Friday, May 13, 2005

A defense of television?

Since the television all but supplanted the radio several decades ago, it’s become a driving force of “Pop Culture”. Sure, CDs and FM radio thrive, but the household that is devoid of a TV is extremely rare. Many homes have more than one set. It’s really been a major point of commonality for the "civilized world". The "boob tube" is quite versatile. It provides a platform for information, entertainment and to a lesser extent…the news.

The perennial criticism of TV is that it’s a “brain drain”, in that people tend to think and read less because of it. I’d say that has merit. But, is one not responsible for the wise allocation of one’s time? Should rational folks put their minds on “auto-pilot”?

Another important aspect is the amount of TV that kids watch. As with most things, children need guidance from their parents. To be sure, my kids tend to do what all kids do (and some “adults”)…avoid responsibility and have fun. This is where parenting comes in. My kids only watch TV after they’ve met their other obligations (homework and chores). Additionally, I constantly promote reading at home, in conjunction with that which they do at school. In fact, the accountability at my kids’ schools is quite good. There’s a great system of reward for reading. Every book in the library has a computer “comprehension quiz”. The children must demonstrate that they read and understood the book. The reward is a points-based system that corresponds to gradually increased levels of difficulty. This not only directs they’re development, it allows for competition among the students, who boast about the number of “reading point” they have. Currently, all of my kids read well above their respective grade level.

About TV…, Stephen Johnson has a piece in Slate (“E-mail debates”), in which he compares the content of today’s shows with that of the 1970s. Johnson points to the “complexity” of current dramas and claims that people are more likely to intellectually engage fellow employees or even post comments on television-related web sites.
Add all those factors up—more complexity, fewer ads, richer content, and more interactivity—and I think the trend is undeniable. Today's TV junkies are exercising their minds more than their predecessors did in the 1970s, and they're not just training their ability to multitask. Does that mean that I think people should watch 30 hours of TV a week? Of course not. Would I prefer to live in a culture where people read as much George Eliot as they watched Fear Factor? Absolutely. But I'm not describing what my ideal cultural ecosystem would look like; I'm trying to combat the tiresome idea that we live in age where cheap pleasures and instant gratifications are on the rise, and subtlety and complexity are growing increasingly obsolete. In fact, the trends all point in the opposite direction. That's not reason to give up on the novel or stop fighting the encroachments of banal advertising. But it is reason for hope.
In many ways I agree with that assessment. TV is less lame than it was in the past. This trend had better continue, because blogs are rapidly gaining market share, in terms of audience. I personally think it’s great and hope the vigorous competition goes unimpeded by our friendly neighborhood lobbyists…time will tell.