It's been Media Month on our quiet little street in northwest Baltimore. For several weeks we've been paid intermittent visits by the cast and crew who are making the film adaptation of Anne Tyler's wonderful novel "The Accidental Tourist." This has entailed strange cars passing in the night, illuminated by astonishingly fierce lamps that turn our modest old houses into bright candles, as well as occasional glimpses of William Hurt and other notables at work on their mysterious craft. On the whole they have been unobtrusive and mannerly visitors, and it has been a greater pleasure to be their hosts than we might at the outset have anticipated.
So when the movie appears, we shall all rush out to the theater to see how our street looks on the silver screen, and no doubt when it is in due time followed by the videocassette, we shall rush out for that as well: For if a corner of our house appears for a nanosecond in a Hollywood movie, isn't that a small purchase on immortality? Thank heavens, though, for the "Pause/Still" button on the VCR remote control; without it, our house most certainly will be a mere speck in Hollywood's passing parade, but with it, we can applaud ourselves for hours.
And then, when we are finished, we can turn back to C-Span and MTV and ESPN and CNN and CMTV and VH-1 and ... yes, that is the other part of Media Month in our neighborhood. After years of waiting, we at last have cable television. We are, as the servicemen put it when they hooked the thick black cable into the set in our living room, "wired."
For ages it seemed as if we never would be. United Cable has been stringing its way around Baltimore for about three years, but only in the past 12 months have the results begun to be evident; if it is one of the cliche's of the age that wiring an elderly city is a time-consuming process, it is a cliche' only because it is true. But last summer the cable trucks could actually be seen rolling up and down the alleys of our neighborhood with their immense spools of wire, so the dawning of the age of cable seemed imminent.
The age of cable being what it is, though, it dawned in a most peculiar fashion. The people across the street had cable by the autumn, as did those in the blocks immediately above us, but in the first two blocks on the east side of the street there was none to be had. When I called a few weeks ago to inquire about this, the uncommonly courteous salesman who took on the case informed me that our two blocks might have what he called "an anchor problem," and he urged me to investigate the possibility.
The problem arises because when wire is strung above ground, it periodically must be anchored, just as telephone and electrical wires are. But unlike the phone and the electric companies, the cable operator has no legal right to ground an anchor on private property; around the country, it seems, cable companies repeatedly encounter resistance from householders who refuse to permit anchors (which border on invisibility) on their land. In fact, the salesman told me, his own four-house block was a cable-free enclave in its wired neighborhood because a single old party declined to authorize an anchor on her lot.
So I combed our alley for anchors and found them all in place; whatever the problem on our block, apparently it was not caused by a neighbor carrying private-property rights to a ludicrous extreme -- though the prospect that this was the difficulty was quite enough to inspire deep sympathy for those in other cities and other neighborhoods who have been denied cable on grounds so whimsical as these. Rather, it seems that in the course of hooking up northwest Baltimore, United Cable just plain forgot about us; it remembered in a hurry, and for a couple of weeks we have been quite thoroughly wired.
It is, I am here to report to those unhappy souls in the District of Columbia and other areas as yet untouched by the magic of cable, a considerably mixed blessing. For a Baltimorean it is a treat to be able to get excellent reception of Washington's two fine public television stations and its several independent channels, and when baseball season comes around it will be a delight to have a vastly increased selection of Orioles games with which to while away the evenings. But in too many other respects, cable simply provides further evidence of how thoroughly we have wasted the limitless opportunities that the marvelous invention of television has offered us.
The myth of cable is that it immensely broadens the fare available on television and that it offers an alternative to the fluff broadcast on the commercial networks; the reality is that, with only infrequent and for the most part inadequate exceptions, it merely offers more of the same. There is, to be sure, a certain beguiling serendipity about cable; one evening I flipped to MTV, to see what the teens are watching these days, and found a wholly unexpected hour of wildly funny British humor by the Monty Python crowd, and another time the enigmatic Nostalgia Channel (the schedule for which is published nowhere, so far as I can determine) was showing Wheaties commercials from the 1950s, which proved to be more entertaining than one might expect.
But these surprises, though not to be dismissed lightly, are a small part of the cable package. Mostly it consists of precisely the same mediocrity that is driving people away from the commercial networks, and the same glut of commercials; the Arts & Entertainment Network, for which there might seem some reason to have high hopes, airs commercials in stupefying numbers, and ESPN is riddled with them as well.
There are always the subscription movie channels, of course, with commercials only for their own programming, but these deliver considerably less than a moderately discriminating viewer might reasonably anticipate. We have subscribed to Home Box Office, which seems no better or worse than Showtime, the Movie Channel or Cinemax. All four, as an inspection of the monthly program guide will quickly reveal, broadcast little except the most routinely lackluster products of the Hollywood movie factory. Hundreds of films are listed each month for the four channels, and the odds dictate that a handful will be worth watching, but the paucity of that handful is quite amazing; for my $11, HBO this month has given me only five movies that I have even marginal interest in watching, which does not exactly compare favorably with the going rate at the video rental store.
It's not that I'm a movie snob; I like a piece of junk as much as the next fellow. But a diet of steady, unrelenting junk -- junk aimed at the teen market, or junk overdosed with obscenity and gratuitous sex -- quickly palls. That's what the subscription channels offer, though, which is to say that they can scarcely be distinguished from the commercial ones. The American airwaves are, to borrow Peter Blake's memorable description of the American roadscape, "God's own junkyard."