. Most of our TV viewing has been time shifted for nearly a decade, and sports just isn't the same on delay.

"Well, so we make dates to go watch big games at sports bars." This is actually a selling point. My wife digs the road trip to the big sports bar an hour away. You sit in a booth for 3 hours drinking margaritas and yelling at the TV while people bring you wings and ice cream. It doesn't suck.

"OK let's do it. Give me the box." This is the kind of people we are. We noodle on things, sometimes for minutes, sometimes for years. But when we decide to do something, it's always instant. We make decisions about buying houses nearly as quickly.

Ten minutes later she's driving to the cable office with our fancy HD Cable PVR box on the passenger seat, and we have no cable in the house.

---

For me, life without cable has almost no impact, because of gaming. When I enter the headspace where my wife wants to flop down on the couch, I want to flop down and play a game. With some couples that might seem distancing, but we both work from home. We see each other off and on all day. We can get to the gym together, go for a walk, go to lunch. So "me time" in the evenings is natural for us.

About a year ago, I made a decision to stop watching crime TV. The distinction between being a passive voyeur to violence and depravity vs. enacting it myself through a game is, admittedly, a bizarre one to make. But I just found myself sitting on the couch one night thinking "I should be doing something." And in a very real way, gaming is doing something. I make conscious decisions. I interact with far more intensity than just flipping channels.

But my TV knows what I'm doing. The first night without cable just happened to coincide with my acquisition of Metroid Prime 3. Without cable to monopolize the big-TV, my wife sat on the couch next to me, pointing out things I missed, suggesting strategies, laughing at the repetitive voice acting.

And then my Wii fried. It let out a Japanese scream and froze, never to reboot again.

But I'm not giving in. The cable stays off.

Comments

I don't have cable, either. Welcome, brother!

I got pissed at Comcast because when we moved they started double-billing us and charging us for services in our old house. They wouldn't fix it, so I told them to take a hike. We've been without for about a year. My wife misses it a bit, but I don't miss it at all. When our FIOS service starts offering TV services, I'll probably crack and pick up service again. I'm sure my wife would like easy access to some of her shows again (ER and Boston Legal.)

I'd have a much harder time getting rid of the FIOS service. I love it like my own.

Wow, a fried Wii. First I have heard of that.

We were cable free for a while when we were trying to save money, and I loved it. For football games we have rabbit ears that actually work better than cable because over-the-air HD is not compressed. We picked up cable again when my ailing father in law came to live with us for the last few days of his life. We got a year discount so I said we could keep it for at leat the year that we have the better rate. When my wife is working nights it never gets turned on. There are some shows we would not have found if not for the cable, but I don't think I would really miss them.

Besides football I enjoy watching everything time shifted, to the point that I refuse to watch any episodes till the season is over, like many do with 24, but I extend it to Lost and Battlestar as well. Watching the end of season 3 of lost in one giant block was way better than what I imagine it would have been watching it week to week. I also used this tactic to get my wife off of ER. "We will just watch it at the end of the season." The season ended in May, still have not watched it.

I also have kids, twins at 18 months. While sometimes they will watch what we are watching for a couple minutes it quickly loses their interests. I also refuse to put on cartoons or anything that will draw their attention with pretty colors and crazy sounds. I enjoy cartoons myself, but personally think that the advertising is more harmful, especially at early ages. If they don't get hooked now hopefully we can avoid that. When their friends start telling them about the shows they watch I may get them commercial free (DVD, iTunes), but never let them watch it with the adds.

I would love to get rid of my cable. I personally just watch my TV in DVD format or online in some form. Many of the shows I enjoy, i can just head over to the station website and check out the episode at my lesiure. However, having 3 roommates who like to watch TV means we are stuck with it. At least the bill is split 4 wasy so it is only about an extra 15 a month, plus i get to watch Hockey at home during the season.

Hannah Montana: Oh man, they started to play that show on the airplane back from PAX after the mediocre Fantastic 4: Silver Surfer. I've never felt my IQ drop so fast.

As for cable TV, I don't think our house can ever be rid of it. The wife watches while making jewelry for her side business. I half-watch while playing singleplayer games.

Good on you rabbit.

Personally I lived without a TV for some 8 years of my life. By choice. I got my fill of movies by renting DVDs and playing them on my computer. Ended up getting cable when I moved into a new place with my significant other (as she brought her TV along). But I'm thinking of cancelling the cable now. It is really not necessary.

When I moved about a year ago, I was told I would not have TV anymore (since I was moving in with people). Now I could have payed for cable myself, nothing to stop me, but I download fansubed anime, and buy a lot of DVD's myself, so I just decided to watch all of that.

That was when I learned just how much of a hoarder of anime I am. I am still going through just what I had back then.... So I don't think I will need to get cable back any time soon.

As for TV shows, I jsut listen to friends and buy or borrow them at a later date.

For budget reasons, we tossed the cable recently too. Kept cable internet (for all the reasons Julian explains) but dropped the TV.

Occasionally I miss it, since we have such horrible antenna reception around here, but overall it hasn't really been a big change, and it's a big savings each month.

I figure that the money saved buys me one game a month, which is about all I can get the time for anyway.

Dropped cable here as well. Don't really miss it as we have Zip.ca for movies and until recently had a PC to play streaming video. Unfortunately now my Xbox died and the Ex took the computer so now I have a 42 inch LCD standing as a silent monolith to a once proud gaming room.

That's the second story of a fried Wii i've heard of. The other guy took his directly to nintendo (after being advised that their offices were in the area) and they swapped it within 30 mins...

I'm with you, Rabbit. I don't watch TV anymore. I just read the internet and play games. I'd rather interact with people in forums or on blogs than passively sit in the same room as other people, not interacting... but "sharing" the experience...

Now that you have no TV, try removing beer as well, and see just what happens.

I've thought about giving up cable, but it wouldn't make much sense. Most of the shows watched in the house are on cable channels rather than network. No South Park or Psych for me, no spongebob or Jimmy Neutron for my kid, no HGTV for my wife. I could live without it. But I won't get rid of it because my wife would cut my balls off if I did. So it's an easy decision to make.

No cable here either. Charter has some of the worst customer service of any company I've had to deal with. I'm happy to no longer give them money each month. For the little amount of TV we watched it was hard to justify the high cable bills. The only thing I miss is having the HD channels like Discovery, but of course they have no package that just includes those. I'd consider joining back up (with someone other than Charter) if they allow you to buy personalized channel packs where you choose maybe 10 or 20 stations that you want for a reasonable price.

Funkenpants wrote:

I've thought about giving up cable, but it wouldn't make much sense. Most of the shows watched in the house are on cable channels rather than network. No South Park or Psych for me, no spongebob or Jimmy Neutron for my kid, no HGTV for my wife. I could live without it. But I won't get rid of it because my wife would cut my balls off if I did. So it's an easy decision to make.

You have a kid, what do you need them for?

rabbit wrote:

Without cable to monopolize the big-TV, my wife sat on the couch next to me, pointing out things I missed, suggesting strategies, laughing at the repetitive voice acting.

We went without cable for a couple of years awhile back. As a gamer it really was no major loss to me... it just meant more time for games.

We still don't watch a ton of TV but we do watch more since getting our tivo last year. Now there's always "something on" when we sit down which is nice... it actually helps justify the cable bill. At least to a small degree. I'm sure we could go without cable again but there are a few shows we legitimately enjoy watching and I've just never wanted to deal with downloading shows and setting up a box to get them to our TV.

As for gaming, my wife almost always joins me in the activity. She almost never actually plays but she'll point things out to me all the time and we'll laugh and talk about what's happening. Right now she demands that I play Overlord more than anything else. Which is cool with me. There are a few genres she doesn't like to watch (sports games, fighters, some shooters) so I tend to avoid playing those when she's awake or just avoid them completely. Generally, though, she's more than happy to watch whatever game I'm into at the time. It's much the same as watching TV together although it's far more engaging for both of us.

My room mate has a Bell ExpressVu satellite receiver with about 500 channels that I never watch. The only time I ever sit down to watch TV is at my friends. Who PVR everything. Even then, it's only to watch Heroes or Battlestar Galactica.

I just can't see myself getting a dish or cable when I move out. That's 50 to 80 bux a month I could be putting towards board and video games after all!

So how are the kids holding up?

Duoae wrote:

You have a kid, what do you need them for? ;)

That's a good point. I guess it's now just a matter of presentation. Sort of like when you go to a steakhouse, they surround the meat with potatos and veggies. People complain if they're missing even though they have no intention of eating them.

Dreaded Gazebo wrote:
rabbit wrote:

Without cable to monopolize the big-TV, my wife sat on the couch next to me, pointing out things I missed, suggesting strategies, laughing at the repetitive voice acting.

We went without cable for a couple of years awhile back. As a gamer it really was no major loss to me... it just meant more time for games.

We still don't watch a ton of TV but we do watch more since getting our tivo last year. Now there's always "something on" when we sit down which is nice... it actually helps justify the cable bill. At least to a small degree. I'm sure we could go without cable again but there are a few shows we legitimately enjoy watching and I've just never wanted to deal with downloading shows and setting up a box to get them to our TV.

As for gaming, my wife almost always joins me in the activity. She almost never actually plays but she'll point things out to me all the time and we'll laugh and talk about what's happening. Right now she demands that I play Overlord more than anything else. Which is cool with me. There are a few genres she doesn't like to watch (sports games, fighters, some shooters) so I tend to avoid playing those when she's awake or just avoid them completely. Generally, though, she's more than happy to watch whatever game I'm into at the time. It's much the same as watching TV together although it's far more engaging for both of us.

Your wife sounds like mine, just substitute Overlord for Pikmin.

I lived with only PBS for the last 5 years but recently got my cable back and all I can say is...I didn't miss much. Sure there are tons of great shows and sports but the net kept (and keeps) me plenty entertained and much more involved than sitting on my couch vegging out. Good call, Rabbit.

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

Now that you have no TV, try removing beer as well, and see just what happens.

What kind of life is that?

BlackSheep wrote:

What kind of life is that?

Hear, hear. Cable-free, yes. Perpetually lucid, no.

We went cable free about 6 months ago, when we realized we could get the shows we wanted to watch on itunes, and save about 60 bucks a month. Hell, i could buy the dvd's of the shows i like and still save money.

We haven't had cable for the past 5 years. My family didn't have it when I was little because the cable company wouldn't run the lines out that far and the satellite people always got lost when they were coming to the house. So maybe 2 or 3 of years of my life have I actually had cable. We download shows from the xbox or watch them on the computer. I wish I had HGTV though.

I've said for years the only reason I own a TV is that needs it.

However, I'm in the Funken camp. Namely, my wife would make sure no one ever found the body. She's addicted to those VH1 "celebreality" shows, and I Love NY 2 is premiering soon.

Oh god, someone kill me now.

P.S. Good luck Rabbit. Hope the kids make the transition whine free. . .

Wow, I feel like I've joined a cult!

rabbit wrote:

Wow, I feel like I've joined a cult!

But can you belt out "Fire Woman" like Ian Astbury can?

Haven't had any outside signal of any sort coming into the TV for going on nine years now, and loving it. You could charitably call my apartment complex "Underhill", and there just aren't enough rabbit ears in the world to get you reception. And my younger son can break parental codes (it's just a dictionary attack for a four digit number). I damned skippy wasn't paying a monthly fee to let him practice that.

So we game and watch a lot of DVD's. I doubt the babble-box is on any less than it is in anyone else's house, but I at least know for sure what's on it.

With everything coming out on DVD these days, I don't miss much. The kids were watching House yesterday. I just see it later than everyone else, or watch it streamed somewhere.

Our cable company has been threatening to do a sort of Chinese menu style thing where you can pick and choose a number of specific channels for a certain fee for several years. Then I could just pick the smorgasbord of "knowledge" channels like History and Sci-fi and some others that I would actually watch. If they ever actually do that, I might consider it. But I doubt it.

I would like nothing more than to drop cable all together. There are very few TV shows I can tolerate watching and they aren't worth the price tag. Unfortunately, our cable company only sells packages. We get cable, internet and phone service for one price and that's all they offer around here. It sucks but we don't pay rent so we can afford it for the time being.

When we finally move, I'd like to try life without cable.

My wife digs the road trip to the big sports bar an hour away. You sit in a booth for 3 hours drinking margaritas and yelling at the TV while people bring you wings and ice cream. It doesn't suck.

So you drink all night and then drive home?

But how do you have watch Shark Week, rabbit?

I don't have cable but my parents are one town over and they have a DVR. They record Shark Week and last night's episode of Wheel of Fortune with a college friend's appearance for me. Colbert Report and Daily Show download onto the computer hooked to my TV via bit torrent and rss feeds. The Office is a communal thing that switches locations week to week. Almost everything else is DVD or torrent until the DVD comes out.