Monday, May 17, 2010

Turn Off the Television

April 19-25 was TV Turnoff Week, during which all citizens are encouraged to keep their "idiot boxes" turned off. Originally organized by the anti-consumerist group Adbusters and now run by the nonprofit group Center for Screentime Awareness, the event has been held regularly since 1994.

Television could have proven to be the most Jeffersonian invention since the printing press. Had the powers-that-be in the network world upheld civic virtue rather than succumb to a mere profit motive, the programming on television could have been focused on quality drama and comedy, well-made intellectual documentaries, and news programs that fully explore complex issues. They could, in short, have made television into a great source of enlightenment, education, and uplifiting of the spirit.

Instead, we have the infamous "vast wasteland." Television was so described by Newton Minow, then chairman of the FCC, in a famous speech in 1961. Back then, there were only three networks in the country, and if the quality of the programming was not particularly good, at least there wasn't that much of it. Today, by contrast, we have a much vaster wasteland to deal with, literally hundreds of channels all peddling the same lowest-common-denominator drivel that is dissolving our national spirit like a steady dripping of acid.

What do we see when we look at the vast wasteland today? We see reality shows that follow the moronic antics of immoral people trying to achieve some useless or degraded objective. We see formulatic comedies, the vast majority of which focus almost exclusively on crude and sexual humor that no decent person would find amusing. We see game shows the message of which seems to be that Americans should be as stupid as possible. After fifteen minutes of watching standard American television, one feels the need to take a shower.

There remain a few programs of worthwile and intelligent content. Public television, funding directly by citizens and therefore not dependent on corporate advertising for its revenue, regularly features excellent documentaries and the last remaining news programs of any value in America. A few of the cable networks produce some excellent drama and comedy programs as well. But these diamonds in the dunghill are few and far between, and their numbers seem to dwindle with every passing year. Besides, reading a good book or taking a hike on a nature trail is preferable to even the highest quality television program.

Depending on which study you read, the average American spends between three and four hours a day watching television. That's more than 1,200 hours a year. Do they really see anything they needed to see, learn anything worth learning, or see anything remotely meaningful or even relevant to their lives? If they could wave a magic wand and get all those hours back, would it be make sense for them to spend that time in front of the television again?

The average American sees something like 30,000 commercials every year. Television is by far the most important medium for corporate propaganda to weasel its way into the minds of American citizens and American children. The latest psychological research is employed to persuade Americans to buy what they do not need using money they do not have. It spreads the insidious message that consumerism is the end-all-be-all of life, and that virtue and decency are quant relics of a bygone age.

The time we spend watching television breaks down the Jeffersonian pillars of our society. Every hour spent in front of the "idiot box" is one less hour for reading a book or newspaper, for gardening, for enjoying dinner parties with friends, for attending school board meetings, or for voluntering with local community groups. In effect, television simply plugs itself into our souls and gradually sucks out our Jeffersonian energies.

Turn it off. And, if you're wise, keep it off.

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