Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The vast wasteland

Captain Midnight and I don't usually watch a lot of TV. We do have a television, but we tend to watch DVDs and Netflix on it. This week, though, we've been in a position to watch a little of the so-called idiot box... and it's doing a pretty good job of reminding us why we usually don't.

Philo Farnsworth, the father of television (and a Mormon farm boy), often felt that his electronic invention was being misused for frivolous purposes. According to his widow, the first time Farnsworth really felt the work had been worthwhile was when he saw Neil Armstrong walking on the moon on live TV. Otherwise, he probably would have agreed with Newton Minow's 1961 assessment of TV as a vast wasteland -- not because it was uniformly bad, but because it so rarely lived up to its potential.

The same can be said of modern television. When it is good, it is excellent. Captain Midnight loves the beautiful and informative Planet Earth documentaries, I have a fondness for everything from Jonathan Creek to The Muppet Show, and my family members watch series like Downton Abbey religiously. But when TV is bad, it is banal. Do I really need to provide examples? They're everywhere.

The funny thing is, watching TV this week, I haven't been as focused on the quality of the programming. The thing that's been bothering me more is the stuff in between -- the commercials. Advertising, like television, can be very clever and charming. But the vast majority of TV ads are stupid and/or annoying. And what I've noticed, especially in this market, is that most of the ads are designed to make viewers feel as though they're not enough. Not attractive enough, not skinny enough, not wealthy enough, not brilliant enough, not eating the finest food or driving the fastest car or dating some stunning creature, or having enough adventures. This lack, advertisers suggest, can only be remedied by purchasing some of their products. Which, of course, is and always has been a lie. Think about the people you love, the ones you can't wait to spend time with. Do you look forward to seeing them because of their dentist-perfect teeth? Their late-model Maserati? Because of anything they've bought recently? If you're like most people on earth, you enjoy other people not because of what they've purchased, but because of their kindness, their humor, their curiosity, their goodness. None are traits that money can buy or that TV advertising can improve.

I've stated before that I don't like the way a TV draws my eyes to it, almost hypnotically, when it's on. But I know I have power over the box. I don't have to let it make me feel inferior. Don't let it make you feel inferior either. Your real life is more precious than anything it's trying to sell you.

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