A Ramblation: On “Linear Television,” Disappearing Books, And Privacy

I was going to write a post on food insecurity upon Ken Mueller‘s suggestion. Then life – and under the weatherness – intervened and between things, I found myself sucked into a fascinating discussion on Ken’s Facebook feed this weekend about print newspapers, paywalls, and content. I’m not going to write about those particular things because a) he’d do it better as someone with wider experience in newsrooms and production, and b) I experience that whole subject more as a consumer, for whom it’s sort of a done deal.


We are a one-TV house. And come fall, we may well be a no-cable house.

Meanwhile, I think the parallel, but somewhat more interesting conversation to me—because I might just cut the cord this summer—is the one happening about “linear television” watching

If you know me, you know that I adore TV. I used to watch gobs and gobs of it. That’s what happens when your mom limits it when you’re a kid and you then move from late 1980s India (of the limited Doordarshan channels) to the West where you’re not only unrestricted but have access 24/7!

I particularly loved TV because it’s how I discovered the US. I’d turn on the TV to watch repeats and catch up on years and years of cultural touchstones that didn’t just help me be more American in LA (where conversations could be one long cultural riff, like Dennis Miller SNL’s Weekend Update); they explained America in all kinds of ways – big, small, good, bad. To this day, Murphy Brown’s single-motherhood, complete with weighing in by the Veep who couldn’t spell is one of those moments that drove home early an important lesson: You have choices, but all choices have outcomes and come with tradeoffs, and you can’t have everything all at once. As Frank Fontana puts it to a post-partum Brown who’s figuring it out how to do it all like Murrow and the rest, “Think about it Murph, they had wives!” I learned early, through TV, not to ignore what the highly mockable Veep has to say.

Life and the media landscape changed. I am now a parent with little kids, and I haven’t watched TV in years. I think I interrupted my older kid from his cartoons for about 20 minutes two years ago when Richard Engel reported that Hosni Mubarak had finally left Egypt. Two years prior, I watched horrified, as CNN reported live on the Mumbai attacks—although I confess that the only reason I watched at all was because I was ginormously pregnant and unable to sleep. That’s it. I haven’t watched much of anything live lately, not even my beloved Stewart/Colbert.

First, “small kids” = “need toothpicks to keep my eyes open past 11 pm.” You “sleep is for the weak” folks…please send me a card from your planet. I’d love to visit some day.

old hairdresser sleeping at work

The ability to sleep anywhere is a glorious thing. My family can, but sadly, I didn’t inherit the gene.

Second, if it’s truly huge, it’ll be hard to get away from on the Internet. So you have to put up with spoilers, but that’s not hard to do. You just temporarily mute the people you know will give things away, aka, you fine folks who don’t know how to be cryptic about Downton Abbey because at 9 pm on a Sunday night I’m still putting kids to bed and prepping for the week. (I could go into how there are few surprises on the show–totally saw Sybil’s death coming from a mile away–but that’s a whole ‘nuther post.)


Not one good sympathetic character on the show. And you will still want to watch it.

Third, and probably most importantly, we have the advent of truly on-demand entertainment, something like House of Cards. I’m completely hooked, and I can watch it any time on Netflix, without ads, for a reasonable fee, and it’s GOOD. I just can’t own it or record it for keeps–remember doing that on VCRs? I can only re-watch it. Assuming I want to, and continue paying for Netflix. And therein lies the upside and downside, doesn’t it?

Digital products are owned entirely by the vendor (Netflix, HBO, the paywall), we get to consume it on their terms. And more than news or entertainment, I think the business that will most be affected by this new digital landscape is book publishing.

I’ve though for about a year that the book publishing industry is where the music industry was in the Napster years – contracting, highly challenged, catching up. But at least they seem to have learned to embrace the disruption rather than shut it down. So no more will we own books. We’ll just rent them or download them for as long as that’s possible. Or, we’ll pay very big bucks to own the rarer, limited hardback version of a classic, much like serious collectors pay to own vinyl. Oh yes, vinyl never went away, it just got relatively more expensive in a marketplace where you can buy the less shareable and easily diseappeareable single you want for a dollar, because not everyone wants or knows how to hack their downloads into a possibly illegal permanent collection. It’s the tradeoff we live with. Some of us more easily than others, though.


Now you own it, now you don’t. (image courtesy Adam Frucci/gizmodo)

I’m very grudgingly made my peace with the possibility of my content disappearing. It’s incredibly annoying and bothersome to me that I only rented, and never had the possibility of owning my viewing experience of House of Cards. And if I want to own the new Nora Roberts or Marissa Meyer, I have to buy it, possibly for more money and after waiting longer. Because getting it right away for cheaper means it could disappear – exhibit A: the flap over Kindle’s removal, of all things, of Animal Farm and 1984 in 2009. The episode made things pretty clear to anyone moving to e-readers–convenience, your privacy, and their terms vs. permanent ownership of your purchase.

For that matter, getting an article only online means it can disappear altogether, a la the ill-timed tin-eared Vogue puff piece on Basma Assad that got erased as Syria exploded into civil war. If Vogue was entirely an entirely online enterprise we’d never have proof that the article ever really existed past a certain point. It’s much harder to “disappear” inconvenient print articles published by the millions. Or anything for that matter, as many a drunk-status has proved. Take heart though remorseful spring-breakers, the “right to be forgotten” movement might fix that too. Assuming it’s still an issue as hiring managers get younger and remember doing the same thing. Because as Jane Quigley wisely observed earlier this year at Xpotomac, for those of us who’re not digital natives, privacy matters only to those of us who grew up with it. Perhaps the same applies to ownership and permanence too, and I’m just a boring old fud. You?