Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"The Enemy Within"

Television got me a house.

Television got me a really nice car.

Television got me trips, it got me stuff I wanted to buy, it got me more expensive (and hopefully better) haircuts.

Television never laughed at me when I muffed a fly ball, or wobbled around on skates. It kept me company through my teen years, when buddies were occupied with more adult pursuits.

Television taught me a trade, and let me ply it happily (or as happily as I can ply anything) for decades.

Television got me a wife. After a chance meeting on the street, Dr. M (who was just M at the time) tracked me down, a feat that was only possible, because I had won a television writing award (The Humanitas Prize) and she happened to be taking a film and television course whose teaching staff voted for that award.

I admit it freely. Television gave me cash, confidence and a lifetime companion. You can therefore imagine how monumentally ungrateful I feel saying…

Television is a nerve-jangling menace. And we have to stop watching it.

(There’s a television sitting beside me. And it just glared at me.)

As for my chances of escaping TV’s addictive grip – very unlikely. I’m pretty much a goner. But maybe I can help others. The way those rock stars used to do those Public Service announcements saying, “I almost died taking drugs. Don’t do it.”

(Those PSA’s always seemed misguided to me. Rather than sending a “Don’t take drugs” message, the ads seemed to be saying, “Take drugs. But stop just before they kill you.” That’s an entirely different message.)

This isn’t about content.

This isn’t about the distortion of reality.

This isn’t about lost time.

This isn’t about a failure to develop social skills.

This isn’t about suddenly wanting a pizza (or a beer, or a new car, or more hair) when, before the commercial, you were thoroughly content.

This isn’t about television ’s selection process, when, if it’s not on TV, it effectively didn’t happen, and if it is, it’s as important as the Kennedy assassination.

This isn’t about television’s ignoring of the issues that television, due to its innate limitations, is not equipped to cover.

This isn’t about the unbending requirements of the marketplace.

Those issues are important. But they’re not what I’m talking about today.

What I’m talking about is what television does to our bodies, and I don’t mean that watching a lot of it makes us fat. I’m talking about what television does to us unconsciously, how it messes with our inner rhythm. I am here to declare that the act of watching TV – the mere process of sitting there and doing that – does things to our natural state of being we have absolutely no idea are taking place.

Whoo. Is that intriguing?

Or is it “over the top”?

I’ll let you decide.

Here’s my belief. Television, ostensibly a haven of relaxation and repose, actually makes us more jumpy. Not on the outside. On the outside, they’re Zombies. We know that, because every time we want a TV watcher’s attention, we have to throw something at them to get it. They’re simply not home.

Do they appear relaxed? Well, they’re not moving. But not moving doesn’t mean relaxed. Inside that immobile exterior, without their being aware of it, watching television is churning those TV watchers up.

My argument n a nutshell: TV watching puts you in a state of passive anxiety.

(My television just moved a little closer. I believe it’s reading over my shoulder.)

Here’s where I got proof of all this. About a year ago, I took an extension class at UCLA called, Sociology of Mass Communication. Along with some paranoid ravings about the content of the news being controlled by too few corporations – corporations don’t care about the news; they care about money – the teacher assigned some TV watching experiments for the students to conduct at home. They were extremely illuminating.

One assignment required us to watch TV for ten minutes with the sound off. While we watched, we were instructed to record with a check mark the number of “technical events”, meaning every time the scene changed, or the camera cut to a different angle. The exercise was meant to bring to our conscious attention how jumpy what we’re watching really is.

In a ten-minute period, I check-marked over two hundred “technical events.” That’s a camera move every three seconds. (During commercials, it was more.) This experiment made me aware that, though I may think I’m being soothed by what I’m watching, the images bombarding my eyeballs are jumping around like crazy. This is hardly the same as enjoying a sunset.

How do I know that jumpiness is affecting me? Because of another experiment our teacher instructed us to carry out:

Watch television for thirty minutes with the set turned off.

That’s right. She wanted us to watch TV for thirty minutes, with the television set turned off. We were to watch the set itself.

Now that seemed strange. But I did it. And, at about the halfway point in the experiment, feeling foolish and hoping nobody would come in the room, I experienced an alteration in myself that was both shocking and unexpected.

My reaction caught me entirely by surprise. There I was, sitting there watching a blank screen when, suddenly, I let out a breath. Not any kind of a breath, a long, relaxing, cleansing-feeling breath. I remember thinking, “What the heck was that?”

What it was was the realization that the process of watching TV – even when it isn’t on – causes me, in a way I’m completely unaware of

to hold my breath.

That can’t be relaxing, can it?


I did an experiment demonstrating that, despite the conventional wisdom that TV provides a soothing break from the turmoil of everyday life, it does precisely the opposite. I came back from a TV-free vacation where I read six books, (along with attending four movies, two plays, two ballgames, visiting two museum and a Greek festival). I see the difference. I know watching TV is not good for me.

Yet I continue to watch. A lot.


It’s “The Call.” The call I can never resist.

Hey, Err-ill…

Ball game.

Hey, Err-ill…

“Red River’s” on the westerns channel.

Hey, Err-ill...

There was that great joke on “30 Rock” a year and a half ago. There could be another one tonight.

Hey, Err-ill…

The president’s making a speech.

Hey, Err-ill…

C-SPAN 2’s offering a lecture by the foremost authority on the Civil War. It’s not TV, Earl. It’s a lecture.

Cable news, Err-ill…

Maybe this is the night a Republican says, “You know, we’ve been a mean-spirited bunch for the longest time. Seems like, as religious folks, we ought care more about the people who are less fortunate than us.” Or when a Democrat says, “Conservatives may have something with this ‘gradual change’ idea. Maybe we ought to stop laughing at them, and listen.” Do you really want to miss that?

Despite my most determined efforts, “The Call” has me entirely in its thrall. I’m as doomed as doomed can be.

(My TV has returned to its position. And it’s smiling.)

But you may still be able to save yourselves.

Or at least think about it.


A. Buck Short said...

Wow, Humanitas. You are up there in some pretty impressive company. Now just please tell us you didn't take the 10-thou you won for MTM and blow it all on hookers. Thanks also for participating in the UCLA experiement, thereby not only contributing to television arts but also sciences. But I have to tell you, I still find one of the best ways to get to sleep after an unnerving day is to leave the bedroom set on with sleep timer set for a half hour.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I know all the reasons my parents told me that TV was bad for me, but you managed to find a new one! I'm impressed. Not going to stop watching either, but am still seriously impressed. And laughing so hard I'm having trouble typing.