Confessions of a real-time TV addict

From shots of deflated airbags on Mars to a camera aimed at Mt. Fuji, live-feed television reminds us that the real world is the best show on the air.


maybe I’m weird this way, but I thrill at the sight of partially deflated air bags. Take the one that may have been blocking the Mars rover’s ramp earlier this month. I watched for hours as engineers tried to lift a metal petal, turn a little wheel and spool up some air-bag fabric. Good, close pictures of metal sprockets and bumpy surfaces! This was a real-time TV fanatic’s dream come true. I was in heaven.

There’s nothing like live-feed TV. For me the high point in the weekend-long Mars coverage wasn’t even on Mars; it was the live feed of an office at the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, Calif. In this office, workers did ordinary office things. Occasionally someone would call one of the staffers on the phone, to tell them they were on TV, and then he or she would look up at the camera and wave, but mostly they just hung out, waiting, as I was, for the next news from Mars. A guy unwrapped a sandwich. A woman added up numbers, on paper yet, and using a pencil. Boffo. Two thumbs up.

I wish this kind of thing were on all the time. I wish there were a real-time channel, several of them, a real-time empire to rival Disney’s — just broadcasting live feeds of everyday moments. The closest network TV gets to this, unwittingly, is when it broadcasts golf, which when you think about it is mostly shots of sky and grass and water, the tiny white ball — the significant part — allotted about two pixels in the picture somewhere.

About once a year now, all of us go to live feed. A war starts, a major suspect is picked up, and suddenly we are all in that real-time space, witnessing events as they happen, in a narrative that could end anywhere, in which something entirely new, entirely unpredictable, might happen. Some people think this is the best part of real-time. I watch it, too, of course, and enjoy the real-time aspect, though it makes me suspicious when real-time bears too much significance. Significant events acquire sponsors, intermediaries, multiple camera angles. To my way of thinking, when an event is significant, you can’t be so sure of the life in the live feed.

Live-feed fanciers have probably noticed that pure real time is making some inroads on the tube. Occasionally C-SPAN puts a stationary camera on the street — in Boston in front of a funeral parlor, I saw once. Somebody famous had died and they showed the crowd for a couple of hours. I watched it as long as it was on. This is still cable, of course: Thus far C-SPAN and Court TV pose no threat to Mickey’s non-real-time empire.

Real-time Web sites speak to the same basic impulse. I tune into Mount Fuji on the Net, to an open camera aimed up at the mountain. Usually when I think to look it’s night there, and I get a black screen with jet beacons. Another live feed site shows an intersection in Colorado, complete with stoplight. With current technology (mine, at any rate) you can only get snapshots of real time on the Net. So I reload, to watch the light change: green, yellow, red. Other sites show somebody’s parrot, a bus stop on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, various computer labs around the world, even their coffeepots and Coke machines — these sites were set up at first so that workers could check their caffeine supply. For a while an open camera under someone’s bed showed letterboxed pictures of feet. This was my favorite.

These images are deep into duh, and that’s what’s attractive about them, at least to me. I love the basic live feed, sans significance, sans suspense. If tying one’s shoes were shown on TV, narrated in progress, Mars coverage-style — “the left string is now being wound around the right in such a way as to form a simple knot” — people like me would stand around, agape.

But what’s this impulse all about? I had to wonder about this as I watched the Mars staffers mill around as the hours swam by. Why not, for instance, just look out the window? Real trees are out there, moving in real wind. Well, I suppose I could have. But I didn’t. Part of it is context, of course. Really dull stuff, simple mechanical contrivance: This is cool on Mars. Even a shot of people in an office, waiting for a picture from Mars, is kind of cool. These events don’t have to be earth-shaking. Things get enhanced by any frame. A framed picture of a tree always gets more attention than a tree.

Another part is permission. Somehow it’s not permitted just to look out the window. Paying that kind of attention to nothing seems like wasting time. The real beauty of live feed is that this ordinary minutia is on TV, where anything is interesting, deemed worthy of our attention, OK’d — or at least let slip by — by the powers that be. And so many of us run around in the most blithering state now, channel surfing from one significance to the next, that being allowed to give our whole attention to some undemanding, insignificant actuality can be refreshing in the extreme.

So among the much vaunted thousands of channels — available once the cabling comes in — I would like to request, please, Marscam, a continuous pan of that red dust and rubble, that one horizon. Also JPLcam, just so I can keep up with those folks in the office. I’ll even watch the inevitable TimesSquareCam (when Disney gets into the act), though the old Times Square would have been preferable, at least on TV. I’d love Surfcam, too, not highlights of surfers shredding up Maverick’s or Backdoor, but just the waves the way they happen to be just now, and Dancecam, ordinary people dancing somewhere at that moment — because it’s always time to dance, somewhere.

Or just give me a live feed to a green riverbank, and delivered from my indolence by the empty promise of the tube, I’ll watch it all day long. Imagine, just grass and water in the changing weather — and no golf ball anywhere in the frame.

Jim Paul is a writer who lives in the Mission District of San Francisco. His books include "Catapult" and "Medieval in L.A."

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