Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Television Warps the Mind a Little

Note: This article is something I wrote for a creative writing class and in response to a writing contest for Gulfstream magazine. I am not sure this is what they wanted in terms of a "memoir" but it is what came out..... RPB

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Television Warps the Mind a Little

Television warps the mind a little. Well, actually it warps it a lot. As a child growing up in the 1960's, I was one of the first generations to grow up with television as part of the household. Certainly, in the 1950's television became popular. But it was not until the 1960's that it was firmly established in almost every household.

As a "TeeVee" child, I grew up like most kids of my generation: hyperactive, sedentary, and with a short attention span. Of course, I didn't know this at the time. Television was, to me, as natural as the air I breathed. To my parents, it was a marvelous new invention that was one of the wonders of the post-Atomic age. To me, it meant Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room. To my Mother, it meant an easy way to park a child for an hour at a time while she got chores done around the house. That much has not changed over the years.

Television initially seemed to be a benign presence in our household. As a family, we would gather around our flickering black and white TV every evening to watch together as a family. Since we all watched together as a family, we had to compromise on our selection of programs. As a result, variety shows were very popular. If you didn't like something on a variety show, just wait a moment, and the show would change to something else.

Jackie Gleason and his June Taylor dancers graced our screen, along with other classics like I love Lucy. But then television started to subtly change, perhaps change with the times, or perhaps it was changing the times. More and more programming was directed at children, whose impressionable minds could be readily sculpted by constant exposure to what many were calling the "boob tube".

Saturday mornings were turned over to kiddie fare. It started out innocently enough with re-runs of classic Warner Brothers cartoons, but soon, newer and cheaper animation took over, designed specifically for the medium. Cecil and Beany, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Tom Slick, George of the Jungle were all fairly inexpensive cartoons, cheaply animated, which mesmerized us every Saturday morning.

My Father was first to sound the alarm that something was wrong. But he mistakenly though it was the children who were at fault, not his precious television. "Why don't you kids go outside and PLAY, instead of sitting in here watching TeeVee all day long?" he would bellow. And he was right. By noontime, we were still in our pajamas, with sour bowls of soggy cereal scattered in the family room, laying in front of the television. And it was a nice day out, too.

But, after hours of laying prone or sitting in other uncomfortable positions, watching episode after episode of "Scooby Doo, Where are You?", "Josie and the Pussy Cats", and our all-time favorite, "Johnny Quest", we were feeling woozy and tired. Not tired enough to sleep, but just a general malaise brought on by extended sitting, too much sugary cereal, and too much sensory overload.

The targeting of children didn't end with Saturday mornings. Evening fare become progressively more and more childish. My brother and I loved watching "Batman" and "Mannix". Action adventure, aimed at a sixth grade level seemed to be more the norm than the exception.

Once I started school, the conflict between television and the rest of my life intensified. Watching TeeVee seemed like a "normal" activity, after all. Everyone did it - my friends, their parents, my teachers. But it was taking up more and more of my free time. After school, my brother and I would flop down in front of it and watch "Films at 4" and "Monster Movie Matinee" along with the "Bozo the Clown Show." While I did get an excellent education about old movies in the process, my homework started to suffer.

Our TeeVee watching formed a preset pattern. From 3:00 to 6:00, we'd watch after-school programming. By then, my Father would be home, and we'd have dinner. After dinner, we'd sit down to "Laugh In," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," or "The Carol Burnett Show," before we'd toddle off to bed. Not surprisingly, this usually meant that we never got our homework done, except what little could be done between classes at school or on the bus.

My report cards started coming back with comments such as "Robert is a bright lad, but doesn't apply himself" and "seems to have a short attention span". Trained since birth to expect something new and different every 22 minutes, I could not sit still in classrooms for very long.

Unfortunately, the idea of "pulling the plug" on television never occurred to me - or to anyone else for that matter. It simply wasn't done. Perhaps it is only coincidence that as television viewing increased in the United States in the late 1960's we also entered an era of recession and decline in world power.

However statistics show that the average American watches 4.5 hours of television per day. Four and half hours. Every day. And that's just the average person - some are watching far more. If you factor in 8 hours for sleep and 8 hours for work, and a few hours for meals and chores, it is clear that the television takes up all the remaining free time of most Americans in a twenty-four hour day.

In High School, the viewing habits didn't change, other than to expand further. After dinner, or sometimes during dinner, my Mother and I would sit and watch syndicated shows that, thanks to new FCC regulations, dominate the airwaves during the hour immediately after the nightly news. We'd watch "Match Game '77" together, or re-runs of "Hogan's Heros" - a show my Mother started to appreciate, only after repeated viewings.

Re-runs brought a whole new dimension to television. In addition to the comfort of familiar characters and sets, we could count on hearing the same story, again and again. And in a way, that's what television had become - a type of comfort food. At the end of the day, we could sit down in a place where "everyone knows your name" and feel that we were with friends, if not a family.

Television was such a large part of my life and such a large part of who I was, that to give it up was not even an issue. I continued watching and continued squandering my life away. In the 1970's the Cable Television companies, once a rural phenomenon, started wiring the cities for Cable TV and petitioning local governments for lucrative franchises. Now, in addition to broadcast TeeVee, I could select from a number of additional channels including page after page of scrolling text, and something called "MTV".

College brought only limited respite from the onslaught of television. Televisions were helpfully placed in the dorm lounges, and many of us brought televisions to our dorm rooms. Today, many dorms are wired for cable. Television expanded into new time periods. Late night television, with the talk shows and "Saturday Night Live" mean that staying up to watch become a habit - along with waking up late and tired, with a stiff neck and that woozy feeling that comes from watching too much Television.

The problem at the time was, I didn't know that anything was wrong with what I was doing. I had watched television all my life - it was part of my life - and also a part of everyone else's. That my studies were suffering was surely because of some fault or weakness of my own, my own lack of skill or native intelligence. The idea that it could be the television that was sapping my life away had never occued to me.

Yet television continued to grow, and my viewing habits along with it. On my own now, I had two televisions, a "big" one in the living room for daily watching, and a small one in the bedroom. The invention of the infrared remote control meant that I could sit for hours at a time, without moving a muscle, and watch program after program, sometimes only brief minutes of each.

I would wake up in the morning and grab for the remote so I would watch the "Today" show while I dressed. Late at night, I'd fall asleep to Leno and Letterman - after an evening's worth of viewing in the living room. And still, it did not occur to me that perhaps television was affecting my life at all. How could it? This is what everyone did - sat in front of a flickering tube for hours on end.

Then things started to change - subtly at first. Watching television became less and less satisfying. The first thing I noticed was that television started advertising television on television. Advertisements started popping up for television shows, in between television shows. This was new and different. Today, they make up nearly half the ads on TeeVee. The idea is to get you to watch more. Instead of selling soap or new cars, television spends a lot of time selling itself.

I noticed this change with quiet outrage. At the time, I would mention it to others, only to be met with a blank stare. "So what?" they'd say. But I knew it was the beginning of something different about television. But still, I continued to watch, cringing internally every time the television exhorted me to watch yet another episode of M*A*S*H.

I also started to notice that I was channel surfing - a lot. The shows seemed dull and boring - or I had seen them many times before, thanks to re-runs. Deregulation meant that some channels had as much as 50% advertising content. A half-hour show was only 15 minutes long.

And then the ads started to increase in volume. Engineers tell me the volume is the same and they use a trick of editing to make the average level higher. But the effect is the same - every time an ad comes on, everyone scrambles for the remote. It was becoming increasingly clearly that television was becoming more crass.

Commercials became shorter and shorter, to the point where they were only five or ten seconds long. Teasers were used to get people to watch the evening news. In the time it took the local weatherman to say, "Snow in the forecast? Stay tuned at 11!" he could have told us whether it would snow or not. But that doesn't boost ratings, and that was what the television was all about.

At about that time, I did some work related to Cable Television Patents and got to meet a number of people in the industry. They explained to me exactly what was going on. It wasn't my imagination that television had changed. And the change was not accidental, but by design.

In the old days, like with radio before it, sponsors would pay to produce and show television shows. Television sold entertainment to its viewers, with the costs underwritten by the sponsors. But in the new economic model, the product was not the television programs, but the viewers. "Selling eyeballs" one Cable executive told me, was now the name of the game. They wanted to keep you watching, so they could sell your attention span to advertisers. And if that meant using trickery or deception to get you to watch, so be it.

Television started appearing everywhere, in elevators, bars, restaurants, airports, and even public schools. In many public spaces, the television blares at full volume, and you have no way of turning it off or even turning it down. Turning off the television and getting away from it became harder and harder. Today they have televisions in cars and on billboards. It will only be time before we wear them as clothing.

I started to notice that a movement was afoot against television. Unlike crusaders of past decades, who tried to "reform" or "clean up" television, these new tele-terrorists advocated eliminating television entirely, at least from your personal life and from public spaces. Their motto is "Kill Your Television!" When I first saw this on a bumper sticker, I laughed. Then I thought about it, and it started to make sense.

I suddenly realized that, for my entire life, I had been lied to at a very fundamental level. Television, being in existence since before I was born, seemed like a natural part of my life. In reality, it was a parasitic drain on my life, and as unhealthy and unnatural as processed white bread. It was making me sick, both physically and mentally, and was draining my life emotionally and financially. It robbed me of nearly every waking hour of free time I had. And worst of all, I had willingly given myself over to the TeeVee without a fight or protest. It was worse that the most addictive drugs, and far more freely available.

At first, I tried the idea of controlling my television habits. But I found this impossible to do. It was all to easy to click on the remote to "see what's on" while making dinner or reading a magazine. Soon, whatever else you are doing is forgotten, and the television has taken over.

So, I took a deep breath and called the cable company and cancelled my account. They asked if I was moving away and offered to reconnect me where I was moving to. I said "No, I'm not moving". They darkly asked if I had switched to direct dish, and I said, "No, it's not that either. I just don't want to watch it anymore."

"What do you mean?" they asked, "Everyone watches television!"

Well, not everyone, as I soon found out. I gave away my big Television to my neighbor before I could change my mind. She was flabbergasted that anyone would give away something as valuable and useful as a TeeVee. But there was no going back.

I found out that people who are effective in their lives don't watch much television - if at all. I noticed in interviews with wealthy and famous people that whenever an interviewer would ask a question such as "what's your favorite television program?" the interviewee would get nervous and uncomfortable and admit, "I'm afraid I don't watch much television".

Even more odd, most people who are ON television don't watch television. Actors and television personalities have busy schedules, and they cannot afford to waste four or five hours a day watching TeeVee. I realize that sitting around all day was ruining my life - and the life of millions of Americans.

Even worse than the time involved was the messages the television was presenting. The advertisements were mostly for new cars - which we were encouraged to lease at low, low monthly payments. Many of the ads were for outright rip-offs like payday loans and rent-to-own furniture. You can get an idea of the type of people who watch television just from the advertisements - people who are not very smart, and not very smart with their money.

The programming was no better. Particularly the news programs, which tended to emphasize the sensation and also bad news. We were bludgeoned to death with the same message over and over again - we are all passive victims of greater powers, and helpless to improve our own lot in life.

So-called "reality" television shows devolved into little more than hissy cat fights between contestants, with viewers rooting for one or the other. This sort of programming catered to the lowest common denominator in human behavior. Not surprisingly, around this time, I noticed an increase of such infighting, backbiting, and gossiping at my workplace. The people watching these "reality" shows seemed to believe that reality meant nursing grudges and getting involved in petty disputes with your neighbors, friends and co-workers. And why not? That was the "norm" the television was selling.

Once I pulled the plug on TeeVee, I realized what they had been trying to do to me all these years. I was angry with myself for falling victim to this trap, and also angry that we allow such an evil propaganda-spewing medium such wide access in our culture - under the control of a very few people.

Once I pulled the plug, my life improved dramatically. I realized that I had been nursing a form of low-level depression for years. I had fallen victim to the television trick of feeling sorry for myself and become fascinated with titillation and superficiality. But most of all, I had lost years and years from my life to the 'Tube." Suddenly, I had a whole new life to live.

With an extra four to five hours a day to live, I found my work a lot easier to get done. I was no longer tired and beaten down when I woke in the morning and was still feeling energized, even when I got home from work. Suddenly, there were enough hours in the day to complete all those home improvement projects - and take on more. I had fallen into the habit watching home improvement shows on TV instead of actually doing home improvement myself. No more!

I quit my job and opened my own business. Running my own business was something I simply could not do if I had the TeeVee habit. Unfortunately, it became all too clear that it was hard to hire employees who were victims of this drug, and no urine test could weed them out. But a casual question "what's your favorite TeeVee show?" during a job interview could tell me more about a person that all the resumes and character references combined.

I started investing in Real Estate, and since I had a lot of free time, I could afford to fix up properties myself, in my newly found "spare" time. At that time, no one was buying Real Estate because the television was still fixated on horror stories of the meltdown of 1989. Television watchers would tell me "You're a fool to buy Real Estate - you'll lose your shirt! You ought to get into this "dot com" business, it's the next big thing! I saw it on the TeeVee!"

I sold out of the Real Estate market and made a cool million. Again, my TeeVee watching friends all said I was a fool. "Everybody's making money in Real Estate now!" they chirped, "Didn't you hear about it on the TeeVee last night?" I asked them quietly how that "dot com" thing worked out and they quickly changed the subject.

Once I stopped getting normative cues and data from the television, I could get a better handle on reality. Reality told me that you can't make money forever, that you can't get something for nothing. Television tells you that for four easy payments of $19.95, you can have "washboard abs" with the "abominzer." Television is simply not real.

And the funny thing is, many people seem to be scared of reality. Reality can seem like a scary place, and the rampant escapism of the TeeVee can be a comforting place - like comfort food, where Hawkeye will surely say something about "this damn war!" and Norm will make a wry crack from the end of the bar, or perhaps Mary will say "Mister Grant!" and pout for the camera.

But once I started to embrace reality, I realized it is not such a scary place after all. But it is interesting. If you tell people you don't watch TeeVee, they give you a weird look, as though you had just announced you are a Communist. "What, No TeeVee at all? No 'Lost'? No "American Idol'? No 'CSI'? No "Evening News'? How can you keep up?

You try to explain to them that watching 15 minutes of sanitized and highly superficial "news" is hardly being informed, but they will have none of it.

On the other hand, you do run into other people who don't watch TeeVee, either, and it is like exchanging a secret handshake, or being members in a private club. And I find their observations about the same.

When you go back to watching TeeVee, at a friend's house, or in a public place, you realize very quickly that it is pretty stupid stuff. All of the shows are aimed at an 8th grade level, if that, with every story stripped of any confusing or threatening detail that might distract the viewer from a compelling graphic. And the advertisements - who buys this stuff? I look back and think "how did I get snookered in by these people for most of my life?"

It is like a great weight lifted from my back or a veil taken away from my eyes. I am like a blind man who can suddenly see, a deaf person who can suddenly hear. My life is now full of optimism and hope, even though I am surrounded by people who are beaten down depressed, and pessimistic by their televisions.

You see, people who watch TeeVee are pretty easy to take advantage of. Just look at whatever they all are doing and do the opposite, and you'll make out like a bandit.