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.
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.
See Scott Gillette's
latest: The Demise of the National Council for A