Sunday, September 27, 2009

Turn Off

I was surprised to find myself agreeing with conservative Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby for the very first time, this morning, as I read his diatribe against TV, Silence that idiot box! He says television is making Americans and our kids stupider every day. Because I seldom watch TV, I'm not desensitized to its overall crappiness, so it hits me like a ton of bricks whenever I'm trapped in a doctor's waiting room, for example, with a giant screen looming over me, tuned to some talk show. I also hear it in the background when I call my dad, whose favorite shows are "Touched by an Angel" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."

As Jacoby says:
For turning brains into mush, you can’t do better than television. The “vast wasteland’’ Newton Minow deplored in 1961 is infinitely vaster now - a largely unrelieved wilderness of mindless, stupefying entertainment, where dysfunction vies for predominance with vulgarity, and where the insatiable hunger for ratings eventually overpowers every consideration of taste, morality, and intellect.
Gee, Jeff, tell us how you really feel.

When I visit my family in Pennsylvania, there's always at least one giant-screen TV on in the living room, and usually there are more of them going, in adjoining rooms. I know this is normal in American households. But there's never anything good to watch! The Food Network is popular with my family, and so we'll sit watching ditzy women in revealing tops jabber while making nachos. After spending a couple of days around a TV, I need to recover. Everyone else in America is used to this level of sensory stimulation but I'm out of practice. I do this by not watching much more than an hour of non–Red Sox TV weekly for the next year. I find TV every bit as as annoying as construction noise, cigarette smoke, and sports radio.

I wasn't always this sensitive; like all children of the '60s, I grew up in front of the TV. Some of my earliest memories are of staying up until after 11 as a tiny kid, huddled under an afghan, watching "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Peyton Place," and "The Twilight Zone" with my mom and my sister. And being creeped out by all three, which were highly unsuitable for a preschooler. I also watched late-night movies with them, most memorably, The Birds. (What was my family thinking?)

The family gathered around our Zenith to watch "Gunsmoke" and "The Jackie Gleason Show." I watched TV as I played with my Barbies, colored, drew, painted, read, crocheted, and did homework (and got mostly As). And even as a kid, I had some taste (although I also watched "Laugh-In," "Benny Hill," and "My Mother the Car"), I discovered PBS early, so "Masterpiece Theater," "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Doctor in the House," and documentary series like "Leonardo" and "Elizabeth R" helped make me into the Anglophile nerd I am today. During high school, I spent Friday nights watching silent films instead of drinking beer behind the bleachers. Public TV helped me become that kind of kid.

Nowadays, my husband turns on our 32" TV (which I thought was absurdly large, but he insisted) to watch the Red Sox and the Patriots in the background while he works on his laptop and I read nearby. If he puts on the news or some late-night show before bed, he uses headphones. Sometimes, Red Sox games are better with sound off, anyway. When we watch a DVD, I enjoy it more on a 15" laptop screen, sitting side-by-side on the couch. It's a more intimate experience.

We do watch "Mad Men" every week. We try to find one, or at most two, shows per season worth anticipating and watching regularly — we aren't snobs; we don't feel we are above pop culture. It's just hard work finding shows worth watching. For many years, it was "Seinfeld," then it became "The Sopranos," then "Queer Eye," briefly, along with various Austen and Dickens "Masterpiece" series. We also had brief forays into "Big Love," "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under," and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but they all became boring, stupid, or annoying after a season or so. (I was hooked on "Ali McBeal" for a long time; I have no idea why.)

I know there's more intelligent, edgier, classier, better TV out there, somewhere. As a matter of fact, my friend Some Assembly Required is a connoisseur of such TV and tries to keep me in the loop. But until he can make the commercials go away, I won't be hooked.

Beyond the bad writing, bad acting, and crudeness, crassness, stereotypes, and generally poor quality of most of the TV I've been subjected to during family visits, I loathe commercials. I've been known to leave the room or turn off a show because I hate the commercials more than I care to see the show. Even when they're muted, the flickering and flashing bother me. I used to watch the SuperBowl for the commercials but they've deteriorated over the years; it's been downhill since the unforgettable, 2006 "Herding Cats."

I don't find contemporary TV comedies funny — not since "Seinfeld." (Or, going way back, "The Carol Burnett Show": my mom and I would practically roll on the floor as Tim and Harvey tried not to crack up.).

And it's still impossible for me to just sit and stare at the screen like a lump. While I don't weave potholders or play with my Spirograph anymore, I still need to read magazines, browse catalogs, surf the Web, or do something while the tube is on.

I confess that, while I'm far from a TV addict, I am an Internet addict. I spend far too many hours a day online, but I'm reading, writing and/or learning for the most part. Or searching for cats, real estate, work, clothes, foreign hotels, or antiques to potentially improve my life. The Internet is my lifeline to useful information — from news of the world to recipes to the research I do to write healthcare articles to the many friends I keep in touch with on facebook. I can't imagine that, used this way, its effects for the brain are as bad as TV's.

But I also know I should spend even more time than I do reading books, exercising, amusing my cats, and, well, vacuuming.

According to Jacoby's facts, the average American household watches an average of 8.2 hours of TV a day. If I were Queen, the only time we Americans would be allowed to watch that much TV is during the Winter Olympics. Ice dancing, ski jumping, and the giant slalom are all worth staying glued to the set for days on end. But I can't think of anything else.

I keep forgetting how to turn on our TV because I do it so infrequently. The last time I successfully used two remotes was to watch Obama's inauguration. I also have no idea of what most of the current shows are about, or what they're called, or when they are on, and I don't care enough to look at a program schedule.

As experts have found in their studies, I've seen a vast difference in the general brightness of the kids I know that correlates to their TV-watching habits. The ones who can't (or don't) watch TV read like crazy instead and are educating themselves remarkably. The ones who had unlimited access since infancy... don't (or can't) read.

Somehow, I grew up unscathed and unmoved by TV, despite my own thousands of hours in front of the set — probably because I was continually doing other educational or recreational activities at the same time. On the other hand, maybe I'd be a brilliant lawyer, a genius entrepreneur, or a Pulitzer-winning journalist today — if only I'd turned off that set.

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