Business

A whole lot of stuff

A turn of the digital dial offers sex, sports, religion and blackjack lessons

VICTOR DWYER October 15 2001
Business

A whole lot of stuff

A turn of the digital dial offers sex, sports, religion and blackjack lessons

VICTOR DWYER October 15 2001

A whole lot of stuff

A turn of the digital dial offers sex, sports, religion and blackjack lessons

VICTOR DWYER

The World Trade Center had collapsed. The Pentagon had been hit. The U.S. President was last seen holed up in a bunker in Nebraska. And I had spent several hours surfing from CNN to CBC to CNN again. And then, weary and curious, I headed to channel 130, the place on my dial that marks the start of the new digital TV offerings 2.3 million Canadians began receiving over the past month. Here’s what I found: a scary black-and-white movie on Scream, a farmer discussing the fate of his crop on Country Canada, a harness event on The Racing Network. The world was on red alert and, with the single exception of news-driven MSNBC, my 60 or so spanking new channels could not have been more blissfully unaware.

And that, I suppose, is either a vindication or an indictment of the mindboggling array of often coyly named stations that, in their first few weeks on the air, have managed to look novel, panoramic, inventive and—a fair bit of the time, at least—irrelevant, frivolous and sameold, same-old. Among them are no fewer than eight sports-oriented channels, ranging from the Women’s Sports Network to Xtreme Sports (Muay Thai kickboxing, anyone?); four music channels, including one called MuchLoud (a title just waiting to become a parental catchphrase for all teen music); six movie channels; and a broad spectrum of special-interest stations aimed at everyone from aviation buffs and ecologists to legal junkies, bibliophiles, Roman Catholics, guys and gays.

Which isn’t to say you’ll always find what you think you’re in search of. Take the most blatantly labelled of the bunch: SexTV, sad to say, features almost no sex, opting instead for things like docudramas on Amy Fisher (that’s right, the Long Island Lolita), Susan Lucci movies, and documentaries on women undergoing breast implants (“at the tit factory,” as one of them helpfully puts it). Even when SexTV heats up late— way late—at night, it’s still pretty vanilla, and certainly no steamier than what the insatiable Samantha gets up to on Sex and the City, which has been airing in Canada on boring old cable for almost four years.

SexTV is not alone in broadly defining its mandate. Along with lots of great British-created series, such as the legal soap opera This Life and the coarse-grained medical drama Casualty, BBC Canada’s “whole new generation of British television” includes Due South, a show set in the U.S. about a very Canadian RCMP officer. FashionTelevisionChannel— which hit the ground running with intelligent pieces on everything from Italian designers to caviar, fine art and architecture—also snuck in a seamy, cop-centred TV movie on psychopath Andrew Cunanan (who, granted, murdered designer Gianni Versace, although I think even spandex fans would call it a bit of a stretch to air his story here).

But perhaps the new channels can’t win for losing the battle to give every last subset of viewers exactly what they’re after. When, on its first night up, the gay-themed Pride Vision showed a pair of naked lesbians writhing on a bed, you could practically hear gay men across the country sighing sadly and clicking over to MuchVibe (whose playlist is as funky as any afterhours club’s) and the resolutely ethereal dance channel bpm:tv (for beats per minute). No doubt many also paused at M, whose rough-and-ready lineup is tailor-made for high-testosterone males: blackjack lessons, naughty Benny Hill reruns, and nature shows on predatory animals like fire ants and piranhas. Pondering those piranhas, no matter how much genuine insight they might provide Bay Street power brokers, you have to wonder what untapped realms of couchpotatohood lie in wait for digital subscribers. As I watched a triathlon on the Women’s Sports Network, I couldn’t help ruminating that I had never come close to actually running one. And listening to Canadian author Helen Humphries talk about her latest work of fiction on Book Television—one of its eclectic selection of shows on everything from comics to the Bible—it occurred to me that I’d never gotten around to reading the novel. With 30 new channels to watch, what are the chances I ever will?

That said, there’s no denying that expanding the TV universe offers great opportunities for engaging with the world—even doing a fair bit to demystify it. With a fetching accessibility that only the idiot box can muster, TechTV’s loop of user-friendly consumer-education shows has already taught me more about handheld computers than a year’s subscription to the impenetrable PC World magazine. And where but the Zen-happy One: The Mind, Body and Spirit Channel am I going to find out how to use the principles of feng shui to ace that crucial job interview?

In any case, this is TV we’re talking about. And TV at its best is about having fun—which in its heyday meant laughing at Lucy’s budget-saving home perm, or watching as the Partridge Family bus got caught in a speed trap and Shirley almost spent the night in jail. Between the Wild West-heavy Lonestar, the detective-centric Mystery, and the sitcom-mad duo of TV Land and the baldly named DejaView, all this new TV delivers a lot of the best of the old stuff. To my mind, that’s a good thing. Even the sports world has clicked to the power of nostalgia. ESPN Classics Canada promises “the drama of the world’s greatest sporting moments” over and over and over.

Not into the old? There promises to be no shortage of the genuinely new, as the cable-led assault on the networks’ former monopoly continues apace. Sometimes that will make for sheer dilettantism, as in the we-want-to-bestern-but-we’re-actually-silly i channel, which has given the execrable “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger a twice-daily spot; and where a vapid Catherine Clark, daughter of Joe, one evening interviewed a member of the Kennedy clan and asked him little else than what it was like being from such a big family at Christmas. And sometimes it will mean pushing the envelope simply for the sake of it, as when Movieola, devoted to “short films of all genres,” aired a movie about people who like to be shot with guns because the scars are so cool (gravely warning beforehand that trying this at home could cause “critical and permanent bodily and neurological damage”).

Yet whatever its weaknesses, digital TV’s new lineup has one obvious, and not inconsiderable, strength: the sheer quantity of extra real estate unleashed on that appliance in the middle of your family room. Not all of it will be brilliant, by any means. But some of it will be useful (as when the Discovery Health Channel aired a step-by-step show on the warning signs of stroke). Some of it will be inspiring (as when the Eternal World Television Network broadcast a mass for the New York City rescue workers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral). And some will be, if nothing else, a healthy step up from the usual TV pabulum—like, say, the Documentary Channel’s recent airing of Manufacturing Consent, the acclaimed, decade-old doc about professor and essayist Noam Chomsky. It’s the one in which the populist firebrand envisions a day when advances in technology wildly expand the offerings on the TV dial, making way for a world in which real people— warts and all—have a fighting chance of seeing a glimpse of themselves, and something that matters to them, somewhere on the dial. Eïïl