Junk TV

Last week my father-in-law overheard me discussing a popular TV show. He briefly asked why I wasted time on such “junk TV”. I brushed off his comment, simply saying this was not junk TV and continued the conversation, explaining and laughing about the show’s contents. My father-in-law continued to listen and eventually asked again, more adamantly this time, was this not junk TV? Was this not a waste of time? The comment threw me slightly for I realized, as I listened to myself, it could certainly come across that way. Literary or life changing it was not, but did that make it unintelligent or irrelevant? Did that make it “junk TV”? The show had made me laugh. It had served its sole purpose, which was to entertain me. Why then does television have to be more than entertainment to be respectable?

Much to my dismay, my father-in-law is not alone in his opinions. The point seems to be surfacing everywhere. In an English class I took a few months ago, one of the students and the professor got into a discussion on modern day movie directors. The professor was arguing why he preferred Stanley Kubrick to Steven Spielberg. A student backed him up by saying he felt directors like Spielberg insulted our intelligence, as an audience, by continually spelling out their message thus leaving little to be pondered or questioned. It occurred to me that this is where the argument stands. Television can be either thought provoking or a guilty pleasure. The middle ground seems to have evaded us entirely. Watching a program on television that provokes, or even demands, the viewer to question the issues certainly has its pros. The idleness of television makes a good enough argument that the least we could do, as we sit there with our popcorn, is think a little.

However, while the strong argument for intellect stands, one wonders how long we could go without entertainment. Certainly there is a time and a place for sheer amusement. At some point we need to relax and reenergize. At some point we all need to laugh, cry or just be entertained. The world is a hard and brutal place. It tests survival, strength of character and the very backbone of the human race. In such a place, why then does it often feel wrong to celebrate the lighter side of life. Terrorists, divorce, wars and abuse test humanity and we bombard ourselves with philosophical questions of right and wrong. Suddenly, a little Friends is a welcome change.

What we choose to watch, or if we choose to watch at all, depends on our wants and needs. Obviously, what constitutes “junk TV” varies between individuals. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, if you will. Our viewing choices depend entirely on the person in question and become merely a matter of opinion. Here, however, is where it gets tricky. Opinions get scoffed at as much as Jerry Springer and yet are significant contributors in our decisions.

Perhaps opinions face ridicule because they suggest there is no right or wrong in the situation. Opinions suggest we are basing our feelings on things other than proof or fact and we can’t make a proper decision without being backed up by proof and fact, so end of discussion. This may be a valid point, however, the reality is that backed up or not , people and their opinions make decisions with consequences all the time. For example, our opinions elect world leaders. A war is but a large difference in opinion. A jury determines the fate of a man based on their opinion. Hopefully, such consequential opinions are backed up with proof or evidence, but this is not always the case. The consequences are felt regardless once the opinions has been cast. Therefore, we should really give opinion the significance it deserves. Opinions set things in motion and gives shape to different aspects of our lives.

Television is not exempt from the influence of our opinions. What we want to see, what excites us and what interests us, appears on the screen. These ideas get made into news stories, movies, sitcoms, etc. In essence our opinions govern the channels. Television, in this way, feels calculated. It is no coincidence what we see on the screen, as it reflects what we wanted to see as a culture. If reality shows or daredevil stunts take precedence we need to accept that someone is watching these shows. As long as people tune in, the shows have value to the networks. It is the networks’ job to provide shows people watch, not to provide shows that are morally respectable for people to watch. Our reasons for watching really only matter to us.

Hence, the argument stands that TV is too easy. The ease with which we can turn on the TV is astoundingly common and natural to most of us. It is easier to fill our time with television than it is to leave our homes and do something more active. The question becomes, do we constantly defer to the effortless activities in our leisure time? If it is easier to watch an entertaining show than one that requires us to think do we watch the entertainment and ignore the critical issues simply because it is easier to do so? Is this where the critics have a point? Does entertainment distract us from the important issues and is this where it loses our respect?

Such questions certainly surround the issue of respectable television. A solution to these worries comes from my mother. I can hear her now, nagging me to finish my vegetables. What she was really saying was to balance out my diet. The same principle applies with television. We all need a little variety. A week of Friends is no better and no worse, than a week of Kubrick. Go on, I say, and watch something profound, be inspired by that documentary or that abstract film. Watch something educational and fill up your TV viewing time with thought-provoking and analytical shows. But don’t shy away from the seemingly senseless humour. Admit that you watched every episode of The Bachelor and that if Fear Factor is on you don’t always change the channel. Admit that you thoroughly enjoyed it.

In the end we all have our guilty pleasure. We all find something on the mass of channels to keep us entertained. Perhaps pleasure should not make one guilty. Still, limits are necessary and knowing them makes us consciously aware of our possibilities . As the cliché says, too much of a good thing is bad for you. As we stumble along in life, one only hopes that we know what is best for ourselves, that we know when we need a good laugh and when we need a little motivation.

As I finished my discussion of the popular TV show, I thought about what my father-in-law had said. I decided to take the show for what it was worth to me, which was thoughtless, simple and welcomed entertainment. It was a matter of opinion but it was my matter of opinion and I decided that before I could drop the issue, the next time I caught my father-in-law watching an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie I should ask him if he considered it junk TV.