TBS’ late-night talk show Conan features a segment called ‘What am I Watching?’ in which titular host O’Brien flips through the cable channels with the aid of the info button on his remote. Pressing the button reveals skewed descriptions of each show encountered, such as ‘Entertainment Tonight: Two lifelike cyborgs are programmed to think everything Hollywood does is fantastic’ and ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives: Guy Fieri plays an out-of-work party clown who is addicted to lard’. There are two diametrically opposed laughs here. One is the absurd – yet entirely truthful – inversions of the straight-faced synopses that info buttons on cable remotes give us about TV shows. The other (which sadly nowadays may be as socio-economically discriminatory as those jokes in The Sopranos about Kierkegaard) is about people who have cable recognizing how close these summaries come to the real thing.
The descriptions contained on info buttons are not as openly critical as the fake ones on Conan but they do often make you wonder who the authors are and what their criteria is. Whatever possessed the person that wrote the digital synopsis for Jaws: The Revenge to question the scientific plausibility of the storyline when they wrote ‘Disregarding the behaviour typically exhibited by the rest of its species, a revenge-minded shark follows a woman from New England to the Bahamas’? What is to be gained from listing the events that take place in the 1920s surrealist avant-garde short Un Chien Andalou – including a woman’s eye being cut and ants spilling from a wound in someone’s hand – as if it were an episode of Columbo? And these are the ones that actually get the descriptions right.
The buttons struggle noticeably with anything resembling emotional complexity. They can’t seem to get around the fact that Jackie Peyton from Nurse Jackie isn’t a good person and doesn’t find redemption each week. TCM’s button writer needs an education in film noir – one incidentally that the network will provide in association with Ball University – if it thinks that anyone in The Glass Key is in any way moral or decent. As misleading as they can be, info buttons are impossible to do without. With shows on cable now mired in the mud of endless re-runs and encores (which are re-runs that run on from the first run, like a bad sequel), it’s essential to have something to distinguish individual episodes, and sometimes the description on the info button is the only way to be sure.
This new technology has created a completely different experience of watching television, one that we’re perhaps less willing to recognize because it doesn’t involve a computer screen. It’s just on our TV rather than our phones and devices but that in itself is significant. We have much less need for TV listings or paper guides, which means that journalistic commentaries on TV shows has been supplanted by anonymous synopses. While before, viewers would read a critics’ review to get a sense of whether they wanted to watch a programme or not, now they have to go off the plot, and be less informed about the success of the project than its aims. Maybe it’s clearer now why the description of Jaws: The Revenge was so unfavourable. Button writers don’t rate TV, but nor should they have blood on their hands.
Info buttons only skim the surface of how cable remotes alter our perception of television. Every time I try to erase an episode of Conan, the remote asks me ‘Are you sure you want to erase Conan?’ as if the host himself will be vanquished from history once I press ‘Ok’. Whenever I do, I genuinely believe that Conan O’Brien has disappeared into the ether. All right, that’s not true. But making me think twice about whether I want to keep a show or not has made me re-evaluate what in TV is worthy of a second or third viewing.
I’ve made lots of assumptions here about the people who write the descriptions on info buttons – as well as assuming that this is a dedicated profession and not an intern’s copy-and-paste job – so anyone who knows anything about how these show summaries get written, please get in touch with me and I’ll write another post about it, with whatever level of anonymity you wish. Poverty and convenience may one day render cable obsolete, so I want to learn what I can about this phase of TV history while I can. I also want to know who wrote that Jaws blurb!