Speed dating with Stan

Photo: Paul Townsend https://flic.kr/p/f9o9TQ

Sometime in December, I signed up for a one-month free trial with a streaming service, just to see how it measured up. A week later I was telling a young friend, “I’ve been speed dating Stan.”

He gave me that WTF look 30-somethings sometimes give their elders: “It’s called binge-watching, Dude.”

And so it is. If you succumb to the marvels of being able to stream TV drama to your mobile phone, iPad, laptop and now even to your big screen TV, you can watch anything, anytime, anywhere.

I rather quickly got caught up in the misadventures of one Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who turns to making and dealing methamphetamine as a way of funding chemo for his newly diagnosed lung cancer.

An implausible premise, maybe, but that peerless actor Brian Cranston, as Walter, pulls it off, in each and every improbable episode. His dunderhead brother-in-law Hank, who works for the Drug Enforcement Administration, continues not to see the forest for the trees.

Binge-watching is an unhealthy past-time, though, earbuds in, snuggling into your bed at 7.30pm ready to watch back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones, House of Cards or Breaking Bad. There is the potential to fragment the family unit more than ever before. Mum’s in the lounge watching catch-up TV episodes of Gardening Australia. Teenage son is downstairs watching who knows what, teenage daughter is Skyping her friends who are backpacking around Europe; Dad’s got his headphones on watching Trapped on his smart phone and Little Dan is playing X-Box in the rumpus room. It’s a long way from the nuclear family enjoying My Three Sons, The Munsters or Mr Ed on a black and white TV.

I rarely watch more than two episodes of Breaking Bad in a night and not every night, but I’m half-way through season two already.

“Have you got to the bath scene yet?” my son asked. Yes I had. And it confirmed the wisdom of my decision to watch this dark comedy alone, as She Who Has an Aversion to TV Violence would have puked.

Oops, I think that’s what they call a ‘spoiler’ in streaming TV circles. Any day now someone will form a covers band and call it The Bath Scene from Breaking Bad.*

Call me a late adaptor, but what drove me to engage with streaming TV was the appallingly sparse fare offered by free-to-air TV in December/January.

Stan’s free trial period expired fairly quickly. I knew this when $10 was deducted from my credit card. Oh sure, I knew they would do this unless I told them not to – but they could have emailed, sent a text?

“Dude, we see you’re a fan of Breaking Bad! Where’s our money, Yo!”

Streaming services offer great value to people who like watching a TV series from beginning to end. The other investment I made, in what amounts to creating in-house entertainment in a time devoid of quality TV programming, was to purchase Google’s Chromecast device. Apple, Amazon and others have their own version of a device which enables you to ‘cast’ a TV programme from your phone or iPad to the big screen at home. These gadgets are inexpensive for what they offer. But most households will have to buy a Wi-Fi extender to ensure the programmes stream and play without buffering or crashing.

If this is old technology, what’s next?

This is already old technology as most “Smart TVs” made after 2014 (obviously not ours), come with Stan and Netflix built-in. So with the variety of ways one can seek out TV content that is not free-to-air (and I have not even mentioned Torrens), commercial TV is seriously up against it. As an extra enticement, most streaming services, unlike Pay TV, can be watched ad free.

Harold Mitchell, chairman of Free TV Australia, launched a campaign in October 2016 lauding the industry’s 60 years of achievements, its 15 million audience reach, stressing how badly Australia needs free TV.

In AdNews, Mitchell defended free to air television, saying it invests more than $1.5 billion in local content, employing 15,000 people.

He warned that commercial TV’s investment in (local) content is under threat from unregulated digital media companies,

 “Australian licence fees are about three and a half times greater than in the next highest market, which is Singapore, and more than 115 times greater than in the United States.”

At its best, free TV offers live events like cricket tests, rugby union, rugby league, AFL and soccer matches, golf tournaments, the Australian Open, the NRL Grand Final, the Olympics, Winter Olympics and, whether it’s your thing or not, 24/7 news.  No matter how generally awful the evening programming is in the summer, if something dramatic happens anywhere in the world, you can be sure the ABC, SBS, 7, 9 and 10 will be right across it, instantly.

Nevertheless, if not for the Australian Open (tennis) or perhaps the Cricket, there would no incentive to turn the TV on in January. There are repeats, repeats of repeats, vapid soapies; Kevin McCloud’s bespoke TV shows about people spending copious sums fixing up falling down buildings, the ubiquitous cooking competitions, and a puzzling show where a man and a woman loll about on a bed in their underwear. I gather there is supposed to be ‘chemistry’. Walter White would give them an F.

A day to mourn dispossession & dispersal

Last night I flicked through TV news to see how Australia Day was portrayed. It was as you might imagine. Flags and more flags, sausages on the barbie, gumboot-throwing competitions, families at the beach, cars with flags fluttering from their windows. Some channels covered the protests in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, the latter ‘erupting in violence’ as one person allegedly set fire to a flag. Tens of thousands gathered in capital cities, all calling for a change of date. Many indigenous people call it “Invasion Day” – the anniversary of the British First Fleet arriving in Australia.

Fremantle Council, despite bowing to pressure from Canberra to hold Citizenship ceremonies, has become a poster child for the #changethedate movement. Council plans to hold a “culturally inclusive” celebration on Saturday (despite WA Premier Barnett urging Councillors to “pull their heads in”.)

Overwhelmed by jingoism, we engaged the ‘casting’ device, which not only allows you to watch Stan or Netflix, but also catch up on ABC, SBS and commercial station programmes. So far we have watched Outback ER, an ABC reality TV doco set in Broken Hill. What does happen when you have a heart attack and you are 500 kms away from cardiac specialists?

We watched Concussion on Stan last night. At $10 a month and no advertising, Stan is a no-brainer option for a media consumer. It is dearer than free TV, certainly, but the options are seemingly limitless.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably have to sign up for Netflix as well, as I see there is a fourth (and maybe even a fifth) season of House of Cards in the wings. I figure I owe Netflix money as I watched all three series of House of Cards last year during my one-month trial (39 episodes).

Now that’s what I call speed dating!

*Cultural reference to a 1990s Melbourne band called The Shower Scene from Psycho.


Our Australian day of shame

Convict Road
Devine’s Hill convict road sculpture photo by Laurel Wilson

We were on the road somewhere outside Sydney when a hotted-up Mazda zoomed up next to us at the lights, twin cams throbbing. From each rear window protruded an Australian flag, fluttering like when you accidently shut your frock in the door. We sat there, waiting for the green, making cynical old fart, iconoclastic noises about faux patriotism, Bogans and drivers who just cannot sit behind a caravan.

Meanwhile, Australia Day has come and gone; Shane Howard got a gong and used the occasion to highlight the iniquities and injustices of this colonised land. As an accidental Australian (twice emigrated) I hesitate to write anything acerbic about this country, my adopted home. I did not go to school here, so even though I studied Australian history at university and watch Better Homes and Gardens, there are gaps in my education through which you could drive a Holden Ute laden with slabs of beer. But I seize every opportunity to learn more, to lift the rug and look under it for First Nation stories. As chance would have it, we stumbled across two relics of our colonial past while on a circuitous road trip to the Illawarra Folk Festival and back via Tamworth. The first was the remains of a convict-built, 43-kilometre road near Wisemans Crossing in New South Wales.

Working on the chain, gang

The Great North Road was built by convict labour between 1826 and 1834 to provide a freight route from Sydney to the Hunter Valley. From Wisemans Crossing (free ferry service, thanks to the NSW government), you can drive up the road a piece, park and walk your way up Devine’s Hill. It was a hot day, but we persevered, marvelling at the 19th century engineering ingenuity and the harsh life lived by convicts. As we read about the convicts who were sentenced to serve time on ‘Iron Gangs’ to build roads, our aching calf muscles seemed a mere trifle. British convicts who had committed offences in Australia would often be sentenced to work in chain gangs, their legs in shackles. Once they had served their sentences, the shackles were removed and they were transferred to a Road Party.

Easier to work without shackles, but the work was still hard yacker, chiselling 250kg blocks out of the sandstone hills and building buttresses and retaining walls.

The chain gangs used hammer and chisels to make blocks or they bored holes in the sandstone using jumper bars and sledgehammers. The engineers then placed explosives in the holes and sliced large blocks from the hills above. There are tributes to the convicts along the 1.8 km Devine’s Hill walk which tell of the harsh terms of crime and punishment in those times, often being incarcerated for lengthy periods for what we would see as trivial offences.

Stumbling across the First Fleet

Later, we were heading for Nundle, a small town 60 kms from Tamworth, around which something of a fringe country music festival has developed. On the way, we stopped at Wallabadah, which hosts Australia’s only memorial to the First Fleet, which arrived in Port Jackson on January 26, 1788.

The personal mission of stonemason Ray Collins, the First Fleet Memorial is a small park festooned with stone tablets, listing the names of every person who travelled on the 11 ships sailing from Britain. Collins, whose interest in the project was driven by discovering his own convict heritage, has since included a tribute to the second fleet.

First Fleet Memorial
First Fleet Memorial at Wallabadah photo by Bob Wilson

This is more of a pilgrimage site than a tourist attraction. Most travellers find it by accident, stopping at the public facilities which adjoin the memorial. It was strangely moving though, walking around the gardens reading the names of this country’s first European ancestors, who thought Australia was unpopulated (Terra Nullius).

Terra Incognito might have been a more apt term, meaning unknown lands which had not yet been explored. The original inhabitants were there, though seldom seen. Early explorers made ship’s log entries about seeing plumes of smoke, from fires deliberately lit by Aborigines as a means of caring for and regenerating an arid land.

What we were not taught

As most Australians are now aware, even if they were not taught the history at school, the original inhabitants pre-dated the first fleet by at least 40,000 years. Australia Day as we celebrate it now, with thong-throwing competitions, colonial re-enactments and cockroach racing, is grossly insulting to the First Nations people, the Aborigines. I could go on, but you all know the stories of land-grabbing, exploitation, the spread of (European) diseases, genocide and our often misguided removal of children from their families.

There was the grand gesture, the Stolen Generation apology in 2008 by former PM Kevin Rudd. Apology aside, nothing can make that right. All we Anglo-Saxon Australians can do is to make symbolic gestures, like outspoken songwriter Paddy McHugh did at The Dag (a sheep station converted into a wedding reception and conference centre and alt-country music venue).

He began his set by acknowledging the original owners of the land and then, the current owner. We could all do this when the occasion arises, but so few of us do.

Meanwhile on Tuesday

On Australia Day we went on a vintage train excursion from Warwick to Nobby, along with 90 other people, many of them sporting Australia Day paraphernalia and greeting friends with “Happy Australia Day”. Excuse me, but this country’s blood-soaked history is nothing to be happy about. As indigenous journalist Stan Grant said, in a stirring speech which has been seen around the world, Aborigines were “marooned on the tides of history to the fringes of Australian society”.

Still, is there really any harm in tourists using a public holiday to spend some money keeping the smoky smell of our colonial days alive? The Nobby craft shop, run by local volunteers, did solid trade, as did Rudd’s Pub, named not for a twice-ex Prime Minister, but the author Steele Rudd, of the Dad and Dave stories about sheep shearing and dances down the hall on a Saturday night, damper and billy tea.

It is a long way removed from Carnarvon Gorge and its ancient painted rock walls. Songwriter Garry Koehler’s song The Gallery was inspired, he tells me, by the painted hands, which to him appeared to be reaching out; imploring, “Help – can you fix this mess?” Koehler told his audience in Tamworth last week that the rock carvings at Carnarvon date back 30,000 years.

“And we’ve been here only 200 years and stuffed it up.”

Well, 228 years if you want to be picky, but there has not been much to write home about for Australia’s aborigines since 1988. Indigenous musicians and kindred spirits had plenty to say though, notably Kev Carmody and Archie Roach, Yothu Yindi, also Shane Howard and Neil Murray, to name a few.

You’ll have your own views on Australia Day, as do my 298 Facebook ‘friends’, and some of them have far more strident things to say.

She Who Is Finally Mentioned favours calling January 26 “Survival Day”. It’s less negative than Invasion Day and many of this country’s 669,900 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people already call it just that.

They have survived, despite everything.