Friday, December 31, 2004

Channel 33 Is No More

You really need to know about television in the UAE. Yes, you do!

It's pretty much crap. Mind you, I'm biased, having been brought up in the UK where television programming of the highest quality used to fall out of the sky and into your viewing-box virtually for free (well, you had to buy an annual licence to be allowed to watch BBC, but looking back on it that was an absolute bargain).

We left quality TV behind when we came to the Emirates. When we arrived, 2 or 3 satellite-based subscription services were just starting up, but they cost way too much, so we made do with the free-to-air stuff that came out through the socket in the wall. We had: BBC World (until they moved it to a satellite), Sky TV (India-based English language channels, fairly good until Rupee Murdoch moved it to subscription-based satellite - pay for Star? You jest, surely!), and Channel 33 (local government-owned station with no budget for original production, a couple of people who would read the news they'd nicked from CNN, and an annual budget of about $500 to buy in old programmes from the US, UK and Oztralia).

Right now we get Channel 33 (very fuzzy), CNN International, and MBC 2. MBC is interesting - they broadcast from the building next to my office and show some good comedy shows and movies. An aside, one of their phone numbers is very similar to my office number, because I sometimes get a dozen phone calls or messages from puzzled Saudis who just shout 'alloo? MBC?' at me or the answerphone. Sometimes they sing in Arabic.

I've never really fancied any of the satellite packages. From what I've seen, everything except news gets recycled several times at different times of the month, and none these channels have any kind of personal or local identity. And I've never been swayed by the idea of a 'sports channel' or a 'shopping channel' or a 'natural history channel'. How sad do you have to be to just watch a non-stop diet of the same thing? So, we don't get the big sporting events on the box in our house. If I'm up for it, I can just go down to my local club, where they will have it on various 96-inch plasma tellies scattered around the place, 300 other people, and as much beer as you want to drink. Suits me.

What used to happen back in the UK was that you had four channels, each of which had designed a balanced evening of stuff that you could sit down and watch. And because you only had four channels you could understand the listings, and decide that you wanted to watch programme X on channel Z at this time. It was easy to understand, it was entertaining, and I watched TV a hell of a lot more than I do now.

I understand that TV watching is in a bit of decline anyway because people now play with computers a lot more - this distracts the eyes and (sometimes) the brain. They are playing games - FreeCell beats any soap everytime, for me. They are interacting with online friends. They could even be blogging.

But, wait! Back to the original point of this story. Channel 33 was relaunched as TV One (or One TV, can't quite figure it out) a week ago. It has some very nice station graphics, but the signal we have coming out of the wall is exactly as fuzzy as Channel 33 was, so I haven't bothered looking at it yet. And I know that's not their fault, we need to get a digital receiver - but these are hard to come by without subscribing for a package of 100-channels-of-shite from Showtime or Orbit or E-vision. But hey, they have some new programmes, and one them is 'The Naked Chef' - Jamie Oliver with his clothes on. When TV One was Channel 33 that would abolutely not have been allowed - they might have re-titled it 'The Chef Who Tells You Everything' or something, but 'Naked' in the title of a programme? Get outta here!

So, I'm just an Old Fogey, aren't I. I'm not remotely interested in paying about 40 quid a month for satellite shite. Even when I've tried watching TV on trips back to the UK I have not been impressed - I sat there watching 'Big Brother' for a few hours, I'd read a lot about it before my last trip back, but for the life of me I cannot see the appeal. Maybe I'm too clever. Yes, that's it.

I know that the communications industry is hurtling into a period of fragmentation (other pundits might call it 'convergence'). Twenty years ago you had a TV market in most territories that had two or three channels/networks, and that would account for most of the audience. If you wanted to advertise on these networks, you could have a pretty good idea of who was watching. It's not like that anymore. People could be watching any one of a hundred channels. Or they could be arsing about on their computer. Or, having broken the TV habit, they could even be reading a book!

So, wappnin? I think that people are ignoring TV more and more, because all it offers is a diet of pap (are you listening Rupee Murdoch - we don't want your shite). There will always be a lot of people who don't mind/actively enjoy that pap. But a lot of people are going to realise that staring at the box every night is not only not good for you, but you can have a more fulfilling life if you don't do it. You can always buy DVDs/videos, go to the movies, and see the World Cup Final somewhere much more exciting than from your couch.

Nuff said. Telly is dead, I reckon.