Let us suppose that you do not watch much TV. A lot of people tell me they don’t watch much TV, and they often tell me that what TV they do watch is mostly news. Let us suppose your viewing schedule on a typical week is something like this:
MONDAY: Local news (0:30), National news (0:30), A National Geographic documentary (1:00)
TUESDAY: Local news (0:30), National news (0:30), NewsHour With Jim Lehrer (1:00)
WEDNESDAY: Local news (0:30), National news (0:30), The Charlie Rose Show (1:00)
THURSDAY: National news (0:30), Larry King Live (1:00)
FRIDAY: Local news (0:30), Seinfeld (syndicated) (0:30), Frasier (syndicated) (0:30)
SATURDAY: no viewing today
That’s a pretty lean, serious schedule. Even the throwaway shows on that schedule are good quality. It is not a lot of viewing, either; the average American watches more than twice this much television. Notice that this is such a light schedule that Saturday ended up with no TV viewing at all. This lightweight schedule averages out to two hours of TV a day. Unless you’ve thrown out your TV entirely, you probably watch more than this already.
Two hours a day is 1/12 of all the time that God has allotted to you. Two hours a day is one month every year. Imagine if you could add an entire month to your year, every year. You don’t need to sleep during this month (you don’t sleep while watching TV, do you?), so it is more like adding forty days or so of productivity to every year. A man can get a lot done in forty days.
Now, the median age in the United States is 36.6 years. On average you, my dear reader, are 36.6 years old (actually you’re somewhat older since toddlers can’t read). The average life expectancy in the U.S. at birth is 78.1 years, but if you are old enough to read this then your life expectancy is already somewhat longer than that. So let us suppose that you have some 41.5 years of life ahead of you, that’s about what the average works out to be. If you are watching a paltry 2 hours of TV a day, then you have 4 1/2 years of future productivity that’s going to be lost to the man in the magic box. You could earn a college degree in 4 1/2 years, with time to spare. You could write a couple of books in 4 1/2 years. You could spend 3 years working, save every cent you earn (your living expenses are already covered elsewhere in your life), then spend 1 year travelling the world, and six months learning the banjo. You could become a kung-fu expert in 4 1/2 years.
That’s assuming you currently ”don’t watch much TV– mostly just the news.” More likely, you watch more TV that you think. Keep in mind, every last thing you see on the screen is designed to make you keep watching. TV wants to suck you in.
The average American watches 142 hours of TV a month, which works out to a little over 4 1/2 hours a day. (Does that sound about right? Yeah, I thought so.) Assuming again you have 41.5 years ahead of you, that works out to 10.49 years of lost productivity, more if you are younger. You can squeeze 88.6 years of living into 78.1 years of life if you kill your television. You can, in effect, add ten years to your life.
Naturally, there will be some objections to this idea. “But the news– I need to know what’s going on in the world!” Certainly you do. But is TV the best place to get the news? It is not. First of all, broadcasters control the flow of news over the TV. They control what stories you see, how much depth is given to each story, and when in the sequence a story is aired. If a news story has particular relevance to you, personally, you will be limited to what the broadcaster chooses to reveal. You cannot skip stories that are irrelevant, and you cannot go deeper into stories that are personally important. At best, you can get the exact same news as everyone else.
Contrast this with a newspaper. Newspapers can explore news stories in much greater depth than can television because a newspaper is not constrained to a linear delivery system. With a newspaper, readers are free to pick and choose the stories that are relevant to them, skipping that which is irrelevant. Internet sites are even better. Recently, I decided I needed more background information on the situation in the Congo. If my main news source were the television, I would have to wait days, or weeks, or months, or even years until a producer decided to do an in-depth story on my topic of interest. But on the internet I was able to access and print dozens of old news stories on the Congo. I generated a 40-page dossier on the subject in a matter of minutes, a dossier I could review at my leisure.
This brings us to another serious disadvantage of TV news. Print news– whether in a newspaper, on the internet, in a magazine, or what have you– can be reviewed, studied and scrutinized. TV news does not allow this. When someone makes an off-hand comment on TV, the moment is passed as soon as it had arrived. If it was a comment you find remarkable but that you weren’t sure you heard quite right, there is no chance to go back and hear the comment again. Nor can statistics or other facts be compared via TV, except as the producer chooses to compare them. You cannot make your own scrutiny of the news when the news comes through the TV. Where a study of the events of the world is concerned, TV cannot be taken seriously.
Another objection might be time– “I’m too busy to read the paper. I can watch the news while I’m making dinner.” You can, but to what end? For half an hour or more your attention will be divided between the task you are supposed to be doing and the antics of politicians half a world away. You will work with an ear cocked to the TV, waiting for the one story that has some importance to you, and when it comes they will discuss it superficially for two minutes before moving on to something else. You would be better served by focusing on the job at hand now, and researching the news story of interest later when you have the time to give it your full attention. You will learn more this way, and learn it more quickly.
Also, it takes less time to scan the headlines and read only what is important than it takes to sit through an entire TV news program. Getting the news through the TV may be easy, but it is superficial and time consuming. Don’t do it.
There is another pitfall to TV news, one not so easily noticed by those too accustomed to it. This pitfall is the insidious power of commercials. If the nightly news were to be believed, man’s greatest nemesis in his day-to-day life is the common headache. There are numerous remedies to the headache (and to seasonal allergies, and to the common cold, and to the more serious conditions about which you should ask your doctor if it is right for you), any one of which allow us to continue with the hard-charging, fast-paced, professional lifestyle that we evidently all share. The greatest danger of these commercials is not that we will buy these medicines, or even that we will imagine that we suffer from these ailments. Those are dangers too, but the greatest threat is the understated message that these people in the commercial live the “normal” lifestyle. (Note the use of the definite article.) Whether you need the product or not is irrelevant. Good for you if you, the viewer, don’t have a headache, but what if, in fact, you do have time for the pain? If you are already enjoing the benefits that the product would have brought, that is one thing, but for the commercial’s message to be intelligible, your lifestyle has to resemble the one the advertisers portray. Commercials do not merely tell us what to buy, they establish a standard of how we are expected to live.
The entertainment shows exacerbate this phenomenon. Earlier in this essay I floated the idea of learning the banjo, an idea which you possibly have dismissed as somewhat silly. If that was your reaction, from where did you learn this cultural value of the banjo being silly? Most likely from television. American television tends to reflect the culture of southern California, where a lot of its content is produced, and that culture is put forward as the norm. An idealized version of southern Californian lifestyle is what we all are assumed by television to be aspiring to. In southern California a banjo might, in fact, be rather silly. But the world is not all California. In other contexts, the banjo is a fine instrument and not silly at all.
For four and a half hours a day, every day, year after year, we are told not just what products to buy, but what problems to have. We are told what to desire. We are told what dreams to pursue. We are told who we are by people we have never met. Four and half hours a day, every day, for our entire lives. I do not wish to be melodramatic, but this is brainwashing.
The great disadvantage here is that it promotes common modes of thought for everyone, and discourages originality. When we are told what to think, our individual ideas and contributions are diminished to the point that they become stillborn. When we attempt to take on other people’s ways of thinking and living, we cease to be ourselves and become mere social drones. (We do not succeed in these imposed lifestyles either, because they are not ours.) Our personal contributions to the world never come into being.
Absent the influence of television, there is a personal liberation. End the four-and-a-half-hour daily fusillade, and a person can find the space to remember himself (or, more likely, discover himself for the first time). We are each of us unique, in ways TV cannot predict, imagine, or communicate. Coming back to the topic of TV news, many watch it so that they might participate in “water cooler” discussions at work. Under the tyranny of television, few have anything original to say in such conversations; they merely parrot the particular broadcasts they viewed. But absent television, people will find their own experiences, their own opinions, and their own views. Today, a man who watches no television is so radically different from his fellows that he becomes a distinct voice in the crowd.
Society needs those distinct voices, but never mind about society– consider the distinct man himself. A person free from the dictates of television is, as I say, free to discover his own experiences, opinions, and views. A person who removes TV from his life not only has more time on his hands, but enjoys richer experiences during those times. Except for sleep, there is perhaps no activity more passive than watching TV. All other activities provide greater sensory input, greater challenges, and deeper joy than any TV program can hope to offer. The life without television is not only effectively a longer one, it is also absolutely a fuller one.
For those reasons, you should kill your television. Give it away, throw it away, whatever you have to do– get the machine out of your house. You will be surprised at how little you miss it (in my case it was months before I even noticed it was gone), and in time you will be amazed at the things you had been missing.
Average monthly TV viewing in the U.S. : http://www.tvweek.com/news/2008/11/viewing_across_screens_grows_n.php
Median age in the U.S.: http://www.bartleby.com/151/fields/26.html
U.S. life expectancy: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/PRESSROOM/08newsreleases/mortality2006.htm