I miss broadcast TV. I was one of those kids raised by TV in the days before parents worried about screen time. My single mom was a blur of activity on an infinite loop, trying to keep me fed, housed, and clothed while working nights, sometimes at more than one job, and (incredibly) also going to community college. The fact that I watched a lot of Full House wasn’t a salient issue then, and it isn’t now. If anything, I was bequeathed a great heritage of pop cultural fluency.
In college and grad school, I almost completely stopped watching TV as I tried to get a life going. I pretty much missed the emergence of the wicked hydra of Survivor and The Sopranos that characterized the diverging TV culture of the early 2000s. Before long, we lived in the world of endless, on-demand choices and experiences algorithmically curated by Netflix and Hulu – a great boon to humankind, in many ways, yet it also forced us into the clutches of an equally frightening monster: Choice.
Television was once derided as the “boob tube,” a narcotizing force that brought people to passively consume on their couches. Yet Netflixworld proposed the opposite dilemma: you had to decide what to watch. TV-watching suddenly had intentionality (at least in a greater sense than the old ramble of channel surfing). TV had opportunity cost. Spending the next 48 minutes watching this [fill in streaming service] Original meant you weren’t watching the other 500,000 of them, and woe be to the chooser who chooses wrongly for their Netflix & Chill session.
The pressure is just too high. Every TV watching session turned into that now-extinct experience of wandering the aisles of Hollywood Video with your main squeeze, spending as much as an hour debating which video to rent. That has a certain nostalgic toastiness to it, but you don’t want to do it all the time.
Not long ago, I started living on my own again; and I was a very sad tomato. I realized I missed the experience of just turning on the TV and watching whatever was on. There is the passivity, yes – not having to make a decision – but there are also the elements of surprise and serendipity, like when you turn on the radio and don’t know what song is going to be playing. It might be a longtime favorite, or it might be something (great or terrible) you never heard before. These semi-random experiences used to define how the vast majority of people felt pop culture, but by the 2010s this old world had largely been pushed aside by the limitlessness of individual, conscious choice, on one hand, and the relentlessly narrowing logic of the algorithm, on the other.
My first solution? YouTube TV. It was basically what basic cable was 20+ years ago: a modest assortment of channels for a lesser price than the bloated monstrosities now imposed on consumers by AT&T Uverse and Comcast Gee-whiz-mo. But Google soon jacked up the monthly price (shocking!), and I decided it wasn’t worth it when I was still subscribing to Netflix, Spotify, Criterion, and so on.
That’s when I discovered free streaming TV.
I’ve rhapsodized about my love for the Roku Channel elsewhere, but to recap: platforms like Roku and Pluto TV recycle the lovable detritus of pop culture in bargain basement or thrift store fashion. All the IP that previously was just sitting around collecting dust has been shaken off and repurposed here. A whole channel devoted to Three’s Company? Sure. Schlock horror movies, arty 1970s films, the Johnny Carson Show, kung fu – it’s like candy corn fucked a Whitman’s Sampler that only later disclosed it had recently contracted Chex Mix disease.
All of this content is bluntly dotted with commercials, like old-fashioned broadcast TV, but in a way that is aggressively not-tailored to the show you’re watching. It can be the same Bed Bath & Beyond or Alka Seltzer ad across any genre, from K-Horror to Hee Haw, and the ads are randomly jammed into the flow of the TV show or film in a way that feels automated (e.g. ads start in the middle of characters speaking).
It’s shambling, sloppy, and surprising, and I love it. At the moment I’m watching a movie I’d never heard of called Stay Hungry, in which a young Jeff Bridges and Sally Field yuk it up with some epic Southern accents. Is it a good film? Well-regarded? I have no idea. You tell me based on the description:
A dishonest businessman asks rich layabout Craig Blake (Jeff Bridges) to help him buy a gym, which will be demolished for a development project in Alabama. But after spending time with weightlifter Joe Santo (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and gym worker Mary Tate Farnsworth (Sally Field), Craig wants out of the deal. The property negotiations turn ugly, causing a brawl at the gym and a spectacle at a big bodybuilding meet, as Craig learns that it’s not easy to turn your back on fair-weather friends.
What? This sounds amazing. I would go with Mary Tate Farnsworth anywhere.
The ads on Roku and Pluto are mostly run-of-the-mill commercials for everyday products and services – ads brought down from the Platonic plane of Ad Heaven. But in 2021, there’s one other thing they all share. The free streaming channels I watch show an endless series of Amazon ads over, and over, and over, and over.
These are not ads for Amazon the bounteous deliverer-of-all-things – they’re ads for Amazon the great and munificent employer. The company offers great wages, benefits, and career opportunities. A rapt audience of warehouse workers listen as an Amazon boss rocks the mic and tells them of the two extra anchovies they’re going to earn an hour. (Syphilitic anchovies, but still – they can elevate a pizza.) Amazon promises a boon for the casual worker and a dream for the lifer who sticks it out, encompassing both those who are here for a season and those here for a career. We’ll keep doing a better job for our employees, who are definitely grinning and gleaming under those Covid face masks. Because the brown box is the true and only Heaven.
It doesn’t take an Apple Genius Bar genius to figure out why Amazon is flooding the zone on the cheapest form of television available to most Americans. Even watching traditional broadcast TV is difficult these days without paying for cable, whereas anyone who can get a Roku box or modestly smart TV can watch these channels. Big Brown is quaking in the face of insurgent organizing, and the combustible mix of worker frustration and labor market dynamics that define the Great Resignation. Their TV propaganda offensive is just another version of the anti-union “educational” sessions that worried corporations force their workers to attend. The numbing churn of these ads is an index of fear.
Amazon is good like Ford and GM once were good. It’s not an evil, insatiable octopus squeezing the lifeblood out of every milisecond of a floor worker’s life – it’s a path to upward mobility and, if you think about it, a pretty square deal.
In Stay Hungry, the always resilient Sally Field, as folksy and earthy as ever, confides in the idle playboy played by Jeff Bridges. As they saunter down the streets of Birmingham, she tells him:
I’ve got a whole trunk of Chinese fortune cookies at home. When I get old, I’m going to open them up and see how my life turned out.
The good Mr. Bezos thinks the same. There are a bunch of Amazon boxes that have to be moved, and fast, and some day his workers will open them, to find out what their lives were like.