Ever wondered what aliens would think if they landed on Earth and got their first look at television? Let me offer you the next best thing – a take on TV from an American who hasn’t watched the tube in 7 years. When NBC announced its unpopular and backward-thinking decision not to broadcast the Olympics on the web, my husband and I did something really weird. We decided to have cable TV installed in our house for the first time, ever. When we set up housekeeping as a married couple, we didn’t have to go through the steps of killing the old 1980s television we inherited from a relative; we just never had it hooked up to cable.
We own some nice documentaries and a few other videos we watch from time to time, but as an adult, TV has never held many charms for me, and my bridegroom and I decided we’d rather spend our time doing things other than looking at programming. The decision to order 1 month of cable TV was based on our genuine love of the Winter Games and the fact that we didn’t get to take a vacation last year. This small treat would enable us to connect with the unique spirit of the Olympics, and while this has turned out to be great fun, looking at the content of television has been very strange, indeed.
If your daily life includes a steady diet of TV viewing, here’s an honest look at what you are seeing and doing, likely without giving it much thought, because like most Americans under the age of 60, TV has been a given in your life since day one.
TV On The Eyes
After the first two nights of watching the evening sessions of Olympic programming, my eyes were so sore. They hurt like the eye pain associated with sinus headaches, and my stomach felt kind of sick from this. But, on the third day, my eyes suddenly adjusted themselves to staring at the glowing box. The pain went away. Doubtless, you went through this adjustment as a toddler. You don’t remember that it bothered your eyes at first, and decades later, you are well-adjusted, but it’s interesting to consider that the very act of looking at a television set must require some type of endurance to be built up in the eye muscles and that most Americans are demanding that their eyes keep up the fight so that they can enjoy a lifetime of television viewing. I wonder about the stressing effects of this on people over time. We are a stressed and tired society. I would assert that this may be a contributing factor, however small and unnoticed.
TV and Control
Commericals! How do you stand them? You want to watch ice skating or a show on elephants or a program about fixing a leaking roof, but in order to do this, you are forced to watch overpowering, flashing, blaring advertisements for liquor, drugs, cars and junk food. You may be the most intelligent person in the world, just trying to increase your knowledge by watching a documentary about Nepal, but the tradeoff is waiting out a constant stream of totally unrelated content that *someone else* wants you to see.
To me, this is one of the most significant differences between TV and Internet usage. With the Internet, even with the type of advertising commonly present, I have a sense of control. I am steering the ship and looking at the content I want. With TV, I am totally out of control and am constantly aware of the intentions and wishes of unseen others (corporations) who wants me to look at this, buy this, believe this, absorb this. The absolutely incessant interruptions of NBC’s Olympics coverage with the same set of advertisements displayed over and over and over again has evoked extreme feelings of irritation and frustration in me.
I think it’s another thing you just get used to. Maybe you hit the mute button. Maybe you do what I remember my father doing – flip through other channels while waiting for your chosen to program come back on. Or maybe you simply sit and stare at the moving pictures that make up TV advertising without even questioning what you are doing. Somewhere inside of you, you give up control and make the pact to accept that the privilege of viewing your favorite show is inextricably linked with being a viewer of corporate advertising. It seems to strange to me, really, that people would do this. Loss of control is one of the fears most commonly voiced in psychotherapy sessions across the country and yet, when it comes to television, we abdicate the driver’s seat almost without thought. Could it be that our society has a deep-seated trauma about this, built up by years and years of giving up control of what enters our brains as our part of the bargain to receive entertainment?
Unless you actually love watching commercials (I’ve never met anyone who does), it might be important for you to be aware that the TV habit likely means a constant source of low level irritation in your life because of the loss of control. It’s up to you to decide if the rewards make up for this.
The Drug Companies Have Got To Be Kidding
Big Pharma advertising has reached its all-time height of absurdity. We were better off drinking stump water and taking the magic pills sold by charlatans at the county fair 100 years ago than we are now, in terms of medical intelligence. At least, that’s how I feel after a month of watching the most unbearably ridiculous advertisements being put out by the medical companies.
The glowing green butterfly really takes the cake. Shots of a woman sleeping and a very eerie and creepy green butterfly play under the voiceover that spends something like a minute telling me all of the horrible things that can happen to me (such as driving a car and eating without knowing it!) if I take this drug. All of the drug ads proclaim this litany of horrible things that can happen to me if I take their pills – everything from suicidal depression to death! I mean, the whole ads are given over to this list of egregious dangers I will risk so that I can…what…go to sleep? Geez, I think I’d rather hit myself on the head with a rock. At least I won’t take off in my car or gorge myself on the contents of my refrigerator without knowing it after I’ve knocked myself unconscious.
Look, I know medical problems are serious, and I get it that laws must be requiring that drug companies disclose side effects in advertising, but hey…this is an embarrassment. If the best the drug companies can do is serve up the possibility of sudden death in order to fix our hang nail, maybe they need to get out of the TV business and stick to covering doctors’ offices with their propaganda in the form of free calendars, pens and samples. Does anyone actually like these ads? They scare the heck out of me!
TV, Language and Manners
I’m sure things were headed this way when I last lived in a home that had TV, but we’ve really entered new territory in terms of the language and subject matter now common to televised content. News reporters saying people have ‘screwed up’ and referring to a murder victim as ‘the dead guy’? An advertisement asking you what comes out of your nose when you blow it? Another one in which bears are worried about fuzz being left behind on their tails when they use toilet paper? Celebrity chefs and interior decorators unable to explain a home ec. project without using sexual language? Every possible bodily and biological function is now being canvassed on TV in what we now might call plain speaking but which would have been unthinkably vulgar general audience speech when I was a child. Frankly, my husband and I were both shocked and embarrassed by much of the content of TV and I can’t help wondering how parents can even think of letting their children be exposed to materials like this.
The spoken word is in a sad state, too. Apparently, even Folgers coffee is now claiming to be the best part of wakin’ up. Wakin’ up! I squirm when corporations try to seem hip by putting on a ‘casual’ face. You’ve got billions – Folgers (and KFC and Mickey D and P&G). You can afford to act formal. I’ll respect you and your enormous wads of money more if you speak English properly and stop trying to slum, or whatever it is you think you’re doing.
Overall, my honest impression of the typical content and language being showcased on television reflects a society that seems both less intellectual and more ill-mannered than that of former times.
TV and Violence
I haven’t watched any of this content, but thanks to that web-wannabe menu bar at the bottom of cable television, I see the names and descriptions of all of the shows being offered on TV and an absolutely overwhelming number of them are about murder, violence, crime, police and illegal activities. The ancient Romans in their coliseums would be right at home with footage of people beating and killing each other, but, frankly, I’m appalled. It is genuinely disturbing that public demand for graphic violence and extensive coverage of the criminal mind must be producing this glut of danger-based programming. Even the shows on the Animal Planet channel, which I was looking forward to checking out, all seemed to be about danger. Why?
I can’t imagine how dark and frightening the content of my brain would be if I spent hours every day watching this type of material. The parts of the brain that are engaged when viewing violence are being kept at a fever pitch by this visual content and what could be more stressful and exhausting for the mind? I know this trend was already well established the last time I saw TV, but it’s firmly in place now and suggests a society obsessed with violence.
TV and The Planet
I’ll keep this short and simply say – the stuff being advertised on TV is the stuff of global warming. The products and lifestyles being glamorized and sold are the very things that have polluted our Earth and are turning our living planet into a toxic wasteland. From the dangerous detergents to the gas guzzling cars, advertising is like a display of the toolkit of our own destruction. Not healthy. Not smart. Really sad, actually.
TV and Time
When TV takes first place on the schedule of your leisure time, you are making a sacrifice you may not even recognize. By trading the passive engagement with entertainment for the active engagements of doing something, a giant chunk of life is given away to sitting still and watching the creations of people who have no relationship to you and whom you will likely never meet. The companies and corporations that create television programs and advertising are not part of your family or friendly circle. Should they take precedence in the ordering of how you spend your time on a daily basis?
I have learned for a fact that there is so much else to do in life besides watching TV. You can make your own entertainment – make music, create art, go places, see living things…not just substitute representations of them. You can connect with real people – family members, friends, neighbors. You can achieve new heights of education…study languages, history, cultures, sciences, religions, the arts. You can read…that active engagement of looking at words and creating your own pictures and symbols in your own mind, utilizing your brain in important ways. You can become more able in the skills of living – cooking, growing food, making clothing, building things, helping people.
In the past 7 years of life without television, we have seldom been bored. Our pantry is stocked with pickles we’ve made, our bed is warmed by quilts we have sewn, our shelves are groaning with hundreds and hundreds of wonderful books we have relished, our land is known to us inch by inch from our time spent outside, our minds are full of interesting things. Perhaps most importantly, our family turns inward for satisfaction in life, rather than turning to a machine – a TV screen.
When we shut off the cable this Friday, my emotion was one of relief. My mind literally spoke the phrase,”Now we can get back to normal.” In looking back, I did enjoy a few things about TV programming. Public television is still turning out some informative and interesting shows, and some of the home-oriented programs about cooking and decorating actually held some entertainment value for me. I don’t know that I learned anything from them, but it was sort of fun to see what people were doing, for just a little while. Getting to see the Olympics felt like a privilege, despite NBC’s dreadful, tape-delayed coverage of them. But for our family, paying money and spending precious time watching the content modern television offers just isn’t for us.
If I could put one little thought out there into the stream of human consciousness regarding television, it would be this: it’s a choice, not a must. I remember growing up, when TV seemed like a must. I’m a lot happier knowing it’s a choice.
Flickr photo credit