There is a Bradburian quality to the DirecTV-Viacom standoff that has left twenty percent of the pay-television public without MTV, Comedy Central, BET, and Nickelodeon.
In the late Ray Bradbury's "Almost the End of the World," two miners emerge from the underneath to find the world above to be without television. They gaze upon "the soft snow falling down and that humming screen in an eternal winter" in the local barbershop. Instead of watching, people bowl, play bandstand concerts, eat homemade ice cream, and socialize at keg parties. They literally (and metaphorically) paint the town. The 1957 short story ironically dubs life without television the Great Oblivion.
"DirecTV-Viacom Dispute Turns into Blackout Reality," reads a New York Times headline. Like the sunspots that whited-out television transmission in "Almost the End of the World," today's real-life Great Oblivion shows that we didn't know what we weren't missing.
This isn't the reaction that DirecTV and Viacom desire or expect. The ostensible adversaries want you to want your MTV -- to paraphrase a marketing slogan from cable's golden age. But after Snooki, Big Ang, The Situation, and Kurt Angle leave your living room, you don't clamor for them to come back. In fact, viewers might now venture out of the living room and become doers.
When watchers attempt to click on any of the missing Viacom channels, DirecTV directs TV watchers to E!, Style, Bravo, and a host of other options that might have filled the void -- if they weren't so empty in substance, too. Viacom's idea of winning the public over is an advertisement featuring the angry and obnoxious star of Mob Wives lamenting the injustice of DirecTV keeping her off the air.
Doing their best impersonation of African-orphan pitchwoman Sally Struthers, Viacom argues that their desired hike amounts to just a few pennies a day per subscriber. But Viacom collected $15 billion last year. All they want is another measly $1 billion from DirecTV.
DirecTV, collecting $27 billion in revenues last year, is no fly-encircled swollen-bellied charity case, either. DirecTV counterpropaganda blames Viacom for undermining them by offering their programs for free on the net, calling for higher fees amidst lower ratings, and ultimately pulling their networks from the satellite service.
Both corporations hope the denial of channels will cause the other side to wilt through a denial of income. But an unforeseen outcome is that viewers might find the glut of disposable programming -- built for interludes of click-and-go watching and endless repeats -- utterly disposable. Sometimes you don't realize how much you don't need something until it's taken away.
Pay television, which reportedly lost seven million subscribers last year, might free itself from these internecine battles by embracing freedom. So much of what is wrong with America, from schools to medicine, involves the lack of choice. Subscription television, though dominated by big corporations rather than big government, is no different.
Viacom forcing an-all-or-nothing collection of networks onto DirecTV restricts viewer choice. So, too, does DirecTV's one-size-fits all channel packages. The cable companies that initially seized local monopoly rights really haven't transcended their anti-market origins.
To beat the competition -- free fare on the Internet and the broadcast networks -- pay television must first embrace competition. The ability of television providers to block or permit access to scores of premium channels suggests that doing the same for garden-variety cable television networks isn't out of their technological reach.
Why not allow networks to compete for viewer dollars through an à la carte system rather than force-feeding weak channels owned by strong companies onto subscribers?
The sound DirecTV and Viacom executives hopefully soon hear is Americans switching off televisions and wandering into the Great Oblivion of books, parks, beaches, and barbeques. As one of Bradbury's miners asks, "What have we ever seen on TV?" The other miner responds that he saw a woman wrestle a bear two falls out of three.
Has the idiot box improved much in the 55 years since Bradbury published that story?
On Tuesday, DirecTV customers could watch Logo's 1 Girl 5 Gays, Spike's 1000 Ways to Die, and BET's Brothers to Brutha. Today, they cannot.
Are you better off than you were four days ago?