I can’t tell you how tired I get of discussions like this:

Originally, we did not have televisions because we always had something better to do. This to me is the first question to ask yourself with regard to watching television: Is there something better I could be doing – something better for me, for my family and household, for my community? As it turns out, the answer to that question is always yes. Even when we need to relax, there is always a better way to do it than in front of a screen of moving images pumping them directly into our minds…

These sorts of things often strike me as an easy way to establish moral superiority as much as anything else. Yes, there is always something better that we could be doing. That’s an enormously high threshold. My wife reads a lot of books. She could, instead of reading those books, be spending time talking with me or calling her parents or making new friends or volunteering in a soup kitchen. Yet it’s always television, which unlike books can be incorporated into a group activity (no, Book Groups don’t count), that gets called isolating. But if someone enjoys books, then adding books to the balance adds value to her happiness which in turn adds value to our happiness. It would be a problem if she read to the exclusion of everything else, just as it’s a problem if someone watches television to the exclusion of anything else. It’s one thing to say “we watch too much TV” which is, on the average, quite true. It’s another thing to say that there is never (or almost never) a time when you wouldn’t be better off doing something else.

While perhaps true in the abstract sense, it is also true of countless other things. Shouldn’t the person watching TV instead be reading a good book? Shouldn’t that person reading fiction be reading something more informative from the non-fiction section? Shouldn’t that person reading the non-fiction book about the Grand Canyon be going to see it for herself? Shouldn’t the person that spent all that money going to see the Grand Canyon have instead donated the money to charity and spent that time working in a soup kitchen? But again, it’s television that almost always gets tagged with this faulty reasoning. Sure, women that read trashy romance novels or men that read fantasy books might be nudged to read something a little more substantial, but the scorn ends up going to the dude watching television.

I spent about three years without watching television early this decade. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I had just lost patience with keeping up with shows week-in and week-out and was too lazy to get a VCR set up and then once I did too forgetful to record it every week and then once I was recording it too busy to watch it. Even prior to all that, the only television I watched was whatever my roommates made a point to watch. I can say, with all honesty, that foregoing television did not enrich my life! It wasn’t unbearable or anything. I wasn’t bored. I still had more things to do than time with which to do them. But it wasn’t a catalyst to going out and “loving” as Mr Shiffman would have it.

Quite the contrary: it was socially isolating. I didn’t have anything to say on a first date when asked what TV shows I watched. Conversations about the latest season of Survivor or the latest happenings on Friends or Seinfeld were conversations I couldn’t join in. The things I did in lieu of television had their social benefits, to be sure, but there really wasn’t any reason that I couldn’t do both. No reason why doing both would have cost me “love” in the world. More recently, I have stopped watching Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica (two episodes from the end!), and Reaper as part of an ongoing effort to get my rear end posted on that exercise bike (where I would then watch the program). The result? A lot of conversations that I can’t participate in.

A good portion of the animus towards television has nothing to do with love or the love it deprives us. It has little to do with mental development. Mostly, it has to do with people that don’t get as much enjoyment and enrichment out of a popular media device getting a chance to feel a sense of superiority over people enjoying something that they don’t.

I understand the impulse. It’s sort of how I feel about video games when I’m not careful. To me, video games represent a huge time-suck of little lasting value. When people ask me what MMORPG’s I play and then ask me why I don’t play any, it’s all I can do to avoid saying “Because I have more important things to do with my life.” In truth, I don’t. I’m fiddling around on my computer, living in the world of my imaginative creations, watching TV in the background, and reading and writing blogs. These are things I get a lot out of. But I can’t really say that they should do the same (or something else other than big, bad video games) because it would make their life more fulfilling. They stand around talking about their Level Four Druids and communicate on that level the same way my brothers and I (who generally don’t have much in common) share our thoughts on The Office.

To those that say that society spends too much time watching television instead of doing other things, they’re probably right. While I would argue that a lot of the time spent “watching” TV is actually spent multitasking, spending hours and hours of watching television is probably not good for you (definitely not when you’re younger). But a good portion of the anti-TV crusade is ego-puffing. Often a chance to turn their social isolation into a sense of superiority. Sometimes, when espoused by those that do watch TV, they get a good thing to be self-critical about that they can still feel good about because they’re probably not as bad about it as the next guy.

Category: Theater

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19 Responses to The Easy Soapbox

  1. Linus says:

    You know, when people complain about others being elitist, or trying to establish moral superiority, or ego puffing, I almost always hear two things in the subtext: 1)”You’re right, but I refuse to admit it publicly” and 2)”I’m offended by your tone.” The second part is often valid, and wannabe-elitists like me should tone it down if we want any respect. The first part may be my own construction, but I notice that factual argument is very rarely used in the response. Will himself doesn’t argue the point, he talks about where to draw the line.

    My theory? We ALL know that our time could probably be better spent doing something other than watching TV the vast majority of the time, just like we all know that smoking is stupid and fast food is bad for you. But we do them anyway, and we hate hate HATE to be reminded of our weakness. How about this – as someone who doesn’t watch TV, I’m willing to admit two things: 1) some shows are so damned good (interesting, entertaining, change your outlook) that they’re inherently worth watching, moreso than a good number of entertainment-focused books for example, 2) entertainment isn’t just something we all need to relax and wind down, but something that makes life worth living.

    That being said, I still choose not to watch TV for financial and self-control reasons. I miss out somewhat on the social aspect, but I make up for it elsewhere and watch movies for entertainment.

    Budding elitists, take note – just because entertainment escapism can be seen as being a weakness doesn’t mean that everyone who does it is weak. There’s value in discussing what’s virtuous and what’s not, but judging others based on our own personal criteria isn’t going to change or help anything.

  2. Webmaster says:

    “There’s always something better.”

    And in all seriousness… I watch very little “TV” these days. I have a few anime shows I watch, I catch House or Mythbusters when I can (basically, when there’s a new episode), and beyond that I watch less and less TV. Of course, this also coincides with the lengthening of the day… oddly enough, the more sunlight I get, the more outdoorsy-active I want to be.

    That being said, I do play video games. Group games as well as single-player. I see books, music, tv, opera, and video games as part and parcel of the same package – somebody on one end of the wire is trying to tell a story, and someone on the other end wants to hear it. Granted, there is a difference of experience with each, but the fundamental point – which is the transmission of an idea, no matter how “mundane” or “escapist”, to another human being – remains.

    This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t look for better entertainment, just that one medium shouldn’t be held up as the end-all and be-all, or “more elite.” There are, after all, differences between highly cerebral TV shows and lowbrow types just as there’s a difference between trying to get through the annoying stuff on college reading lists as opposed to the more enjoyable, if admittedly mundane and escapist, “beer and pretzels” style novels.

    Oh, and Michael Stackpole is a kick-ass writer.

  3. econoholic.com says:

    At the times that you are most reflective, where do you wish you had spent your time?

    I think that’s a pretty good question to ask when trying to come up with any sort of ranking system. I agree that people have a lot of non-sensical beliefs that seem to be programmed into them regarding what are valid ways to spend their time. I think many of those who decry TV would say that theatre is a good way to spend ones time, but what is TV but a logical extension of theatre that is superior in a whole bunch of ways. I think TV=bad is just a meme that is called upon by reflex, and trumwill points out that it doesn’t really pass scrutiny.

    That said, I have to say that when I am reflective, I’d like a lot of my TV-watching hours back. Not all of them. I’d hardly consider myself an American if I hadn’t seen any TV. I don’t regret the hours I spent watching sports. Still, I question whether I needed to see quite so many reruns. I wonder if I could have done something other than watch the Andy Griffith show that I didn’t like anyway.

    I’ve spent a phenomenal amount of time blogging too, but I don’t really regret them. I’ve learned a lot about writing, and I’ve become more circumspect, and I’ve learned how to critique my own ideas better. It’s easy to look at the massive number of hours I’ve sunk into blogging as a waste, and maybe much of it was. Still, I think it’s been worth it.

    Video games? Sigh. I imagine I did get something out of them. Still, I kind of wish I had done some more homework…

  4. trumwill says:


    I don’t defend cigarette smoking on the merits, though. Nor (as you point out) do I defend excessive television watching. I honestly don’t view watching television as a weakness. Nor do I view an hour spent reading a good book as having been “better spent” as an hour spent watching a good television show. I can say that more definitively since I spend more hours a day consuming literature (albeit in the form of audiobooks) than I do watching TV.

    You’re right that I don’t offer any factual counter-evidence… but no evidence was offered in the first place. It’s a value judgment. I don’t have any problem with people that don’t watch television. Different people, different choices and tastes. So yeah, the tone comes into play. They’re not saying “We’re different.” They’re saying “I’m better”. Or at least “At least I know I suck” (if they’re a self-flagellating watcher).

    I agree that discussing values are important. But people take regular life choices and turn them into a value judgment. For instance, you watch movies and I’ve more-or-less stopped. I could say that we have different tastes and priorities, or I could say that movies are a cheap form of escapism because they keep you informed for two hours without building anything substantial meanwhile a great television show takes the time to build a story and universe over time and therefore movies are ADHD entertainment for people with short attention spans who want pat endings within two or three hours while television is for people that want to invest in a wider scope of storytelling and deeper character exploration.

    I’m not saying that all entertainment is created equal and that no one should attach any value to what they consume. I watch shows of minimal utility simply to be entertained (My Name Is Earl) and others that really make me think (The Wire) and a world in between. A large part of my objection is the insistence of some people that “almost all” television is going to fall into the vapid category and anything that doesn’t is a stunning exception and all that.

  5. Barry says:

    I feel like I should have a lot to add to this discussion, but I’m not sure I really do. Habits and opinions are so deeply rooted in this debate there’s not much to debate.

    I do agree with Webmaster above that TV, movies, books, plays, video games, blogs, radio, magazines, websites – they’re all the same in a very basic way, the transmission of an idea or thought from one person to another. Which all goes back to the way basic idea of Ugg the caveman sitting around a campfire telling his buddy Blurg how the day’s wooly mammoth hunting went, and how hilarious it was that cousin Gung slipped and fell down the canyon wall. Then, turning suddenly touching, he recalls going out with his father, Big Ugg and learning how to survive in the wilderness.

    Story-telling has existed for centuries and continues to exist today. Except now instead of just hearing the story told by another caveman we read about it, see it on TV, watch the movie based on the TV show, play the 1st person woolly mammoth shooter, listen to the radio show, buy tickets to “UGG! The Musical”, read the review and discuss whether Gung was a tragic figure in the blogs.

    It’s all just different arms of the same beast and one is not inherently more superior than the other.

    There are just as many “trashy” books as there have been “trashy” TV shows. To single TV out as the idiot medium is disingenuous.

  6. Barry says:

    Will, you say you gave up most TV to focus on exercise. Linus, you don’t watch because of financial and self-control reasons. Both coming from very different places…

    Will – why does one preclude the other? You don’t have kids yet, so (theoretically) your evenings are basically free. Why sacrifice one for the other, but do both. Exercise for an hour, watch the TV while you’re riding the bike. Or do one for an hour and another for an hour. You can keep tabs on all the shows you want to.

    Linus – Financial reasons: meaning don’t want to spend money on a TV and/or cable or satellite? Either of which is reasonable, but hardly a major cost set-back these days… Self-control, meaning you were addicted to TV at one time, and want to avoid any chance of becoming a lapsed couch potato? I would think moderation would work just as well, to set a schedule and firm limits just like one might do with alcohol or online gaming.

  7. trumwill says:


    I wasn’t clear. I don’t give up TV in order to exercise. I’m using my favorite shows as a sort of carrot. I can’t watch certain shows without exercising first. Actually, the point is to exercise while watching. Lost and 24 are good for that because they’re so engaging.

    But right now the issue is to get my butt on that bike, which seems to be beyond me. Laziness trumps TV addiction, apparently :).

  8. Sheila Tone says:

    I find TV getting increasingly complex. It’s work to keep up with some of these shows (like “Lost”). I have to pay close attention, and can’t do anything else while I’m watching or something important gets by me. TV dialogue isn’t as simple and clear as it used to be, either, so we often have to rewind to hear the lines. I secretly feel it’s something of a chore, sometimes, to get through our TiVo queue. But it’s something we can do together at any time that engages our minds.

    As for the elitist label: I think it was more of a wanna-be thing. I can’t think of anyone I considered elite or even accomplished who acted superior about rejecting TV. The typical example was a not-very-attractive pseudointellectual male who wasn’t getting very far in life — and often, couldn’t *afford* a TV (or cable). (Then again, maybe that was because of where I went to school.) They were the same people who’d make a big deal of rejecting chain businesses.

  9. Sheila Tone says:

    By habituating us to follow along impatiently and passively, to filter and frame the world before we’ve had the chance to see anything, television damages our capacity to love well, to love others and the natural world for what they are rather than for what they can do for us.

    How is this different than any fictional entertainment? Or nonfiction, for that matter. This is the danger we face whenever we read, watch, or listen to someone else tell us about something.

    As the mother of a small child, I recognize this as pure bull:

    Shiffman gets to the question that is the focal point of his post, which is: “Does the presence of a television in a home ever increase the happiness of those who live together there?”

    I would have to agree with his conclusion that quite the contrary is true.

    Television means my kid eats his dinner. And it gives me a chance to make dinner for the adults. I feel really sorry for Shiffman’s kid (he’s apparently got *one*). God forbid a kid enjoy some passive entertainment. Better he should have his middle-aged parents in his face all the time.

  10. Linus says:

    Will: My “factual argument” comment definitely wasn’t intended as an attack – you’re right that this all comes down to value judgments. Like many conversations worth having, there’s both risk (of being offended, of offending someone else) and reward (perspectives you might not otherwise get).

    Econoholic: I try to make decisions based on questions like this. Hopefully the difference between the ideal me and the actual me is in my ability, not my motivation.

    Barry: We own a small LCD TV for watching movies, but don’t pay for cable/satellite/internet. That saves us something like $100/month. We could afford it, but it’s never struck us as worth the cost (especially given the small amount we’d watch). Regarding self-control, I’m sure you’re right that moderation is possible. But I’d rather not even have the temptation around. So I guess it all comes down to not fitting into our lifestyle. Sheila reminds me that things would probably be very different if we were parents.

  11. Kirk says:

    About the only real problem I have with tv, is that it makes people expect too much. Fat guys with gorgeous wives, twentysomethings in diamond commercials, spotless homes as sets, people driving their Xterra’s on ski adventures…, it all leads people to feel dissatisfied with their real lives.

    Other than that, tv rocks.

  12. E.D. Kain says:

    I think that T.V. gets picked on because of a few factors. One, it’s the easy way out. It is much, much easier to just turn on the television and not do anything else. This deadens our better instincts, our creativity etc. It’s not a sliding scale or some competition to do the VERY BEST thing with your time, but rather something specific to the act of staring at a screen. Which brings us to point 2, which is that there is evidence that suggests television is actually bad for you – unlike reading fiction instead of non-fiction. It’s not just “less good” it’s actually quite bad. Brain activity is lower watching T.V. than staring at a blank wall.

    Besides that, television is just so bloody prevalent in our society. You don’t have anything to talk about on a date because you haven’t kept up on your shows? Isn’t there something intrinsically sad about that?

    And, last, television is often something that you continue to do even when you try not to. Try not reading, that’s much easier. It’s an addictive substance essentially, so what harm is there in pointing out the possible harm of its abuse?

    I mean, I don’t even own a TV and yet – thanks to this blasted internet – I still watch shows. So the internet can and often does fall within the same critique.

  13. Peter says:

    Much of my TV-watching takes place at a low intensity level. That is, the television is on, but I’m also using the computer, or reading, or talking with a family member, and only sort-of-somewhat paying attention to the television. It would not surprise me at all if many people do likewise. Just because people watch an average of X hours of television per day doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re paying attention. Television is well-suited to being treated as a form of background noise.

    There are just a handful of programs that I’ll actually watch to the exclusion of other activities: True Blood on HBO (can’t wait for the new season!), Friday Night Fights on ESPN2, any other boxing or MMA which I can find, Iron Chef America on the Food Network, TapouT on Versus (if it returns following Mask’s untimely demise), Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, and the occasional nature/history show on Discovery, the History Channel, National Geographic Channel, etc. That’s pretty much it.

  14. Sheila Tone says:

    ED, not reading is virtually *impossible* if you’re on the Internet.

    I’d like to see a cite for your blank wall comparison, then some evidence that low brain activity is a harmful thing. I call it relaxation.

  15. trumwill says:

    I think that the ones most inclined to be the loudest in bragging about not having a television and not being such a commoner are going to be those with little else to brag about (I’m not including EDK and Linus here).

    I, too, sometimes feel like watching my show is a chore. I suppose the fact that I do anyway could be made to say “See! You can’t stop! It’s addictive! Bad! Bad! Bad!”, but the fact that it’s something I keep up with rather than something I do for lack of doing better things to me suggests the opposite. Obviously, I’m getting something out of it. For me, and for a lot of people, it’s simply not the “default activity” it’s so frequently made out to be.

    Shows for me come in two basic varieties. Those that require my full attention and those that don’t. I don’t multitask during “Lost”, but as does Peter it is something I do in conjunction with other activities.

  16. trumwill says:


    I didn’t mean to sound offended, if I did. We go back far enough that I didn’t take it as an attack.

    If you ever get around to getting high-speed Internet, you won’t need cable. Hulu has most of what you would need at no cost.

  17. trumwill says:

    It’s not a sliding scale or some competition to do the VERY BEST thing with your time, but rather something specific to the act of staring at a screen.

    The thing is that you’re not just staring at a screen. You’re processing information. If measured “brain activity” is genuinely registered at lower levels than looking at a blank screen, I have to assume that either (1) they’re measuring the wrong thing and/or (2) people staring at a blank wall have to start thinking about anything they can not to die from boredom.

    But the “value” of watching something is not limited to the time spent in front of the TV. It provides experiences. I’m not going to ever be a detective walking the streets of Vancouver, but television lets me experience that in some (though certainly not all) ways more vividly than a novel. Seeing and hearing something is different from reading about it. An imprint in your visual and audio memory. Different media have different strengths. Movies and television can provide some of these things far more effectively than other media (just as there are other things that novels can provide more effectively than film).

    You don’t have anything to talk about on a date because you haven’t kept up on your shows? Isn’t there something intrinsically sad about that?

    It’s more of a struggle, for sure. I can talk someone’s ear off about politics and religion and philosophy… but that’s not first-date or casual acquaintance material. There isn’t much sad about that. If by the fifth date you still can’t find anything to talk about… well then that’s a problem. But in the meantime, it’s a good way to relate to people you don’t know very well or have little in common with.

    And, last, television is often something that you continue to do even when you try not to.

    Well, yes and no. It’s easy to get used to television going in the background. But the no-brainwave activity of sitting in front of a TV and doing nothing else? Not addictive at all to me. Like I said, I gave it up for years without any effort. And even the background can be replaced with music.

    I’m sure that television can be addictive. I was at least closer to addicted to it when I was younger. I think that people that can’t step away are those that most need to. Now, the Internet… that I would have a harder time without.

    It’s an addictive substance essentially, so what harm is there in pointing out the possible harm of its abuse?

    None. But use does not mean abuse. The argument being made here isn’t that people watch too much television but that they watch television at all or with any regularity.

    I mean, I don’t even own a TV and yet – thanks to this blasted internet – I still watch shows.

    I don’t understand why this is such a problem. How much television do you watch? I mean, I’m assuming not much if you’re doing it at the computer. So if it’s not.. what’s the problem? Are you really that incapable of stopping or otherwise so busy that it intrudes into your life?

  18. trumwill says:

    That said, I have to say that when I am reflective, I’d like a lot of my TV-watching hours back. Not all of them. I’d hardly consider myself an American if I hadn’t seen any TV. I don’t regret the hours I spent watching sports. Still, I question whether I needed to see quite so many reruns. I wonder if I could have done something other than watch the Andy Griffith show that I didn’t like anyway.

    I hear you on that one, brother.

    I have a lot of regrets for wasted ours watching TV. Particularly when I was younger. Particularly the repeats. As inclined as I am to defend TV on a number of fronts, the whole channel surfing and “watching what’s on” is indeed clock-deadly. I still do that at my parent’s house whenever I visit. But that’s partially because it’s the only opportunity I get to and I don’t think it’s any less social than Dad’s working on the crossword puzzle. It’s its own sort of quality time.

  19. Peter says:

    I went through a 3-year period, from mid-1990 to late 1993, during which I watched almost no television at all. Between the unwinding of a very bad relationship and financial circumstances barely a step up from outright poverty, I had almost no desire whatsoever to watch TV. Even if I’d had the inclination, the ability was lacking. Cable was completely unaffordable and over-the-air reception was limited to a few snowy channels.

    My TV-watching gradually increased after my financial crisis lessened in late 1993 and picked up even more after I moved to Long Island in 1997. Looking back, the fact that I missed out on three years of television is not cause for regret, in fact I basically don’t care at all. I guess that’s a sign of just how meaningful television is to me 🙂

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