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The Danger in TV Land

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The mind resting with the TV is not very alert or critical.

I’m so excited about a new trend. We may be losing bees, but we’re also losing TV’s.

But actually as I did more research on the news story, my excitement abated. Even though Nielsen Ratings reveal that five million people have stopped paying for cable and satellite TV, some 290 million people are still in the system. And in fact, almost 40 million households contain four or more televisions.

The most recent figures reveal that the average American over the age of two spends more than 34 hours a week watching live television. That’s about five hours a day. And get this: People 65 and over watch nearly seven hours a day.

Of course television is a blessing for the unwell elderly, but for the rest of us, it reveals how abundance can lead to excess. And just think of the associated loss: the homework not done, the books not read, the creativity not developed, the good food not cooked, the conversations not held, the parenting foregone, the dog not walked, the home not maintained, and on and on.

I have often thought that when future historians analyze the decline of America, the television will be pinpointed as the beginning. By choice, I have gone without television off and on since college for a total of seventeen years, six most recently. I’ve been very happy without it, and when I do watch a bit with friends or family, I can clearly see how it is changing in unfortunate ways. For one thing, the number of commercials per program is rising steadily; and like a visiting foreigner, I pay close attention to the messages.

When viewers are now exposed to as many as 35 commercials during each program, values are thus shaped by the Mad Men, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, like water dripping on a stone. We are meant to learn here, among other things, what we should look like, what will make us successful and attractive and happy, what unhealthy things to add to the grocery list, what dangers to fear, what medications to lobby the doctor for, and generally what the ideal American life should look like as the result of ardent consumerism.

The mind resting with the TV is not very alert or critical. If you go to a movie, you leave the theater talking about the value of the experience. Was the acting good? Who really did the best job? Was the story line credible? How about the cinematography? Because you paid for the movie, the critical faculties are engaged, but television feels free and standards drop.

And no debate goes on about the accuracy, the fairness, the balance, or the depth of news coverage. The news is watched from the station that affirms existing values, sinking viewers ever more deeply into a perspective that is not amenable to dispute. It is a matter of consuming the propaganda of choice, thereby making positions steadily more heated and intractable. And the undue influence of election ads further impairs democracy.

Because I write this blog, sometimes I think I should get a TV just to monitor what’s going on in the popular culture. After all, when I go to get my car washed and pick up People magazine in the lobby, there are many celebrities I don’t recognize from TV shows I’ve never seen. Sometimes I hear about things I really would like to see, but I can usually get access in my own good time. In the meantime, I am safe from too much reality, like the life of Honey Boo Boo.

The television became the fireplace in the American home but eliminated visiting around the hearth. I worry about families, about children in TV land, but I guess things could always get worse. Many of those five million people who have cut the cord on TV are turning instead to PCs, tablets, smartphones, and game platforms to access entertainment. And that probably means that family members will continue to disperse in all different directions. In time, the cozy hours gathered with the screen in one room will probably be remembered with nostalgia.

I have to confess that sometimes I kind of hope an  asteroid or a solar flare will serve to break the spell. And perhaps people who are still attuned to the natural world will know in advance, which reminds me of lines from a poem by Rumi:

“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

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