I didn't mind when they came and dug up the street. This was progress after all. Make way for cable TV.
The sight of the work crews last fall was actually, I blush at the memory, exciting. We were living in an urban valley where pictures were intercepted by a full range of skyscrapers. We were living in a television land wasted by the limited number of channels. We were about to enter the wonderful world of video choices.
In the first introductory-offer rush, we signed up for the entire package. Choices galore: 106 channels. Of course, 12 of them were reserved for future use. One was in Spanish, two of them in the language of high finance. But five of them had movies, two had weather, three had God, two more country music and there were dozens of others.
The whing was a curiosity at first. Flicking through the cable magazine alone was like going through a small-appliance catalog. Wow, look at that! An electric yogurt maker, an electric can opener, a battery-operated carving knife or toothbrush! The offers were so appealing I never thought that they might languish under the sink. Cable TV got a good reception in our home in more ways than one.
But now, after three months of living with it, I have come to realize what exactly cable television offers me: a much wider selection of things that I don't want to see.
Those of you in the cableless half of TV households probably doubt that. What about the movies, you ask? Once, cable was sold to the public as the tool to break the network's stranglehold. It was the way to allow a thousand geniuses to blossom. Now movies are the biggest hype. Cable creativity is a Hollywood rerun and a rerun of the Hollywood rerun.
But I will tell you about the movie are some 250 listed in my monthly cable guide, about five of them headliners, new to TV, two of them remotely of interest. Let us suppose for a moment that two people sit down with a bowl of homemade popcorn to watch one movie a month. At the top cable rate in our community, you have just spent about $55 to go to the movies. For the same price, it is possible to buy one baby sitter, a two-star dinner and a movie in a real live theater. If you pay an average monthly cable fee of $25 on the other hand, you could save up for a year, buy a VCR and then rent a movie you like, see it any time you like, for about $2 a night.
Of course, if you watch cable television seven hours a night, it's a bargain. But if you watch it seven hours a night, you're not a bargain.
I don't want to simply dismiss cable. I like my pictures without fuzz. C-Span is a political junkie's version of "You Are There." Someday, they will be writing Ph.D. theses on the videos that play MTV.
But it was an MTV commercial that made me realize it was time to correct my cable vision. For 60 long seconds, a cast of hyperactive dancers plunged across the screen in perfect video style toward this startling, world-shattering, climactic message: "There's More Nacho Cheese Flavor in Doritos!" I could only think of all the carpenters and painters, all the dancers, all the dancing lessons, all the English classes, all the time and energy that had gone into communicating this Nacho-cheese announcement.
In the same sense, the basic scientific research, the manufacturing and programming and broadcasting of modern television has combined to bring "Three's a Crowd" into private homes. Now, a huge enterprise has laid thousands of miles of cable across the country in order to bring "Splash" into those same homes.
The concept behind 100 or more channels was that you could have it your way. That's about as common for cable viewers today as it is for fast-food lovers. Most of te cable channels find themselves competing for popularity -- the largest number of viewers. They do it the way the networks do, by offering a low common denominator.
At the end of the cable line, we don't have choices in the real sense of that word. We just have more TV. The picture is terrific, but the purpose is way out of focus.