Digital TV: The Lowdown

Last spring, after years of slavish cable-dependency, I finally got fed up with TCI. With one short phone call, I canceled my extended service and pay channels, and if I could have gotten any reception without a hookup, I'd have gone completely cable-free.Part of my decision had to do with the company's high-handed attitude. But I would have put up with it, like everybody else, if the channels had given me what I wanted. It came down to this: For a fan of the arts, classic drama and off-Hollywood film, there was almost nothing to see. It was time to reroute my cash to Four Star Video Heaven.Months passed, and I was contented. Then I read about TCI's Digital Cable service, which became available last December. Among its 13 new channels were a few that might help to fill the artistic void. Could the vast wasteland suddenly blossom with cultural possibilities? Within seconds, I abandoned virtuous abstinence and made another call.The cable guys came and put in a new line, using an existing phone jack (this needs to be within 15 feet of the set), and showed me how to use the nifty new remote, which lets you read program schedules onscreen up to a week in advance and preset your favorite channels. After checking the listings, I focused on these four networks:BBC America: To a person who plans her life around British programming on PBS, this seemed like a one-way ticket to tele-bliss. So far, it's been a disappointing trip. Until March 29, the same four programs rotated endlessly: the historical spoof "Blackadder"; the English version of "The Antiques Roadshow"; the engaging dramedy "Ballykissangel" (currently running on WHA-TV); and "The History of British Art." Now the offerings have expanded, but the fact that most of the programming already appeared long ago on public TV adds to my chagrin.The Romance Channel: 'scuse me, that's the "RO-mance Channel." (Is the head office in Texas?) Lifetime's rival chick channel claims to have solved that age-old dilemma: Obviously, what women want is hetero luuuhve, 24 hours a day (not counting the considerable time devoted to "paid programming"). There are some good movies and made-for-TV dramas here, but you have to wade thigh-deep in steaming syrup to get to them. Guilty pleasures include miniseries like Rich Man, Poor Man, period drama from the good old BBC (Mansfield Park) and some three-star movies (The Girl with Green Eyes, Separate Tables), which are enjoyable as long as you ignore the perpetual heart-and-arrow logo on the screen.Bravo: Along with movies, this channel runs good profiles, documentaries, pithy arts news rather than E!-style gossip, and original interviews. It's brought me out of my usual Brit-orbit to a wider universe of cultural awareness: Russia's Kirov ballet company, Ireland's rock bands, France's Cirque du Soleil. The films are generally well-chosen, but here's the rub: If you try to watch semi-racy fare like Riff-Raff or The Fox, you will be confronted with the dread words, "the following program has been edited for television." I expect this kind of paternalism from Turner Classic Movies, but not from "The Film and Arts Network" (their description). Could the sponsors -- including Buick and Texaco -- have something to do with this churlishness?The Independent Film Channel: This is the purest experience of movie-watching I've had on the tube in a long time. No commercials, no ugly, insistent logo hanging out on the screen like the video equivalent of a carnival barker, and no editing for television. Here, finally, is programming that shows respect for cinema, artists and audiences. Classic movies like Death in Venice rub shoulders with more recent efforts like Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser and Ay, Carmela! Not everything on the Independent Film Channel is a masterpiece; many auteurs have made aimless, self-indulgent films, and those (Withnail and I, Johnny Got His Gun) are represented here. But at least you feel sure that the original ambitions were high; IFC on a bad day is way better than TNT on its best. PBS and Four Star still have my undying love, but this channel is definitely worth the $13.30 per month.

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