Clancy and I came from remarkably similar backgrounds. We’re both the children of upper-middle class professionals with advanced degrees in the same field. School was considered important for both of us as we were coming up and stated expectations were that we would graduate college and eventually settle down in a professional career. We both went to church on Sunday and kept close ties with one side of our family but not so much the other. And perhaps most importantly, we were raised with similar values. I think it’s because of these similarities that our differences stand out so starkly.

One of our big differences, both in the way that we were raised and in the way that we see the world, involves entertainment. I was raised on television. I watched obscene amounts of it. I wish I could have back the amount of time I spent watching an episode of Matlock for the 15th time. I wish I had spent more time writing and drawing and going out (as I got older). When Clancy and I have kids, I’m not going to let them watch as much television as I watched growing up. I didn’t spend nearly as much time as my peers playing video games mostly because my parents wouldn’t get me a Nintendo because my grades were so bad. But boy did I want one and for the longest time their refusal to budge on that issue was one of the biggest chips on my shoulder.

Clancy, on the other hand, got very little television growing up. She spent lots and lots of time reading. Television was something that her father mostly watched. Notably, when her father watched it, he was not amenable to being interrupted at all. As such, Clancy grew up with something of a negative view of television in part because of that alone. More broadly, though, she views television, comic books, and video games were considered by her to be suspect. She considered reading to be inherently superior to all of these things and to some extent time spent consuming any of the above was time wasted that would be better spent doing something better. Though I can agree that I wasted a lot of time watching television, where I primarily took issue with her was the notion that those things should in and of themselves be considered at best a “guilty pleasure”.

Television in particular is something that I’m remarkably defensive about. Just as part of Clancy’s animus towards TV can be traced back to the way that it sucked her father’s attention away from her when she was young, I suppose some of my defensiveness can be chalked up to the fact that television made me who I am and to repudiate it completely is to repudiate who I am. It may not mean that I am something bad, but at the very least it means that I am something less than what I could be. On some level this is undoubtedly true just as 100,000 things I did when I was younger was ultimately non-productive, but I don’t think that it’s nearly as true as a lot of medical doctors and cultural critics say it is.

The place that most cultural critics point to are medical studies linking television to obesity among other things. While it’s true that if you sit around and do nothing but watch television all day like I did, you’ll likely get fat like I did, the cause-effect relationship is not as clear as the people that point to the studies suggest. Though I exclude my parents from this category, it is undeniably true that the same sorts of parents that don’t monitor the TV habits of their young ones also don’t monitor their caloric intake. Parents that are not around enough to keep tabs on kids’ TV habits similarly don’t have time to cook healthy meals and are more likely to rely on unhealthy alternatives. Parents that don’t know how damaging excessive TV watching might be also don’t fully appreciate how bad for them much of the food they eat really is.

The biggest problem I have with critics of television is that for the most part they consider television a thing. I think that further they often equate television with the least intellectually nutritious brand of it. Most of my personal problem with the television that I watched when I was younger actually had less to do with sheer volume and more to do with what I watched and how I watched the same things over and over again. Granted, there weren’t the kinds of options then that there are now, so it’s possible that if I hadn’t rewatched Gilligan’s Island there wouldn’t have been anything for me to watch and that time would have been better doing just about anything else. Be that as it may, the same isn’t entirely true today.

I could go on and on about how much I actually learned from television growing up and how it’s influenced my life in positive ways. I could speculate that reading would have done the same only better, but that wouldn’t be much more than speculation. I can also grant that the effort of reading makes it unlikely that you’ll waste time reading crap whereas the comparative ease of television makes it easy to be indiscriminate, but I consider that a challenge to be overcome rather than an example of one’s innate superiority over the other.

To go back to the beginning for a moment, I think that it’s true that people watch too much television and in particular watch too much crap on television. I believe muchly that I did the same. What I reject is the notion that television is inherently bad or that cases when it isn’t bad are some shocking exception to the rule. I also reject the notion that television is inherently inferior to reading in all but the most asymmetrical circumstances. I believe that television actually has some rock-hard advantages over reading just as reading has advantages over television. I also believe that video games, a “guilty pleasure” I rarely partake in, have advantages over both television and reading.

So what are these TV advantages? That is for another post…


Category: Coffeehouse, Theater

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9 Responses to The Great Entertainment Divide

  1. Webmaster says:

    When I was young, my parents strictly rationed TV. We got 1/2 hour on schooldays, 1 hour on non-schooldays. The rest of the time we were ordered to other things.

    By the time I got into high school this relaxed a bit, usually because I was doing other things at the same time (working on model ships/cars while the TV was on in the backround in the basement workroom for example).

    If/when I have kids, there will probably be a similar proscription. I’ve gotten to the point where I watch very little TV anyways (South Park, House, the occasional Mythbusters episode, and some anime is about it – but my watching patterns are anything but regular); my entertainment tends to go back to books, video games, or more often than not a movie in the theater or a movie at home with friends around.

    I think some of it is the quality of what’s being seen, as well as the quantity. I grew up watching a lot more PBS shows (we didn’t have cable for long) and even when not, I watched some more classical style shows than others (big fan of Get Smart for example).

    To this day, if I feel my intelligence is being insulted by something, I probably won’t watch it. That goes for video games, too – there are a lot of “popular” video games that I feel are just stupid, both in plotline and gameplay. They appeal to people who don’t seek a mental challenge, but not to me.

  2. Peter says:

    Having at least some knowledge of current TV fare has certain social value, as it makes it easier to participate in conversations.

  3. kevin says:

    I have two kids. The older is 4 years old. She LOVES watching television, particularly Disney princess movies. What is fascinating to me is the sedative effect that television has. She can be bouncing off the walls until you turn on her movie, and then she sits passively staring blankly at the screen. This, more than anything, is what convinces me that television is probably not a good thing. Having said that, I’m not convinced is that much worse than passively watching a baseball game, or a play, or the circus, or other forms of live entertainment. I think one big difference is that it’s too easy to simply turn on the television without desiring to watch anything in particular. The next thing you know, you’ve frittered away a couple of hours and have nothing to show for it. I’ve read that your brain is more active when you’re sleeping than it is when you’re watching television. That wouldn’t surprise me.

  4. Webmaster says:

    Kevin,

    Your brain is more active whenever engaging in a semi-interactive medium. Reading (hopefully) engages imagination and internal visualization. Music (at least good music) has been shown to stimulate certain brain centers as well, particularly areas associated with pattern matching.

    The problem with television is that it is (almost) entirely passive. The visuals and audio are supplied to you, and unless you’re watching something relatively stimulating that requires a serious amount of thought (a particular favorite of mine just for an example would be The Red Green Show out of Canadian public broadcasting), you are indeed likely to slip into an entirely passive brain state not unlike a hypnotic trance.

    TV can be good, but you need sane limits. I think too many people today have lost track of what “sane limits” and “common sense” would indicate.

  5. trumwill says:

    Peter,
    You’re right about the social aspects. That’s something I’m going to cover in my next post on the subject.

    Web,
    I very much agree that sane limits are in order. If nothing else, sane limits encourage discrimination. Had my TV intake been limited, I wouldn’t have continued to rewatch things that I’d already seen. When Clancy and I have kids, the question is going to be what kinds of limits to impose as opposed to whether or not to. Your mention of the show is also central to one of my arguments that all shows are not created equal. There’s a lot of pretty brainless stuff out there, but there are also more mentally engaging shows than ever because of cable (even if cable also caused the signal-to-noise ratio to go down).

    Kevin,
    You touch on two important things. First, one of the things that frustrates me about anti-TV arguments is that they apply to other things that they hold near and dear. Sports is a good example of this (though sports, like TV, has a definite upside that critics don’t acknowledge), as are plays and so forth. The second important thing that you touch on is that TV is easy to watch just for the sake of watching without wanting to watch anything in particular. When I am at my folks house, I can watch Law & Order 24/7. The same is true of the Internet. My personal solution for that is not having cable and only watching things that I set out to watch.

  6. ? says:

    Dude, is that you and Clancy in the photo at the top? Because you look way cooler than your avatar would suggest.

    DVR was my solution to watching “whatever is on”. I can always count on a sufficient backlog of selectively recorded entertainment to keep me . . . entertained whenever I happen to sit down.

    The downside is that I watch a lot more of those TV shows than when I was forced to exercise the discipline of actually showing up at a specific time.

  7. trumwill says:

    No, the photo up top was something that I stumbled on looking for desktop wallpaper. The reading woman and the TV-watching guy leaped out at me as something usable.

    The DVR is actually how I intend to enforce watching limits when we have kids. Actually a computer pretending to be a DVR, but you get the point.

    Had the DVR been around 15-20 years ago, I probably would have watched even more Matlock…

  8. Abel says:

    I watch a lot less TV now than I did as a kid….probably because I enjoy reading and writing more.

  9. Becky says:

    I watch a lot of TV (thanks to the DVR) but I’m really entertained by it, like Ted is iwth his video games. I don’t have kids, though, which would probably make a huge difference in how I spend my time and it’s not like I sacrifice a personal life to watch TV.

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