Wednesday 22 September 2010

Without Television

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.


Mark said...

Well said, CBB. I, too, heard the word "Snooki" for weeks, even months, before I had any idea who that person was.

I'm fascinated that you wrote this, because just recently I have been trying to convince my wife that we can live without our DishNetwork subscription.

During summer we found ourselves less often turning the television on immediately after our son goes to bed, and sometimes never at all.

Gods help us now that the fall season has started anew.

I have been known to beam with pride when our son doesn't get a reference made by a friend, because I felt it was a direct result of our relatively stringent television viewing policy. To this day he has never (under our roof, anyway) viewed an episode of "Spongebob Squarepants."

Once when one of his friends was at our house for a sleepover, the child guest kept asking me, "Is it eight-seven-central yet?" I'm sad to report we ended up watching the vapid program he had seen advertised.

We always have left the television off unless we're going to sit and watch something, and I'm put on edge every time we make a weekend visit to a home that features constant background audiovisuals from (insert television channel here).

Last night I almost lost it when my wife was watching "Dancing with the Stars," and, innocently ambling about the kitchen making my lunch for today, I unwittingly became aware of who "The Situation" was.

I will stop now that I've rambled too long. You struck an open nerve with this one.

SaintPeter said...

I grew up without a TV until age 14 or so. While the lack did turn me into a inveterate reader, it also left me without defenses to its hypnotic lure. To this day I cannot hold a conversation with someone in a room with the TV turned on. I do recall some of the alienation associated with not having a TV, although it was perhaps not as acute 25 years ago.

I, personally, really enjoy my TV time. With the addition of a DVR I am able to get right to the meat of the shows, conveniently skipping the worst of the commercials and decouples my viewing habits from any time constraint. With a sufficiently large hard drive, I can watch as much or as little as I like.

Maybe it is like nicotine (never been a smoker), but it certainly feels relaxing at the time. I love the stories and the characters. I spend all day using my brain and I like being able to turn it off for a bit, slip into some mindless entertainment.

I wonder what changes the web is having on this conversation. With so MANY channels and shows, it is increasingly rare that I have shows in common with anyone, even my close family. On top of that, I tend to watch much more video online, expanding my universe of visual media. Now it's not always mindless entertainment, but ideas and "cool things". TED talks are amazing and I also enjoy Reason.TV (which, although it adopts the "TV" monicker, is not TV).

Do you watch YouTube videos? Do you have different feelings about web "shows" or one-offs? Do you love/hate "viral" videos?

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Where's Mr. Miss? My soaps are on in five minutes.

Bridget said...

Yep, you've hit a nerve, CBB. Also, you talk some serious sense.

When we bought our house nearly three years ago and moved, we never hooked up the television. I mean, we have one. It's currently serving as a computer monitor to a MacMini. We did not get cable, although we'd been living with it for free for 13 years prior to that and, yes, watching it, albeit increasingly less and less. We haven't even hooked the thing up to the antenna here. At least, I think we have an antenna. Don't most houses come with one of those?

We have a large DVD collection, I'll admit, and I do rent TV shows on DVD (and buy them, if I think they're rewatchable). Sounds like I probably watch a little more than you do - there are one... no, two shows that we download weekly, when they're airing, but I often refuse to watch episodes for weeks at a time until they've accumulated. I dislike cliffhangers designed solely for the purpose of convincing me to tune in next week. If you have to do that, it doesn't say much for the quality of writing. I could give a shit if someone gives me spoilers. I'm watching it for the journey, the entertainment factor, not to be surprised all the time.

I go days without turning the thing on, since the Mini is MrJ's computer, and mine is a laptop. Of course, that means I have to go out of my way to get news, but I'm usually much happier that way.

Network and cable TV all but dead in this house. Best thing we've ever done.

So say we all.

Tolomea said...

In my teens I moved out of my parents house into the granny flat (outhouse, sleepout etc depending on culture). That was the end of me having a TV in my living space. After I left home I never saw the point in buying one, a view my spouse to be came around to relatively fast.

Of course being technophiles the bulk of our time both professional and leisure is spent in front of computers, so I can't say I'm benefiting from no TV on the health side. However on the neurological side I am sure that the active nature of our persistent AV interfacing is better for us than TV would be.

Also like SaintPeter I now find my self totally vulnerable to the hypnotic quality of TV's, I observe that people who are regularly exposed to TV's can easily ignore them, I cannot.

Tolomea said...

The other thing I wanted to add was that while I do frequently notice the missing cultural context the effect doesn't seem to be as pronounced as with you.

I wonder if this is because virtually everyone I see on a regular basis is also of the technophile cast and so presumably spend more time online than average and less watching TV.

Certainly our shared cultural context has a large helping of internet memes.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

As someone who's had regular -- though not excessive -- TV exposure in childhood and through adulthood, I confess that I also have the attention diversion problem. Then again, I've assumed some ADD and high-functioning autism in my makeup, both of which have been identified in my daughter in recent years.

True enough on the major points here. We're getting less and less from our satellite subscription (I record Doctor Who and my wife catches a few hours of HGTV per week) and I'm getting awfully close to chucking the stupid overpriced thing.

As for news... I've never had any desire to sit through that.

One can be reasonably conversant in the TV memes of the day without once having viewed the relevant shows. It's more of a cultural osmosis factor, fueled by a strategic combination of google and youtube. No idea what a Snooki is, though I saw it mentioned on Failblog today.

What's the third kind of peanut butter?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Responsive Blathering I:

I think Mark's anecdote sums it up well: television in moderation is fun, but when you visit a household in which television is king you see how sick the situation can become. Television itself works against efforts at moderation. That's the real problem, and what makes it comparable to nicotine or cocaine: the structure and presentation of the medium itself encourages abuse.

Also: my wife one made me sit through one of those dancing shows at her parents' place. Some of the dancing was very impressive, but the banter between acts was insufferable!

In specific reference to SaintPeter's question concerning YouTube, TED talks, one-offs, and so on: I'm not opposed to all narrative media. I'm a regular movie-goer. My children watch nature docs through Google Video. They also watch some programmes on DVD, without commercials (at least of the interruptive kind).

The thing is, when the kids choose a DVD it is a deliberate a specific choice. It is not an open-ended viewing experience. When the DVD is over, so is the viewing session. They can't "shop around" the channels to see if something else catches them.


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Responsive Blathering II:

I also admit I'm suspicious of any show that becomes too soapy, and by soapy I mean that if you miss an episode you're lost. This is very chic right now -- I know a lot of modern shows are more like super-movies a season long.

I become suspicious when too much of the production hinges on hooking you into the next episode, to feel compulsive about it. Plot plays second fiddle to the hook. The audience is teased with questions in order to keep their curiosity burning -- and I've heard that many showrunners today do NOT feel that they necessarily need to ever satisfactorily answer such questions, which really underscores their purpose: bringing you back to watch again. The answer is less relevant than the experience of wanting to know.

Do authors use such tricks in novels to keep you turning pages? Of course they do. The difference is that the act of reading is not detrimental in the way that prolonged television watching appears to be. Very different levels of passivity are involved.


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Responsive Blathering III:

I also think that SaintPeter and Tolomea should never acclimatize himself to the noise and flash of television. Why become habituated to distraction and banality?

Here in Canada most pubs now feature televisions tucked into every corner, tuned to random channels. You see the patrons staring over each other's heads as they talk at each other. It's…weird.

Uh-huh, I'm making myself late. I haven't even made my sammich yet. Gotta go. Will blather later.


Teddy said...

At the beginning of the summer I moved from my own apartment in A Country Town That Was Big For Where It Was to my mothers place in An Actual Frigging City, You Damned Bumpkins. I had the full cable subscription including digital cable, HBO, and most importantly a DVR. The DVR does take a lot of the restrictive holds TV has on us away, like advertising, but I found the pause button was the thing that most improved my viewing experience, not fast-forward.

Like the others mentioned, I can't have a conversation with a TV going. So if somebody popped in while I was in the middle of my favorite show, rather than say "wait for the next commercial break and I'll mute it, go to the bathroom, get a snack and then we can talk if there's time" I'd simply pause it and have a conversation with them in which I could actually look at them. Since having left that, I've found I've missed NOTHING because I have internet. DVR weaned me ENTIRELY of live television, in fact leaving me particularly hateful of the vicious hold of scheduled advertising, which means scheduled pee and food breaks and no chance to rewind and catch whatever the viking vampire character just said that was surely important but he also has a penchant for mumbling shit because the actor is trying to seem reserved but confident, and while he does pull it off well it still results in a few mumbled lines.


But yeah, now I've switched to the internet. Some sites are decent for watching stuff online, but when they fail me ("content has been removed" "FFFFFFFFFFFFFF*** YOU MEGAVIDEO!") I just torrent the latest episode. Yarr. Then it's COMPLETELY ad free and entirely left up to me to watch when I will at my own pace, and it acts like you mentioned, CBB, it's purely user-selected. It now takes an actual effort to get ahold of the latest episode of the shows I try to keep abreast of and it doesn't constantly advertise "Hey, you should watch what's on AFTER this too cause it'll be awesome yuk yuk yuk!"

Regarding soap-opera-ness - this realization hit me hard about a year or so ago. A friend and I were hanging out and she asked something or other about some relationship between two characters in a show we both watched. I had actually been working on watching all of the episodes in order (torrents, again) and she had merely been watching repeats as cable fed them to her, so I was more in the know. I then proceeded to launch into a 20-minute-long history of the show, encompassing all the relationships, hookups, scandals, subplots and arcs. At some point I very suddenly stopped and realized (aloud) with great horror that I had been sucked in by what was apparently a new design on the soap opera aimed at my generation. I have since stopped caring because I understand WHY the format shift - the internet. The same thing has happened in comics too. The massive publishing capacity of the internet means that anybody can go back in time and read or watch a large archive full of meaningful plot. DVD means the same thing. When TV first started, they didn't really have stuff like that - if you missed an episode, well, you were kind of SOL. So with the change in archiving capacities, we see them starting to rely more heavily on that in order to tell more in-depth stories or explore concepts deeper than 42 minutes would allow. Side note: I have noticed that ALL shows on network programming are plus or minus 60 seconds of 42 minutes, obviously for ad reasons. Seems formulaic though, and it obviously requires shows to stretch or compress the show itself to fit such a strict format. Annoying.

Woof. Anyway, that's what I've got.


Mandrill said...

Engaging, erudite and entertaining, everything that the majority of TV isn't. Hats off to you Mr. Brown.

Now what if, we replace TV with the internet? This is what has happened in my house since we moved to Iceland (The TV is pretty much all dubbed american shows anyway and we can't understand them.) Is the internet any better? Is it worse? Does the difference boil down to the fact that with the internet you can choose what to be bombarded by and cut out the commercials altogether?

The activity of surfing the web is just as sedentary as that of watching television but there is more mental engagement (or is there?). The same social effects are evident in that distant friends and acquaintances are just as accessible as those living next door. I will grant that the majority of the content of the internet is just as crass and meaningless as that of TV, but the key I feel is that you can choose to ignore it.

Id be interested to read a similar piece from you on the evolution and effect of the Internet.

P.S. good to read you again, its been too long :D

Mike Verdone said...

An essay that pulls no punches. Wonderful to read as always.

I basically agree with your points about TV as a social obsession, and I generally don't watch it. Much like you, I watch a few series on DVD wholeheartedly once in a while, but most of the time I don't care. (Also, sometimes I start a critically acclaimed series, get distracted by something else halfway through, and never get back to it. People get really pissed about this for some reason).

Personally, I find that TV is just one instance of a class of passive entertainment activities that are bad for me.

Google Reader is the worst. It's worse that TV. I can scroll through hundreds of posts from dozens of blogs and at the end of a session I feel tweaky on dopamine, but I can't recall what I read.

And Twitter... don't get me started.

It isn't really the technology that does it, though, it's my state of mind. When I have a good project to work on I won't read blogs or Twitter, I'll just create cool stuff. Other times I can't convince myself to build something cool so I become a passive consumer and get in one of those moods.

This whole thing boils down to a producer/consumer dichotomy. Even discussion or shooting the shit is a collaborative production activity: you produce funny bullshit. TV is a all-consuming (consumptive?) medium.

Not only does turning off TV make you a social outcase, it makes you an anticapitalist market outcast, too. It's downright communist.

(You may see this comment expanded on my blargh sometime because you've got me thinking. Thanks!)

Jeff Gillman said...

You speak much wisdom, Citizen Cheeseburger. I am becoming more unhappy every day with the state of TV: I have over 100 channels to choose from, and can often surf them for 30 minutes without finding anything compelling enough to cause me to pause. I do a lot of DVR viewing now, and am becoming increasingly selective about what I watch. DVR also helps with the Problem of Commercials, many of which are frenetic messes, and almost always much louder than the show they interrupt. (I guess my life is going pretty well, because the main gripe I have is that my cable-company-provided DVR does not have the same "backtrack several seconds" enhancement when I stop fast-forwarding as did my TiVo, which I had to give up when we switched to HD TV, which was a very underwhelming change that cost some serious coin). I now gladly pay Netflix each month, while begrudging the giant check I write to the cable company. But I am in a different phase than my wife and kids, who routinely watch TV and *don’t even mute the commercials*.
But please answer the question: what are the three types of peanut butter? I’m guessing smooth, crunchy, and honey. Honey peanut butter is a great thing.

Teddy said...



dennisn said...

## s,project from many decades,project for many decades,

## s,it is upon rare occasion it is brazen,it is upon rare occasion brazen,

Silly quip about the euphemism of "socialized healthcare" aside, right on!

The tendency of such mass mediums to crush the individual to the lowest common denominator is terrifying.

Bridget said...

> Here in Canada most pubs now feature televisions tucked into every corner, tuned to random channels. You see the patrons staring over each other's heads as they talk at each other. It's…weird.

Note-Entirely-Unrelated Side Anecdote: There is one particular bar&grill chain that's popular here in SW Ontario, and often found in the vicinity of movie theatres. They remodeled a year or two ago, and now feature WALLS of televisions as part of the kitch decor. A wall of screens show 2-3 different "channels", as far as we can figure out, and what they show is completely nonsensical. Clips of random cartoons fade into sporting events, which dissolve into bits of old three stooges clips on a seemingly endless loop.

Last time we were there I kept finding myself distracted by occasional snippets of The Flintstones - at one point, it was playing in reverse. Fred slid from the tip of the dino's tail back into his cab in the quarry, and then the bird squawked and the guy pulled its tail to signal the end of the work day and Fred started moving rocks around. It dissolve-faded into what looked like clips from "stupid pet tricks". Later, I spotted Fred and Barney smoking stogies.

But here's the even more frustrating part: these televisions have no sound playing. There is rousing satellite-acquired 80s & 90s music blasting all the time. This means the walls of televisions with their constantly changing points of focus are there purely for the visual stimulation. I find it disconcerting. Too much stimulation without context. I keep expecting to see Max Headroom.

We, um, don't eat there that much any more.

Tolomea said...


What? you didn't see the TV adds? :P

fooburger said...

I agree with the multiple posts here extolling the freedom a DVR offers. Without a DVR, my TV watching hours drop to maybe 1-2/wk (we used to have a TV).

Also bugs me that I can't find commercials-included episode libraries online. You'd think that if I can watch or DVR them when they first come on, I'd be able to do the same at some other point in time? Instead it's the hulu-types that prevent you from watching back catalogs, even if yer willing to put up with commercials anyways (which I generally am).

Anyways... I agree with the CBB point, but it's vastly mitigated by a DVR remote.

I *still* don't know who 'snookie' is, and I'm not about to go look it up. I did notice there seemed to be some tussle over Obama and 'Snookie', but I just assumed that was our partisan polaroid politics?
Oh wait.. or was that 'polarized'? I can never keep track of how the media is describing 'run of the mill political maneuvering' on any particular day.

but while it's unlikely we'll ever get a TV/cable/satellite-dish in our house, if we did, it'd only be attached to a DVR.

I still like poking snakes in the wild with sticks... is that better than TV?

Sheik Yerbouti said...

The snakes have sticks?

Then they've already won.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

To be honest, I think there are probably more than three kinds of peanut butter. There are probably at least seven if you count that low-this or low-that varietals. Certainly in the West one may choose crunchy or smooth, organic or industrial, delicious or diet.

Dear Sheik: I also miss Mr. Miss.

Also: television news is...appalling. That anyone would use television news as their primary source of current events information is bizarre and awful. Hell, the fact that people manage to sit through an entire network newscast is impressive in its own twisted right. Inane, facile, melodramatic and no citations. Television news isn't news, it's paranoia porn.

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...


I came to fully realize how bad the trend of nouveau soap had become when I allowed myself to be tricked into watching the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica, and thus had to suffer through the decline from topical, insightful, intense drama with cool spaceships and shit to a pure soap opera that, in the end, didn't even make very much sense. I'd hung in there for multiple boxes of DVDs, feeling that I had to see how it turned out once I was invested in the story...and in the end I was let down by producers who didn't really consider the intellectual hooks in the show very important. They were just gimmicks to keep us watching, not clues to a purposeful master plot design.

I'm almost willing to say that BSG was my last science-fiction show. I'm not sure I'd bother to try trusting again, no matter how cool the spaceships and shit are.

Also: Teddy, in Canada and Europe television shows are 44 minutes instead of 42. This means there are two minutes of extra footage in each episode which the poor Americans don't get to see until the DVD release where runtime isn't so critical.


Cheeseburger Brown said...

Thanks, Mandrill. I think replacing the traditional television set with Internet streaming/downloading is positive in that the control we have over the medium means we have a little more resistance to the TV hooks. It's easier not to over-indulge, but I still think over-indulging is a concern.

Oops, got to run. Will address more comments later!


Teddy said...

Oh, 44 isn'5 even the best i've heard of! Somebody told me Dr. Who episodes run the full hour on BBC in England. They're cut down to 42 by SciFi.

I'm saddened to hear you're giving up on spaceship shows, but I can understand why. The latest SF movies put them all to shame.


Big t said...

I am sorry CBB I have watched entirely too much TV, my attention span was too short to read the whole thing. I couldn't even read the entire comments, all I got was the TV is BAD, something about Vuadville Homer Simpson and missing Mr Miss. After moving into our first real house my wife and I are too busy with house hold chores and too poor to watch the Snooki show. I hope you are still having dreams and we can return to our regularly scheduled program.

Yours Truly

fooburger said...

Quite sad to hear that the ..errr intellectual plot line to BSG never goes anywhere (as opposed to the who's-screwing-whom plot line, which I saw taking over the show as I lost .. umm... 'access' to it).
There's nothing worse than *seasons* full of foreshadowing amounting to nothing.
It happens in enough shows that it makes me wonder how events written to appear *so* important in season 1 or 2 are just dropped without mention in season (whatever).

Do Fantasy/SciFi authors get cut as much slack as their TV producing/writing counterparts?
I think that's hard to say, considering I know a number of people who continue to buy books in series' that they claim they've long since ceased to enjoy. Perhaps that's a different thing altogether.

Jen said...

Hi, I thought this was very interesting, partly because I come at it from a different perspective. Like at least one other commenter, I grew up without a TV in the house. I saw occasional cartoons at friends' houses, but that was it. I noticed the social isolation at an early age, and also my lack of ability to do other things with a TV attacking my brain. However, for almost my entire life, I saw both of these as good things. It helps that I live in the Boston area. There's a significant geek culture here which is very separate from mainstream culture, and when I moved back after college, I found that a kept meeting other people who didn't watch TV. Really didn't watch TV. And I don't think anyone in my social circle leaves one on for background noise. Stick with it! you too can found or find a social group which doesn't rely on TV, especially in a big city. Left-leaning moms are an especially good bet, because they're afraid of damaging their children. But I veered from my point. My point was that I've always considered my lack of TV-culture an important force for good. It allows me to seek out friends and acquaintances who can have a conversation without resorting to TV culture, and/or without getting defensive about it.
As for being unaccustomed to the barrage of attention-getting devices that is TV, it serves a couple purposes. First, it lets me be aware of TV (and similar things, like radio ads for oriental rugs, which have much the same tactics for some reason.) And secondly, it helps my friends to be more aware of the barrage when they're with me. Some of them don't even notice it, it seems, unless it's pointed out to them.
It does mean that I can't stand to be in a mall for long either, as I get the same sort of over-stimulation from malls as from TV. But I consider that a selling point as well, because I'd rather not encourage the spread of immense blocks of climate-controlled concrete in the place of stores run by people who care.
And this is why I don't usually talk about TV and the lack of TV, because I sound rabid even to me.

BalRog said...

I echo the thanks of all the others for your insightful and yet humorous analysis. Like you ans several others, I do not own a TV. Our TV gave up the ghost about 3 years ago. At which time the sane half and I challenged the kids to see how long we could go without one. We're still going. My wife and daughter are social butterflies who do not seem to have been impacted socially at all. And me, I've always been extremely introverted; if there has been a social difference for me, I've probably not noticed it.

The biggest loss for me was sports. I've always loved football, and my alma mater has been an emerging national power for over a decade. Half a continent away I'm not anywhere near the media market in which my team's games are typically broadcast. The internet is beginning to address this, but the real key for me was to get involved in my local alumni association. Together we use the strength of our numbers to entice some local public house that is already shelling out for ESPN Gameplan to tune video and sound to our game in order to vie for our custom. This alumni group has evolved into *MY* biggest social activity since I was in high school.

And about the soap opera aspect of the modern primetime series. I was never sucked into BSG, too dark and brooding for me. But I *DID* get sucked into "Lost" in a major way, picking up in the 3rd season and, over time, watching the first 2.5 seasons on DVD to catch up. Unlike your expeience with BSG, I never felt cheated while all the endless plot twists were unfolding. To me "Lost" had all the characteristics I would look for in a good science fantasy novel (like for example, "Simon of Space"), plus compelling sensory input. But that all came crashing down when it came to an end. Much like your experience with BSG, I was left feeling cheated by the ending. None of the plot threads were wrapped up in more than a cursory way. None of the mysteries were revealed. None of the conflicts were resolved. Instead they just tried to convince us that the two lovers were really a candlestick and showed us the door. What a ripoff.

My last series obsession before "Lost" was "The West Wing". Totally different experience there. Yes, there was some loss of quality in the middle seasons when the original creators left the show, but the last season was transcendent. And the final few episodes constituted one of the most satisfying long term plot resolutions I have ever experienced.

pso said...

Ironically, the google ad at the bottom of the page said "High definition channels and advanced digital video recorder. Buy now!" Further, I read this in my rss reader, which has some of the same problems, although they are certainly less severe than with tv.

Computer mediated passive entertainment is somewhat less damaging than tv in that it gives us more control, but potentially worse because it is harder to exclude from life. There is no physical object to get rid of. Tools that were once useful time savers - like rss readers - can mutate into attention grabbing time sinks. One has to be constantly vigilant.

And all of it is on your phone now, with you always. What could be wrong with catching up with posts while waiting for something for a few minutes? Without realizing it, you can easily destroy the moments of quiet contemplation that are often where new ideas are born.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Balrog raises a fair point I didn't even address, because it's not on the radar: sports.

What I'd like to say about the lack of sports programming in my household is simply that it makes other wives in the village envious, because I spend time with my family on those weekends when every other rural male is drunk and shouting at the TV.

I don't have anything particular against televised sports, I've just never been interested in it. My father watches hockey...just seems like watching somebody else play "Pong" to me.

Playing sports is another matter altogether, of course. I'm not very good at any sport (you name it, I suck) but I'm not a sore loser so I enjoy a good match of whatever or whichever, so long as somebody's willing to remind me of the rules first. I always forget the rules.

Jen: I've known a few people who had no TV from the start, and they are without exception far more interesting conversationalists than the average person, and far more likely (in my anecdotal experience) to lead an active lifestyle. People without TV from birth seem to have a lot less trouble with being "bored."

Okay, so what subject should I lambaste next? Is that how you spell lambaste? H'mmm. Probably not. I can get real vitriolic and foamy about certain issues, if it's all in good fun.

Also, I would like to officially announce that my moonlighting gig ended last night at about 10 PM. For reals. It's done.

Yours in new optimism,

Sheik Yerbouti said...


Also, right with you on sports. One of my few redeeming qualities as a husband, to be sure.

Tolomea said...

Regarding BSG, the wife and I watched it all on the computer. We did enjoy it, although the end was a definite let down.

However the plot effect people have mentioned was quite apparent to us.
The intro sequence used to include the line "They have a plan" by season 3 we were parroting this as "There is no plan", sometimes with the follow on "clearly even the writers don't have a plan".

On a related topic I find Anime interesting in this regard. A lot of Anime series (although certainly not all) are viewed as a single work. So they have the plot arc fully developed before production starts and there is less push to make sequels rather than entirely new things.

This results in seasons that are complete stand alone stories with definitive closure. It also allows for plot devices that are impossible when you need to keep the option open for another season. Stuff like killing central characters. Or destroying the main setting.

The flip side of that is that if you really enjoyed something, there is generally no hope for getting more, one complete season and that's all.

As an example, in one series that always sticks with me, by the end they had broken up and dispersed our band of merry adventurers, destroyed their home base and the main character had taken a few hits that had the look of fatal about them and was last seen falling to the ground.

This was one of our first Anime series, so I didn't know the score. For quite a while I kept thinking that they didn't show them actually dead so they could claim they were down and not out. Then the friends could come back and rescue them and we could continue on with another season.

Eventually I had to accept that in the minds of the creators the character was dead and there was never going to be another season and it's better this way.

Teddy said...

@Tolomea; is that Cowboy Bebop you're describing? If so, have you also seen Trigun/ if you like one you'll likely enjoy the other. And I personally prefer the anime method, a pre-developed story that acts like a very large miniseries. Or at least, MOST anime acts like that...


Tolomea said...


I prefer not to name these things and to talk in generalities so as to not litter the place with plot spoilers.

I have however seen both Cowboy Bebop and Trigun and I would strongly recommend them both although I think Cowboy Bebop is the superior of the two.

While we are on the topic I would also strongly recommend Last Exile and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.
Although there are many great Anime series those 4 are probably my favorites.

Tirade said...

I'm in a similar boat myself. I have a cable line running to my house. It is there solely for the purpose of providing me with high-speed internet. There is a small television downstairs. It is there solely for the purpose of watching DVDs and VHS tapes. Of which I do practically none, since the computer I'm sitting in front of right now has a DVD drive.

I have missed out on a lot of pop culture. And what little is worth catching I will usually be advised to catch, and there's usually a way to do so. Borrow a DVD from the library. Watch it on (apologies to non-USA residents there. Most stuff on Hulu is only licensed for the US.)

There will always be times when people who are in my age group will talk about some fond memory of an old TV show that I'd never watched, and occasionally never heard of. But somehow I survive such indignities.