Tuesday, June 28, 2011

If You Don’t Watch Television, You Live in a Whole Different World

Recently, I was making small talk with someone who asked me if I had seen a particular television show. I’m never quite sure how to respond to such an inquiry as more often than not I haven't even heard of the program in question, so I answered patiently that I rarely ever watch television. The other party, a middle aged woman who seemed nice enough, looked at me as if I had just told her that in my spare time I enjoy standing around bus stops in the nude.

Really, she asked, then how do you keep up with what’s going on in the world?

The Internet, mostly, I replied. I prefer to seek out stories I’m interested in and not have someone spoon feed to me what they think is important.

Hearing this, she immediately switched gears. So what do you think about the Casey Anthony trial?

She got me with that one. I asked, who is Casey Anthony? And no, I wasn’t being an ass; at the time I genuinely had no idea.

Not surprisingly, after what I subsequently discovered, the conversation quickly petered out. That night I Googled the name to see what the lady had been referring to and—ah yes, a little white girl murdered, this time by her own mother. Another overhyped media spectacle of absolutely zero importance to anyone beyond little Caylee Anthony’s family. Shame on me for not knowing. I’m such an uncaring bastard. A few days later, Jim Kunstler included a snide reference to the case on his blog, which caused me to laugh out loud at the coincidental timing of my having just become aware of it.

So the point was driven home yet again—because I do not participate in the vapid, celebrity-driven spectacle of our mainstream media, I live in a completely different world than do the vast majority of Americans. What’s funny is that it’s not like I’m a hermit or anything. I live in a prosperous suburb of the imperial capital and I keep a pretty close eye on the doings of the arrogant local denizens who think they create their own reality around the world. I can explain to you in great detail what’s happening in many different countries, most particularly my own, but because I am so sheltered as to not have any idea who Casey and Caylee Anthony are I’m at a disadvantage when making casual conversation at parties. It’s surreal, to say the least.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Coming of age in the 1970s, I was raised on television like nearly every child of my generation and can probably recite all of the lines from various Bugs Bunny cartoons from memory. Being a curious youth who was interested in what was going on in the wider world beyond my parochial hometown, by my high school years I was an avid viewer of the nightly network news. MASH was then my favorite entertainment show--its strong antiwar message holding much appeal for me. Television was a huge part of my life.

Probably my first realization of the power the medium can have over people’s thoughts was during high school history when the teacher asserted that he could take over the country if he was given complete control of just three institutions: ABC, NBC and CBS (no cable or satellite channels back in those days, obviously). Shortly thereafter, cable television and CNN came to my hometown and I quickly became a junkie, often watching the half-hour Headline News broadcast two or three times in succession.

When I got to college, a political science professor proclaimed that it was important to watch the television news in addition to reading a daily newspaper if you wanted to fully understand what was going on in the world. Faithfully, I followed the tenants of my education, keeping a subscription first to the Chicago Tribune and then the Washington Post well into my thirties. CNN was a regular part of my day, and I still enjoyed numerous entertainment shows like Cheers and Seinfeld.

But somewhere along the way, it all started to go bad. The first time I remember being really disgusted by overhyped “news” coverage was during the O.J. Simpson trial. Naively hoping that the media would regain its senses once that spectacle was over, I was instead dismayed when such sensationalist coverage became the norm.

It was around that same time that Fox News appeared on the scene, and even worse than its right wing editorial slant was how it drew viewers by MTV-ifying its coverage—using quick edits, slick graphics, sensationalism and celebrity worship when not actively pushing its political agenda. Instead of resisting this coarsening of news broadcasts, the other networks instead fell all over themselves to imitate it. Meanwhile, I noticed that the number of entertainment shows I watched regularly was quickly dwindling as quality programs went off the air and were replaced by utterly vapid prime time game and reality shows.

After 9/11 came the now omnipresent running scroll at the bottom of the screen during news broadcasts, but I noticed that the more information the networks insisted on presenting, the less actual value it had. By the middle of this past decade I had become an Internet news junkie, rarely turning on the teevee for information at all. For entertainment programs, I eventually whittled my regular viewing all the way down to just The Daily Show, which I ultimately gave up this past year after Jon Stewart’s hugely dispiriting Rally to Encourage People to Do Nothing.

So now here I am, braying in the Internet wilderness, writing a blog so at odds with what most of my fellow citizens accept as reality that I fear their heads would explode if they ever read it. It’s a strange feeling, but sometimes it can be fairly exhilarating—such as the grim satisfaction I felt when the stock market crash I had been predicting to my friends and colleagues throughout the summer of 2008 came to pass and they then thought I was clairvoyant. The evidence was all there, I tried to tell them afterward, you just need to stop believing what you see on the news.

Occasionally, I’ll read a peak oil article where the writer will be very earnest in suggesting this or that big picture solution for the problem of our society transitioning to a powered down world. They always make sense, and I appreciate their efforts, but then I think about the above and realize the author is no doubt someone like me—thinking so far outside (the idiot) box that they will never be able to get through to the idiots.

That’s why I don’t offer such solutions here. Instead, I merely implore my readers to do what they can to prepare themselves and those they care about for what’s coming. It’s all you can do, really, until the day finally comes when what the late author Joe Bageant used to refer to as The American Hologram delivers its final broadcast, and is ultimately revealed to have been a mass hypnosis conjured by slick hucksters who have made the little man behind the Great and Powerful Oz look like a rank amateur.


  1. One of the reasons why I can't stand television anymore is the never ending commercial breaks. And most importantly, their tone.

    The obsessive way of telling me that I need this and that really annoys me and makes me uncomfortable. And it does feel strangely like I don't belong to the same world.

    And the majority of the tv shows now seem to revolve around some kind of "reality" subject with self loathing characters who think that the entire world should care about their lives.

    The only thing playing on our tv set is morning cartoons that the kids watch.

  2. http://www.turnoffyourtv.com/commentary/network.zombies.html

    Yes..... I totally agree.

    Television... weapons of mass distraction.

    I cannot converse with a hard core television watcher... it makes me feel stupid for exactly the same reasons....... somehow i miss important names and events ... like who are the last people in dancing with the stars etc...and i don't recognize their names. Ironic....isn't it?

  3. I'm the only member of my house that doesn't regularly watch television. In fact my wife complains that I only wathc shows about civil construction or black and white movies that she's sure I've seen a dozen times already (and she's usually right).

    That being said the corollary to the observation about thinking so far out of the idiot box made me think that successful politicians are like the magician pushing swords into the box, when no one gets hurt they get elected...

  4. @twf - I completely agree. Commercials drove me crazy long before I gave up television, and they just seemed to be getting more juvenile by the year.

  5. @Wendy - it certainly is sadly ironic.

  6. @MNG - great observation about politicians.

  7. I found the TV trying to sell me a lifestyle that I did not even want, but it did so by playing masterfully on fears and insecurities. Once I realized that, I got rid of the TV and most magazines. I like myself much better now, and I am living in a way that makes me happy, rather than trying to impress anyone.

  8. what a great article Bill! I don't feel so alone now. LOL
    We haven't watched tv in years now and I can't tell you how many times I've been unable to have conversations with people because they would be talking about their favorite show or something and I wouldn't have a clue what they were talking about.
    Do you ever wonder about how you might be different if you'd never seen tv or heard a radio?
    I wonder sometimes when I catch myself humming some old advertising jingle. Or thinking about something some character on a show said a quarter century ago.
    I wonder how I might be different than I otherwise would have been if I'd never been exposed to psychological advertising techniques or the philosophy of Mr. Spock. :D
    keep 'em comin' Bill. I love your work.

  9. Great piece, Bill! I totally relate and my pattern of viewing almost matches yours: gradually dwindling, as I suspect my age is very close to yours too. I'm glad that you are instead flexing your creativity and expressing yourself here in this blog. Believe me, those of us who share this strange wasteland of a culture need to know that there are others out there who are not deadened by media consumption. But I even consider my internet time to be a frittering away of valuable creative time, and need to force myself to fast and go write, play music, meditate, stand on my head, garden and dream. It becomes a lazy default setting to sit in front of the screen and scan the forums.
    But what am I gonna do for company, eh, when I can only relate to the way people in certain forums think?

  10. My wife and I got rid of the TV in 1985. Initially, our family viewed TV as a novelty that could be viewed whenever we stayed at a hotel. In place of the TV, our four children were raised with books and computers. Although we did finally get a TV to watch movies, my wife and I can't stand to be in the same room with a TV that is connected.

  11. @Alice Dee - I totally understand your dilemma regarding the Internet. I'm not sure where I would get my intellectual stimulation without it when in meat space I'm always getting accused of being a "downer."

  12. @pamela - Yep, its those damn commercials that are the worst. I hate the fact that the Oscar Meyer Wiener song will be etched in my memory until the day I take my dying breath.

  13. ouch about the jingle thing.... since my kids were small we pretty much always watched the ABC (Australia) no advertisments, or SBS (no advertisments) just good quality dramas, science, history sf and in depth news shows. Coming to the USA i could not BELIEVE the television channels not just the number but the ADVERTISING... for the first couple of days it was an amusement ... i saw 'depravity' and 'shallowness' and 'sexism' pretty blatantly..... pretty much the only thing that was of any real use has turned out to be the Weather Channel and Link tv. :) I am not a television hater... i do believe like any other information source it can be managed by personal choice... ie the off button is your friend. There are good shows out there. But then it mostly sits as a silent sentinel in a room until family movie night and we watch dvds together. But obviously my viewing habits are much different from most because i have many experiences in a week where i have NO CLUE what people are talking about ... as you say Pamela... and being a visual person maybe that affects the use of it too.... but i have teenagers in the house and they use it even less.... I must be doing something right.