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Should You (or ME) Own a TV?

Mark Shiffman says no. TV won't make you happy; it'll increase you're self-enclosure and alienation; there's always something better you could be doing. Reflections like these, at first, make me feel guilty, but finally I'm just annoyed. "You think you're better than me," I think, "just because you don't have a TV." How much of this reactionary crunchy complacency can one person take? My pedagogical reason for watching is in the hopes of having a minimalist common culture with my students, friends, and neighbors. That's why I sample AMERICAN IDOL, that wonderfully American mixture of wisdom (Simon) and consent (the 40 million who call in). Not only that, many experts think quite highly of the HBO series and miniseries, claiming they are as good or better than many an award-winning movie. Certainly there's a lot to think about on BIG LOVE, THE SOPRANOS, DEADWOOD, and even ENTOURAGE and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (just to name a few). It's also fun to make fun of the pretentious MAD MEN. And there's something to be said for both THE BIG BANG THEORY and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, although HOUSE and IN TREATMENT are, in fact, alienating. Not only that, you can watch movies on your TV, and only the priggiest prig is too good for good movies. But maybe I'm just a restless American in the midst of prosperity, envious of those content without electronic stimulation. Discuss among yourselves.
Categories > Pop Culture

Discussions - 24 Comments

1. Yes, a TV and a DVD/VHS player. Anyone who doesn't like good moves, old and new, is surely uncivilized.

2. This does not require cable or conversion to HD. Rent movies from a store, or get them at the library, or from Netflik.

3. Anything that catches the fancy of the Zeitgeist is likely to turn up on YouTube.

4. The Sunday morning talk shows start at 12:00 on satellite radio.

5. Ball games come in on satellite radio (including all the NFL and NBA games). Close games should be watched at the pub down the street. Go to baseball games if you can, especially minor league games.

6. Conclusion: There is no good reason to have a TV that gets actual channels, and many good reasons to steer clear of the vulgarity and nonsense.

One more thing. Keeping in touch with our students' culture is, I think, a losing proposition. It would require following "their" music, "their" video games, "their" technology. So far, that has been beyond me. It is work enough to introduce them to "my" culture, an effort that they can respect and, after all, pay for.

Geez, Red Tory, sorry to offend. I thought my display of my personal populism was too over-the-top to be taken seriously. "You think you're better than me?" is from a movie. Mark Shiffman is a friend of mind, and I was giving him a plug. I recommend you switch to Bohemian Tory and get out of the psychoanalysis business. Steve's compromise plan is reasonable, of course. A lot of schemes to do without TV seem to require more time in front of the computer screen, which is surely more isolating and alienating and all that. And there is some irony about all this anti-tech stuff coming from bloggers, of course. Don't see Wendell Berry posting much...

Yes, Steve Thomas in Comment 3, especially. Your Comment 2, subtopic 6 is roughly the way we went.

We stopped watching TV for the sake of our children. We wanted them to be defined by something other than the average standards. Still, our oldest son read the local newspaper's TV magazine religiously to keep up with what all of his friends were watching and he was missing. However, that took about 30 minutes a week and the rest of the time he read other things or interacted with us, books and friends. For myself, maybe, with six kids around all the time TV seemed like sensory overload. I still find it excessively agitating. I am inclined to respond to it as if it were alive. I find this absurd and in it, I offend myself. When we lived with my in-laws for a bit, who watched TV all the time, I would analyze the shows as to content and - all sorts of things. They would say, "You think about everything too much. Just enjoy the story!"

I know there are good things on TV and understand everyone wanting to watch them, though if I have a TV at hand, I can scan through a hundred channels and not find anything desirable, which is laughable. Nonsense and vulgarity? Oh, my. Yet, I suspect that if my TV were connected to the world, I would watch news and old movies all the time and never get anything done, especially not blogging.

Maybe when I am as old as my parents and have as little to do, I will come to love TV. As life is and has been, I have too many real people agitating me; the legions of electronically digitized or pixilated ones pulling at me from the box, are more than I can stand. Life is full of stories, drama and comedy; I really can't stand any more. Perhaps it is a personal failing. It is no longer a matter of high purpose. I understand the retreat into TV and movie stories, because I have always loved books as a place of retreat and TV is easier than books. I resist the temptation, because it is too much for me.

G Anastapolo made the argument in the mid 70's that the nationalizing influence of tv undercuts local communities and neighborhoods ultimately eroding our capacity for local self governing. There probably is something to this and much of what you find on tv is pretty bad and an obsession with watching tons of even good tv is surely alientation in some regard. I tend to think that tivo/dvr/etc is especially bad since its premised on the notion that there's too much great stuff on tv to allow yourself to miss and that we should never have to make choices that actually preclude other choices. Still, as Peter points out, tv is not all bad and can actually be pretty good and a hardline rejection of all popular culture often tends to be more alientating than a skeptical, disciplined sampling.

I have no disagreement with Ivan, but I do wish to point out that for me the DVR makes me less controlled by television. What I do watch I watch on my own terms, what I want to when I want to. And no commercials! I think it helps me watch less television. It's more "I use it when I want it," not "I'll surf around to find something watchable" or "my Wednesday nights are taken because Mythbusters is on." In that sense, it stops me from watching "tons of good tv," to say nothing of the bad.

I agree that TV is a nationalizing influence. But the computer more than TV is what's destroying local newspapers and such. I don't use those gadgets that save programs for later or excise commercials. It's possible that's taking TV too seriously. Full disclosure compels me to add that I'm a TV addict or anything, and I'm sure I could live a full life without it. (There is in fact little to nothing that I watch regularly--even or especially sports.) The bigger problem for us all is spending too much time in front of the computer screen.

Peter: It goes without saying that I am in general agreement with your remarks above . . . but, as I've said before, I don't get cable because (among other reasons) I would rather not have any more temptations to loaf than are necessary! Anyway, most everyone I know with cable seems to watch the same programs I watch for free and I can check out all of the good HBO series from the local library for free. But what's your beef with House? I think the alienation theme is brilliantly tackled on that show and, because it is taken seriously, it is far from settled. There is no saccharine-sweet sit-com settling of complicated questions within the hour (though some of the medical "cures" push the border of disbelief) and there is no pervasive nihilism either. House's nature remains an open question though his pervasive doubts tend not to make him happy (and neither does his genius). He remains fascinating, of course, and I suppose there is a temptation in that to inspire intellectually ambitious people to believe that to be fascinating you have to be a some kind of jerk. My own experience leads me sometimes to wonder whether that might be true, however . . . I don't know. But it also may give respectable people a reason to look beyond the jerkiness of some they would not otherwise be inclined to offer any sympathy and see that, in addition to useful idiots, there are also useful geniuses in this world. Wilson and Cutty (sp?) try with varying degrees of success and failure to put House's genius and incivility to work for better purposes than his own curiosity or amusement.

Anyway . . . Hugh Laurie is . . . well, enough said. Still, I admit that even I enjoy him more as Bertie Wooster in the old BBC production of "Jeeves and Wooster" . . . though for other and more intellectually objective reasons.

On HOUSE: I have two objections, I guess. 1. Every show is more or less the same in crucial ways. 2. SOME PEOPLE say that the character House reminds them of ME. (I guess it is in my self-interest to talk up shows that inspire sympathy for jerks.) Obviously I put that in the post to be provocative. Lots of people admire the show, and alienation is not always a bad thing. I certainly agree that the show isn't nihilistic, by the way. It goes without saying that kids (and everyone else) shouldn't get obsessed with TV, and for kids the best method is strict rationing or even no regular TV at all.

Both 1 and 2 are fair points . . . though there are some crucial differences, I think, between you and House--some of which are in your favor. But this is only a matter of opinion. :-)

As for kids and TV, rationing and critical commentary with regard to taste seem to work well for us. Some parents are more strict than we are and others are less so. I don't believe that there is a firm and fast rule to be applied across the board and I am suspicious of those who do believe it. Generally speaking, my own view is that kids who watch too much TV lack imagination, civility, and physical stamina. Kids who never watch TV, on the other hand, tend to be a bit awkward, priggish, and over-impressed with their intellectual virtues and imagined superiority to their peers (no doubt pressed upon them by parents with similar attitudes). But this is only a general rule and I use it only as a guide, not a commandment. In my own case, I watched entirely too much television as a child--indeed, I watched it even as I did my homework. The only lasting damage (apart from math retardation), as far as I can tell, are the wasted hours that might have been put to better and more productive use which can never be recovered. I find that this argument is the most persuasive of all the arguments I have ever employed with my own kids--every kid wants to do the thing that is the most fun and hates boredom--though in conversation with me they have amusingly deployed the adjective "inappropriate" to describe programs they have heard their friends discuss at school. But, because they have better things to do most of the time, they get bored with most TV (especially without cable) and never have time for it during the school week anyway. I do confess to an indulgence of two-weeks of closely monitored cable slugdom when we visit the grandparents in the summer. But I consider this to be my way of removing the allure of the "forbidden fruit." We'll see if this continues to work as they get older. I am only a novice, so I only hope it will work.

Shiffman's essay is good. The Anastaplo stuff is of the highest quality; and now it's backed up by Putnam and co.'s research.

But I still think the best reasons for abandoning TV were articulated right here on NLT, a few years back, by one "wm" who used to bless us with his commenting. The date to look in the archives is August 25, 2006. A taste:

"Sure, I like to watch TV, but I like to smoke cigarettes, use foul language, and do all kinds of things that are destructive and self indulgent. Marshall McLuhan was right - the medium IS the message, and no matter what TV is telling you, you have already agreed to the Babylon Box’s terms: total passivity in the face of a manipulative bombardment of visuals and sound. Implicit idolatry. Students are astounded when you tell them you do not have a television - and then they ask the good questions, like whether you think you are missing something (sure I am - not going to a strip club or an opium den is doubtless missing out on something, too) and what else you do with your time.
Film somehow seems better than TV, but rationally if you condemn one it is hard not to condemn both. I guess one had to go to some trouble for access to film, it was not just sitting in your living room lying in wait for your soul."

Steve Thomas articulates pretty precisely where I am--ready to cut off cable, due to the expense and for all the more profound reasons, but lingering and hesitating, esp. now that baseball's beginning. So relaxing, that game. I do love TCM, despite its addictive character. There's just no way one would encounter all the gems one does on that channel simply by informed renting.

Carl Scott - TCM is truly wonderful. I watch it endlessly with my father in law on HIS TV -- that is, when we're not watching M*A*S*H or Gunsmoke reruns.

As for the baseball season, satellite radio has all the games.

Can't you torrent American TV shows? My husband and daughter torrent British TV shows that they like and watch those together on his laptop.

Maybe it's the way he cooks his grits, but PL seems always to have his tongue stuck in his cheek. I guess you get learn how to be a moving target when you spend a good amount of time keeping up with the latest cultural offerings in an effort to be "with it."

Steve Thomas is absolutely right. There is actually a culture worthy of being conveyed to the youth, and the more time one spends currying favor with children who would rather be tweeting or texting or connecting on Facebook, the less time you can actually make a case for something worth remembering.

Kate: What does "torrent" mean?

PL, you're in general more fair and balanced in your comments (and criticisms) of Obama and the Democrats than the likes of the "reactionary" and "complacent" crunchy cons (complacent? really? So, what's the adjective you use for TV watchers - counter-cultural heroes?). That's interesting. What bothers you so much about them? I suspect it's the fact that their stances provoke some guilt in you, which bumps up against your well-honed and highly developed rationalizations for why it's ok to be a bourgeois bohemian, Suburban-driving suburbanite, consumptively consuming, advertisement-soaked, libertarian-leaning, pop-religionist, and genuinely complacent human being. You don't much like the idea of self-denial, and it annoys you when anyone - particularly on your side of the political spectrum - makes a case for it. I can buy why you might pedagogically want to have a TV. But why go out of your way to condemn someone who doesn't want to have one? That's pretty amazing.

It's interesting though - what annoys you most of all is the moralism. You have your own moralistic proclivities, which you mask with a kind of world-weary refrain of "it doesn't matter, because we're just stuck with virtue." You prefer the decidedly unheroic expression of virtue - it'll just happen, lay back and enjoy it - rather than the sort that calls for actual effort, including blood, sweat and tears. I'm not sure if you genuinely don't like the moralism (it seems you do, though your chiding of someone who doesn't own a TV seems at least as moralizing in its disapproval), or if you think it's just a bad tactic in our anti-moralistic age. You might be right about that. But you might be wrong. Maybe a little more shame and guilt about our self-indulgence will change some behaviors for the better (turn off the tube, read a book or play a game with your kids). Maybe morality has to begin with some disapproval, and not rationalizations that pretend what we're doing is virtuous, but which in fact is just plain complacent.

That'll be 50 bucks for the psychoanalysis. See you next week.


Thanks for the plug. I try to watch a good movie every now and then on the laptop, usually with the family. I am in fact quite pleased that I introduced my children to Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot, and at the other end of the spectrum we enjoyed Wall-E enough to watch it more than once. But this is a rare occurrence at the Shiffman household, a weekend rainy day sort of thing.

I half thought of putting in some caveat about "social research" value in TV viewing, but thought I'd let defenders like you do that work. But I also think Russell's caveats to that caveat are worth taking seriously.

I get my share of such social research at my mother-in-law's in the blazing hot Chicago summertime. Meanwhile the quiet of the household the rest of the year is filled with the singing to themselves and imaginative play of my children. So this has little to do with any priggish claim of superiority on my part, and more to do with fostering a loveable family life. I did originally write it for fellow parents at our school.

Mark, Great to hear from you. The family sitting around the laptop does seem ridiculous, though. Get a TV! Overall, though, yours was a loving and lovable post.

The family around the laptop is very cozy, thank you. Of course when the boys get bigger, it will be a different story. They'll have to stand behind the couch, the bums.

This has got to be the greatest conversation this blog has ever experienced, funny, deep and provocative. bohemian troy started it off right by accusing Lawlers self-interest driven assertion of being stuck with virtue as not requiring enough cultivation, nice. Proceeded to accuse Lawler of being pop-religious as well as claiming that lawler believed people who didnt watch tv's were weird. I also like steve and troys assertion that lawlers attempt to keep up with culture is lame. Maybe, I think that current culture reflects truths about our condition that would be useful for empirical study of culture better than any survey. The Sopranos is the only show worth watching, other than that good citizens like me only watch c-span.

Steve Thomas, I have more time, now. My husband googles the title of whatever he wants to watch, perhaps "Slings and Arrows" or the latest Dr. Who or QI, with the word "torrent." Someone, somewhere, is downloading, uploading, trading the data that is the show and after a while he can watch it. I keep reading about how it works, but it is as Greek to me, not exactly comprehensible. The descriptions sound like one mind (computer) reading another and it all seems a little wrong. However, it does get him interesting shows to watch.

Ben, I find C-Span a great temptation, although I find I will yell at the screen like some men yell at televised sports events. "You can't be serious!" which is a mild one, but things like that. Our cultural truths can be so depressing. As well as boring. The main reason not to watch TV is that it is (only mostly, not all, I admit it,) tedious and tendentious and worst of all, boring.

Thanks, Kate. I really had no idea about this. Sounds interesting.

Talking back to the media, in the privacy of one's own home, is good for the soul: not just follow-up questions, but entire answers you wish you had heard. Correct the umpires, too. Movie- and concert-goers, however, wouldn't like it.

I had always thought that elitists of all stripes avoided television (or at least claimed to) like the plague, but here's an interesting example where bloviator Sean Hannity (the next Ashbrook Memorial Dinner speaker?) strongly implies that watching too much television can actually make one an effete, French-loving snob, and has actually done so to The Muslim Thug Who's Hiding His Birth Certificate So He Can Take Our Guns.

From Hannity's incisive analysis of the deeper meaning behind mustardgate:

"All right, Dijon mustard? I think the president watched just a little bit too much television as a kid."

Kate, of all the problems with television programming, why would you rank that it's "boring" as the worst thing about it? This sort of critique only plays into the entertainment industry's Prime Directive that TV should be, above and beyond anything else, entertainment. While Glenn Beck and Hannity are billed as "news" programs, they are often entertaining in a painful sort of way, but that doesn't make them the least bit edifying.

Craig, is the Prime Directive of the industry successful? I say that it isn't. I say that what is counted as entertainment is, by and large, boring: neither entertaining nor edifying. Beck, Hannity, et al, have to fill up too much time and (paraphrasing my Bible) in an abundance of chatter is foolishness. So, I don't really argue with you on this point, except to wonder why you pick on those guys, when there are abundant examples of the same sort of thing, regardless of political inclination. (Of course, I do know why, really.)

Steve, you are welcome. I have been in movie theaters and concert halls where people who had become habituated to talking back to the entertainment persisted in public. I am sure you don't now, but with the neglectfulness of age.... It is the aged and the young who seem the most oblivious to the rest of us in those situations. I forgive your habit if it is good for your soul. However, I blab too much already.

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