Viewing Habits: I Don’t Watch TV

I don’t watch TV. Really.

By Diana Estigarribia
September 23, 2002

When cable entered the homes of America, it skipped my house. For me, it was just another molto-expensive toy (like Atari) that only my rich Long Island friends enjoyed; only the “cool” kids had Donkey Kong and their MTV.

Today, oh, how I yearn for those more innocent days. Then, I watched the Big 3 Networks religiously. But as their power diminished, I watched less and less TV. It was only when my now-husband and I moved into our first apartment together in 1997 that I became a regular cable viewer. He insisted he needed it to maintain his very existence. I had always done without it, becoming a master of the twisted, electric-taped, two feet high rabbit ears so I might be able to watch Doctor Who on UHF or even get a non-scratchy hour of Late Night with David Letterman. But just because I became a regular cable viewer doesn’t mean I watch a lot of TV. Oh, no, not at all. This is what I call “The Theory of Non-Viewing Viewing Television.”

The Theory of NV-VT evolved from Time Warner Digital, which gives me about 150 channels of programming, plus 45 channels of “Music Choice,” a set of themed, commercial-free “radio stations” ranging from Christian music to classical masterpieces and everything in between. So how does one make intelligent, entertaining choices? I’ve switched from watching specific programs to just watching channels, thanks to my trusty remote’s “FAV” setting.

First up is NY1, a 24-hour news network that’s pretty darn good and useful. They’ve got regular beat reporters in all five boroughs who cover every possible news story, from city-wide events to typical man-on-the-street features, including, “New Yorker of the Week.” Cuz face it, people: all I need is New York news/weather/sports. This is also why the next channel on favorites is WNBC 4, the network’s flagship. I never miss Chuck and Sue at 11PM. I don’t really care what’s happening on the “mainland” (the continental U.S.) when I’m out here floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

I’ve also programmed WNET 13, PBS’s channel in NYC, because that’s where I first learned to watch TV, with Sesame Street. The Cartoon Network holds steady at number 22, especially now that I’ve discovered Cowboy Bebop.When I’m surfing, I always stop at Inside the Actors Studio, so there’s no question of not programming Bravo. Next up is the Sci-Fi Channel, but for a while now I’ve been blowing right by it. I think Channel 44 is going to be taken off the Favorites list real soon. Also on the dance card are FX, BBC America, Boomerang, Style, Ovation (a PBS-like channel that focuses on culture and arts), ESPN News, M2 and MuchMusic for my music video fixes, Showtime’s main channel and their “science fiction” channel, “Showtime Beyond.” And I’m spending waaaay too much time watching the Metro TV’s (channel 70) “Full Frontal Fashion,” which includes wall-to-wall coverage of the runways from New York Fashion Week.

Despite this plethora of networks, the bulk of my Non-Viewing Viewing TV isn’t TV at all, in a way: it’s the movie channels. I can’t live without Turner Classic Movies, Independent Film Channel, AMC or Sundance. Every month, I scour the listings and each channel’s website, and read through my film magazines to find out what’s on so I can watch and/or tape great films. My living room is littered with VHS tapes, stacked in piles, strewn here and there. This is cable’s greatest contribution to television: the ability for perma-film students to see just about anything, if they’re lucky, and if they’re paying attention.

Sometimes weeks goes by when I fall behind in watching stuff I’ve recorded. I’ve only just caught up with all the 1930s Joan Crawford films I taped during TCM’s recent Artist of the Month spotlight. From IFC, I got a double-bill of Cassavetes’ Shadows and A Woman Under the Influence. (As far as I can tell, only IFC seems to realize that Cassavetes is the godfather of independent filmmakers, bless ’em.) I’m going to try and squeeze in a viewing of Julie Taymor’s Titus before I take in a screening and discussion with the director in New York this week on her upcoming film, Frida. I’ve seen everything from lost silents and the latest indie releases to the great Italian NeoRealists and even pop hits like Wargames on these channels. I could watch non-stop and never see everything that the worldwide cinema has produced. But I can try. These networks are worth the price of admission, as they say.

Most days I just turn on the TV and cycle through my 21 favorites, like a weird coded dance: 1, 4, 13, 22, 38, 44, 48, 54…and sometimes I stumble on something really great. Take Sunday morning, for example. I cycled past Ovation, showing a 1965 BBC documentary of the recording of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” There was Sir Georg Solti, the type of wacky, animated conductor who is almost a parody of the form, waving his arms and twisting and gyrating, yet pulling out the most amazing music you’ve ever heard from the instruments of his orchestra, guiding the great soprano Birgit Nilsson through some of the greatest music ever created. You can listen to this stuff on CD anytime (and if you never have, I urge you to right away). But there’s no comparison to actually seeing the performers lay down a track that became part of musical recorded history. That was a thrill. And that’s when I thought, well, okay. I can’t stop watching TV altogether just yet.