Random Play by Graham Reid

Can you pass me the remote, please?

Want to know what the best thing is on my television right now? Okay, it’s a rhetorical question so I’m going to flip all the cards and tell you anyway: it’s the My Sky box which sits on top of it.

This is the new technology available from Sky which allows you to pause television programmes, record three programmes simultaneously, rewind and fast forward like a DVD (better in fact, there are lots of speed options), and much else besides.

Russell Brown has written about it in the current Listener so there’s no need to get into all its terrificness again, although like one of his kids I did wonder why I couldn’t fast forward through programmes being beamed out live.

But that tells you how seductively convenient this easy-to-operate thing is.

It is the best thing I’ve plugged into a television since the DVD player at least a dozen years ago and it’s my new favourite techno-device -- especially as we have a railway line nearby and can now pause the news or whatever when one of those things with Nedlloyd containers goes rumbling past.

What interests me however is how print media television reviewers and "critics" will respond to this innovation which allows effortless time-shifting for the home viewer.

Newspapers and magazines seem to me to be woefully far behind the changes in how people watch -- use? -- television these days.

I live in an apartment block where perhaps 18 out of the 20 people have a Sky decoder on their roof, and you only have to drive around the suburbs of major cities -- or even through the provinces -- to see these things poking out the sides of houses everywhere, regardless of their residents’ socio-economic status.

That is, the poor and rich alike have got Sky.

At the end of June last year Sky had 619,168 subscribers – and of that approximately 70,000 subscribed to the multi-multi-channel UHFservice. Around 40% of households in the country have Sky.

And I guess if they’ve got it, they’re using it.

Yet television reviewers are still locked in to the whole One-2-Three vortex.

But the time has long gone when people could stand around the water cooler or in the lunchroom and talk about what was on the tele last night, and assume everyone had seen the same thing.

If people are watching television -- and many, despite what the various media think, aren’t -- we can’t assume they are all hunkered down before Fair Go or The Day My Boobs Went Bust.

I’m no tele-snob, but I’ve never seen a Desperate Housewives. The reason being I have always had a whole lot of other choices -- and now even more because I’ve recorded Dodgeball (“very funny film“ is a line which makes more sense when you‘ve seen the Extras episode with Ben Stiller), a doco about the real Spartacus, My Name is Earl and that terrific 1949 movie The Fountainhead in which Gary Cooper plays an idealistic architect caught between Modernism, idealism and trying to make a living. (True, it’s a gem!)

So, like many people I am spoiled for choice. One of my choices may, of course, be to watch Desperate Housewives -- but maybe at a different time on a different day.

Television has increasingly become something you use rather than are a slave to.

Yet television reviewing has conspicuously failed to account for this. Still we get reviews/previews of shows which hardly need further comment. (Coronation Street for God‘s sake?) And does anyone really need yet another piece about Shortland Street?

These are the kinds of long-running shows you’ve either decided to watch, or not. Either way, they don’t need writing about.

Many newspapers overseas simply have a soap-watch column where a paragraph is dedicated to a synopsis of the week for those who happened to miss the show. Or were watching Desperate Housewives or Dodgeball or . . .

Many years ago -- and repeatedly since then -- I argued when I could for a new way of reviewing or writing about television. I mooted the idea of a column (which I called Scanners to account for how people use their tv) which would not be a review/preview column whose contents seemed determined by PR people in One, 2 or Three.

Such a column could look at the odd conjunctions you can find by trawing the channels (The Shoes of the Fisherman with Anthony Quinn as a Pope screening at the time John Paul II moved on), point to the oddball or enlightening corners of the many options available, consider programmes on the Maori channel as of equal weight as The World‘s Greatest Autopsies, and note aspects of news coverage (at home and abroad) worthy of praise or condemnation.

It would be a column enthusiastic about the medium and not elitist. It would embrace television in all its absurdity when necessary (whiny kids of minor league US celebs on a cattle drive? Who woulda thought?), but also be serious when required.

Most importantly though, it would ENJOY television.

Many reviews these days read as if they are by someone who feels writing about television is beneath them and they should be doing something more serious. (Or worse, sound like they want to be writing for television because they know a whole lot better.)

I guess it is in no channel’s best interests that their advertisers know the audience is either muting, moving on or not even watching that show in the first place. Yet the myth of the loyal viewer locked in to a channel or a particular show is perpetrated by the print media and PR departments which collude in pretending that nothing has changed in the past decade.

But so much has.

Right now if you are vaguely interested in the debate about political/satirical cartoons in newspapers you are hardly going to go to Susan Wood or John Campbell for the bigger picture. The time constraints of their bite-sized segments barely allow the protagonists to air their side.

Nope, you go straight to CNN or BBC World where the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten's culture editor Flemming Rose was there to be (uncomfortably) cross-examined and defend his choices.

When the big stories break it’s “not about us”, it’s about the people with access -- and generally we don’t have it so that’s why we look elsewhere.

Of course you might not give a flying Fox about such weighty issues and just want to chug beers on the couch. Fair enough. So there are movie channels, the E! Hollywood True Story things, a food channel, UK TV (anyone else spotted The Keith Barret Show, a kind of Alan Partridge-lite character on an interview show and executive produced by Steve Coogan?), the Discovery Channel, profiles on the History channel . . .

For $600 Sky subscribers, already used to flicking through the options when they are supposed to be watching One or Three, are now -- even more than before -- making their own arrangements.

It’s a whole new world and it might be time reviewers caught up and abandoned the convenient and comfortable fiction that tonight we‘ll all be watching Lost.

"Scanners". It’s all about us.