Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.

I recently became the owner of a new television, making the indulgent decision to replace my aging but perfectly adequate set with a cutting-edge 4K OLED Smart TV. I second guessed myself on this move more than once, but as I put the new set through its paces, any possible regrets started to melt away quickly.

I marveled at streaming movies and shows in 4K ultra HD. I gleefully jumped into next generation gaming, with even old video games on my shelf seeing an immediate boost in performance and visual polish. And I’m delighted to have all my apps — YouTube, HBO Max, and more — just one quick and easy click away, no ancillary boxes or dongles required.

But among these expected pleasures, my favorite feature of the new TV ended up being something I never saw coming — and you might not either.

Ever the cord-cutter, one of the final things I did to set up my bleeding-edge TV is go to the effort of connecting my old-school rabbit ears. I program my local channels, pulling in a couple dozen of the usual suspects. I click through the lineup to take stock of signal strength, and when I get to the end of the line, something unexpected happens.

Beyond the Antenna, a Hidden Oasis

Instead of looping back to the start — public television on channel 2 — I exit the familiar realm of over-the-air channels and automatically enter a new frontier of internet channels. I’m a savvy enough guy to know of this space, the so-called world of OTT or over-the-top programming (delivered in my case via services like PlutoTV and Xumo). But this was my first time experiencing it firsthand, or giving it any due consideration, really.

I cannot understate how quickly I became enchanted by this place, this hidden oasis of the media landscape, this place of innumerable treasures and curiosities.

Through the archaic act of simply pressing the channel up button on my TV remote, I can watch broadcast or cable news, or local news broadcasts from dozens of cities across the country. I can watch cooking shows or international serials, from Korea, Mexico and beyond. Mid-tier movies and cult classics from one or many decades past are in ready supply. There are entire channels dedicated to the Beverly Hillbillies, Bob Ross, and Beavis and Butthead, among hundreds of other things.

I catch snippets of old after-school cartoons that I had totally wiped from my memory, but which come rushing back to my mind at the slightest provocation. Arthur is a superstar whose brand crosses generations, and he too has a channel here, but do you, by chance, remember this guy?

As a self-styled geriatric millennial, I would be remiss if I did not mention that here you will also find various versions of MTV, including some playing trashy reality and dating shows as well as others still spinning music videos from today and generations past.

Familiar Comforts, But Not Just Nostalgia

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this odd assemblage of internet channels is what has brought me the most joy in these early days of my new entertainment setup. 

That may be nostalgia talking, an inescapable part of my generational disposition, as I fondly remember teenage afternoons spent channel surfing between episodes of Total Request Live and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Beyond the rose-colored glasses, this mix of content viewed through today’s eyes may seem like downright trash to most, the leftovers that no other streaming service could bother with acquiring, bargain bin odds-and-ends of little lasting value.

But there’s a magic here that I can’t escape, an antidote to a world of endless on-demand content. As I’ve written in the past, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to submit to yet another evening of clicking through Netflix, Hulu, and all the rest trying to decide what to watch. Keeping up with buzzy shows and movies can feel more like work than entertainment.

Here, in marrying the expansive content curation of streaming with the user interface of old-school TV, a new paradigm is offered.

One night I am reveling in old episodes of South Park or the film “Valley Girl,” featuring a young Nicholas Cage. The next I’m bemused by Japanese anime from the 1980s wondering how they might be received in today’s global zeitgeist. All of these are things I am certain I’d rarely find time or space for if filtered through the algorithms and watchlists of on-demand viewing.

There’s serendipity and discovery here. There are countless cultural artifacts to be puzzled over. It’s at times mysterious and mischievous, transgressive even, begging questions of how certain things were permitted to so easily reach your TV in this fashion, as with a lurid 1990s Western film called “Hard Bounty.”

Should you think that it’s all old news here, there are also channels from popular brands, whether it’s studio shows or documentaries from big media and entertainment companies or clips from independent video game streamers and top-rated podcasters. In this emergent space, there is a rush to capture what’s next too. And why wouldn’t there be — data shows more than 50 million people use PlutoTV each month, and the numbers are only going up.

This makes for a revelatory sensation, a sort of time travel via the big screen. I am wrapped up in the comfortable embrace of the past, yet it also feels like I am seeing the future. It does not seem farfetched to imagine that there may come a day when linear television channels reign supreme once more — particularly given how often people reach for easy, familiar, background entertainment on their spendy streaming platforms. And after all, what is TikTok’s core feedback loop but channel surfing by any other name?

But it begs a question too, one with particular relevance for rural viewers: could a world where internet channels reign supreme retain the universal access of television as we know it, or will it only replicate some of the worst features of the digital era in its current form?

Old Lessons at the Vanguard of Something New

One’s ability to tap into these internet channels is reliant upon having a strong and stable internet connection, naturally. So those who are not connected or lack sufficient speeds need not apply. 

That’s a far cry from the damn near universal access achieved by earlier modes of television delivery, from broadcast to cable and satellite. With a good antenna and a little ingenuity, almost anyone anywhere in the country can be connected to the nightly news or the newest episode of Saturday Night Live. On a fundamental level, that remains much more of a marvel than so many of the newer bells and whistles of modern tech. 

For now, broadcast and pay-TV remain the first priority for most major content providers, so this notable difference in access is not yet an urgent concern. But it’s not inconceivable, with continuing adoption of smart internet-connected TVs, that there might arrive a time when digital channels become more of the priority, with new programs premiering simultaneously or even exclusively in that format. That’s an ugly prospect if we don’t get everyone connected and up-to-speed. 

As it’s gone with other areas of public policy, it’s not hard to imagine the egalitarian norms of earlier media policy melting away, in favor of the privileged and the elite. 

Because beyond access, there is also the question of who controls the “platform” that is internet TV. Currently, it’s a bit of a free-for-all among competing private enterprises — from Roku to Pluto and more. We can predict where that road leads with some confidence, based on where we are now. Like social media before it, I foresee aggressive data collection, targeted advertising, and an influx of content that prioritizes profit over public good. And I expect many communities, geographic and demographic, will continue to be overlooked. In other words, the seeds are sown for another fractious and surveillant content-churning hellscape.  

Alternatively, we could take the lessons we’ve learned and make something better, using internet TV to fashion a new commons. What if we took the best parts of the “public access” tradition of broadcast TV and married them with the boundless potential of internet channels? If I can watch the local news in Denver, Pittsburgh or dozens of other large markets from my home in Minnesota, why not carve out a space for rural regions and small-towns to deliver newscasts of their own via this format as well? 

As evidenced by successful streamers and video personalities on YouTube and Twitch, the bar for entry is lower than ever — no professional studios and satellite delivery systems required. However, when it comes to powerful, far-reaching media platforms, the decisions we make are important. Protocols, principles, policies, and public investment are required to facilitate a system that works. We should be striving toward those that will give rural people an opportunity to participate and contribute to the greater good, along with everyone else. 

Pie-in-the-sky as this all may seem right now, it’s fun, this feeling of at once turning back the clock and being at the vanguard of something new. And it all came to me while channel surfing. 

If you find yourself with a new Smart TV, or you simply never bothered fully exploring the features of the one you have, I encourage you to join me here in this place. We ought not overlook this odd new frontier and what it might teach us about what’s next.

This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.

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