Unhooked from television

Most families in England now eat their dinner in front of the television. I am imagining the grunts, the dropping of crumbs and no one moving to offer anyone the salt, a condiment, seconds, for fear of missing “something good”. Don’t crack addicts at least have the good manners of waiting until after they’ve eaten before smoking up? The vulgarity of it all and the sad truth are now out – I’ve been there, done that. I was a television addict.
I have observed that living alone easily leads to bad habits. That’s when I began eating in front of the television almost every day. It annoyed me if the phone rang – real person calling – because I was watching Baywatch. Baywatch? Well, I think I started out watching The Simpsons but during an early dinner one day I watched the entire 30 minutes of Baywatch, with its flimsy plot that counted on millions of men staying tuned in the hope of seeing a girl in a bikini walk in front of the camera. I caught myself again hurrying from the refrigerator to the couch to catch the opening credits and theme song and see Pamela Anderson run along the beach, as she had done every Monday to Friday at 5 pm. I thought I might have a problem. The decision to junk the TV was quite easy after that. I self-righteously thought of people who watched such shows as, well, unpleasant, and I was forced to conclude that I was unpleasant. I was offended but the facts were staring me in the face.
I don’t remember how I got rid of my television but I do remember the very first day without it. I came home from work and sat on the couch with a box of crackers. The silence was tolerable; it was the noise in my head -- the jarring reality of incessant thoughts -- that I couldn’t stand. About twelve minutes of it was quite enough. I acted out what people did 100 years ago. I bolted for the street and knocked on my neighbour’s door. She was ten years my senior and incredibly welcoming. She listened to my confession with such good humour it brought me back the next day. And the next. We became great friends and drank a lot of coffee.
At times, I used her to get to her television. I was like the smoker who quit but was still bumming a cigarette when he can. It took weeks for the withdrawal to wear off. I call it my waking up period. Life without television was yielding unexpected benefits. Some of my inner thoughts were frivolous, others quite helpful. One of the recurring themes was anger directed at my boss, forcing me to ask: “What is he guilty of?” and discovering the problem was mine. Dealing with suppressed thoughts is quite liberating if you stop long enough in quiet to consider them. My house was getting renovated. I was less boring, more calm and optimistic. I had new ideas in my head. After reading a few books I began to notice my answer for things was less often a superficial sound bite.
It occurred to me not so long ago that I have now been without a television for ten years. A milestone, I suppose, except that the anniversary came and went and I missed it. The longer you go without anything the easier it is to forget. Fortunately, when my wife and I married almost five years ago, she also decided to go without. (“This is why you are now expecting you’re fourth child,” my brother-in-law jokes.)
Most people can’t seem to live without TV. Americans are among the most hard core of addicts. They watch more than four hours a day and 49 per cent of adults say they watch too much of it. By 65, an adult American will have spent nine years glued to the tube. If it’s not television that has us spellbound then it is surfing, playing games, watching DVD movies, downloading tunes, text messaging.  
Turn Off TV posterAdd all that to the mix and Americans spend almost eight hours a day in recreational screen time, says the executive director for the Washington-based Center for Screen-time Awareness, Robert Kesten. In an interview with MercatorNet he said matter-of-factly: “The only thing people do more of than recreational screen time is sleep. People don’t have time to volunteer in their community or be good parents or good children. We’re seeing a breakdown in the family structure, more obesity, lack of innate social ability, more ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), lower reading skills, less empathy, and an increase in violence and bullying.”
Sometimes when people learn that I don’t have a television they ask: “What do you do with all of that free time?” My response is just as automatic: “You have free time?”
In the decade of evenings without a television, I have read many books -- even written and published one -- started a family and a magazine, and begun learning Spanish. My young children are free and edifying entertainment. I don’t resent anyone because I missed my programme and I’m burning calories without going to the gym. We live in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, and in winter when my wife and I find some free time we cuddle in front of the fire. Ironically, I am once again staring at a space the size of a large television screen. But rather than shutting down, I am enlivened by our debates, our anecdotes, our analysis of the day, as our eyes move from each other to the burning embers.
Not having a television is not the same as not watching television. My divorce from the tube did not leave me without access. I rushed out from the office one day to buy a $3 black and white set at a second-hand shop down the street. Who didn’t rush to a television on September 11, 2001? Who hasn’t seen the twin towers implode? I saw the World Cup shoot-out between Italy and France last summer from the basement of the Italian community centre. I’ve watched a few hockey games with friends and when my wife and I stay in a hotel, we treat ourselves to television. For the record, we end up surfing channels as much as the next guy. We do watch a movie on DVD occasionally on our laptop computer. I saw my first news video stream online several months ago. This new technology means we control what we watch.
The problem is that most of us don’t. Millions have now seen beheadings and the hanging of Saddam Hussein. A new book called Porn Generation documents youth addicted to pornography because it’s only a mouse click away. Video games are so realistic kids will play for hours. A friend of mine just discovered YouTube and said he “wasted” an entire evening looking at posted short video streams.
But it is television we’re hooked on the most and it demands of us the least. Not surprisingly, the first thing couples are told in counselling is to get the television out of their bedroom. The same advice goes if you value your health: “Almost anything uses more energy than watching television,” says Dr. William Dietz of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control.
I have never been anywhere at anytime when anyone made reference to a television show and my not knowing the answer left me feeling inadequate or deprived. It is one thing to admit you don’t know the capital of Nigeria. It’s quite another to admit that you haven’t seen a commercial. If you missed it on television, no one cares or questions your lack of culture or education.  
As far as the news is concerned, there is almost nothing on TV that isn’t better said in print. Television news focuses on news best suited for pictures, which is why disaster and the absurd feature so prominently. But television is often not good for context and hard facts because it must stick to generalities, knowing that most people can’t handle many facts without a pen in hand. That is why ten minutes of analysis in print from a reliable news source has so much more depth. You can go back and read it again. You can study it. You can commit the facts to memory. You can question the premise, clip the article or go online and save it to your hard drive. British television news commentator Malcolm Muggeridge said: “On television I feel like a man playing the piano in a brothel; every now and again he solaces himself by playing ‘Abide With Me’ in the hopes of edifying both the clients and the inmates.”
My cost-benefit analysis has proven to me that in ten years without the tube, the benefits by far outweigh the costs. The choice, as I now see it, was between preparing myself to live with others or living alone, a self-centred slob. All that I have missed is popular television culture. I’ve never seen even one episode of ER, West Wing, Sex and the City, The X-Files, CSI , 24, or The Sopranos. (I had to look up a website on most popular television shows to compile this list.)  
In January I missed the two-hour premiere of American Idol. In the last half-hour, viewers topped 41 million. So, I don’t need to watch it; other people are. If I ever want to know to know what I’m missing I can ask around and be up to speed in five minutes. And that's about all the time I can spare from all the meaningful things that now fill my day.
Patrick Meagher is an Ottawa journalist who has written for numerous Canadian news publications and is currently publisher and editor of the Eastern Ontario Farmers Forum Inc. He is MercatorNet's new North American Editor.


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