Channel surfing champion

As published by the Fresno Bee Sunday, September 27, 1992

So I'm lying on my couch reading, and suddenly I desperately need proof that the outside world still exists. I need a window to civilization. I need those nice, soothing alpha waves. I need television! I grab the cable remote with one hand and the volume control with the other and click-click-click I'm channel surfing.

I learned channels when I was just knee-high to a VCR -- even before I learned to read or tell time -- and I've been winning contests ever since. I even got my bachelors degree in it. I've got the skills of Michael Jordan; the timing of Charlie Watts and the instincts of Rin-Tin-Tin.

Channel surfing is going to be demonstration sport at the 1996 Olympics and they've already asked me to be on the team. The secret, of course, is to have a couple of set places where you know you're probably going to end up. For me, those places are the twin towers of American culture: CNN and MTV.

Even if MTV epitomizes all the things I hate most (but secretly enjoy) about pop culture, I've always felt you should know thy enemy. When it first hit Fresno about 10 years ago, we would have in on for hours: not wanting to abandon it in case the next video was something really good. It usually wasn't. We eventually learned that MTV was about more than videos -- way more.

Hey! An entire eclipse on CNN! Or at least that's what we would find in the mid-'80s, before it had any serious global reach. It's true, in the early days it was so hard up for real news stories that it would aim a camera at the sun to show -- live -- a solar eclispe that happened to reach totality above Atlanta. We used to make fun of the soft news -- Farm Animal News, Brooke Shields News, anything at all about Atlanta -- that seemed to dominate CNN's post-midnight programming. But as the decade got harder, so did CNN. We eventually learned that CNN was where the real action was -- always.

From those small beginnings . . .

MTV started off as an alternative; that it didn't stay an alternative is one of the dirty little secrets of its success. It started re-inventing itself from the moment it was born. It grabbed power through the sheer novelty value of music video; it kept the power be devaluing the importance of video to its zeitgeist long before people realized how sick of videos they really were. But by that time, MTV had tons of other things on.

Because MTV is about one thing only: MTV. And like all great pop icons, MTV has always defined right here right now. And the past doesn't matter, the future may not come, all that matters is the eternal now.

Since CNN is The News, you never feel like you're wasting your time. In fact that's CNN's dirty little secret: it made watching The News fun. Since CNN is on all the time, you don't have to tune in at some pre-ordained hour. You can escape and return whenever you wish.

In other words, you can watch The News not just out of some sort of societal obligation of being an informed citizen, but for the sheer king-hell pleasure of finding out what was going on. As a child of the information age, who processes these words with the TV glowing and CD player blaring, a 24-7-365 source of information is like a steady connection to a crackhead. Gimme input. I mean, why would I want to be just an informed citizen when I can be a stone information junkie??

Constancy as bedrock

In my all-time favorite MTV promo, The Grim Reaper knocks on some guys door to take him away. The guy looks at the Reaper, and says, "just let me finish this show." Death agrees -- of course, it turns out that the guy is watching MTV.

MTV is always on. Always. CNN is always on. Always.

Do you realize how cool that is? Dependability. We are living in a time where it sometimes seems that there is very little you can actually rely on. Schools don't educate; families disintegrate; businesses go under; governments lie; relationships fend. Even fast-food french fries don't taste as good as they used to.

So if MTV and CNN keep spewing out endless variations on their basic themes day in and day out world without end amen, then that consistency becomes in and of itself something to grasp. What a comfort to come home drunk and depressed at 3 a.m. to find MTV playing the latest Madonna video, or CNN updating the latest world crisis, and realizing it's basically the same thing that was on when you left.

Which is part of the problem, natch. While I might dig MTV and CNN's constancy, they just contribute to the overall overload that eventually renders each bit of information no more or less important than any other bit. Information Communism. Especially as CNN gets lost in the endless spiral of click-click-click and The News gradually becomes just another form of entertainment. Meanwhile, the line between pop culture and the real world gets fuzzier and fuzzier: why else would we get Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown -- at least one of whom is fictional -- dissing each other? It's fun, but is it news or entertainment?

And who cares? Maybe everything is both at exactly the same time. At least it sometimes seems that way as I artfully coast and soar through the airways like a couch potato Chuck Yeager, sampling a bit of this or ignoring most of that. Damn, nothing on . . . I can't wait until we get the Weather Channel. Oh well, guess I'll read for awhile.

-- Jim Connelly

This grew from my Senior Thesis at CSUF: all about MTV. Which is weird, because I think that the MTV portions of this essay are the weakest. In the past few years, they've grown closer -- MTV news provided substantial coverage of the 1992 elections, while CNN ran arty, clever promos for shows like Crossfire. And of course, can't forget their children channels -- Vh1 and Headline News.

We finally did get the Weather Channel. And I love it.

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This document last modified on 15 June 1995.