Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Flickering Blue Baby-Sitter

I admit it. I enjoy watching television sometimes. I have learned a great deal from watching television: that I am hopelessly in lust love with Evangeline Lilly, that there is a horrifying epidemic of erectile dysfunction, and that there are stern, lantern-jawed lawyers ready to take up my cause if I am threatened by the IRS, immigration authorities, junk lawsuits, or any of a wide range of ghastly, polysyllabic diseases caused by mendacious employers.

I have also learned that television can be, as it was once described by Newton Minnow, a vast wasteland, able to keep us sitting slack-jawed and drooling in front of the screen for hours on end. Much that is there to be seen is quite good (the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and even the Food Network come to mind), but there is a great deal of mindless, brain-rotting drivel foisted off on us by those who would sell us soap, new cars, lawn services, or cures for diseases we've never heard of.

The problem has long been recognized. In a letter to his friend Goodman Ace, Groucho Marx once wrote,

"A child's mind must inevitably rot, looking at this dreary procession of nonsense night after night, and I think that the next ten years [he wrote this in 1960] will produce a population composed entirely of goons. I would kick Melinda's [his daughter] set to small chunks, but there's one in every room and I haven't got enough character to destroy six sets, two of them in color. I'm not trying to be comic about this. It disturbs me deeply that the TV set has become such an integral part of her life and the life of all her friends. When I was a kid, we used to read. I keep throwing books into Melinda's room but she keeps throwing them out. Last night she threw me out as well. For me, the only good thing about TV is that it has allowed me to earn far more money than I deserve."

I am pleased that my daughter is trying to keep granddaughter Leya occupied more with reading and free play than with television (the flickering blue baby-sitter, as it was once called), and that my other grandchildren's television time is carefully monitored to ensure that they (at least, the boys) are not spending their time watching the Spike or Playboy channels.

Agnes and I have three television sets in the house, and probably watch them a total of three or four hours per week. When we find a show we like, we usually wait and buy it on DVDs, which allow us to watch the shows without the "benefit" of endless commercials. Usually, though, we read.

The problem with television is that it requires attention to the images. Unlike radio, you can't just listen to it in the background as you do something have to watch the accompanying images. You are committed to a single activity, which is allowing sponsors to pour stuff into your head through the hole opened by vapid programming. In moderation, this is probably okay. But if you are exposed for too long to the likes of SpongeBob SquarePants, Glenn Beck, Nancy Grace, and the images of legislators declaiming to acres of vacant seats on C-Span, your mind will eventually rot and run in greasy globs from your ears, causing ugly stains on the shoulders of your shirts.

It was also Groucho Marx who said that television was very educational, because whenever someone turned it on, he went into the next room and read a book. Perhaps that's good advice for all of us.

Enjoy your big-screen TV in moderation, but don't let it be the flickering blue baby-sitter - for yourself or for your children. Read, instead.

Have a good day. Read. Write letters. More thoughts tomorrow.



Leslie David said...

Harlan Ellison referred to television as "sucking up to the glass teat."

Phfrankie Bondo said...

...while I appreciate your well-written thoughts on this subject I must point out that, just like guns, "televison doesn't kill reading, people kill reading"...

Bandit said...

Groucho was insightful. If the Cardinals are playing baseball, that is what is on in our house. You can actually do other things when the game is on and if a big play happens you can come in and see the instant replays.

I also watch the Discovery and History channels quite a bit. We call it nerd TV.

Mike said...

"For me, the only good thing about TV is that it has allowed me to earn far more money than I deserve."

My lazy TV hasn't made me a damn dime! I going to have to give it a good talking to tonight.

chrissy said...

Dora the Explorer = brain rot. But when my son has spent the day screaming at me and doing exactly what i asked him to not do (while screaming "bad dog" at me) - i happily let him rot his brain with Dora. Haa. I'll regret this one day won't i?

Hope the trip to ohio went well!