It is categorically impossible to discuss the subject of television consumption without sounding like a dick.
Let’s have that understood from the start.
Even the gentlest of opinions can come off sounding like arrogant pronouncements. Even the most sensitive framing can strike some people as if it were the foaming screed from a self-righteous vegetarian or fitness enthusiast or Biblical literalist: holier than thou.
So let’s you and I be understood on this and related points now, at the outset, and spare ourselves confusion or accusations later on. 1) I’m really not as much of a dick as talking about television might make me seem; and 2) it is not my contention that I am particularly holier than anyone. Not even you. Thou. Whatever.
With that said, our subject today is the ongoing consumption of television as a lifestyle choice. That is, weighing the value of frequent and regular television watching rather than the value of any particular piece of specific programming. This is about flow, not show.
Our exploration of such will be somewhat meandering but roughly sectioned as follows: history and definitions of the medium, my rationale for rejecting the medium, and finally the personal and social consequences of that rejection.
If that sounds too dry and academic for your reading tastes, please consider that I promise to throw in a few fart jokes here and there to keep things lively.
Who is a Television?
When this subject is raised certain questions auto-beget. What exactly is television, in an era of platform-shifted high-budget entertainment media? What distinguishes episodic high-definition network programming from a multi-installment high-definition cinema franchise?
An historical retrospective may shed some light.
Ancient televisions were little more than men with lyres slinging topical couplets. Changing the channel was effected by vocal complaint or, in severe circumstances, by the lobbing of spoiled vegetables. The variety in audience member attention spans was serviced by breaking up larger and more complex narrative arcs – say, concerning an epic war or a popular figure’s descent to the underworld – with brief comedic episodes rehashing the familiar day to day life of common folks (known as genre passages). Thus at the outset we have two divergent forms of entertainment nestled uncomfortably together: the grand drama and the sit-com.
The first commercial breaks and public service announcements were interludes for the flattering of patrons or for forelock-tugging at the local royal concern with an occasional imploration to tips from “viewers like you” before resuming the telling.
The subject matter was not at all different from today, revolving around the anti-ennuitive triumvirate of blood, awe and infidelity — brave imaginary men live or die while cutting the offal out of one another before the gaping maw of a preternaturally massive army or fleet or storm or monster or cataclysm, while back at home their devoted imaginary wives fight off the advances of spiritually-gelded men of peacetime professions whose penchants for dalliance do no truck with honour. Then, just for a spell, everyone goes to a wedding and gets drunk.
The most ballyhooed media celebrity in ancient times was a Greek lyricist (possibly of Aeolian descent, possibly an apocryphal amalgam of several figures) known as Homer Simpson. Epic poetic works attributed to Mr. Simpson include the Iliad and Odyssey (released in some markets as Iliad II: Fury of Troy).
Verse-based programmes such as these were fabulously popular. This was understandable in part because the only real alternatives were actual infidelity or watching the hearth. The latter was familiar and meditative but tended to repetition, while enjoyment of the former was often complicated by violent retribution and/or a burning sensation when peeing. Moreover, both necessitated consuming one’s own resources or exposing oneself to risk, whereas public performance poetry involved only other people’s problems. To a member of the audience, such epic recitations were open invitations to profound distraction from the slog and squalor of daily affairs (or indeed the lack thereof).
As centuries passed the epic component became increasingly rarified until it sought its own venues and its own audiences in the opera house. The more mundane aspect remained rooted in street performance and rude satires portraying representations of contemporary public figures acting bawdy and falling down a lot. Tragedy ascended to the hands of artists like Monteverdi and Mozart, Scarlatti and Wagner, while comedy played in the gutter and got shit on its boots.
The evolution of broadcast media would not force the two to share a stage again for several generations. Shakespeare’s mixed houses at the Globe were but a prelude of the unholy consummation yet to come.
The Insipid and the Sensational
The form and character of primitive television programming was established by a nineteenth-century commingling of minstrelsy and burlesque traditions into a form designed to cater to conservative middle class tastes, known in the Americas as “Polite Vaudeville.” These variety shows, both travelling and fixed, were predicated on an economy of performance material – a predictable string of self-same acts whose inoffensive blandness made it equally palatable to the matinée crowd as the evening audience. Each segment was designed to be brief so the hits were punchy and the misses didn’t have too long to wear. The whole enterprise was corralled along by a ringmaster of sorts known as the compère, a master of ceremonies based loosely on the role of a Catholic service officiant but without the buggery.
The compère was not a judge, but rather an instrument of the audience; decisions to drop the curtain on failing acts was not a matter of artistic evaluation but instead a real-time response to the house mood. Polite Vaudeville was forced to become a nimble creature in the face of such fickle power. The acts, in response, oscillated between the safety of familiar material guaranteed not to offend and performances so outrageous and appealing for their shock-value that audience enthusiasm would overwhelm any attempt at censorship. Thus were institutionalized the strange bedfellows of the insipid and the sensational in a feverish attempt to appeal to all of the people, all of the time.
Talkies Killed the Vaudeville Star
Few acts could compete with cinema, however. As the twentieth century matured movie clips began to account for larger parts of the playbill at major Vaudeville theatres across North America, propelled by a nascent exhibitor-relations industry that saw undercutting live acts as the key to securing a financial future for film. Already half-starving on the razor-thin margins obligated by the fiercely competitive landscape, the theatre proprietors were easily persuaded to license a movie that had proven to pack the houses in other cities rather than risk audience displeasure with the uncertainty of a new live act. Some performers made the jump to silent cinema and eventually to talkies, while most found themselves outmoded, unwanted, and unemployed. Ultimately, they had been discarded because they were unpredictable.
But the revolution of filmed entertainment would not enjoy a monopoly, because an up-and-coming electronic projection technology was hot on its heels: television (a compounding of the Greek words vision meaning “vision” and tele meaning “cathode ray”).
While the medium was little more than a science fair project from many decades, by the 1940s the first television networks were coming online for national broadcasts. The images they broadcast were fuzzy, monochrome and prone to point-source light artifacting. Never the less, audiences accustomed to staring at the hearth or the wall were thrilled, and the chief problem of the broadcasters was not technological but a lack of programming content. The obvious solution was to adapt the Vaudeville model and to exploit the genre’s pool of unemployed performers. The variety show was born.
So, while the cinema evolved to tackle increasingly serious subject matter – cannibalizing opera- and theatre-going audiences and their unquenchable lust for blood, awe and infidelity – television capitalized on a heritage of rapid adaptability to cater to short attention spans, broad appeal and the dizzifying alternation of the insipid and the sensational.
People who went to cinemas were stepping out to an event, while people who watched television were in the comfort of their own homes. Where cinema could, like theatre, ask a viewer to rise to the occasion of the telling, television had no such authority; it existed within the territory of the viewer, on his turf, in his living room. If television wanted to be invited back, it had to be polite. Television had to mind its Ps and Qs, to doff its hat and hang its own jacket, to turn out the light before tiptoeing out like a good servant. In short, television was not in a position to ask anything of its audience.
Except attention itself.
All Your Blinks Are Belong To Us
The commodification of attention had already been raised to an art-form in the era of the so-called “pictureless television” or radio, a sort of theatre of the mind in which the visual aspects of performances were sub-contracted to the imaginations of the audience members themselves.
As with proto-television, the variety show format dominated the latter part of the wireless programming day, but the mornings were dedicated to a kind of objectified serial gossip sponsored by soap manufacturers hoping to target female homemakers. By borrowing the “cliffhanger” structure exploited by the weekend matinée cinema serials and coupling it with cheap hooks to basic busybody social instincts, these soap operas were designed from the ground up as narcotics for the attention.
Audience approval ceased to be measured by means of applause. They did not have to buy a ticket, or be induced to the concession stand. Instead, a television victory was gained by the viewer simply agreeing to continue sitting where they were sitting, looking where they were looking, keeping on keeping on. In contrast to radio, television did not tax the imagination. Its efficacy could be gauged entirely on the basis of inaction. Mesmerization itself was the product, its targets entranced and suggestible. Lassitude became gold.
The 1960s were a turbulent time that ushered in colour transmission, uncut footage of politically sensitive wars, the popularization of the zoom lens, and the world’s first broadcast image of an actual miniskirt. This marked a sharp transition from the heritage of Polite Vaudeville as advertisers and producers alike recognized that the changing moral climate in the West meant they could now get away with sexually stimulating their audiences with provocative imagery. Suddenly, content that had previously been considered appropriate only to mature cinema was being tested after nine o’clock in the living rooms of bankers and beatniks alike. New buttons were being pushed in the world’s collective broadcast psyche: credible violence, actual nudity, political controversy, psychedelic visual effects, untamed sideburns.
At the same time, the commercial exploitation of the populace’s attention had become institutionalized in the major economies of the world. Less than a hundred years after the Quaker Oats Company invented the magazine-bound coupon and thus spawned a wholly new field of competition, the advertising industry had become a pillar of business. Advertising ascended to the height of persuasive witchcraft and in so doing gained its legendary ambivalence with regard to integrity and decency. Television programming had a new playmate – one as naughty as it could get away with.
Thus, in the final analysis, television – regardless of the delivery mechanism – is a kind of audio-visual narrative in which the importance of content itself is secondary to its effectiveness as a hypnotic agent for facilitating selling. It asks something somewhat less of us than the cinema, and much less than a play or a novel or even radio. It can be an addictive blend of stimulation and pacification that leaves viewers inert but unrelaxed, exposed to diverse and even extreme imagery without provocation to perspective, and awash in messaging while inhibiting response.
I didn’t look it up, but television was probably invented by Hitler.
20 Minutes into the Future
By the turn of the twenty-first century television displays were often the focal point of common spaces in the North American home, replacing the hearth both in terms of architectural geometry and its place in the imagination of comfort and kin. The displays matured to become large and clear, frequently integrated into so-called “home theatre” multi-speaker audiophile set-ups. The narcotics of persuasion and distraction are now invited into the living room like royal guests, piped through electronic finery capped in chrome. Calgon, take me away!
The chief use of the trance-like state conditioned by television is a kind of behaviour modification known as brand awareness in which viewers are primed with logotypes representing products and/or exposed to simulated human interaction in which the participants make positive associations between their happiness and the product. Repetition is the key to reinforcing this messaging.
Repetition is the key to reinforcing this messaging. Repetition is the key to reinforcing this messaging. Repetition is the key to reinforcing this messaging.
The production values of today’s television dramas rival their counterparts in cinema not just in terms of lighting, photography and visual effects but also in writing and performance. Indeed, television has usurped cinema’s claim on serious themes. By integrating the most profitable part of both worlds, television has ascended to become the primary source of artistic dissemination in our culture – where, paradoxically, even the traditional subject matter of “high art” is at the mercy of popular opinion.
In the future television’s craving to cater to us individually will sharpen and gain teeth as the medium merges with the Internet and the ocean of consumer data that union represents. Instead of being targeted as a member of a demographic, one might be targeted personally based on past purchases. Big Brother is watching, and he’s got a great deal for you.
Civilization is careening. It always has been. The pace of cultural evolution far outstrips its biological and ecological counterparts. I’m neither an eschatologist nor geriatric so I’m not here to convince you we careen toward a precipice, but I do believe the figurative forces of acceleration can press this mad troika pretty hard against the rails from time to time.
Certain social trends run more against the bio-situational grain than others. Clothing, for example, caught on quickly among fashion-conscious post-Pleistocene Europeans, much as fire had been embraced with similar enthusiasm millennia earlier. Restraint from violent impulses, on the other hand, remains challenging for some members of society even today, especially when set against the biological fact of sexual dimorphism. While we as a society have accepted that violence against women is not conducive to productive or healthy relations, chicks still get slapped around by jerks.
The pace of civilization’s evolution can be tricky for small, mortal apes.
Television – technological triumph and cultural institution both – has helped catalyze a trend of redefining social activity, a trend propelled in this century by Internet-based media. This redefinition is predicated on the decoupling of intimacy from proximity or, as it might be expressed by someone on the dying side of the generational divide, today’s world is detached and narcissistic – a world in which one might more easily know the contents of a celebrity’s pocket than our next-door neighbour’s faith (also known as the “lint versus liturgy” conundrum).
No matter how much a hypothetical cantankerous, nasty-smelling curmudgeon might argue that we have become more impersonal, it would be hard to argue that we have become less social. Habits and sensitivities related to proximate intimacy have been replaced, at least in part, by the skills and contextual knowledge necessary to navigate the intimacy at a distance afforded by modern interconnected gadgetry. The instincts governing a social existence simply grow in new soil.
Fostered by television, we have become accustomed to a concept of intimacy utterly divorced from proximity.
Thus, television media has a profound impact on our notions of relationships and norms, on our notions of time and distance, and on our notions of experience and memory. It can co-opt our social instincts for the purposes of marketing, trading community gossip for global salaciousness and allowing us to confuse fame for authority.
Recognizing the effects intellectually can be very different from the visceral experience. It may be trivial and obvious to state that television media are intensely shaped by commercial interests; in contrast, it can be profound to appreciate the peace of mind offered by a life free of such motivated messaging.
Our family decision to disconnect the television was motivated by these advertising messages, in part. We saw no compelling reason to expose our young children to the continuous brand priming, and many compelling reasons to avoid it. For instance, I was certainly motivated by the impacts of the female stereotypes in advertising content on my daughter’s self-image; mainstream television remains doggedly misogynist despite decades of progressive feminist caterwauling.
Naturally, we were also influenced by concerns about the health effects of the excessive sedentariousness and unbroken stretches of assal horizontology encouraged by television viewing, as well as the neurological effects of overdosing on passive stimulation.
Finally, as a single-income family living in an expensive part of the world we simply couldn’t justify the monthly cost of a cable subscription; in exchange for our spend we received nothing but mild amusement, muffin-tops and a barrage of consumer envy.
Thus, much of what I expected from living without television was in the form of the absence of effects. My children wouldn’t obsess over which products and media were gender-appropriate the way other children do, nor would they be taken in by the latest crazes in disposable Chinese toys. I also anticipated having more leisure time and spending it more creatively or productively or socially, interacting with my wife instead of forming a small audience with her. Indeed, all of these consequences came to pass pretty much as anticipated.
What I had not fully appreciated was the extent of the social isolation.
Without television, one becomes acutely aware of how much socializing revolves around the medium even in the Internet age. Conversations that are not about television content per se are shaped by its conventions, peppered with its most au courant phrases from comedies and hinged on references to the shared experience of very famous televised moments from popular dramas. Euphemisms from television couch opinions framed in terms of television elements, tropes or characters. Where descriptions fail, many unswervingly reach for a comparable event or phenomenon from television with which to make themselves understood. In short, television defines the cultural lingua franca between groups of individuals who may not share similar values, but who do share a common experience of being entertained and pitched.
Of course, even before cutting the cable people talked about television shows I didn’t watch. A multiplied amount of such exclusion seemed unavoidable. I still don’t know what a Justin Bieber is, and I don’t care.
But other people do. I hadn’t counted on that.
I hadn’t counted on anyone bristling because I don’t watch television. It’s not as if it is a subject I trumpet or have preached about before now. In fact, I do my best to avoid any mention as it demonstrably aggravates a lot of people. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve written about the subject at any length in public.
Never the less, there is a certain subset of people who find a life without television to be inherently offensive. They become annoyed when their references aren’t understood. They get suspicious when you don’t laugh at their purloined jokes. They ask after your ignorance but chafe at being reminded how it came to be. They feel judged, perhaps. They want to act as if you’re rubbing their nose in something foul just because you’ve admitted to thinking a “soprano” is a singer and not a mobster. You’re condescending because you do not share the experience of hating a certain commercial jingle with them. You’re a snob. You’re alien.
Who do you think you are to not consent to be normal with the rest of us?
It’s a hard subject to avoid. Try as I might to just smile and nod politely during most references to television, it’s a minefield. People say inexplicable things based on the assumption that the shared experience is universal, and if I happen to innocently ask after their meaning it is as if I have boasted. To some, it seems obvious that I understood their meaning all along but feigned confusion in order to show them up as uncultured swine.
This defensiveness, whether belligerent or benign, speaks to the fact that an awful lot of people feel guilty about watching television. They know it’s a stream of crap. But they can’t look away.
“Actually, I myself hardly watch any television.”
I pretend to believe people when they say things like that. People like to tell me how they are “highly selective” viewers who only follow “one or two” of the best of the best in television entertainment – which would be more plausible if they didn’t in the next breath demonstrate a broad awareness of a wide spectrum of programming they’ve just a moment earlier sworn is beneath their consideration. “I don’t watch it,” they’ll insist. “But I’ve seen it.”
There’s a feeling of inclusiveness automatically available to anyone who wants to be in the know. You don’t have to approve of things unworthy of your attention but you can and should be aware of them for some reason, apparently. Only a cretin would watch Jersey Shore but only a fool wouldn’t know what it is. (I had to look it up on Wikipedia after people kept using the word “Snooki” in conversation.)
This is the new intimacy. This is the new gossip. Television is the strange-attractor of idle tongues and wandering minds. To exclude yourself is an act of cultural rebellion.
The lion’s share of anti-anti-television hostility is covert but it is upon rare occasion it is brazen. In such cases the aggressive party will often attempt to justify their attitude by painting a portrait of non-watchers as mouthy, condescending pedants. “You know what I hate about people who say they don’t watch TV?” they’ll ask, emphasis on say to imply misrepresentation. “It’s their attitude, you know? They’re always so high and mighty about it.”
It’s true, I guess, that some of those who have cut the medium out of their lives have trouble staying mum. It can be hard to keep it a secret. Because the fact is, life is better without television.
Your quality of life will improve if you quit. Full stop.
Television is to the Mind as Cigarettes are to the Lung
I used to smoke. Like many smokers I’d persuaded myself that smoking tobacco was relaxing, an illusion created by the relief of cravings when nicotine levels are topped up. I had many rationalizations about the things smoking helped me to do, like keeping my hands busy in anxious social situations or giving me an excuse to step outside for a minute or two of sunshine and chat. I had been chemically induced to be under the impression that there would be a void in my life without tobacco.
It seems to me that television is comparable to nicotine. It appears to relax the user while actually doing the opposite. It eases social situations when everyone has a place to point their eyes. And users will endlessly rationalize their reasons for indulging, knowing full well there is no real benefit to be had. They will minimize the health risks, and maximize the importance of virtual shared experience (though they probably won’t use the term “virtual shared experience” unless they’re a totally pretentious douche).
To be candid, every now and again when I’m having a few drinks I’ll bum a cigarette from somebody. And I’ll really enjoy it. Ask any meditative and dignified noble savage living the unadorned aboriginal life: tobacco can be great.
Similarly, I’ve watched a few television series on DVD over the years since disconnecting the cable (Rome, Deadwood, Doctor Who). Watching those shows was good fun. I’ll watch another one someday. I see no harm in moderation.
The ongoing consumption of television as a lifestyle choice, however, is sick. This is what television wants. It wants your loyalty. It needs your passivity. It craves your attention and it thrives on indolence. It reaffirms itself and its role in your life constantly, defining normality, manipulating your appetites, beaming fake social-like scenarios directly into your consciousness in order to hoodwink your ape brain’s easily wonkified perception of community and consensus. It makes you feel like there would be a void in your life without it.
And I suppose there is. Without television, you lose the ability to easily relate to television addicts.
Moreover, you’ll be excluded from the most vapid conversations in the room. You might even find it easier to stay trim. When you do see television, you’ll cringe at the vigour of its obnoxiousness, and wonder how you subjected yourself to it on a daily basis without going mad. You won’t know what a Don Draper tie is, and you won’t ever be tempted to stay in the Paris Hilton. You won’t be able to complain on Monday about how terrible Saturday Night Live was. And it needn’t ever again pain you that the remake isn’t as good as the original.
Because it doesn’t matter. Not a whit. Not really.
A life without it is like patting your pockets and realizing you don’t care whether or not you’re stocked for smokes. You’re free.
Western civilization is very impressive. It’s got rockets and microchips and the right to a fair hearing and three kinds of peanut butter. It’s got a reasonable facsimile of democracy. Much of the West offers its citizens socialized health care, and being shot for believing in the wrong deity is acceptably rare. We’ve got a good thing going here in many respects.
The least appealing aspects of the West – the crass commercialism, the fads and the fatness – anchor their orbits around television addiction. By watching television, one becomes desensitized to the excess. With enough exposure anything can seem normal.
Repetition is the key to reinforcing this messaging.
Unlike gayness, television consumption is genuinely a lifestyle choice. Many of the known side effects are well documented, including detrimental impacts on sleep patterns, concentration and metabolism. The medium encourages maladaptive releases of endorphins reinforcing self-destructive behaviours like the suppression of physical response and the numbing of critical analysis. Plus, much of television programming is abjectly fucking retarded.
If you watch some television on a daily basis, consider sparing yourself these burdens. I hope I have convinced you to at least give the idea some thought. You will feel freer – I can guarantee it. Ask yourself whether you really have a compelling reason to flush your time down the toilet.
Finally, in order to make good on the promise I made up near the top, I’d like to leave you with the following:
A Belch is just one gust of wind,
That cometh from thy Heart…
But should it take the downward trend,
It turns into a Fart.
My mandate fulfilled, I will now shut up. The end.