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The Unbearable Lightness of Television

By Scott D. Gillette
sgillette@politicalusa.com

3/23/2001

 

Despite the advent of the computer, the television remains the ubiquitous medium in our society. I think it would be difficult to understand American culture without watching television. But I have been without it where I dwell for almost a year, (although since then Iíve watched it in bars, friendís houses, motels, etcÖ and Iím still able to rent movies, so Iím not off the grid.) While I miss sports most of all, I canít say that Iíve been worse off for not having television. More about that anon.

Itís definitely true that television has gotten much better since the advent of cable. From its birth until the 1970s, television allowed viewers no more than four choices, and most of those choices were network fare designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Now there are, what, 80 channels available? You can get sports galore, childrenís programming all day, then classic TV on Nick at Nite, about 5 movies on at one time, the Outdoor Life Network, the History Channel (which should be named the Hitler channel because thatís whatís on half the time), the weather, a MTV channel that doesnít show anything except teeny-bopper music for the large number of teenagers coming of age at this time, and on and on and on. And if you had DirecTV, well, youíd have to sit down for an hour just to figure out whatís on.

So thereís more choice, especially for political junkies. (Note that C-Span and C-Span 2 are provided as a service from the cable companies, who can proclaim their public virtue without having to worry about losing much of their audience.) Much of this choice is more of the same formulaic crap weíd find on the networks, but some of it is not, which is an improvement.

But even though the networks have lost about 50% of its audience, it still draws in the vast majority of viewers. The twentieth most watched show on the big four networks still draws twice as many viewers as wrestling, which is still the biggest draw on cable by a mile. The networks still rule the roost. Why? Because they give the people what they want: shows that are test-marketed and polished to death, and more often than not, shows that tend to be conventional and safe.

Friends is the quintessential example of this phenomenon. Although many people complain about its placement on the 8:00 p.m. time slot because of its sexual content, itís hardly a Roman orgy. In fact, the show is good-natured, with likable characters that have genuine concern for each other. Moreover, the show can be funny from time to time. But what I could never abide by how cutesy the show can be, all the more so as the writers are running out of dialogue.  Maybe itís just me, but if you take away the laugh track as the show declares is a funny moment, youíll see the characters are just being slightly amusing, and sometimes just being ridiculous or childish in an unfunny way. Maybe the characters are stuck in the dialogue and the constraints of the show, which forces them to be, well, two-dimensional. Theyíre so well rounded that they canít have any edges. 

I donít mean to pick on Friends, which is actually one of the better shows on TV. But thatís the point: if thatís almost as good as it gets, then the hell with the whole medium. I would rather live with the reality of my surroundings than in a la-la land where everything is sanitized to death. Glamorous nonsense is still nonsense.

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Now I donít want to act as if this critique is an indictment against people who watch the boob tube.  Indeed, my friends look at me funny when I tell them that television basically sucks you in and makes you a pacified slave. They say, ďYouíre getting on your serious kicks againÖdonít you just want to sit back and relax sometimes?Ē And TV lets you do that, I suppose: it is pleasurable because one can escape responsibilities and thoughts for a while. Moreover, I must point out that there is some quality shows on the tube: Frasier, the Sopranos, and so on. (Iíve always enjoyed BETís Def Comedy Jam as well.) Besides, itís not like everyone wants to read Dante or Solzhenitzyn as well.

But let me stress the following: not only does television fosters complacency, it encourages it as well. IT MAKES INDIVIDUALS PASSIVE, BY DEFINITION. And when anyone is in that state, great dreams can never be realized. You want to lose weight and get in shape?  Not only does TV want you to be a vegetable and watch more commercials, but theyíll show commercials that promote foods that taste real good and make any weight loss impossible? You want to think outside the box? TV will spoon-feed you the conventional wisdom, and the corporations that own the networks sure like the status quo. (Committed activists on the left and right, take note.) You want to save money for the future? Television generally opposes that kind of thinking, because they want you to be a participant in the consumer-driven culture from day one. You want to change the world bit by bit? Television depicts a world where the people on the screen are the ones that matter, and you are on the sideline. You want to reach your fullest potential? With TV, forget it. I could go on, but you get the point: the television business is not in it to see people excel.

Many people I know well and not so well seem perplexed by my decision not to have cable. ďWhat do you do with yourself?Ē Well, I read a lot. I jog enough so that I can run marathons, as I will again in April. Iím involved with some organizations that Iíve written about in the past, which I derive satisfaction from and may lead to opportunities in the future I could only dream about right now. I have conversations with others that arenít possible when the TV is on. Weaning yourself from TV is never easy, and I donít think itís wrong if you donít. But you may find that it may provide more benefits than one would expect at first.

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