May 9, 2014 12:11 pm

Douglas Coupland: My TV

‘A big screen in a domestic space is like having a ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ monolith inserted into your life’
Illustration by Jason Ford of a living room©Jason Ford

On April 19 1995, I bought my first genuine adult TV set – a 27in Sony Trinitron. I know it was this date because two delivery men brought it to the house at about 11 in the morning. We installed the TV into a nook in the bookshelves, turned it on, and on screen came images of the Oklahoma City bombing. For the three of us it was an “I remember where I was” moment. We stopped for an hour and watched the news. I made coffee, we talked a bit and then the day progressed.

I used to watch TV back then. By that I mean I’d go into the living room and turn on the TV set, saying, “Gosh. I wonder what’s on TV right now? I think I’ll run through the channels.” It’s hard to imagine anyone in 2014 doing this, even my parents. Over two decades, our collective TV viewing habits have changed so much that it’s actually quite hard to remember old-style TV viewing.

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I remember 1997 and Princess Diana’s death and being glued to CNN for hours. The same for 9/11. But when Michael Jackson died in 2009, I was in my dining room writing when a friend texted to tell me. Instead of turning on CNN, I went right to the internet and it was only hours later that I thought, “Hmmm . . . I wonder how TV is covering this.” A shift had occurred.

TV technology moved on to a new generation and, by the early 2000s, it was obvious that big, boxy Sony TVs like mine were doomed. Screens everywhere were definitely growing both flatter and bigger. But I found myself foot-dragging about getting a big screen for a few reasons. One, laziness. Two, having to rearrange and rebuild the bookshelves. Three, the image quality on those early flatscreens was still blurry and smudgey. Four (and this is by far the biggest reason), big-screen TVs are ugly. In the history of human technology, there have been few inventions whose intrinsic ugliness and brutality of form defy all notions of beauty and defeat everything we call “home”.

An illustration of an old TV set on a trolley©Jason Ford

Trying to put a big screen in a domestic space and have it look natural is almost impossible, like having a 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith inserted into your life – a monolith that has total disregard for your humanity or taste. The black minimalist box on your wall negates your framed wedding photos, your cornices, your art collection, your potted plants. The only environment it looks passably OK in is a modern house built after 2008 that factors in the bizarre scale of big screens – and even then, when you see one passably installed, you feel like you’ve walked into Muammer Gaddafi’s bedroom. On the other hand, it is nice to not have everything look orange and fuzzy like on the old Sony, and nice to view shows in the correct aspect ratio.

In 2008, I broke my leg and couldn’t use my old office, so I had powerful WiFi installed in the house, and that was the end of old-style TV for me. Soon I’d adopted all of the present-day viewing tendencies most of us share: binge viewing, laptop viewing, torrenting, series addictions, digital video recording, Netflix and guilty-pleasure viewing (Come Dine With Me Canada – I can’t get enough of that show). But amid these shifts, it’s also been interesting to watch the evolution of TV as a new art form. Marshall McLuhan predicted this. When a new technology obsolesces an old one, it frees the newly obsolete medium to become an art form. Enter The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, The Wire and . . . all of the new shows that are basically movies that run for 50 hours and serve as a paradise for talented actors. Perhaps this shift to long-format TV has generated the biggest change in creative culture in decades. I’ve noticed that people now discuss TV the way they once discussed novels. What chapter are you on? Wasn’t so-and-so’s character great? Are you watching the new season? You watched it all in one night? Our long-form attention span is shifting to a new medium.

I tried taking my old Sony to the recycler’s but along the way I hit a speed bump and the set’s plastic casing shattered into a thousand cornflake-shaped bits. It had spent 16 or so years baking inside its living room nook. So when I asked to recycle the TV’s cathode ray tube they said, “No, we don’t accept TVs.” Puzzled, I drove away and was flagged by a street guy with a shopping cart who asked if I wanted him to take care of the TV set. I’m not proud of it but I said, yes, and gave him $20. He smiled and told me that he wasn’t going to spend the money on drugs but would instead buy a submarine sandwich and watch a 3D movie, and that was the last pleasure my Sony gave the world.

Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel is ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, published by William Heinemann.

Twitter: @dougcoupland

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