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Hallelujah For The Remote Control. Zap

May 21, 2008
It must be hard work being a television addict in the US. Not only are there far too many channels to choose from, but you can turn on the box just about any time of the day or night and be guaranteed to find something that'll keep you watching - even if you don't really want to.

Mind you, much of it seems to be regurgitated reruns that weren't that spectacular first time around. Of the more up-to-date stuff available there's an unlimited supply of semi-talent shows that come in all shapes and sizes, endless reality programmes trying to out-vulgar one another and so-called complex cutting-edge dramas whose plots are so contorted it becomes impossible to decipher what's going on.

On top of all that of course comes the constant barrage of commercials guaranteed to break whatever concentration was needed to follow what was happening on the small screen. They're so invasively pervasive that it's difficult not to shake off the feeling that perhaps there's some subliminal undercurrent at play.

But the really disturbing thing about US telly is that as easy as it is to criticise what it has to offer, it makes compulsive viewing. And for this particular jet-lagged European traveller on a recent visit to the Big Apple there was only one thing to do ahead of a day that was to be spent tanking up on culture.

Grab the remote control and settle back for some wild zapping. All right it was only 3 o'clock in the morning local time. But this was too good an opportunity to miss and with more than 30 channels at the ready, a voyage of discovery was about to begin.

First up - and I kid you not - was one of those wonderful half-hour advertorials. Unwittingly I had got to the very heart of what makes US television tick without even trying. But boy was I surprised by the content, which was clearly only for adult consumption.

It was all about some product that promotes growth in the male "appendage." Yes that's right. Here in what is normally considered to be one of the most puritanical Western nations, there was a whole 30 minutes devoted to advertising the fact that apparently "size does matter", with the show's winsome brunette hostess "spontaneously" vox-popping couples to discover the results of the "wonder drug."

I was transfixed. Does this work I pondered? No not the product, but the sales pitch. To that question, I knew I would never find out the true response so after about 20 minutes (yes I'm ashamed to admit I was glued to it for that long) it was time to Zap...

...into a blast from the past as "Roseanne" made me question why on earth I had ever found it funny back in the 80s. Still, it didn't take forever to drag me back in time and somehow I managed to catch the best part of two episodes-worth of gale force yelling before Zap...

...Some sort of CSI nonsense - Miami, New York or Las Vegas - whose plot I couldn't fathom after five minutes. So as soon as the next commercial break came up it was Zap...

...At last, one of New York's local news channels complete with mandatory over-coiffed anchors (one of each sex) and a rather orange looking weather forecaster who was surely wearing a wig that had seen better days.

This was just what the complete news junky in me needed. I had heard about the influence of Fox News on other television networks - its tendency to redefine journalistic objectivity into one-sided conservative rants. But I hadn't really had the opportunity to experience it first hand. Now was the chance to witness for myself what stories Americans were being served up for breakfast on a regular basis, and make a decision for myself what I felt about it.

This is where I'll have to own up to not remembering which of the local morning shows I was actually watching or when. Perhaps I saw them all. It's hard to know as they sort of blurred into one another as I channel hopped, and appeared to have (for the uninitiated and unfamiliar) a lot of letters, which supposedly meant something to regular viewers.

But to me it seemed that whatever they were called WCBSTV, WABC, WNBC, WNYWFox, the bottom line was just about the same. Lots of fast-paced banter, grins and perfect teeth as crime, crime and more crime followed hot on the heels of one another to keep my attention well and truly grabbed.

"And this just in from our out on-the-spot reporter in Harlem, where a man was found stabbed to death this morning after three men allegedly tried to stop him from urinating in the vestibule of a building. A live report coming up." Indeed. Zap...

...America's Next Top Model series 9. Or was it series 8? Apparently the whole thing was going to be shown over the course of the day, so even if I flipped the remote now, the chances were that late evening I would still be able to discover who turned out to be the next Tyra Banks' protégé.

Alternative viewing on one morning on the same channel I think (to be frank it became a little hard to tell) was the delightfully tasteful "Parental Control." Mom and Pop were given the task of setting up their goofy son with two alternative dates to the foul-mouthed monster he had been "seeing" for the past eight months. Son has a great time with both lasses but of course when asked to choose he dismisses Miss Perfect and Miss Perfecter in favour of the tearaway his parents had been trying to steer him clear of. It was (in)credible TV with a vengeance. Zap...

...Straight into a commercial for a vacuum cleaner that the manufacturer promises sucks with the "power of a hurricane." Pardon? And it comes complete with a 21-year guarantee. Why? Zap...

... Slap bang into yet another commercial this time for refinancing home loans and allowing up-to-their-necks Americans to "consolidate" all their credit in one place. Um is the US Advertising Standards Authority living on a different planet or has it simply not heard about the country's subprime lending debacle that has sent shockwaves reverberating through the international financial markets? Zap...

...Back to the orange-faced guy still wearing a rug and waving his arms about energetically as he goes into raptures over Highs, Lows, Fronts and other magnificent meteorological marvels that await me outside.

A glance at the clock tells me it's nearly 8 o'clock. I've been watching nothing and everything for almost five hours, armed only with my new best friend and constant ally - the remote control.

I've discovered that there's forever something to watch and always nothing worth watching. And I've revelled in the delightful couch potato pleasure of serial zapping.

It has been the very best start to the day I could have imagined and at least I now know I'm not an addict. I'm a snobby, cultivated, intellectually superior European...who will be back same time, same place tomorrow for another healthy Zap...
About the Author
Johnny Summerton is a broadcaster, writer and journalist based in Paris. Visit his site for a look at some the stories making the headlines here in France http://www.persiflagefrance.com or for his travel pieces log on to http://www.urlswurld.blogspot.com
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