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57,000 Channels and Nothin' On

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The typical American home gets 104 television channels. This is according to Nielsen Media Research, whose job it is to know these things since they spend their time watching what we watch. Well, not watching the same shows — I mean, how many "Law and Order" marathons can you expect them to sit through? — but watching us as we watch TV.

It's voyeurish, Big Brotherish, and a testimonial to how many people will do just about anything for $5. Yes, that's how much a family gets paid to fill out a diary and let Nielsen know what shows they watch. Twenty-five bucks a month if you let them wire your TV and eavesdrop. Scary, huh?

So what do we do with all those channels? Just collect them, apparently. According to Nielsen, we watch only 15 percent of the stations we have available. The rest are filler so we feel like we have a lot of options when we flip through all the channels and wind up watching the Prevue Channel. Again. All night.

The channels are kind of like the plaid polyester sport jacket, super turbo dehydrator and clothes dryer, and monogrammed fondue pot that are sitting in the attic — even though you don't use them it feels good to keep them around because you just never know when you'll want them again.

The number of TV channels we get has been steadily rising over the years. In 2000 the average household got 61 channels. Ten years before that it was just 33. And way back in the golden age of television, people got only three — the networks. Well, as long as you were lucky and could tune them all in. But this is nothing. The most recent prediction is that in a few years we'll have access to as many as 5,000 channels. Of course they'll be available on the computer, not on your TV.

News Corp., the home of Fox, and NBC, home of musty — I mean, Must See — TV, just announced an online video service that will feature clips from its TV shows. With ads. That you can watch on the computer. You know, just like on TV. Joost, another computer-based video service brought to you by those wonderful folks who created Skype, is the one predicting they'll eventually have 5,000 channels, though so far in their beta version they have only 24, including National Geographic, MTV Staying Alive, Havoc Action Sports, Lazy TV, World's Strongest Man, The Diddy Channel and, of course, the Green Day channel. Talk about putting narrow back into narrowcasting.

Just imagine having thousands of channels with nothing on. Hey, doesn't that mean it's time for Bruce Springsteen to update his song from that measly 57? Or maybe I should do the update myself, standing in front of a video camera while I lip-synch the song, play with a light saber, and pretend I'm a 21-year-old lonely girl. I could call it a mash-up and put it on YouTube. You know YouTube, it's "America's Funniest Home Videos" without the chance to win $10,000 or meet Bob Saget.

In case you didn't get the memo, computers are the new TV. No more sitting around in a comfy La-Z-Boy recliner watching a giant screen with remote in hand, wondering how that Costco-size bag of Cheetos managed to disappear so quickly. This is the 21st century; wouldn't you rather sit at a desk and watch TV while you change channels with your mouse, trying not to notice that it's covered in orange Cheeto dust that's getting ground into the mouse pad with the kids' photograph on it?

OK, let's think about this. I can buy a 24-inch TV for $200 to put in the living room, den or bedroom, or I can buy a computer with a 21-inch monitor for $1,200 and watch TV at my desk. Tough choice. Can I get back to you on that? Oh, but let's not forget that they're working on a way to watch all this on your cell phone too. On that itty-bitty 1.5-inch screen. Oh, now I get it.

I have a feeling we're going to find out that the home computer's biggest use won't be to educate, expand horizons, simplify lives, or make it easier to find 54-year-old men claiming to be 17-year-old nymphets named Tiffany4U. No, the future of home computers is to be glorified TV tuners. Same junk, new delivery system. It's the computer as 21st-century rabbit ears. Maybe IBM actually stands for Idiot Box Makeover and Dell should change its name to Dull.

This could turn out to be a tough sell. After all, in the United States we have more TV sets than people. It's true: The typical home has 2.73 TV sets yet only 2.55 people. And just try to tear them away from it. The average American watches 4.5 hours of television a day. That's 31.5 hours per week, 68 days per year, 13.5 years over the average lifetime, and enough episodes of "My Name Is Earl" that everyone should know his name by now and not have to tune in anymore. But in case you need a refresher, just boot up your computer and check out the My Name Is Earl channel. I think it's channel No. 3,274. As for me, I'm going to go read a book. S

©2007 Mad Dog Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.

Barry Gottlieb's columns appear in better newspapers across the country. Read them before they become their own TV channel.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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