The Apple TV+ deal folds in well with thoughts I’ve long had about television in the modern era. Now, I’m not talking about the new material being produced – that is an unalloyed good thing. But I am talking about the removal of the Big Three Peanuts specials from the broadcast networks for their new, exclusive home on a streaming service.
Now, I’m old enough to remember television back in the days not just before streaming, but before cable was a common thing, back before TV recorders were standard consumer devices. There were three commercial networks, plus PBS and your local rerun stations, and you watched shows when they were on. Television may have been, in the words of Newt Minow, a “vast wasteland”, but it was a shared wasteland… not utterly nationally (as there were plenty of rural areas where you were lucky to get two network signals), but certainly within your world. The person next door had the same handful of shows to pick through at any given moment as you did. The girl next to you at school probably watched Happy Days last night, and if she did, she watched the exact same episode you did, at the same time, with the same ads. You could bring up Pinky Tuscadero and be pretty sure she knew what you were talking about. It gave us a common language.
Now, not everyone had a television necessarily, but most did. They weren’t cheap – as a base guideline, for the past 50 years a good basic television can always be had for $300, with no adjusting for inflation needed, and the quality of “a good basic television” has soared over the decades. $300 was a lot of money in the 1970s, but once you had it, and maybe put an antenna on your roof, that was the end of the costs. The shows were all free, paid for by those Big Mac ads. The price also meant that you probably had just one set in your home, so not only were you watching the same thing as the kids at school, you were watching the same thing as mom and dad. Archie Bunker explaining the epithets of the day was something for you as well as them.
This shared experience allowed us to create cultural touchstones like, well, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Half the TVs that were on in America the first night it aired were tuned to that show. And with it running in that broadcast zone that reached so many people every year since, it has become very much a part of the shared language. Some people watch it year after year, but every year, some are also discovering it for the first time. But the number who discover it by stumbling on it, rather than having mom wanting to show you her favorite special from when she was a kid, has to be shrinking, because you don’t just flip through the four channels anymore. Most of us can, at any moment, watch the live feed from dozens of channels… or pull up a large body of work from streaming, from on-demand.
There is a lot of good in this. Is TV still a “vast wasteland”? Well, it depends on how you define it. Yes, there is still a lot of crappy TV out there – I reckon to say that there’s more than ever. But there’s also a lot of great TV, brilliant TV. There is, if anything, too much great TV, you cannot even watch all of the new things that you think you might like… plus, at the few clicks of a button, you have access to fine television from almost the whole history of the medium.
But because of that, the sharedness is lost. You are not watching the same show as your neighbor (and thanks to the cheapness of TV sets, not the same show as your kids most of the time.) Even if you both watched Star Trek last night, you probably watched different episodes. Heck, you don’t even have the same “channels” as your neighbor. I watched Saturday Night Live this week, and there was this talented (and dare I note, attractive) and famous host who I did not know of at all, because she’s famous on HBO. I don’t have HBO. I have Hulu, with its broadcast streaming package, and Netflix, and Amazon Prime, and Disney+, and Philo, and the free version of Peacock, and a discount one-month sample of Epix. But I don’t have HBO (Max or otherwise), don’t have Showtime, don’t have Apple TV+, dropped by CBS All Access. There are oh so many shows that you may have access to that I don’t, that I can’t unless I cough up some more fees.
And it’s great, wonderful, so many options so deep in content. But there is something lost.
The viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas on Apple TV+ should be a good experience. For one thing, streaming means no time slot, no reason to cut out chunks of the show so that it meets some set expected length. It’ll be a full-length run… and it will still come in at less than half an hour due to the lack of ads. And hey, on a special that decries the commercialization of Christmas, isn’t running it without ads exactly in the spirit of the thing (well, if you ignore that the special was created in the first place to promote Coca-Cola)? And Apple is going above and beyond (whether on their own initiative or pushed by the Peanuts people, I really don’t know) of showing it for free for three days, December 11 through 13. You don’t need a subscription to Apple TV+, you just need… well, your TV. Plus a broad-band connection, which leaves out about a quarter of Americans. Plus a device which runs the Apple TV app.
And then on top of that… they need to know to look at it there, at the right time. Sure, you and me and the rest of the Peanuts hardcore know about this, but it’s not getting out through the usual way that TV times are announced. There’s not an ad during Wheel of Fortune.
Plenty of people will watch A Charlie Brown Christmas on Apple TV+… but I suspect that few will discover it there. It will be people who have seen it before, coming back to it as comfort food. It is amazing that that special has run as long as it has, has maintained its cultural currency the way that it has. But this step will erode that to some degree, however slight. This is a change.
The world will never be the same again.
But then again, it never was the same before, either. Staying the same is not something the world tends to do, particularly for the past couple centuries. Even when it stays the same, that is in itself a change. Today, we are talking about watching a 55 year old TV special. When I was growing up, we certainly didn’t talk about watching TV that old. We couldn’t. There hadn’t been TV fifty-five years before.
So I am not, as some seem to be, offended by this move. It is a reasonable move in current conditions, and the creation of new animated shows as part of this means that Peanuts is not just stagnating. There are things being done so that it doesn’t fade away. It’s an understandable move in the face of a changing world, and it carries pluses as well as minuses, so I’m not offended at all.
But saddened? Yes, just a little.