The Checkout, Game of Thrones, Inspector George Gently, Gardening Australia, QI,
Have you been watching The Checkout? If not, you can catch up on ABC’s Iview online. It’s well worth a look as it explores the manifold traps set for the unwary consumer. It is sobering to reflect that the perpetrators of a series of deceptions and extortions are highly respected corporate entities, whether it be telephone companies gouging users with deliberately confusing contracts or retailers with loyalty cards that scoop up our personal (sometimes extremely personal, if that retailer is a pharmacy) info and use it in marketing or even sell it on to third parties. After watching The Checkout, you may want to start using cash, especially since the marketing expert brought in by the producers informed us that using plastic to pay doesn’t only create a record of our buying patterns, but also quite simply encourages us to spend more. The way that our emotions, beliefs and reactions are manipulated by the teams of marketing psychologists working for those who want our money, is reminiscent to me of C.S. Lewis’ grimly funny Screwtape Letters, in which an old and experienced demon instructs a younger one in the arts of temptation and the ways of perdition.
Who would have thought that a project produced by the irreverent Chas Licciardello could have evoked such reflections? The Checkout is a welcome contribution from the same people who brought us The Chaser, the sometimes scandalous satire program that for a couple of years in the early to mid Noughties kept politicians fuming (no bad thing to do, one might think). After the bonhomie and gentlemen’s club atmosphere of such civilised (and very worthy) programs such as Q&A one yearns for a bit more vim and vigour in our current affairs commentary. The Checkout retains some of the verve and righteous anger of The Chaser, indeed could almost be said to be knocking over a few of the moneychangers’ tables in what passes for today’s secular temples, the premises (both physical and philosophical) of revered corporations. Not for nothing have the excesses of unrestrained ultra-libertarian capitalism been condemned by popes in recent times; it is one of the less publicised ways that the church has shown itself to be a lonely voice for the enlightened society, and the just management of economies.
If popular culture’s best application is the education and enlightenment of all who take part in it, then The Checkout certainly scores well. There are other programs too, that instruct in different ways, not simply in their content but in the ethical arguments they provoke over the method by which they are seen. Season Three of HBO’s Game Of Thrones is currently screening on cable and can be subscribed to legally through Itunes for all who for whatever reason choose not to have cable. The most commonly cited objection to the program is that it is full of gratuitous sex and violence. That can be argued, for the program is strong meat for anyone who cannot remember I Claudius which in the mid to late 1970s also showed full frontal nudity, confronting sex scenes and appalling violence. GOT is as horrifically violent as The Sopranos or The Wire, as sexually explicit as I Claudius and its language is as profane as any modern police procedural movie. One could argue perhaps that anything you see on GOT you will also see in a production of Titus Andronicus or The Revenger’s Tragedy. Greek tragedies (and comedies) dealt with obscenity and violence by alluding to them rather than enacting them. Today our entertainments enact as much as they allude. It is the mindset that we bring to such matters that counts: any secondary school student will have seen far more outrageous behaviours depicted than ever we baby-boomers and Gen X-ers did. The discussions about such matters are far from simple and must continue.
But there is another moral matter surrounding GOT, and it is not about its content, although indeed it is the content that has caused the popularity that has given rise to a mass consumer rebellion that may one day perhaps inspire the producers of The Checkout to comment. That Game of Thrones is far and away the most commonly pirated program seems not to have affected its legal popularity (and thus its earnings). Its ratings and legal download sales are more than healthy: it is the third most-watched show on HBO. All of which creates some ethical conundrums, particularly here in Australia: many illegal downloaders (if you know a male teenager it is more than likely you already know one of them) argue that they only download because networks and TV companies refuse to make episodes of popular programs available at the same time as they are seen in the US (or UK for that matter).
Australians have been named as among the world’s most prolific pirates, but there are those who argue extenuating circumstances. The first is that there is no known rational explanation for the delays in screening overseas programs here. The very fact that HBO is now tackling piracy by making the programs available earlier on Itunes is proof that there were no technical reasons involved. Downloaders argue that Australians were simply ignored because we are a small market.
In the past this led to some reprehensible practices by Australian TV networks in regard to popular series, practices that some argue partly led to the prevalence of illegal downloading now. The Nine Network was sometimes outrageous in its contempt for viewers. Way back in the days of the VCR, anyone who in pre-broadband days tried to watch The Sopranos or The West Wing on TV found themselves treated with cynical disregard. Episodes were frequently cut to fit more ads in the time allotted, sometimes making plots incomprehensible; only when talking to friends who had watched overseas did the extent of such cultural butchery become apparent.
But for me the worst thing that Nine used to do in these iconic series was to show them out of order, as though there were no reason at all to respect the program’s makers or their own viewers experience of the series’ story arc. Treating us in this way, the networks made it apparent that viewers were no more than cash-cows to be served up to advertisers. It became common to set one’s VCR to record them, for in addition to cutting and shuffling the episodes, they were often screened well after midnight, which brought its own issues. Not only was it impossible to view them if one worked in a day job, but the content of the commercials then became grossly offensive.
It became more insulting for the likes of this reviewer when watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the commercials were deemed to be for an audience of salacious young males: sex chat lines, even massage parlours were advertised.
In this climate, a culture of watching in one’s own good time and with the ability to skip ads became understandably prevalent. When the internet made it possible to download any program, downloading did not suddenly appear in a moral vacuum, where innocent and well-meaning networks were suddenly betrayed by their ungrateful and immoral viewers. Long-abused, Australia’s viewers wanted control of when and how they watched their chosen programs.
For the record, your reviewer watches and reviews only legally downloaded episodes. But at what point does the consumer decide they have had enough? For those of us who remember totally free TV, interspersed with some ads during which we could go and make a cuppa, it seems that there is a great deal of hostility on both sides of the argument. At times like this it is refreshing to go to Iview and catch up with something like QI, the splendid and soft-hearted Inspector George Gently or Gardening Australia. All of which are bastions of kindness, sanity and good humour, things that are always welcome and in too-short supply.
Juliette Hughes is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.