The Chinese proverb — “may you live in interesting times” — has an edge to it, but the notion is apt for media. The evolution from broadcast to cable to Internet has witnessed corporate and social disruption of TV consumption.
As technology changes, so does consumer behavior. From the original 13 broadcast channels to nearly 300 on cable to the phenomenon of streaming, “appointment TV” has been radically altered.
In the past, appointment TV was understood as must-see. Broadcast offered “Seinfeld,” which parsed behavior with Talmudic precision, or “Downton Abbey,” where Americans swoon over Edwardian 1-percenters. Basic cable touted the insightful “Mad Men,” while premium networks offered HBO’s epic “Sopranos” and Showtime’s “Dexter,” my favorite avenging angel.
Netflix got into the act with “House of Cards” — and the wonders of binge-watching become official.
But there’s another option — and it doesn’t depend on a network promotion or streaming phenomena. The choice rests solely on preference. That kingdom of all things is called YouTube.
Please note, I’m not referring to wacky shorts, like “Charlie Bit My Finger,” or endless kitten videos. I’m talking about the chance to discover past wonders. From “Swan Lake” at the Bolshoi to New Orleans jazz greats to Charlie Chan movies — all are a keystroke away.
I mention the famed PI thanks to “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History” by University of California professor Yunte Huang. He neatly deconstructs the social, political and cultural milieu of the fictional detective, based on Chang Apana, a real Honolulu detective. Winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Book, (the Oscars of the mystery world), it’s a fascinating look at the "Yellow Peril," immigration and Hollywood through the prism of Charlie Chan.
After reading, I watched the Charlie Chan movies and better understood their context within American culture. YouTube became my appointment TV. And that’s just for openers.
Now, I’m a big fan of “Modern Family.” It’s funny, contemporary and its teens sound like Noel Coward. For years, it’s been appointment TV for millions. The last two seasons, to borrow an old expression, have jumped the shark, though it’s still enjoyable.
Still, no one credits “Modern Family” with addressing serious issues. Even in sitcoms, such things are possible. Here’s where YouTube has been helpful in my TV education. It brought me all six seasons of “Kate & Allie,” a 1980s comedy about two divorced women and their kids. It addressed premarital sex in an intelligent way, while various shows highlighted gay rights, disability and homelessness.
In the same era, “Designing Women,” a sassy look at four Southerners, was smart and sexy. Again, it was funny and clever and boasted memorable characters, but it also took on real concerns: domestic violence, AIDS, racism and gun control. Classy Dixie Carter, in the guise of sophisticated Julia Sugarbaker, says of semi-automatic weapons: “You and I and every deer hunter knows in their hearts that these weapons are not used to hunt anything but people.”
Similarly, riled by the image of a woman in a dog collar on a porn magazine, she pointedly trumpets: “Do you think anyone has a constitutional right to show a poster of a woman being degraded, chained up with a dog collar and whipped? You couldn’t show a black man depicted that way because it would be considered incendiary speech! So why would we demand any less for women?”
That’s the beauty of YouTube. It houses terrific, long-gone shows. “Designing Women” creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason reminds us that the medium can entertain and enlighten. Plus, it's a terrific education in the history of television. So if you missed some sitcom greats — or classic film noir — the first time around, consider YouTube.
Charlie won’t always be biting his brother’s finger. One day, he may want to sample a nifty blast from the past.