The Lost Art of Channel Surfing

A Lazy Revolt Against the Tyranny of Entertainment Choices

By Sam Eichner ·
PHAM ANH THO/Getty Images

It’s true, okay, you caught me: I love No Strings Attached and I will watch it every single time it’s on TV. There, I said it. The movie has the best ensemble cast of any rom-com in the past decade, and every time I watch it I feel happier. I feel like anything is possible romantically. I feel like Jake Johnson and Ludacris are my close personal friends, and I totally have a shot with Dr. Greta Gerwig. I feel like Mindy Kaling and I could commiserate over relationship problems. I feel like Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman are approachable normal people instead of very unapproachable hot celebrities. I feel like nerdy-neurotic Lake Bell is peak Lake Bell.

No Strings Attached is the perfect basic cable movie: a film you can jump into wherever whenever for however long you want to without sacrificing so much as a half hour of your time, full of delightful performances from actors and actresses who seven years ago were still hanging out as colorful best friends in rom-coms but are now Academy Award-winning directors and intergalactic celestial goddesses. The middling studio rom-com and your basic cable subscription have a simpatico relationship; oft-dismissed at the time as something you would never see in theaters, not ever, it years later becomes the kind of frivolous whenever-fare replete with ecstatic "oh hey!" moments that come from seeing a now-famous-er person in a role that was way beneath them.

Once a staple of lazy Sunday afternoons and late-night pre-bed post-bar sessions, revelatory basic cable movies like No Strings Attached—which account for many unintended repeat viewings of half of your favorite mid-aughts rom-coms, Mission: Impossible or Bond or American Pie or Godfather movie—have all but disappeared from our lives. And so, too, has the archaic method for washing up on their hospitable shores: channel surfing.

I am currently 26 years old, so my formative TV-watching years were spent in a state of constant media flux. I’m old enough to remember going to the video store to check out VHS tapes, but young enough to have avoided ever having to go up to my TV set to press the on/off button. I remember when DVDs replaced VHS tapes, and when Blu-Ray replaced those, and when, for a minute there, those portable DVD or Blu-Ray players were all the rage. I remember when our family got Tivo around the year 2000, before DVRs became the norm, and I remember ordering an On Demand movie a few years after that, but I also remember a time before, when I’d sit on the couch with my dad and absentmindedly watch as he flipped through the channels until he found something he liked. I can still recall the physical TV Guide, perched on a shelf in our guest bathroom, next to a copy of the local newspaper, another totem of a different time from the not-so-distant past.

The few years before Netflix changed the game in 2007, one could argue, was the golden age of flipping around until you find something good, what with the handy guide, premium channels for better movies, the advent of HD and sports packages. But then it became possible to stream shit online, opening the floodgates for personal and specified laptop viewing and further calming the ululating waves of channel-surfing, the practice of which was already threatened by video on-demand and DVR—stuff you previously had to watch live could now be recorded and watched at your leisure. I didn’t get a laptop until a few years later, when I went to college, but by then Netflix had amassed a pretty sizable library, and the things you couldn’t find there you could pirate or watch online illegally; soon after, I found out I could log into my parents’ Xfinity account and watch things on-demand on my computer as well. Streaming reruns of Entourage or Friends in bed when you were drunk or stoned or drunk-stoned or stoned while hungover from being drunk because you didn’t want to pay for a TV or cable became de rigueur for me and a generation of college kids like me. Instead of flipping through the channels to see what was on and settling for something, you deliberately chose one thing to see and saw it, compulsively, until Matthew Wiener stopped making episodes of Mad Men, or you caught up on all the good seasons of How I Met Your Mother. Then you simply glommed onto something else.

Nowadays, close to half of adults aged 22-45, aka Gen Xers and Millennials, are watching TV and movies exclusively on streaming platforms; Gen Z, the youngsters born after 2000, are watching even less (and spending a scary amount of time on YouTube, watching people like this). Every major premium cable network has a streaming platform; the venerable FilmStruck now exists for those classics you might’ve seen before on TCM or AMC; even Disney is developing its own massive streaming service, the addition of which means that by 2019 or so, you will pretty much be able to watch anything you want at any given moment you want to watch it—including but not limited to The Lion King 1 1/2. For people without significant disposable incomes, the only real reason to pay for cable is to watch live sports—and even that has its streaming workarounds.

Still, there remains a pleasant passivity to the channel surfing cable provides that appeals to me, particularly in a moment when we’re presented with an oppressive surfeit of ways in which to entertain ourselves, musically, literately and on the web.

Though out of practice before channel surfing ever was, there was a time when radio was a more prominent method for listening to music, particularly in your car. With Spotify and Apple Music, your options are richer and more diverse than ever, but—even compared to choosing a single record, tape or CD—the choices you make are often far more specific: you want to hear this song, off this album, right this minute. (Part of the recent resurgence of vinyl, other than being a physical artifact, must have to do with a desire to simplify the vast multitude of music at our fingertips.)

Browsing through the dusty, often unorganized shelves of bookstores and libraries, a physical, literary method of channel surfing, has also fallen by the wayside, sacrificed at the virtual altar of e-books and Amazon—both of which prioritize the act of choosing versus the passive yet delightfully mythic sensation of having a piece of media choose you.

And when’s the last time you or anyone you know legitimately “surfed” the web? Before platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube brought the best of the web to you, you might’ve find yourself wandering absentmindedly down a rabbit hole from one webpage to the next, having initially searched for one thing but ended up intrigued by something completely different. There used to be a website designated explicitly for those purposes: StumbleUpon. (It still exists, but I haven’t heard of anyone using it, my age at least, for about a decade.) Today, Reddit is probably the closest most people get to truly “surfing” the web, though it, too, is fractured into a million niche interests.

I assure you: I am not a millennial posturing as a luddite because it’s hip to abstain from modern luxuries; I don’t abstain from the modern luxuries I'm afforded. For someone like me, who tries his damndest to keep up and write about movies and TV, streaming platforms have been invaluable. I’m grateful to live in a world and privileged to be in a position where I can catch up on Westworld on HBO Go before the new season over a weekend, or futilely scramble to fill in the myriad blank spots in my cinematic knowledge via FilmStruck. I’d hate to return to the dark ages of not being able to gorge on seasons of Made in Chelsea—a British reality show that’s like a cross between Vanderpump Rules and Downton Abbey—on Hulu with a single click, to the detriment of my mental and emotional health.

But given everything the modern entertainment consumer has at his disposal, it’s true that we’ve never had to work so hard to decide. And contrary to the laissez-faire ethos inherent to channel surfing—“watching whatever’s on”—the act of entertaining ourselves in 2018 can take on a capitalistic fervor, wherein we scramble to watch or read or listen with maximum efficiency. No longer must we sit through commercials, or wait for something to be on, or even subject ourselves to a program we’ve seen before: there is always something new for us to watch whenever we want to watch it. Technology has, in some ways, induced a “time is money” approach to something we’re supposed to do to relax.

In our everyday life, we’re inundated with a litany of micro-choices and decisions, whether it’s texting this person or emailing this dude or “liking” a tweet or posting an Insta. Like walking around delightfully, stupidly lost in a foreign city, it can feel refreshing on occasion to capitulate to the forces beyond our control: to recognize, if only in the smallest, most inconsequential way possible, the limits of your personal agency, and succumb to flipping through the channels, scrolling indiscriminately through your guide and winding up wherever—perhaps on that teenage rom-com you saw half of once, or an old episode of That 70s Show, or the feel-goodiest Harry Potter movie. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll land on No Strings Attached; if not, who cares. Hell, you’re just riding the wave.

Sam Eichner

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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