When I read about Lost, it sounded like exactly the kind of show I’d love. I didn’t watch it. To understand why, we need to look at The X Files.

At some point during the first few seasons of X Files, the writers decided that it would be good for the show if there was an overall story arc involving the alleged extraterrestrial invaders. Initially, they were right. However, shortly after the movie a problem became apparent: the network was never going to allow them to solve the mystery.

Things quickly became ridiculous. The need to keep adding new bits of plot twist to an already confused backstory quickly turned the UFO thread into an unintelligible mess of black liquid, killer agents, swarms of bees, body implants, and superintelligent children.

Then in a three-part episode, in what was originally intended to be the final season (Season 7), Mulder and Scully located wreckage of an alien spaceship, washed ashore on a beach in West Africa. You might have thought that they’d take photographs, get teams of scientists in, and get some answers; but the network’s desire for a neverending plot meant that the following week everything went back to normal—or rather, to a guy with a mysterious hunger for human brains—and the proof of alien existence was casually left on the beach.

At that point, I knew the shark was most definitely jumped. I watched for a while longer, but when Season 8 ended with Scully having her child, that was enough closure for me, and with a sense of relief I stopped watching.

Something very similar happened with Earth: Final Conflict. Season 3 had a multi-part story that turned out to have absolutely zero to do with the ongoing plot; when they followed that with a clip show, I realized the series was being shamelessly padded out to fill time, and I stopped watching.

So when I read the scenario for Lost, I immediately suspected that it would go the same way—that it would start promisingly, but that the network’s demands for a show that never ends would quickly mean that the writers would be forced to jerk the audience around. I figured if I turned out to be wrong, and there was a satisfactory resolution after 2 or 3 seasons, I’d hear about it and could rent the DVDs.

An added disincentive to watching Lost was that it was on one of the major networks. That meant if it was any good, it would almost certainly be killed part-way through a season. It amazes me that ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX will kill a show that doesn’t get mass-market audiences, even if there are complete, paid-for episodes sitting on the shelf. After seeing it happen to Stressed Eric and The New Fantasy Island (much underrated), I had vowed never to watch anything on a major network until it had made it to the end of season 1. If they didn’t kill it, then I’d watch the reruns.

So I’m not surprised to read that Lost is now hemorrhaging viewers as the writers overload it with red herrings. If you’re addicted to the show then I feel sorry for you, because I doubt you’ll ever get a satisfactory ending. Probably once the audience figures drop below a certain level, ABC will kill it mid-season; but in the mean time, they won’t allow any key questions to be answered, because they want to keep their options open. End result: lousy stories.

It’s clearly not impossible to have a series with a long story arc on US television. Babylon 5 managed it (though not without problems), and Star Trek: Deep Space 9 did too. But Lost is more typical: shows either die before everything (or anything) can be resolved satisfactorily (Firefly, Harsh Realm, American Gothic), or they are padded out with endless sub-plots that go nowhere until everyone turns off in disgust (X-Files).

So, is there a way to save future TV mysteries? Yes, but it might hurt: It’s vitally important that you all stop watching Lost, right now. Show ’em they can’t just jerk you around endlessly.

The controversy over à la carte cable and satellite programming keeps resurfacing. The basic problem is that cable prices keep rising, to the point where the basic level of digital cable is over $50 a month in many places. Prices have risen 40% in the last decade.

(As an aside, I’m amazed at the whiners in the UK who complain about paying £126.50 a year for a TV license that gets them the best premium programming from the US, as well as UK TV. I pay $588 a year to get a similar selection.)

Viewers find it galling to pay for a hundred channels when there are only a handful they watch on a regular basis. Hence there has been a campaign to get the FCC to rule that cable and satellite providers must offer the option of à la carte programming, where you can choose to subscribe to only the channels you actually want.

The cable and satellite companies don’t want to see that happen, as it would eat into their fat profits. Since the same companies own a lot of the mainstream media outlets, I’m constantly seeing astroturf coverage explaining why à la carte programming is impossible, would make your cable bills skyrocket, is tantamount to Communism, and so on.

This is my attempt to cut through a lot of the common bullshit spouted on the subject.

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We’re right in the middle of the city. I discovered a while back that all I had to do was use unshielded speaker wire and I’d pick up AM radio. I checked, and all the TV transmitters are in a cluster less than 10 miles away from us. So, this afternoon while we were out shopping for Christmas meal ingredients, I picked up an $8 UHF loop antenna, plugged it in, put it on the shelf above the TV, and lo—we can get 10 channels of digital TV.

While there’s nothing on ABC, CBS or NBC that I’m going to want to watch, HD or not, this does now mean we can get PBS in HD—at the cost of actually having to watch the programs when they’re on, because the TiVo is SD only.

This evening we watched a program about revolutionary war re-enactors in Massachusetts. I’d always felt like I ought to see the re-enactments, but there was just no way I was going to get out of bed at 5am on a cold spring morning and get the bus out to Lexington.

The whole re-enactment thing seems to be even more bizarre than the SCA. It’s all elaborately scripted—one man was seen being turned down permission to use the word ‘musket’ instead of ‘gun’ in his one line of script. The attention to detail in costume and equipment is painstaking; another man talked about how he ordered the exact correct kind of linen for his uniform, now only available from Russia. And of course, authentic weapons are used too.

But then after all that work, the camera caught them in costume reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve never studied US history, but even I know that the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t written until a century after the War of Independence. They might as well have gone into battle singing Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” for all the authenticity they had at that point. Worse, they didn’t even recite the original pledge; they recited the bastardized post-1950s version.

I notice there are a few Vietnam War re-enactment groups. Most seem to be outside the USA so far. I wonder how long it’ll be before we have Iraq war re-enactment groups? “History enthusiast sought. Must have own attack dog. Bring car battery and jump leads.”

Choice statistics from last week’s CBS poll of the average American:

  • 61% disapprove of Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq.
  • 65% believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.
  • 81% think the torture at Abu Ghraib was unjustified.
  • 51% think the Pentagon tried to cover it up.
  • 20% think the Bush administration has increased jobs, 49% think they’ve decreased jobs.

There’s more in this week’s poll:

  • 80% thought Bush was either “hiding something” or “mostly lying” in his statements on Iraq.
  • 55% think the war in Iraq has created more anti-American terrorists.
  • Only 13% think America is safer as a result of the war.

And rounding off a fairly solid victory for reality, only 29% of people have a favorable opinion of John Kerry.

Guardian today:

A new poll suggested yesterday that Ralph Nader’s independent presidential bid represented a serious threat to the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry.

The New York Times and CBS News poll revealed a tight two-man race for the White House between President George Bush and Mr Kerry. Mr Bush had a narrow lead of 46% over Mr Kerry’s 43% — within the poll’s margin of error.

But when Americans were asked about a three-man race including Mr Nader, the 70-year-old consumer activist attracted 7% support, mostly at the expense of the Democrat. In that contest, Mr Bush led Mr Kerry by 46% to 38%.

Mr Nader’s poll ratings are higher than at this point in the 2000 election. […]

Yesterday’s New York Times/CBS poll made bleak reading for the senator for Massachusetts for other reasons. […] Fifty-seven per cent said “most of the time he says what he thinks people want to hear”, while only a third thought he stayed true to his beliefs.

So there we have it. The fact that Kerry is a lying two-faced weasel is so painfully obvious that the voters have already worked it out, and he’s doing even worse than Al Gore. He’s so awful that people would rather vote for Ralph Nader’s pointless ego-trip than support Kerry. The Democrats have chosen self-destruction once again; get ready for four more years of Bush.