The Curbside Solution
(A Few personal Reflections on Television: Text of a Public Lecture)
People enjoy being brainwashed, if you set about it the right way.--Arthur C. Clarke (I Remember Babylon, 1960)
You have heard it often enough in this conference that the corporate media are controlled by comparatively few, fabulously wealthy, conservative Americans. They own most TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, and magazines in the United States. These tycoons pull the strings in The Detroit Free Press and The Pittsburgh Press, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, WOMC and WXYZ, Channel 4 and Channel 1004. Even so-called "public" television and radio is under the indirect control of the same people. As if this is not bad enough, you have had ample opportunity by now to discuss the influence of advertisers on the corporate media and, especially, on television. TV is not there to tell us the truth about anything, not to educate us, not to evoke our sense of beauty or justice, not to appeal to our better, kinder and more rational side, not to serve our interests. Its purpose is: deliver us for as long as possible, and in as great numbers as possible, to the advertisers.
Many Americans know that there is something wrong with television. A few occasionally write protest letters to this or that TV station, government agency, or congressman. They may allow their children to view some programs but forbid them to view others. They may raise Cain about commercialism, violence, or pornography on their screens. After years of struggle, they typically concede that their reform efforts have failed, and they helplessly throw in the towel. All throughout this process, they go on watching TV, perhaps feeling that they are somehow immune to this seductive mixture of gossip, commercial propaganda, and political half-truths. They typically end up by viewing TV like a hurricane--horrible but inescapable.
In this brief lecture I shall argue that there is a very simple way out. We can't escape from our filthy air, but we can drastically limit our exposure to mind pollution. We can, if we wish, become masters of our own brains.
The solution is just as far as your curb. Twenty years ago, I simply gave the TV industry the slip. I unplugged my TV and placed it down by the curbside. This was painless, albeit radical, surgery--in less than five minutes, my home was TV-free. Two days later, the TV was picked up by the city garbage collectors, not to be heard from since.
In my talk today, I would like to consider the pros and cons of this TV-free lifestyle. Let me start by examining the advantages of continuous TV exposure:
1. Some of the material on television is entertaining, or valuable, or interesting, or useful, or worth knowing. Curbsiders are forced to give up these things. For example, if I wish to view some spectacular historical event such as the 1969 moon landing, I must invite myself to the home of a friend.
2. Emotionally drained, we sometimes lean on our TV sets to forget our troubles. Can we afford to let go of this stress reliever?
3. Perhaps the biggest price curbsiders like myself must pay is being somewhat out of touch with their culture. For kids, this is particularly difficult. But even adults find it embarrassing at times. People assume that you know who Archie Bunker, or the Three Stooges, or Madonna, or Dan Rather, or Carl Lewis are, but I often don't. Moreover, much more than verbal information is at stake here. There are some mannerisms, jokes, and values which come to us from television, and which, at times, make curbsiders feel like outsiders. I am, for instance, a lousy player of Trivial Pursuit and I can't solve the typical crossword puzzle on my own.
Given TV's enormous popularity, it must, I am sure, have some additional merits than the ones discussed here. But at this point I should like to explore the negative aspects of TV addiction:
1. The first, and perhaps most convincing, argument against the TV habit concerns opportunity costs. Here the question is: Could I spend my time more profitably doing something other than watching TV? To begin with, we need to digest some statistics. The typical American watches TV, on the average (including weekends and vacations), some seven hours a day. Now, that is a good portion of our lives. We all must sleep and do such meaningless things as brushing teeth. So, at the most, we have less than ten hours a day to do the things we want to do. Do you really want to spend 70% of that precious time on television? You could instead read books, talk to people, watch sunsets, and travel. You could develop your musical or basket-weaving talents. You could do all these things and still have some spare time on your hands, if you just let go of your television. Couldn't you get more out of doing such things than from TV?
2. Life is meant to be lived: we should not sit passively on a couch and let life pass us by. Yet, this is precisely what a TV addict does. Isn't it better to kiss than to watch someone else kiss? To ski than to watch someone else ski? To talk to our kids than to watch someone else pretend to talk to his/her kids? To eat dinner with family or friends, instead of each person eating alone while watching how other, imaginary, people live and eat? To really live, than to live vicariously?
3. We should, it seems to me, strive to expose ourselves to the highest quality in art and most other pastimes. Yet, TV is primarily concerned with the bottom line, not in art for art's sake. Is it really reasonable to expect excellence simply as a byproduct of greed? Doesn't TV vulgarize our artistic and aesthetic sensibilities? Doesn't it provide us with the cultural equivalent of junk food?
4. The same goes for truth and objective information. Don't we owe it to ourselves, loved ones, and future generations, to vote intelligently and to know what goes on in the world around us? If we suspect that we are fed propaganda, not truth, it behooves us, I think, to ignore institutional lies and to embark on the search for the truth. In support of this view, let me quote a few people who have given this very subject some thought: