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The Life-Affirming Reassurance of Antenna-Only TV

I made my family do some extreme cord-cutting — weirdly, we ended up feeling more connected to the world than ever

Of all the anxieties surrounding modern parenting, few carry a heavier subtext these days than screen time. Back when parents would regularly cross paths at school or gather outside of it, it’d inevitably, even if fleetingly, fall into our conversations: It’s always felt as if many are quick to disclose, with detectable pride, how draconian their iPad policies are at home. It’s been elevated to one of those proxy yardsticks to measure your very worthiness as a parent, along the lines of how much junk food you serve to your kid, or whether you get stoned around them.

But I’ve never understood the fuss: As a youth, I spent my afternoons alone with enough TV to horrify any contemporary child psychologist. In my quiet, soggy Oregon town, our family’s 35-inch RCA TV with basic cable wasn’t just a cheap babysitter — it felt like my window to civilization. Psychologists of the day said that latchkey kids were prone to boredom, but I never knew the feeling.

Back then, even with a handful of cable channels, TV’s horizons seemed limitless. It offered a kaleidoscopic portrait of the day’s events, plus the larger cultural tides that ebbed and flowed. It felt immediate, hitting me all at once through the coaxial cable snaking out of the wall.

But post-internet TV is an entirely different medium, so until recently, I thought TV’s previous iteration was gone forever. According to a Nielsen report earlier this year, streaming has doubled in the past two years: Netflix has 200 million subscribers worldwide, while Disney Plus got 86 million subscribers in just its first year — 10 million signed up within the first 24 hours. This, I find troubling: With on-demand and streaming, its algorithms intubating each customer with things to watch, TV is no longer an egalitarian conduit to a bygone monoculture, it’s simply ego-serving. While TV was once entertaining because it was never about me, nowadays, TV seems only about you. Something about that has always felt vaguely sinister to me.

One leitmotif in the unsettling work of British documentarian Adam Curtis is that technology increasingly controls us, presenting to us the illusion of choice when in fact it’s steering us toward predictable outcomes that are favorable to the corporations bringing us content. That sounds both dystopian, and also an exact description for literally any streaming or on-demand service known to humankind.

For years, despite having a previously unimaginable number of content and channels at my fingertips, I found myself increasingly watching the same stuff, feeling annoyed at all the other peak TV I was missing out on. I was paralyzed by choice — which, of course, is by design: With overwhelming options, just submit to the algorithms, man, they’ll suggest something for you. It’s not a bug, as the tech cliche goes. But this hall of mirrors the algorithms create in any medium — whether it’s TV or social media — seemed to me like maybe one reason why people can’t find common ground anymore. 

I wanted out of my filter bubble. I just wanted old-TV back.

Everyone talks about cord-cutting, but to get what I wanted, I would have to take cord-cutting to its logical end point — all the way back to the antenna. It seemed a bit scary: I’d have to say goodbye to prestige TV, to all those shows I recorded or queued but never watched and to my favorite sports teams that never win anyway. But there was a bit of thrill attached, too: I was secretly excited to experience that quintessential bourgeoisie pleasures of asceticism. And what could be more technologically regressive these days than a few islands of channels with oceans of snowy static between them? I cancelled everything and replaced it with a tiny, plastic, HDTV antenna.

I wasn’t sure what to expect — besides, I suppose, very little. And true enough, over-air TV doesn’t offer much. There’s the networks, a few PBS channels, a surprising amount of foreign-language programming, quirky university stations and public-access TV, and then a grab-bag of genre channels that each broadcast cheap syndicated flotsam: erstwhile bottom-barrel sitcoms like According to Jim, indistinguishable mid-century Westerns or — it must be said — absolute classics like The A-Team, Kojak and Murder, She Wrote. No matter what anyone considers to be peak TV, this all felt like its opposite.

Gradually, however, it came to feel like a revelation. When antenna TV was all I was left with, I saw this content for what it truly is: the building blocks of television. The local news, languid educational programming, broad comedies, police procedurals, hospital dramas and popular sports. (Also, no cable news — just the networks and PBS, if TV news is even your thing.) As I once again channel surfed through this middling fare night after night, a warm nostalgia arose. Real, immediate TV, that continuous torrent of stuff I didn’t ask for or have recommended to me, was hitching a ride through the atmosphere on electromagnetic radio waves and onto my screen in real time. I jumped in, floating downstream with it, lost in an unlikely show or sporting event that I’d never have watched had I not popped my own filter bubble. No matter what I’d watch, the fact that it was new and different meant it often stuck with me the next day. What I realized is that TV wasn’t all about me anymore — it’s about what’s on at the moment. And because I can’t even pause it, I’m fully present, lest I miss a Jeopardy! clue or the hilariously stilted small talk uttered between segments on local news.

With such a narrow range of things to watch, there’s no doubt I’ve exiled myself from the cultural conversation about things like baby Yoda, or some guy on Netflix who likes tigers. I don’t miss it: Now when I turn on the TV, I’m simply excited to see what’s out there. Antenna TV makes you realize that in our on-demand age, learning how to entertain yourself is a life skill, somewhat along the lines of surviving in the wild. Sure, antenna TV is extremely limited, but its programming has existed for decades for a reason. Peak TV may or may not last, but local news, Wheel of Fortune and British costume dramas likely will.

Of course, it’s still a screen. But I’ve come to realize that finding your own entertainment among a limited selection is far more joyous than being spoon-fed an infinite scroll of similar entertainment and being trapped in the gilded incarceration of an algorithm. Could it be that that’s what parents are really afraid of these days?

Like any parent, I get excited when my kids turn off a screen and look for something else to do. But nowadays, I also feel a bit of pride when they surf those precious few antenna channels, settle on something new and unexpected, and seem captivated for the moment.