I grew up with parents who restricted my television viewing, and just like David Rakoff in last weeks ‘This American Life‘, I became unhealthily addicted. As the quiet bookish kid of two teachers, college educated parents on working class salaries, I spent my free time indoors, avoiding the neighbourhood kids’ impulsive violence and myopic obsession with soccer. Instead of participating, instead of being excluded, I watched television. First on our enormous, deathly old, black and white screen, a groaning bloated beast with knobs which had to manually be tweaked. Later on a tiny 14 inch colour unit donated from a relative, a device that was for a long time my only window into the world beyond 1980’s Ireland. Into that window I stared, watching anything and everything. My preference was for shows featuring quirky comedic characters and action packed sequences, the A-Team, Thundercats, Captain Scarlet. I hated Irish TV and gorged on grainy, weather dependent BBC and Channel 4, pirated from across the water.
My TV watching worried my parents, more for its content than it’s duration. As strict Catholics flirting with millenarianism, the culture depicted in then ‘violent’ and ‘salacious’ (though by modern standards kitch and wordy) popular television, terrified them, and I have vivid memories of their amateur attempts at censorship. At the merest suggestion of a passionate embrace ‘the Changer’, a thin, faceless rectangle with eleven well worn steel buttons, was wielded, suspending the program till my parents judged the danger passed. At other times, as I became glued to an over long show (they were always better in the evenings), titanic battles would take place over the off switch, and I’d be hauled from the couch, pale wee elbows locked around one wooden arm of the settee.
In secondary school, television was the primary topic of conversation. Last night’s X-Files, Friends, or Next Generation, kicked off endless reverential re-enactments. TV had entered a golden age of permissive irreverent comedy and drama, Channel four flirted with hard core pornography in late night ‘uncensored’ weekends, and the BBC imported the latest quirky American humour when it wasn’t concocting it’s own shows like Men Behaving Badly, Bottom or the Day Today.
It couldn’t last. As the console market, DVD rentals and the bizarre, thrillingly unfettered, world of the internet grew, television audiences receded. The BBC, losing its old guard of post war progressive programmers (try saying that with a mouth full of marbles), it’s funding under threat from a New Labour government, largely quit producing edgy comedy and documentaries as educational as they were spectacular, and to quote a cliché, ‘dumbed down’. Channel four had it’s wings clipped for exploring the world of banned cinema one too many times. BSkyB rose from the mud of satellite broadcasting, a pug mugged beast all cookery show arms and quiz show feet, purchasing endless low quality pap from the states, from conformity manuals like ‘Darma and Greg’, or ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, to vomitous anti intellectualism like ‘Charmed’ and ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’.
It’s easy to forget that when it launched, a key selling point of Sky was that you didn’t have to watch any ads. Today the sales between the shows make up, up to 12 minutes per hour, not including channel promotions. This means that if you’re watching sky, a quarter of the time- excluding product placement and implicit cultural indoctrination, you’re paying for your time, twice.
But what’s really killed television, both in the British Isles and the United States, is reality TV. Incredibly cheap to make, monstrously profitable and incomprehensibly addicting, reality TV is the daemon child of soap opera and ‘fly on the wall’ documentary. Typically, in a now classic format pioneered by ‘The Osborne’s’, a hapless former or Z-List celebrity is followed on their quest to obtain, retain, or regain notoriety. What japes.
The boob tube, the idiot box, the one eyed monster, TV has always incurred the wrath of moral panics, and endured the scorn of intellectual pretension, but for me, this time it’s really different. Modern television, from Lacuna Beach to My Super Sweet Sixteen, inculcates a numb passivity I simply cannot tolerate. Don’t try to enthral me with the thoroughly unoriginal ‘Heroes’, the directionless ‘Lost’, or heaven forbid, the thankfully cancelled ‘OC’. I’m rarely tempted by TIVO, Bittorrent, Joost or ala carte television. Something clicked in my mid twenties. I’m done with being a dummy. I’ve turned off the television.
Update: Oddly similar article was published a couple of days after this in Wired. Must be riding the same meme.