When I grabbed the TV remote in my Las Vegas hotel room Wednesday night, I was surprised by how lightweight it was. A simple, sleek remote with the bare minimum buttons, it felt starkly different from my bulky Time Warner Cable-issued remote back in Los Angeles, littered with DVR options, a flurry of arrows and a hodgepodge of colors, most of which I don’t even use.
The minimalistic remote I’ve been using during my stay in Vegas is just a microcosmic example of hotel TV’s overall simplicity. Hotels feel, in a way, like the last frontier when it comes to truly basic television viewing experiences, given the endless packages and niche tiers and color-coordinated channel blocks in today’s era of TWC and Dish cable systems. And maybe it’s the recirculated casino air that’s warping my perspective, but I realized during this trip to Sin City that I actually like this TV viewing experience more than the one I’m immersed in at home.
Now, I will admit hotel television comes with its slew of frustrations, including glossy HD-capable TV sets that aren’t bestowed with high definition services (worst tease ever, and also optically painful during hangovers), or cheap, decrepit units that struggle to break through the onscreen fuzz (ironic to experience while in Gotham for the TV biz’s granddaddy of all money-flow events, the Upfronts).
But the meager lineup on most hotel TVs encourages a viewing behavior I rarely engage in anymore: channel surfing. With no massive, rainbow-colored channel guide to wrestle with, I find myself flipping through the two dozen or so stations, discovering cable nets like Bio that are buried deep in an unknown specialty tier back at home. I watch Conan O’Brien’s latenight talkshow for the first time, and realize I like it (and guest Russell Brand). I hop from NBC to TNT in fewer clicks than it takes to cancel a DVR recording on Time Warner Cable. I find a show I’m just a notch above indifferent towards, and fall asleep with the TV on for the first time in months.
It was this kind of channel surfing that led me to fall in love with television in the first place. It reminds me of when it was easy to head from one cable net to the next without marching through countless pay TV nets that I’m not subscribed to. This simpler TV experience allowed me to not only discover new networks with ease, but also new programming. I found quirky reality fare and syndicated comedy marathons, niche networks and oddball gameshows, all on my own — these shows weren’t promoted to me, I simply stumbled upon them and enjoyed. What’s more, no channels had cumbersome triple digit IDs.
“Put it on 67,” I’d say to my brother when MTV’s “Real World” would be on, or “Flip over to 56″ for “Law and Order” reruns.
I’m surprised I still remember the channel numbers from my teenage days, yet couldn’t tell you any of the numbers for my favorite cable nets on my uber-dense TWC package. I have hundreds upon hundreds of channels now, and I don’t know what many of them are. Maybe I’ve just grown lazy, but it does feel overwhelming at times. And, given the nature of my job, that overwhelming quality to my channel lineup casts a haze of guilt upon me as I chide myself: You should know more about these channels. Come on. You do this for a living.
Minimalism in TV viewing eventually hits its wall, much in the same way that staying in a hotel does. There comes a point where you miss having more choice — be it sports nets, Logo and more cable news, or a full-sized kitchen and all your toiletries — and eventually long for the complete setup you have back at home. But what I didn’t realize as I commuted out to the desert for a brief escape from Los Angeles was that I’d also be escaping from the mind numbing television experience I’ve gotten used to back at home (though the cable bill I can never escape).
It could be the room service I’ve been ordering, but TV feels more relaxing with this setup. And in an era where seemingly every exec on every panel is touting the importance of choice, I can’t help but hear in the back of my head as I flip channels with this unadorned remote, less really is more.