Musings on TV: admonitions to parents

T here. This is my first attempt at a blog entry. After some slight urging from RubeRad to write on the blog, I felt compelled to write about a book that I recently read titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Read this book to find out if our world has turned out like Orwell’s predictions in 1984, or is it a Brave New World like Huxley posits? Amusing Ourselves is rich and thought-provoking. The book contains a lot more than what I will write about and is truly worthwhile for anyone, whether they are TV watchers or not. In his book, Postman breaks up America into two ages: the Age of Exposition and the Age of Show Business.

The Age of Exposition was the period of time in America starting in the early 1600s when the printed word was the main avenue for information (theology, philosophy, news, politics, opinions) and interaction (letters, debates, and expositional speaking). During the Age of Exposition nearly everyone read (see chapters 3 & 4 of Postman’s book for his evidence supporting this statement). At your local (County/State) fair, it wasn’t unusual for regular people to attend (and comprehend!) 7 hour long debates!

The Age of Show Business began in the mid 1800s with the advent of the telegraph and photography. The telegraph allowed information to be sent at rapid speeds to far away places. “News of the Day” stories became popular because of the telegraph. Next came radio and the telephone. Television followed, combining visuals with language broadcast over the air waves arriving instantaneously and rockin’ our world. The printing press was to the Age of Exposition as the TV is to the Age of Show Business. TV has its offshoots in new technology with computers, the internet, video games, and now video cell phones.

Now let me admit that I am a fan of TV (especially for watching movies) and have logged many hours in front of the boob tube (although not nearly so much since I’ve had kids). I am not going to say that TV is evil and should never be watched again by your children or you. Also, not all printed matter is lofty, edifying and worthy of our time (junk mail, romance novels, magazines). There is much print out there that is strictly for amusement, but I see many more people plopping down on the couch after a hard day and flipping through the channels until a show that looks good is found. It’s hard to find that kind of mindless veggin’ with print, unless you subscribe to a lot of picture-laden magazines. Postman’s book brought up some very interesting ideas about how to think about the medium of TV and how this piece of technology has changed our culture in some very surprising ways. I’ll start with the more obvious ways (the first two aren’t in Postman’s book) and then talk about the sneaky, subtle one.

TV negatively affects the pocket book! When #1 began watching TV, he would despise the ads and say “Can you fast forward over this?” After explaining the difference between TV and videos, I told him that he’d just have to wait a few minutes until the show came back on again. Now, he has the ads’ sequence figured out and he enjoys watching them — after all, the ads are nearly the entire purpose of TV and why it’s free — supposedly, somehow, cable has us paying for network TV; if we just used the antenna, we would get reception for CBS, PBS, and some Spanish network. Anyway, ads are there to get you to buy stuff. #1 used to say to me, “Hey mommy, we need to buy that <insert name of cool, flashing, spinning, lit-up toy here>!!” and I would reply “Do you really need it or is it just something that you want that looks really cool to play with?” #1 is pretty honest, so he would admit it was not a need but a want. After that, I would periodically pop into the TV room and say “Do you know what TV is for? To amuse you and to get you to buy things.” Now he repeats that when asked. Even still, when we are in a store with toys, he’ll invariably say, “Hey, I saw this toy on TV, can we buy it?” To which I always reply, “Did you bring any money? No? We aren’t buying it.” So, I guess TV has failed to affect our family’s pocket book in any significant way.

Telly negatively affects the belly (and the mind)! I read a statistic in Self Magazine:

Spending more than two hours a day in front of the small screen can help increase your risk for obesity by 23 percent, a study from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston indicates.

I didn’t really need Harvard to tell me that. Generally, I know that it’s pretty easy to wait for those commercial interuptions and go get <insert your special favorite treat here–ours is ice cream>. TV makes you passive in both body and mind. How easy is it to jump into an episode of Friends or Seinfeld or even my fave, The Simpsons when you’ve missed the first 10 or 15 minutes? Did you ever just give up on watching Friends because you missed an episode or two? No, of course not. Joey is always a dumb lothario, Phoebe is always just a little bit too out there, Ross is always a dinosaur geek, Chandler always has the snarky quip and self-deprecating comment, Rachel is all about the hair (shallow), and Monica is always a control freak and neatnik. These characters never break their mold or grow or change. Similarly, Bart Simpson is still in the 4th grade and Lisa — genius or not — is still the saddest kid in grade number 2 (after 11 years!). Contrarily, in the past few years there has been an increase in serial TV shows that actually require you to remember what happens from episode to episode (Lost or 24), albeit starting the show with a “Previously on…”. But really, as much as you might “think” during a TV show, your life is mostly entertained rather than edified or enriched.

TV trivializes information! Did you ever notice how news never spends more than about 2 minutes on the stories? Earthquake in Mexico, 500 dead <show rubble and carefully framed anonymous bodies> Famine in Ethiopia <show distended-bellied kids with flies in their eyes> Bombing in the UK <show wreckage of double-decker buses> The opposite of this is the 24 hour news channels that spend about 20 hours asking “Do we have any more information on <bombing, kidnapping, natural disaster>? No, let’s go to Dan in the Chicago office….” In watching news, most of it does not affect you or your loved ones and you don’t usually change your life in any significant way after watching the news. Showing something as tragic as a starving village and a split second later an ad for a magic beer fridge really trivializes those starving in a far away country. You can relax and enjoy those silly frat boys bowing to their “god”, the beer fridge and not give another thought to the suffering previously portrayed. Information can be separated from its context so that it becomes meaningless. This trivialization didn’t begin with TV, but prior with the telegraph. To be fair, print did it first with penny newspapers which came out in the 1830s, just slightly before the telegraph, but it was telegraph’s speed that beat out the penny paper stories’ road to irrelevance. Later, penny newspapers reported news bits delivered by telegraph. Trivial information: Did you know that the first crossword puzzle was published in 1913? It is the ultimate print game of trivializing information. Oh, how I love them. How many of you would rather watch Jeopardy?

TV turns politics into a selling game! Politics used to be rational, requiring logical suppositions to support your belief in a topic. People would attend debates and decide which candidates to support and vote for based on their platform, beliefs and ideas. Now, politics is all about the TV ad, how emotionally charged it is and how many positive sound bites they can get replayed on the news. These emotional political ads began in the early nineteen hundreds but really changed America during the 1960 Presidential election contest between Nixon and Kennedy. On TV, Kennedy was suave and picture perfect. Nixon looked paunchy and sweaty. Of course, there was a little more to it (the Vietnam War), but this started the era of the plastic politician.

A plastic politician is image with very little substance, and could tour the country as a plastic doll with a push button on the back with the right sound bites and pauses for audience clapping like “No new taxes”, “America needs leadership”, “New jobs for America”, and “God bless America and our troops”. With image being so important in today’s politics, how would presidents like Abraham Lincoln or W. Howard Taft (who weighed around 300 pounds) get elected? Both were brilliant, driven men, but not lookers. Nowadays, the image of a politician is mostly what people think of when thinking about politics, all substance no depth. Smear campaigns are rampant; they try to sell a viewer on the opposition by pointing out a campaigner’s negative qualities, often without mentioning any logical reasons to vote for the opposition.

TV turns teaching into an amusing activity! This is the sneaky, subtle effect of watching TV and the one that surprised me the most. Its affects are definitely my mom’s big complaint about teaching; she has taught a variety of ages from middle school to college aged students. Students expect to be entertained while they are taught. Who’s the culprit? Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and any TV show or video that claims to be educational. It might teach your kids some facts, but it also teaches them that in order to be taught, it must be entertaining! If it doesn’t jump around and sing and dance, then it’s really not worth your attention. Students learn to ignore what does not amuse them. Maybe because I’m a first generation TV watcher (I grew up watching TV and my parents didn’t), I can still concentrate, take notes, and retain the information from a teaching session (although my limit is a 3 hour stretch) and not expect to be entertained and amused through the class. Why is teaching as entertainment bad? It’s all about the grades and how cool your teacher was, not how about how much you learned and how much you can apply that knowledge to your career or life. Postman’s book talks of a professor who is a favorite among his students because of his entertaining classes. He has a few standard gags that he says “get them everytime” like when he gets to the edge of the chalkboard, he keeps writing onto the wall, or when talking about molecules, he goes bouncing off one wall all the way to the other wall and bounces off again. Wow, who wouldn’t like that teacher? Would his students remember what he taught or just the gags? There is a difference between engaging and entertaining your students. Either that or all teachers should get a vaudeville certificate along with their teaching certificate.

TV and print have both brought us amusement; what can we do about all of this?

  • Read to your kids, let them see you read too, and limit the amount of TV that they can watch and that you watch. Read the Bible. Have family Bible studies and talk about God’s word with your kids. People of the Word need to show that the Word is important. Read all kinds of books to your kids — just prescreen them and see what is right for your family and particular kids. If you need some extra help with this, Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt and Honey for a Teen’s Heart by Gladys Hunt and Barbara Hampton are excellent resources.
  • Talk to your kids about the books they read. Relate their lessons and stories to other books and your daily life.
  • Have a family bookclub. Use your boys’ natural competitiveness to see who can read — and report on — the most books in the summer.
  • See what summer reading programs there are at your local library — one year, before #1 could even read (I read to him), we got a free In-n-Out burger for reading something like 10 books. Teach them how to find books in the library and later how to research topics that interest them, so they will be ready to do research on their own projects and interests.
  • Talk to your kids about how to learn in school and how to study. One term in high school, we had an entire elective class on how to study at my prep school. It was a little redundant to me, but there are always tips that you never thought about. Admit to them that not all topics that they are required to learn are fun or entertaining, but they may still need to know the skills or foundational knowledge taught; if nothing else, pay attention and do well enough to get a better than average grade because grades are important too.
  • Talk to them about what TV is and what kind of role you think it should play in your family’s life. At times when they can’t watch TV, if they say they are bored and can’t find anything to do, have a list of chores ready; they’ll magically find other things to do like play with some toy they got for their birthday 2 years ago and haven’t touched for a year and a half — and they will enjoy it!

You’ve heard “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but in Charlotte’s Web (1952) by E.B. White, Charlotte says (of her spun messages to save Wilbur) “People believe almost anything they see in print.” What do you think? Forgive my verbosity, but after all, this blog is titled Blogorrhea.

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7 Responses

  1. Great, T!!! I have taught this book a few times in composition classes, but students, the ones who a walking advertisements for its messages, resist it mightily. No, nothing ever affects me–only the other guy.

  2. I’ve noticed lately that our TV watching has been curtailed somewhat, due no doubt to your reading this book in particular, as well as our increased efforts to read more in general. It seems like most nights we have regular stuff to watch from 9-10, but usually not from 8-9 or 10-11. Tallying up our regular shows, I come up with only 6 1/2 hours per WEEK! (not counting Amazing Race (for me), Dr. Who, or Thief, which is now finished) Of course, we do not yet have perfect discipline to always not watch TV apart from our regular shows, and we do watch a lot of movies (or TV shows on DVD), but let’s give each other a pat on the back!

  3. Gosh! Your dad and I certainly did a good job raising you. We were always avid readers as you were growing up, and I read to you and your brother up to about middle school. I went from kids' books to poetry and short stories. I know you don't remember, but I read you Poe, Shakespeare, Browning (both), and Noyes ("The Highwayman") among others. The poem "I Had a Mother Who Read to Me" was one of my favorites to read to you. I assume that is one of the reasons you turned out the way you did. Our strong feelings on the value of education may have helped as well.
    Just as you, I do not vilify watching TV. You know I do watch a lot of TV, but I also read, teach, and travel. TV does not dictate my life or buying trends. As you mentioned, I get very upset with the students who think I need to "make the class fun" by entertaining them, giving them information in short intervals, and not requiring too much thinking, let alone critical thinking! Hmm…I wonder if there are any TV programs that would help me change their minds. A little of the hair of the dog that bit them? Nah, let them work for their grade! I did read the chapter on teaching as entertainment to my class. They seemed to agree with me. Maybe there is still hope for them.
    Keep up the good work. Mom

  4. Thanks for the review, T. I grew up watching television. I spent waaay too much time with Gilligan and Steve Austin and Michael Knight and Bob Barker. But somewhere in there I did a ton of reading, too. Not sure how the math on that worked out, but it did.

    In college RubeRad and I lived in a house with only one rule: no TV. Not a single TV set in the house. So instead of killing brain cells we sat around the table reading the newspaper, kicking around ideas. To this day it strikes me weird to think some people watch TV shows while they’re in college. The absence of TV in that period of my life is linked in my mind with intense mental growth.

    My wife and I bought a TV after one year of marriage because we kept wanting to rent movies. To this day we only watch two shows regularly: America’s Funniest Videos, and Everybody Loves Raymond. We like The Amazing Race but don’t catch every episode. And I’m a sucker for SciFi’s new Battlestar Galactica (which I would watch on my mother-in-law’s cable, until they started offering $2 downloads through iTunes), but last season’s finale took a major nosedive in plot development, so I’m not expecting much out of next season.

    By the way, I couldn’t agree more with the points you highlighted about how TV impacts us. On the last one, about education needing to be amusing: teachers are often told n training that the cardinal sin is to be boring. I have always disagreed. If I can develop something amusing out of the subject matter we’re studying, great. If not, press on. The cardinal sin of teaching isn’t being boring, it’s wasting students’ time.

    Believe me, a lot of teachers are quite amusing, and do an excellent job of wasting their students’ time.

  5. Here’s a way to measure how hooked you are on perpetual entertainment; try driving to work without any radio/CD! This morning my radio wouldn’t turn on. I hope it’s just a fuse. But what a freakshow being stuck inside your own head! Actually I got used to it after about 10 minutes. I occupied with the only part of the radio that worked — the little red security LED, which sometimes blinked at a 45sec interval, and sometimes a 12-sec interval (yes, I timed it — what else am I supposed to do? Watch the road?)

    In college RubeRad and I lived in a house with only one rule: no TV.

    Was that a rule? I just thought nobody had a TV. I don’t remember missing it. My soph. apartment did have a TV, because I remember watching the Tracy Ullman show (genesis of The Simpsons), and being initiated to college hoops with the Duke/UNLV championship. BTW, T&I I’m sure will never even be tempted to waver on our rule: no TV in kids’ bedrooms. We do have a TV in our bedroom, but more because at one point, we bought a better TV, so we had a 2nd TV to put somewhere. And one in the garage, purportedly for working out, but that hasn’t really worked out.

  6. Yes, that was a rule. It was in fact The Only Rule we had. Which is why no one ever cleaned the kitchen or the bathroom (except for Rich — but that was purely voluntary on his part, motivated by personal sanitation foibles).

  7. I watched WAY too much TV in college. I remember marvelling at all the things that Ruberad told me that he did in college; now I realize it’s because he wasn’t sitting around watching TV. You can lose hours without even realizing it. In those lost hours, I could have spent my time doing many more interesting things like learning how to perform a proper tennis serve, riding my bicycle more, figuring out how to travel locally and seeing more of what was nearby, visiting NYC more (than the 3 times I did), visiting other friends at other colleges, discovering years earlier that I have a passion for both running and hiking, or enjoying more disc sports. I don’t have regrets about reading because I have always done quite a bit of that (small props to my rigorous prep school and large props to my parents) and always used reading to combat boredom when I could and where TV wasn’t possible. It makes me shudder to think of all the new technology (e.g. portable DVD players or video cell phones) that puts TV and movies into your life and even your car (R&I opted a big “NO” for a DVD player in our minivan). How much more TV would I have watched, I wonder.

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