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April 25, 2006

Throw out that TV!: The confessions of a recovering English TV watcher

Posted by Myles Harris

From 24th to 30th April 2006 White Dot - an American based anti-TV campaign - is asking us to switch off our TVs. Journalist Myles Harris has found a more permanent solution by having his aerials removed. Here Myles Harris offers the confessions of a recovering English TV watcher.

The last week of April is "International TV Turnoff Week". An anti-TV organisation in the USA called White Dot is asking the world to turn off its collective TV set for seven days so people can see how their lives will improve. Within days they will notice members of their family they thought had long left home, dogs and cats they thought had died, and wives they last spoke to at Christmas, if only to ask them to pass the Radio Times.

I do not have a TV to turn off. I had my aerials removed nine months ago. I got bored with the dreary repetitious nonsense of "news" in which the same simple sentences are repeated in various ways accompanied by pictures of the same thing from various angles, then repeated every quarter of an hour. I hated watching "nature" programmes as natural as a garden gnome, or celebrity chat shows with their cheering, lobotomised audiences. I don't miss sport on TV. My idea of a good football match is a South American fixture where the police baton charge the crowd causing indescribably severe head injuries. Not that you would notice with most football crowds.

When you say you don't have a TV people look at you in an odd way. You sense an almost religious desire to get you back into the fold.

Don't you miss the news?
they say like a drunk might trying to wheedle a teetotaller into taking a glass. When your refusal continues people get annoyed. They ask brusquely,
Do you know what you are missing through not watching ...?
in the same way that they might suggest the harm I am doing to myself by never taking exercise or having regular blood pressure checks. Then comes the clincher:
What about your children? Isn't it bad for them not to have TV?
I do not have children. If I did I am sure not having a TV would be classed as child neglect.

But what you see on TV isn't real, as anybody who has been on both sides of the camera can testify. News stories start on the cutting room floor not in the outside world. Only when they are being stitched together do they become real. But then the story is only the editor's idea of what happened. Real stories are almost always beyond the range of any camera. TV is no more than a fabulously speeded up children's magic lantern show, a show that because it is so fast stretches or compresses reality. The truth is often too ugly, too awkward or too big for the place between commercials. The cliché "The medium is the message" is true.

This produces an extraordinary paradox. There is more truth in The Simpsons than there is in Horizon or Panorama. This is because we know The Simpsons are not real and allow for this, but when we watch documentaries or news we drop our suspended disbelief. This is a mistake. If you watch anything on TV you are looking through a pair of joke spectacles. TV is entertainment not fact - at all times and on all subjects. Even 9/11 was a TV show. It happened sure enough, but watching it on TV was about as real as walking through the house of horrors at the local fair. Viewers were cast down, enraged, exultant (if they were Islamists), revengeful (if they were Americans), all the emotions we feel when we see any play. But it is not a substitute for running for your life from the falling towers, smelling the burning fuel oil, hearing the screams of fear all around you or choking on the dust. It was "just" TV. In what situation in real life can you stop what it happening in front of you and go and have a cup of coffee, ring your wife, book a holiday, take a leak and then resume "living" the tragedy?

Neil Postman - who wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death (published in 1985) about how TV had become so integral to people's lives it was their lives - thought his arguments followed from Huxley's idea of controlling people by endless entertainment. Huxley wrote in Brave New World:

Civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.
TV is the ultimate distraction.

In the early days following my aerialectomy I used to try and defend myself for not having a TV, but now I just smile and change the subject. This makes people very cross. Watching TV is a serious business, a mark of belonging. For somebody to announce they don't watch the box in the corner is like confessing your Christianity at Nero's dinner table. If you don't have a TV set what are you up to at night? Have you access to hand held ground to air missiles or suitcase nuclear weapons?

Another excuse is that if you give up TV the licensing authorities will persecute you. Vans with big rotating aerials will park outside your house and officials accompanied by police and dogs will smash down your door hoping to catch you secretly viewing. I have not been persecuted by the TV authorities. I rang them up and a very polite young man told me as long as I unhooked my aerials and detuned the set I would not be troubled. And I haven't been. I watch videos on my electronically castrated set. Not once have I been tempted to rejoin the "viewing community", a version of The Borg in Startrek:

Resistance is useless, you will be assimilated.
Other defenders of TV announce they "hardly ever watch" the box. Beware of this delusion. Until my aerials went I considered myself a very modest user. Perhaps the odd ten minutes watching the news, a political discussion programme and then switch off. In reality I was spending two hours a night lolling on the sofa. This is because watching TV for more than five minutes causes your brain to switch into fifth gear, a low energy state accompanied by low frequency "theta waves" of the electroencephalogram that play over your cortex All the imaging processing is done on screen. You just hose it in like a bomber being refuelled in mid air. And as your brain sinks further into that of a zombie in The Night of the Living Dead "lambda waves" appear. Normally they only are seen by subjects facing a blank space.

I feel strangely isolated as if, like a modern aboriginal, I have had the electronic bone pointed at me, and have been driven out into a TV less desert to die of lack of distraction. People talk about things I have hardly heard of, not very interesting things to be sure, and events they have personally never experienced, so dinner table conversations are like mild versions of therapy at an asylum, with myself as a psychiatrist listening to psychotic imaginings. But I have noticed that things seen on TV are always prefaced with the word "apparently":

Apparently the Antarctic ice cap is melting.
This does not mean a friend has been to Greenland and told you he has seen great blocks of ice falling into the sea, or you have read Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and - having checked their figures on glacial melting - agree. It means you have seen pictures of glaciers on TV with a voice-over saying they are melting. But you can also see the Teletubbies on TV . Which do you think is real?

A few years ago a friend of mine went out for a cycle ride in the Cotswolds. It was a lovely summer's evening, light at nine with one of those magical dusks in prospect when the light fades imperceptibly into a brief silvery darkness before a lark ascending dawn. As he rode through a village he was astonished to see in every house another type of light, the blue flickering of TV. He was the only person out in the dusk, everybody else was inside watching. As he rode past the empty cricket pitch and deserted pub, from both of which the little blue screen had, as in every village, spirited away the inhabitants, he thought to himself how strange it was that he was in the real world when everybody else was in an artificial one. Then it occurred to him that it was he who was in an artificial world, and everybody crouched in front of the blue flickering square in their houses was in the real world. For what is reality unless it is shared?
© Myles Harris

Myles Harris is a journalist living in London. He has worked in England, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Canada and Africa. He has written for The Spectator, Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Evening Standard and Daily Mail. He is the author of Breakfast in Hell (Simon & Schuster New York, Picador London), an account of his work as a doctor in a relief camp during the Ethiopian famine of 1984.


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The late George Burns, an American comedian, remarked that "more televisions are being sold than at any time in history -- I know because I just sold mine and the neighbour sold his."

Posted by: s masty at April 25, 2006 03:11 PM
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Brother, my family too has no TV!

Posted by: pl at April 27, 2006 12:27 PM
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