Why Watch It, Anyway?

The “normal” American household is said to watch television, or at any rate to have the set switched on, for seven or eight hours a day. No doubt the verb “to watch” has a special meaning for statisticians. It doesn’t mean the act of scrutiny and observation; perhaps something more like passive smoke inhalation. If this statistic is true, then mine is not a normal household. Apart from my intermittent attempts to keep up with new shows, my set spends much of its time switched off. I do like to watch CNN and C-SPAN, because you actually see debate and events unfolding on them, often in real time. The only news program that my wife and I rarely miss is the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.

Often I watch 60 Minutes. Sometimes we watch reruns of the American Comic Sublime, like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. There are Seinfeld and Murphy Brown, because American comedy, at its best, can be very good indeed. Like practically everyone else, I miss Cheers, and I sometimes zone out in front of the set and let programs flash by. But as a rule I go by the immortal words of Quentin Crisp, who when asked what he watched retorted that “television isn’t something you watch, it’s something you appear on.”

These desultory habits, I realize, come not just from having been repelled by many of the programs I’ve tried, but from my upbringing. I was born in 1938 in Australia, and until I was twenty Australia had no broadcast television. I have no idea what it is like to spend a childhood in front of a TV set, to have my dreams and fantasies administrated, at an early age, by the Box. What did we do? We had to manage with those portable, low-energy, high-density information-storage-and-retrieval systems known as books, of which, luckily for me, there were a great many in my parents’ house. We even read aloud to one another, a practice which is by now almost as obsolete as the quilting bee.

When I try to describe this childhood to my godchildren, they look at me with pity. They find a world without television as unimaginable as one in which you had to draw water from the well in a bucket, instead of turning the faucet in the house. And yet, on another level, their imaginative input—and that of millions upon millions of other children, particularly in America—seems rather primitive to me, given the tribalism of television and its ability to enforce whatever is most passive in collective dreaming. Television inducts children very early into the ethos of total global marketing, creating fantasy figures (the latest being the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, their antecedents the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) which then become toys, which in turn have countless spin-offs. The amusements of my childhood weren’t quite so passive, from reading to making small balsa planes that didn’t fly very well to learning to fish, hunt, watch birds, and perform sickening experiments on…


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