The sympathy in the young girl’s voice was genuine. It was a moment of pure compassion; of one person reaching out to another across the void in this hard-wired, fast-paced world. “Oh no,” she sighed. “That’s awful.” We were talking about cable. Or, more precisely, cable TV and the really great deal that she could offer me on the latest bundle of specialty channels for my home-theatre experience. I had let her finish her spiel before breaking the news. “No, thank you,” I said. “We don’t have cable.” And that was when the polite distance between buyer and seller evaporated and it became just she and I, two souls communing across the telephone line. “That’s awful,” she said. And then came the clincher, the assumption behind her empathy. “You got cut off, huh?” Her tone was that of one who could relate, who had also suffered the fate of having her lifeline to Friends cruelly severed. I struggled to keep a straight face. Not that she could see me, but I was trying to be as gentle as possible. “No,” I said. “We didn’t get cut off. We don’t want TV.” It was as though I’d dropped a bomb. There was a stunned silence, a polite groping for words, and then a whispered thank-you. She hung up.
They’re a real conversation stopper, those four little words. It usually starts when someone asks if I’ve seen the latest instalment of Survivor, or didn’t I just love it when The Donald (yes, he of the bad hair) fired the latest apprentice. The reaction is often the same, but one young man summed it up best. “But how,” he wondered, “will you know what to think?” Without even realizing it, he had hit the nail on the head.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Television isn’t inherently evil. Our kids grew up watching Sesame Street. Heck, I love Lucy just as much as anyone else does. At its best, the medium can be a valuable source of information, of entertainment and a thoughtful exchange of ideas. I can’t even argue against the amount of time most North Americans spend in front of the tube (one lady I know has a television in every room of the house, including the bathroom!). Let’s face it, some people spend hours doing crossword puzzles or building model airplanes, and some of us even devote entire weekends to grappling with philosophy courses.
The mind-numbing banality of most prime-time fare isn’t unique to television either. Even in the days before rabbit ears and Uncle Milty, some people chose to read Shakespeare while others were happy poring over penny dreadfuls. People’s tastes run the gamut in every medium, and television is no different. Its legacy includes Masterpiece Theatre right up there alongside The Love Boat.
No, the problem isn’t the time people spend glued to the flickering screen, or even the rampant violence and stupidity that abound (sometimes together) in most network fare. Those things can be found in equal measure in books, movies, and the Internet. The real problem is that television is an eager beast, one that’s willing to put forth every ounce of effort needed to keep our relationship alive. It’s like a fawning guest that’s been let loose in the house and refuses to let the inhabitants do more than lift a finger. Twenty-four hours a day, four hundred channels strong, it will please, amuse, or distract me at will. And it asks absolutely nothing in return. I don’t have to turn the page. My eyes don’t need to track the print across the paper, stumbling over unknown words that make me pause and put effort (even a little) into sounding it out or wondering what it means. I don’t need to support the weight of it in my hands, or expend any physical energy to put it back on the shelf when I’m done. I don’t have to actively participate, making decisions by clicking to get to the next part of a story or following hyperlinks to track down information. I don’t have to read the text that accompanies the pictures on the screen in front of me.
Radio doesn’t require much involvement either, but I like to think of it as television’s shy cousin, the one that lets you do other things even while you nod politely and listen to what it has to say. It isn’t like its more boisterous relative, the one who demands that you not only listen, but also watch it do somersaults across the living room. No, television is a breed of its own that makes me a passive receptacle, a lover whose adoring partner is willing to do all the work. And therein lies the problem. If it’s always within reach, if this constant companion is always available to do it all for me, when do I lose the ability to do things for myself? To interact, to participate, to shoulder some of the burden of discourse or even thought?
With a doting friend like television, when does the problem become not just knowing what to think, but forgetting to think at all? I wonder about her sometimes, that girl who tried to sell me the Sports and Movie Package. I imagine she’s still sitting there, a look of disbelief on her face. And I wonder if it would have been kinder to just buy the damn cable.