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Perfectly Random: Channel Surfing In The Digital Age…

NetFlix have arrived in Ireland. Minor complaints about their selection of films aside, it’s time to rejoice as a film fan. Living here in Ireland, it can’t help but feel like we’re a bit behind the times when it comes to cinema. After all, our release schedule tends to lag behind that of our American cousins, with The Muppets only arriving on our shores next month. Still, as excited as I am at the prospect of having an entire universe of film and television at my very command, I can’t help but feel a slight sense of trepidation going forward. I know that this isn’t the end of the digital era of television, but it will undoubtedly affect the way I consume my films. And, while I’ll laud the amount of choice at my fingertips, I reckon I’ll miss the delightful randomness of channel-hopping in the digital age.

Getting on board with new media models...

I’ve written before about my experiences growing up with Irish television. Up until about eight years ago, you were very lucky if your television had twelve channels. Discounting news and music and cartoons, that left about eight for random television. Those eight would show movies as part of their weekly schedule – but always the most random choices at the most random time. Finding a good movie that happened to be reasonably close to the beginning was quite an accomplishment, one filling me with an enormous sense of accomplishment. Naturally, as digital television arrived in Ireland, bringing a whole wave of new channels, the game changed slightly. It wasn’t so much about finding a film, it became about finding an interesting film.

No matter what provider you use, the most incredible aspect of this modern digital age is the obscene amount of choice on offer. It’s as if somebody took away your set-course menu with two main courses, and replaced with a food court devoted to every possible desire. It wasn’t that there was a channel showing movies all the time – it’s that there were ten channels, all showing different movies at different times. Looking back, I’m amazed that my head didn’t explode like that kid from Scanners, so incredible the possibilities and permutations seemed. In a way, they still do.

Machete don't surf!

I’ll spare you the endorsement of digital television and its incredible array of choices. People will lament that it’s only compounded the original problem of television, elevating “so many channels, but never anything on” to the nth degree. To an extent, I can concede that. It has actually made following television itself more difficult. Instead of our television representatives cherry-picking what they deem to be “the best” of international television to serve to us, we get everything pure and unfiltered. I personally love the idea, if only because it’s a victory of choice – but I won’t pretend that it’s easier to find good television. I’m catching up with The Sopranos and Caprica and Breaking Bad on DVD and blu-ray, because I’ve really given up on watching television “live.” There’s just so much of it that I generally only find out about the great stuff after the fact.

But, for movies, it has been a revelation.

I've never been a wise guy when it came to television choices...

Don’t get me wrong, the same problem that exists for television shows exists for movies. There’s so damn many of them, on randomly, on different channels. There’s no way to really quality-control it from my end – there’s no way for me to sit down in the evening and be assured that I’m going to watch a good movie. However, due to the amount of stations devoted purely to movies, I am certain that I will find a movie. Because a movie only asks two hours of my life, I’m not as afraid of committing to it as I would be watching a television show. I can sit down and be practically assured that I can find a movie I haven’t seen playing before.

Of course, some people might suggest that it’s a waste of time to sit down to watch a movie that you don’t where know the quality. Ignoring the fact that such an opinion overlooks the possibility of unearthing an underrated gem, I have found digital to be a profoundly satisfying experience. As a guy who writes about film, and as a person who lovesfilm, I have found that random sampling is a brilliantly raw method of increasing my awareness of the medium. A bad film can be just as enlightening and insightful as a good film. It’s instructive to spot and recognise mistakes and miscalculations in cinema – it’s easier to tell when a motor is working well when you’ve had the experience of seeing it falling apart, after all.

Isn't life Grand?

But there’s something more than that to my interest. I might be a hopeless optimist or a witless romanticist, but I harbour that belief that it’s incredibly rare to find a film so completely and impossibly without merit that I would rather have done nothing for two hours instead of watching that film. Most films will have something, even the slightest glimmer of that mystical and elusive something, that provokes my interest. Whether it’s a leading performance from an actor more accustomed to supporting turns, or a clever idea in an otherwise lifeless shell, or one single brilliant shot lost amid a selection of adequate ones, I tend to believe that there’s likely to be something of interest in any given random film. Not always enough to make it a good film, or even a watchable film, but something that I will find a little bit satisfying.

If it weren’t for the randomness of digital scheduling, for example, I don’t think I ever would have actively sought out Koyaanisqatsi. Sure, I might have picked it up if I saw it in a bargain bin, but I never would have paid €20.00 for it on a blind buy. Even with movies far less memorable and impressive, like Grand Canyon, I’m still glad that I had the chance to see them. And, every once in a while, I will unearth a film I skipped in the cinema that is pretty entertaining, like Machete. I think that is the wonderful thing about these digital channels – rather than picking the movies you want to watch, like you would with NetFlix, you get to pick from a buffet. It offers a far wider sampling, allowing you to try movies and films that you never would have even thought about before.

Don't be Koy, now...

You could argue that NetFlix allows me an infinitely broader choice. I can choose to watch almost anything on my own time, instead of hopping around the television channels looking for something that catches my interest. Then again, it reduces the chances of me stumbling randomly across something I would otherwise never have heard of. It’s a more active model of media consumption, but I think that passive consumption can be just as fascinating. Ultimately, both approaches have their merits, and I’d be lying if I said that one was clearly a better choice than the other. I envy the freedom that NetFlix offers, but I dread losing the delightfully random joy of digital movie channels.

I don’t know what NetFlix will mean for the future of my movie channel subscription. It’s possible it might be an “either or” choice, though I hope not. If it comes down to it, I’ll be sad to see that wonderful and unpredictable choice disappear from my schedule.

2 Responses

  1. One of the good things about NetFlix here in the States is that they have a decent selection of British shows, many of which I had never heard of before. I’m in the middle of watching “Survivors,” about the aftereffects of a plague that wipes out 99% of the population (much like Stephen King’s “The Stand” but without the supernatural elements) and “The Eleventh Hour” starring a post “Star Trek” Patrick Stewart. Both shows, much like “Sherlock,” are excellent.

    • Yep. I think Dad’s gonna sign the house up for the trial. I will literally not leave the sitting room for that month, I worry.

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