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Black Lamb

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The boob tube

March 1st, 2006

BY CERVINE KAUFFMAN

My opinion of the boob tube is that it is a pernicious invention and one that humanity would do better without. Like most American children, I watched my share of TV. As a child, I read almost constantly, but I also watched cartoons every day after school. There were other programs that I watched, at least one every night, and I remember seeing episodes of the cartoons, and the evening, programs, sometimes two and three times. When I think of the waste of time, I cringe.

When I was little, I didn’t think much of TV as a waste of time because it was fun. I also didn’t resent being told to buy things every five minutes. The only time that commercials bothered me was when they interrupted the flow of The Wizard of Oz or the Peanuts specials. It was only later, after I’d been weaned from the tube for pensivegal.jpgseveral years, that I realized how often shows are interrupted, how suspiciously sitcom plots segue into commercials (especially around Christmastime when manufacturers are pushing electronic and automotive gizmos), how bizarre it is that most commercials are for cars and food (since when do Americans need to be reminded to drive or eat?), and how pornographic the food ones are. The big question: why do millions of people sit still for commercials?

When I was a kid, I did, however, resent mightily the distortion that TV wrought on our family life. When Dad watched TV, everyone had to listen to what was on, stay out of the nicest part of the living room because it was in the line of sight to the TV, forego listening to music, and forego talking to Dad, or anyone else, if it interrupted Dad’s concentration. I had thirty minutes to practice the piano before the TV came on. I don’t think that my Dad was an unusual TV watcher. In most homes and groups when the TV is turned on, the people not watching adjust themselves to it (or stop what they’re doing and start watching) rather than the viewers being expected to go someplace in order not to interrupt others.

The older I got, the more uncomfortable I became. In junior high, I read Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug, a chilling book. Everything she described about the insidious nature of TV in the home, and the tranquilizing and distorting effect on the mind of watching TV, regardless of the program, rang true.

It’s still ringing. What disturbs me the most about television watching is how much people do it and the garbage that is on. When I think of my Dad, and the thousands of semi-idle (he worked hard at his job) and demoralized men like him, I wonder what they would be doing without TV. Whittling at the general store? Playing darts at the pub? Bowling, joining the Elks? Any of those activities contributes more to civilization than watching TV. And the women — I suspect that even the most avid filmgoers during the glory days of movie theaters spent less time at the movies than women do now in front of the tube. TV is just too accessible, and as everyone knows, it is seductive.

Images are seductive. I love movies. I love some TV programs. But I choose not to have TV reception because I want to plan when I’m going to spend my time watching (instead of doing), and I don’t want to be interrupted by hucksters while in the middle of a program. I realize that this makes me probably less than one-tenth of one-percent of the American population, and that scares me.

It also disgusts me. When I listen to the women at my job — women who claim that they don’t have any time to cook, or read, or take classes, or exercise, or decorate for the holidays, or garden — they talk constantly about the TV shows and commercials that they’ve seen and are looking forward to seeing, and it is clear that most of their waking, non-work hours are spent in front of the tube. The human energy that is being siphoned off into passivity is what is tragic. The homogenity of the content is also disturbing, although, as Marie Winn pointed out, even if I, or anyone else, spent twenty-five hours every week watching the most enriching programs available, that would still be twenty-five hours of idleness. It’s just too much.

For over five years I’ve been telling the ladies at work that I don’t watch TV, and they still ask me if I saw such and so last night. It just doesn’t register. At one point, my mom suggested that maybe I wasn’t dating as much as I’d like because I didn’t watch Seinfeld so couldn’t make small talk. Bless her heart, she bought me a TV once when I was depressed because she said it was a good way to relax. It can be, but when it’s used to relax, it seems nearly impossible to watch in small quantities — hence, my dad’s dependence. It’s just too seductive, and not because it’s good for you. In any other form, it would be a controlled substance, and I think we’d be better off without it, or better off consuming it in deliberate and specific ways. Movies and programs in theaters, yes, movies and programs in home theaters, yes, but boob tubes in rooms not dedicated to video, no, and no commercials, ever. Even then, video for only a few hours a week, which leaves lots of hours for all of the other activities that are enjoyable, satisfying, relaxing, and just plain important to do. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Kauffman | Link to this Entry

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