TV or not TV, that is the question . . .

Television is one of the greatest inventions of all time. For example, at 2:56 am Greenwich Mean Time on July 20, 1969, we were able to watch in our living room Neil A. Armstrong step out of the lunar module of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and haltingly walk on the surface of the moon. We were witnessing a milestone in the history of humanity. Such is the potential power of TV to inform, inspire, and unite.

Yet, in its current state, TV produces more problems than it offers blessings. The first problem is no matter how noble our intentions are to watch only worthwhile programming, once we start watching, it is all too easy to become ensnared in its almost hypnotic power to keep us watching regardless of the banality of the content.

I’m changing the subject for a moment, but there’s a reason for it, so please bear with me. Now and then, an insect will find its way into my home. No matter how small it is, once it’s spotted, my cat remains transfixed, and finally “attacks” the bug. My cat’s behavior is due to what is called the “orienting response.” That simply means that sudden movement grabs my cat’s attention. We, too, have inherited this primitive response; the purpose of which is to alert us to the dangers of possible predators. Ever jump in fear because of a shadow or cringe in horror when something unidentifiable quickly moved across your path? They are examples of the orienting response.

The rapidly flickering, ever changing colors and shifting contrast of the TV screen seem to have the same effect. That is, TV captivates and transfixes us. So, before long, we are watching not for the content, but for the contrast, change, and captivating swirl of images. That is the danger. We may decide to catch a one-hour educational program, but find ourselves immobilized by TV’s power and end up “watching” longer than we originally planned.

The behavior of many viewers supports the claim that we watch TV because of its power rather than for its content. The behavior I’m referring to is eating junk food and guzzling beer or pop while watching TV. What has this behaviour got to do with the reason we watch TV? Well, you don’t munch potato chips and drink beer while you’re reading a book, do you? So, why is it done while watching TV? The answer is because TV is boring, and snacking helps to while the time away. By the way, according to a 1989 study by Larry Tucker at Brigham Young University, “Men who watch television three or more hours a day are twice as likely to be obese than men who watch for less than an hour.”

TV also decreases one’s attention span and weakens one’s imagination. It weakens our attention span because we grow used to quick, short bursts of information. As a result, we grow impatient if it takes a while to make a point. TV weakens our imagination because everything is portrayed for us. All we have to do is sit back and observe someone else’s imagination. Books are just the opposite. They increase our attention span and help to develop our imagination. We need to be more like Groucho Marx (1895 ~ 1977) who said, “I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on I go into another room and read a good book.”

The mesmerizing effect of TV brings us to an interesting paradox. You see, after a day’s work, many like to regain some energy by first relaxing before the TV. But the “orienting response” and swirling TV images that I mentioned earlier result in information overload. This over stimulus of the brain sucks the energy right out of us. That’s the paradox, we watch it with the hope of reenergizing, but get drained instead. Compare this with going to the gym for a workout after a tiring day at the office. Instead of growing more tired, we become energized. So, if you want more energy, far better to engage in some activity than to plop down in front of a TV.

Besides the hypnotic like effect it has, another major problem is the way it is used by those who own and run television stations and networks. TV is not made to entertain, educate, or enlighten us. It is made to sell products and services. To quote Dr. George Gerbner, Dean of the Annenburg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, “Living with television means growing up in a world of about 22,000 commercials a year, 5,000 of them for food products, more than half of which are for low-nutrition sweets and snacks.” TV, then, is the throbbing heart of the monster called consumerism. Women are forced to go to work and children see less and less of their parents, all so we can buy more and more of the stuff TV tells us is indispensable for happiness.

In the book “Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television and the First Amendment” another paradox of TV is mentioned; mainly, “Every day, all across the United States, a parade of louts, losers and con-men whom most people would never allow in their homes enter anyway, through television.” That brings us to the next issue, TV violence.

Doesn’t the extraordinary amount of violence on TV have an adverse impact on society? Oh, I know intellectuals like to disagree with that point. For instance, Dick Cavett mocked the TV-violence debate by quipping, “There’s so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?” His remark makes a nice sound bite, but shows little understanding of sociology. We are socialized. We are taught how to think and feel by society, which consists of our parents, peers, schools, churches, role models, and, yes, TV. Of course it has an impact. To deny that is to say advertisers spend billions of dollars on TV ads that don’t work. That’s silly. TV ads influence us, and so does everything else that appears on TV.

TV creates great harm not only by its influence, but also by what it prevents. Marie Winn makes this point clear in her book “The Plug-In Drug.” She writes, “The primary danger of the television screen lies not so much in the behavior it produces – although there is danger there – as in the behavior it prevents: the talks, the games, the family festivities and arguments…” The three hours a day that the average person spends watching TV could be used in countless ways to grow. Want to master the art of digital imaging, write poetry, learn how to play a keyboard, study a foreign language, learn how to dance, or just get out and meet some interesting people? All that and more is possible simply by turning off the TV and using that time more wisely. There’s much talk about life extension. People want to live longer. A 20-year-old man who watches TV three hours a day until the age of 70, could have extended his life six and a quarter years merely by turning off the TV. Shutting it off not only gets you to live longer, but to live BETTER.

I’m not suggesting TV is completely worthless. For example, I immensely enjoyed John Kerry’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Yet, I am saying that even in TV’s finest moments, we could probably do better by turning it off. What do you think?