Don't talk to me
about cable TV. I don't get it. Oh, I understand it fine, and I like it, but I
don't receive it. My community isn't wired for cable, and dishes aren't
allowed, so I live with blinders on, disgruntled, edgy, like a farmer without
land. Is it just my impression, or do a lot of the best sporting events occur
on cable? To see the games that I love, I have to travel to friends' houses or
go to bars. Any cabled American knows more about sports than I do. He flips on
his living-room tube and relaxes in front of the games, while I drive through
the night looking for acquaintances with wired homes, order drinks in smoky
taverns, suffer fools who think jukeboxes were put in bars to drown out the
None of this
would matter if I weren't on cable TV. But I am. I'm on a sports talk show with
three other men-Bill Gleason of Chicago's Southtown Economist and the South
Bend (Ind.) Tribune; Bill Jauss of the Chicago Tribune; and Ben Bentley, a
career p.r. man and former ring announcer. The show is called The Sports
Writers on TV. It's taped every Monday at noon in a studio in Chicago, sent
into cableland over Sports-Channel America and picked up at various times
during the week, I'm told, by more than nine million subscribers and untold
pirates nationwide. But not by me.
I have seen the
show, but not on cable TV. For this article I sat in an editing room at
SportsChannel's local head-quarters in Oak Park, Ill., and, for the first time
ever, watched hours and hours of the show—a good portion of the program's
nearly three-year run—on three-quarter-inch tape. I saw my bald spot grow. I
heard myself say ridiculous things. I watched adult males become enraged over
beach volleyball, boxing cutmen, marathon swimmers, raccoons. I saw strange
hats and hideous clothes. I saw Jauss's suspender clasp flip off his pants,
vault over his shoulder and land in his coffee mug. I heard Bentley, our
moderator, call Arizona State basketball coach Bill Frieder "Bill
Fielder" and Bo Schembechler "Bo Schlemblechler" and Packer lineman
Tony Mandarich "Tony Mawkalotch." I heard Jauss call me a fascist. I
heard Gleason call two owners of Chicago pro sports teams terrorists. I saw a
fire in the ashtray build until it nearly touched off the felt on our poker
table. I watched myself tell about the time I caught a sea gull while fishing
for perch. I saw pounds of cigar smoke settle on four of the most
remarkable-looking heads ever grouped together and taped for public viewing.
Slack-jawed, I thought, People watch this.
After the first
few hours of viewing, I walked in a daze to a diner and ordered breakfast in
midafternoon. I felt like an empiricist. If a show is on TV but you never see
it, I wondered, does it exist? Then I asked, What is good TV and what is bad
TV? How do you know? And finally, When everybody on earth has cable, can the
apocalypse be far off?
Show No. 1: March
TOPIC: THE NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT
Gleason: The dark
horse of the tournament is New Orleans. Watch that team.
Bentley: I got a
would be eliminated in the second round, DePaul in the third.)
As I continued
watching The Sports Writers on TV, I fell into something resembling a trance.
The world we perceive and the images that flicker on a television screen are so
similar that we're tricked into seeing them as a unified whole. But TV is
weird; you want to pick apart the things you see on it. I've got a mole on my
left cheek that's going to be removed, I guarantee you. I'd never noticed it
before seeing myself on TV. As a viewer, I'm saying, "Hey, Telander, nice
tumor!" and I guess that's because it seems the guy up there—me—can take
bozo!" I go on. "How many pro hockey games you ever seen, you
limp-wristed jarhead! Three?" Well, yes, that's all I have seen. Three NHL
games-and maybe two complete ones on TV I don't know anything about hockey.
Icing, blue lines—honest to god, I couldn't tell you how many hockey players
are on a rink at one time, before the fights. Still, I think there's something
important about our show, something that transcends rhetoric, even gibberish.
The screen somehow endorses whatever appears on it—even us.