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Airing soon on a gas pump near you

TV, mutating and decentralized, can be whatever and wherever we want it to be.

April 30, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

I recently became a viewer of "A Message From Batman." I am one in a community of 266,569 (and counting). Not exactly a television show and not exactly on TV, "A Message From Batman" has nevertheless been on the air now -- two weeks -- longer than, say, "Emily's Reasons Why Not," the sitcom starring Heather Graham that ABC pulled after one episode, at a cost of many millions of dollars.

"A Message From Batman," I feel confident, cost considerably less, because it's basically a portly guy with a beard in a Batman costume (though you can see the Nike swoosh on his chest, just to the right of his Batman insignia) talking to his camera: "I took my pros and I took my cons, and I weighed them," he says. "And I decided the only way to really avenge my parents was to dress up as a giant bat and attack criminals. I'm still kinda working that one out."

It's airing on YouTube.com, the popular Internet site whose motto, "Broadcast Yourself," is a terrifying as well as exhilarating prospect in an age of more mutable TV -- TV you can send and receive and create and purchase, so much so that the content itself has become airborne.

I still haven't uploaded, though I download now on a regular basis, and just the other day I took a walk with several episodes of "The Colbert Report" on my $450 video iPod. If you happened to notice me crossing Wilshire against a red light, oblivious and laughing at my hand -- hey, thanks for stopping. I was watching television.

That walk was kind of out-of-body, given that I'm used to watching TV on a sofa and don't bother to look both ways before going to the kitchen. But this is where TV comes from now -- not only from a box sitting in a distressed-oak armoire or the rafters of a bar but also out of your hand and/or phone and/or computer.

The paradox of airborne content is that with accessibility comes work, with options come obligations, so many notes to self: TiVo Clooney on "Bill Maher," download "Colbert" off of multipass on iTunes, catch up on overdue DVD of Season 1 of "24." We are all bloated with options, our own forgetful programmers, trying to keep up. Or not.

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A one-portal experience

ONCE upon a time, television could be counted on to come out of your TV -- as opposed to your telephone, your iPod or your computer -- on prescribed dates and at prescribed times and from (largely) prescribed creators. Your job was simply to show up, or not. This was a time when you actually had to leave the sofa to change channels, when VCRs were magical if cumbersome instruments, when you and your friends might videotape yourselves goofing around just for the sake of goofing around -- without any sense of distribution streams out there.

Back then, Jay Leno, still just a comic, went on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and riffed on an ad campaign for TV Guide whose tagline was "Because television is getting more complicated every day."

"It's tough trying to get through the TV Guide in one sitting," Leno said. " 'Honey, let me just put my bookmarker on "Crosswits" at 6:30 ...' "

Leno's joke is no longer a joke.

Television is everywhere now, taking up more and more of daily life's wall space -- not just at the gym and the airport terminal but also at the supermarket checkout line, the basketball game. What did people do when they used to have to just, I don't know, wait somewhere? As technology has rushed in to stave off our limbo states, each week seems to bring another headline about another heretofore unadorned space in daily life where televised news and entertainment is a constant companion. "NBC Offers Gas-Pumping Entertainment," I read the other week, in an article announcing NBC Universal Television Group had made a deal with something called VST Media Network to make news and entertainment product available on gas-pump screens.

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It's still a 'tubular' world

DO I want to watch television while I load up the tank or stand in line at Ralphs? Nobody asked; it is merely presumed that I do, or will, and that it doesn't feel invasive, networks and studios knowing that a captive audience is an increasingly movable object.

Amid this, it should be noted that television viewing through the television remains the dominant medium, by far; a survey released earlier this month by the Television Bureau of Advertising found, among other things, that "adults continue to spend significantly more time with television than with other media" -- 264.8 minutes in a 24-hour period as opposed to 85 minutes of Internet viewing. But anecdotally it can sound like the revolution is being televised everywhere but on your TV.

"I'm on the Internet a lot more than I watch TV, and most everybody I know is," ABC's Jimmy Kimmel, another late-night talk show host, recently told The Times. "And yet if you watch most late-night talk shows, it's as if it doesn't even exist."

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