The Public Humanist

I Broke Up With My Television

According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours/week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years glued to the tube.

I broke up with my television eighteen months ago and I’m still getting over it. We used to get along beautifully, sometimes spending four hours a day together. I was looking forward to celebrating nine years of total viewing time when something happened. My wife and I moved. We only moved to a house around the block but we had to make a decision. Did we want to bring our cable connection with us? Comcast wanted to charge an installation fee, we knew we would be moving again soon, so why pay extra just to have television for a few months. I looked at my television (it was off at the time, I didn’t have the courage to face it when it was on) and announced our trial separation.

Percentage of households that possess at least one television: 99


Number of TV sets in the average U.S. household: 2.24


Percentage of U.S. homes with three or more TV sets: 66

Before we moved we had one television that was connected to the cable system and at least two others hooked up to DVD players. Besides that we have screens aplenty – iPods, cell phones, computers, laptops. When I go to my mother’s house I can visit my first television, the one on which I watched Howdy Doody in the 1950s. The screen is about the size of my iPod Touch.

It’s not the number of the screens that counts but what they’re hooked up to. What would you do if every time you opened your kitchen tap sewage spilled out? I would use a different tap until the source was cleaned up. If there are 500 channels and there is nothing on, what does that tell you about the source?

Number of hours per day that TV is on in an average U.S. home: 6 hours, 47 minutes.

Percentage of Americans that regularly watch television while eating dinner: 66

Do you remember when intellectual snobs would proclaim proudly that they don’t watch television? I thought they were obnoxious, un-American and probably lying to boot. Now that I don’t watch television I want to feel superior but I can’t. I do watch television, just not the programmed kind. I have a warm and satisfying relationship with Hulu.com, which allows me to watch all the programs I want on my computer. I occasionally have an affair with iTunes, where I can download just about anything I’ve heard about. When I’m feeling particularly randy I can rent entire seasons of HBO hits. I don’t pay for cable or Tivo and I don’t feel out of the mainstream either. I can watch any news clips any time from a variety of news web sites, without having to put up with overly made-up newscasters. I know that we have lost that American communal experience of all watching the same thing at the same time. When was the last time you did that? When Ed Sullivan was on? We share YouTube clips now. Viral is the new communal.

Number of hours of TV watched annually by Americans: 250 billion

Value of that time assuming an average wage of $5/hour: $1.25 trillion

Percentage of Americans who pay for cable TV: 56

I make my living from television as a documentary film producer and director. I should probably be concerned about people like me, who are weaning themselves from the boob tube. But I don’t really see a contradiction here. Commercial television is just that. If the programming justifies the cable or satellite fees and advertising dollars, the networks providing it will survive. The question for me is whither public television? If the ratings slide to the bottom, government and foundation support may follow. PBS is already moving away from pure broadcast, searching for the holy grail of internet viewing. They have a huge advantage over the networks; they don’t have to sell advertising time in the same way. In the new paradigm the only networks that survive may be the non-commercial ones.

Number of murders seen on TV by the time an average child finishes elementary school: 8,000

Number of violent acts seen on TV by age 18: 200,000

Percentage of Americans who believe TV violence helps precipitate real life mayhem: 79

I feel the same way about the networks as I do about the big auto companies. They have provided us with a substandard product for decades, they’re arrogant and bloated, and they’re frequently dangerous. I’m not sure that television violence really precipitates real life mayhem, but TV violence is rarely more than gratuitous. Since I stopped watching television at home I have looked forward to my frequent evenings in hotels where I can channel surf. But the thrill is gone, maybe permanently. Once you have experienced the freedom of choosing what you want to watch and when, it’s hard to go back to shallow news reports, bloviating talk show hosts, and insipid sitcoms. I like my real life mayhem to take place in real life.

Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900 hours

Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1500

Number of 30-second TV commercials seen in a year by an average child: 20,000

Number of TV commercials seen by the average person by age 65: 2 million

There are many dividing lines in life: before and after kids, before and after high school, before and after virginity. My latest rite of passage is before and after giving up TV. When I had cable I would fixate on the news whenever a disaster or election (occasionally the same thing) would occur, watching the redundant images and commentary again and again. In spite of the soaring music, hyperbolic voice over, the manipulation and exploitation, I would stare at the screen for hours, depressed by the bad news but unable to tear myself away, even as the commercials bore into my brain with their insidious messages.

Now, turning on the TV in my home is not an option. Yes, I search out shows on the internet but my behavior is active and kinetic. The passivity has been replaced by exploration and interaction and much of that activity involves reading. Maybe you are stronger than I, but when television is available it becomes the default entertainment. When it is gone, I am forced to amuse myself the old-fashioned ways. I sometimes even go outside.

Percentage of Americans who can name The Three Stooges: 59

Percentage who can name at least three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court: 17

I have a lot of respect for Supreme Court justices but sometimes their opinions seem to have been written by the Three Stooges, so it’s not surprising that Americans don’t know the judges’ names. We could probably solve this problem by replacing Judge Judy with Supreme Court broadcasts but the justices doesn’t want us to see them in unflattering robes. It is facile to blame the dismal civic understanding of Americans solely on TV. Did we have a better-educated public in the 19th century?

Number of videos rented daily in the U.S.: 6 million

Number of public library items checked out daily: 3 million

Percentage of Americans who say they watch too much TV: 49

A recent Australian study found that people who watched four hours of more of television daily were eighty percent more likely to die from heart disease and forty-six percent more likely to die from any cause. And these weren’t elderly people who already had heart disease, in case you are skeptical. Apparently, couch potatoes are so sedentary that their whole system just slows down until they expire. We could solve our entire health care problem in this country by banning television altogether. I’ve already started in my house. We’ll see if I live any longer. Don’t stay tuned.

(Statistics from: http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html#tv_stats)

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