STORY BY BREE KESSLER
Here is a simple rule of thumb for determining whether or not you live in a true democracy: You have complete freedom to decide what you will watch on TV. Choosing one show over another essentially is like voting for what and whom you believe in. It’s pretty similar to a presidential election. In a true democracy, you have the right to determine if you want to watch The Chew or Ellen, Good Morning America or The Today Show, The Daily Show or Conan and your preferences say a lot about who you are fundamentally. Living in a democracy is about choice [oh, or is that just capitalism?] and therefore, to me, the ability to pick your TV show seems like a good indicator of how well a country is functioning.
Let’s test out the theory. Iran – state run TV, no choice, clearly not a democracy. Cuba – yep, them too. Soviet Union circa 1985 – you betcha. India 2012 – movies like Basic Instinct are allowed on TV but the censor removes the “good parts” [making the movie a quick 27 minutes] also known as an “emerging democracy.” China 2012, no wonder the U.S. owes them billions of dollars, with enough money the Chinese can have uncensored HBO at home, but I wonder if shows like Girls are relatable to the Chinese audience. Alas, Bettles, Alaska 2012 – a state run one station kind of town. Just because we can see Russia from our front porch doesn’t mean we should have the same media options as our neighbors to the west.
This isn’t my first experience with controlled TV access in a rural setting. Picture this: It’s 2004 in Honduras. Gangs just are beginning to takeover the country, rural villages quickly are expanding due the influx of money coming from men working (illegally) in the United States, TGI Friday and mega malls galore are opening in big cities. Skype doesn’t exist yet and Wi-Fi is around but not standard at home. I am completing observations at a health clinic in Morazan, a rural village located nearly three hours east of San Pedro Sula in the northwest part of the country.
Walking down one of three main streets in the town, it was common to hear the same program blasting from televisions inside the small houses that lined the street. I once listened to the entire movie of Pretty Woman simply by walking slowly down and up the street for hours. This situation in Morazan is similar to nearly every rural village I’ve ever visited (from India to Bolivia): people live off very little money, oftentimes even sharing a one room house with a single bed, but these families somehow manage to have a huge TV with satellite cable – more channels than I’ve ever had in my home.
I am not judging the decision to spend one’s money on cable television; I share the information about the villagers not to shock you but to convey my shear jealousy of their access to cable television. I also would like to offer the possibility that for many villagers, cable TV at home presents an important [class] marker to the outside world that they don’t have it so bad – that their life is improving. And this was exactly the case in 2004 Morazan, which was a 10-channel kind of town: nine local stations and one precious premium channel that I always assumed was subsidized by the government (either theirs or ours, I’m not sure).
The premium channel in Morazan was a hot commodity. It’s programming was negotiable if you knew the right guy – specifically, my teenage next-door neighbor who was responsible for switching the signal for the premium station. Some days it was HBO, other days it was Showtime and weeks would go by when he left the signal on Starz with an endless marathon of the movie Brown Sugar. This teenage boy solely was in charge of determining what part of American culture to bestow upon the villagers of Morazan and he easily could be swayed to change the station if you gave him money or the sweet smile of an American woman. I am pretty sure that after that summer, there was a group of Hondurans who sincerely believed that the hip hop love story genre was much more important than it actually was in the U.S. and they were shocked to learn that Brown Sugar was not nominated for an Oscar.
As it turns out this little case study of TV accessibility in Morazan was an omen to the economic, social, and political transformation that would occur in Honduras over the next 10 years. I read last week that Honduras is now one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I think we all could have seen this coming in a country that let an easily corruptible teenage boy control the media.
I would make a bet that if I were to return to Morazan in 2012 that it would be up to at least 20 channels with half of them premium. Now, there probably are hundreds of teenage boys around Honduras who are paid off just so that someone can watch Game of Thrones. I would do anything for some of these teens to relocate to Alaska and take over our cable industry. Here in the bush of Bettles, like most off-the-grid communities in Alaska, it’s pretty bad off – we receive only one station. That’s nine less than rural Honduras in 2004. On the TV economic indicator index, we fall far below Honduras. Thanks Obama.
Our one channel isn’t NBC or ABC or even PBS – it’s one station that combines all the networks’ programming into a carefully selected schedule formulated by some person who is not my neighbor and therefore whom I imagine resembles the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz with hundreds of HD channels at his fingertips.
Below is a sample of our weekly programming schedule. The morning is packed with shows targeting old ladies, small children, and stoners:
7:00am: The Today Show [those bastards cut out the Hoda and Kathie Lee hour]
9:00am: Sesame Street
10:00am: The Price is Right [every commercial just so happens to be for the Scooter Store]
11:00am-4:00pm 5 hours of shows such as: Clifford, Dinosaur Train, Arthur and Word Girl.
4:00pm: Ellen, always Ellen no variation.
The prime time lineup switches nightly and truly is a combination of all the major network channels:
-Monday: Two hours of cooking competition shows followed by Hawaii Five-0
-Tuesday: Cold Case and then Alaska Veteran’s Remember
-Wednesday: A high point in the line-up, 4 half hour sitcoms including Modern Family
-Thursday: America’s Got Talent, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Awake
-Friday: Undercover Boss, CSI-NY, Blue Bloods
Late night alternates between David Lettermen and The Tonight Show and then follows with either Last Call or the Late Late Show. If Lettermen is on Monday, Wednesday, Friday during week one then during week two he only gets Tuesday and Thursday. Now that’s democratic thinking for you.
Like Honduras, since our one station is an amalgamation of many stations, I imagine that someone is manually switching the program feed like an old time projector at a movie house. While this process evokes lovely feelings of nostalgia for a bygone era, it’s a real pain in the ass for the viewer who begins watching a program that suddenly changes mid-sentence because the switcher was probably getting some hot cocoa or fending off a bear and forgot to change to the next program until five minutes after the hour. More importantly, this system is practically a disaster for any sporting events. Locals still talk about a recent Super Bowl when the program switched to Masterpiece Theater before the game’s end.
Ultimately, what concerns me is identifying who is picking the shows [so that I can manipulate them] as well as determining what the programming line-up tells us about the future of Alaska [and the United States, in general].
First, let’s just get it out of the way: it’s got to be either a straight white Republican man or Sarah Palin herself controlling my TV — thinking up shows that he or she believes would improve and educate rural Alaskans. There is no other possible explanation for the motley crew of programming. A third of the programs are teaching viewers to read or do math (I include the Price is Right in this lot), a second third target building skills for a job in the crime fighting industry, and the last third of the programs are about creating model citizens who can cook and laugh with gay people. It’s clear what the agenda is here.
So now that I have figured out the pattern of what can air on our one station (I used skills I obtained from watching CSI-NY), I want in. Here is an idea to make the TV scheduling process in Bettles more democratic: I think it would be nice if there was a contest and everyone could submit their perfect schedule and then we’d all vote for the winner. There could be one winner or 52 of them and then we could alternate schedules each week of the year. Or maybe even we could create some original programming just for our station. If TV tells us how democratic we are, my TV is telling me that I am not living in a total democracy and that soon enough we may be the most dangerous country in the world – especially if all we watch is crime shows and Ellen.
Here are a few popular shows that I reimaged to make them more relevant for an Alaskan audience.
Adam has escaped from New York City to Gates of the Arctic in order to “clear his head” and get in touch with his manly nature. Hannah soon follows him in an effort to prove to him that she too can survive in the wilderness and is not as weak as Adam thinks. Hannah, who makes several references to “summer camp” and how this is “just like that new Wes Anderson movie” is hoping that their time in the wilderness will be romantic and at the suggestion of her friends, she brings “sexy” but inappropriate clothing for Alaska and finds her self freezing for her whole trip. After Hannah calls her friends crying about how the trip did not go as planned, her friends quickly rush up to Alaska and they think it might be a good place to try out the Paleo Diet that they read about it in Glamour.
With the Jaguar campaign behind them, Sterling Cooper Draper Price wants to land the BP campaign. Don sends Roger, Pete, and Joan to northern Alaska to woo their clients, New York style. Pete, in an utter state of panic given his aversion to the Westchester suburbs let alone the wilderness, finds himself unable to sleep due to the endless sunlight and wanders off into the park alone. In the morning, when Joan and Roger realize he is missing they organize a search party. Roger becomes dismayed that a search party isn’t actually a party and so decides that it would be a better use of resources to call off the search party and throw a real party with some Alaskan bootleggers serving home made vodka martinis. Without Pete, Joan and Roger return back to New York and are stunned weeks later when Pete returns back to New York with a bushy beard having signed BP as well as several local tribes.
Fred and Carrie, dressed from head to toe in bear fur, attempt to hipster Bettles by creating a coffee shop next to the runway where planes can “drive-thru” for local fair-traded coffee and gluten free vegan muffins. They close down the venue when they realize all their clientele work for the oil companies and they refuse to accept their “blood money” as they call it.
The Next Food Network Star
Contestants go hunting with Bobby Flay and are required to transform whatever they kill in the first hour into something servable from a food truck. Showing a real lack of creativity, the majority of contestants create moose tacos garnished with pickled ferns. The residents of Bettles vote the Hawaii-based chef “Ippy” the winner in order to be in solidarity with indigenous people. The episode ends with an unfortunate turn when the contestants are all ticketed for poaching in the park.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry purchases a Wii so that he has something to entertain himself with while in Bettles. When he begins making “miis” (the avatar characters that represent each player’s likeness) for his new friends that will soon come over to play with him he can’t decide if he should place a large noticeable mole on to the cheek of his neighbor. Larry decides to put the mole on the mii character since he thinks not placing it on the mii would gain more attention than leaving it off. When the neighbor comes over to play the Wii and he sees his character he becomes extremely angry with Larry claiming that the mii looks nothing like him. Larry responds, “It looks exactly like you.” The neighbor storms out of the house while Larry follows behind with an attempt to explain his actions.