The Cast of Law & Order
Law & Order: Always On

“There’s nothing on!” is the now-classic complaint uttered by Americans over the last 60 or so years. We love watching that thing — it makes us laugh, cry, think, and even has the power to make us angry, inspired or otherwise moody. The rest of the world watches telly as well, but let’s focus on the state of the American couch for a minute.

My mother often recalls a time, when television was young, how programming would simply end after the late show. There was, literally, nothing on (except the test colours and network logo, which doesn’t count.) But to my generation, “nothing on” shows our perpetual discontentment with the state of boring, irrelevant, or repetitive programming.

The advent and adoption of Cable TV was an effort by networks and consumers, respectively, to solve the problem of there never being anything on. The net was cast wider and wider and nowadays we have hundreds of channels; some are micro-focused like the Golf Channel, DIY Network, and others simply offering more of the old standards that we love, for example, HBO4, ESPN2 and pretty much anything else with a number after it. But there’s still nothing on … there’s just more nothing than ever before.

There was the strange phenomenon, started about 25 years ago, where people changed from watching a specific program to watching a network. The most famous case is MTV. It didn’t matter was on, you wanted to watch MTV. Period. The same can be said of HGTV, History Channel or CNN these days. Chances are, if you’re interested in the subject as a whole, you’ll find something on that network interesting. But even I, a die-hard BBC America fan, can only tolerate so many re-runs of Cash in the Attic.

A few years ago, I returned to my parents’ house after finishing grad school. They figured it was a good time to re-subscribe to cable and allow me to watch the History Channel late into the night as I did when I was a teenager. (yes, I had no life.) When I told a friend of my new fortune, he simply remarked “meh, it’s mostly just Law & Order.” And he was right, that show is on all the time! It’s become the vanilla of cable programming. Nothing interesting to play? Just throw an L&O repeat. Need a new hook? Let’s create Special Victims’ Unit or bring in Ice-T or something. And now my cable is chock full of the stuff. And while I don’t mind the show, it’s replaced Gilligan’s Island as the new background radiation of the airways.

When will television programming enter the 21st century? When will we get our internet streams and on-demand content we’ve been promised for all those years? When will they finally solve the problem of there being “nothing on”?

Have you been on an airplane lately? Something like Virgin Atlantic or the other non-discount airlines — they have entertainment wrapped up! All the content, whether it be music, movies, television shows, documentaries, news, etc. is all up for grabs and on-demand. It’s an virtual archive of programming, not merely a slice in time over which I have no control. This, my friends, is the future of TV. If we are going to justify spending $100+ a month for television, we are going to need access, control, and the ability to manipulate that strange space-time continuum currently controlled by broadcasters. My prediction is that eventually most programming won’t even be broadcast at all, it will simply be made available for viewing at a certain date and time. Live programming will always have a place, methinks, especially for sports and news. Actually, that’s about all. Soon the premium TV providers will serve more as conduits to content rather than mega-broadcasters.

Another approach, which is already taking shape, is to simply remove the cable companies altogether and head to the internet. With companies like Revision3 producing and distributing full-length programming completely via the web, we can see that it’s obviously possible, and happening right now! Websites like Hulu allow us to see last night’s show with limited commercial interruption and software like Miro let’s us download the content for viewing when and where we say. There’s also the growing trend of live TV over the web. Leo Laporte recently spoke about how he is building a studio to produce some live-over-internet shows. Maybe even an online game show like Play Cafe. And just as I was writing this post I received a Twitter message from Cali Lewis informing me that she was streaming herself on Qik. She wanted the world to see, live, her un-boxing a new MacBook Pro. Every day I hear about folks who are turning off cable and going internet-only for their audio-visual entertainment. I’m close, only watching broadcast TV for Jeopardy! and Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Unfortunately, my roommate likes to watch CNN or MSNBC while he works from home, so I think we’ll be stuck with that box for a while longer.

With any luck, the phrase “nothing on” will vanish into memory. Not because there is more and more to choose from (ESPN8 “The Ocho“?), but because the concept of “on” will cease to be relevant. Saying there is nothing to watch will be like saying there’s nothing interesting in the library, or no enjoyable music ever recorded. It will be there when we need it, how we want it, and as fast as our impatience can demand it.

I think I’ll watch an episode of Monk while I make lunch.

Notice how I didn’t even mention TV advertising. Wow, that’s a whole other game of Cricket right there.