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TV and Me

Confessions of a would-be 'Go, Colonel!' dancer

or

Why the television is not your friend

By Andrew MacFarland


I JUST RETURNED FROM a three-week stay at the farmhouse my mom is restoring in Maple Leaf, Iowa. The "town" of Maple Leaf is so small it stopped appearing on Iowa state maps about 20 years ago. Even with the three of us--my mom, brother and me--the population in summer remains in the single digits, excluding the hogs on a nearby farm. On a typical day a handful of cars travel down the dirt road that defines the northern edge of my mom's 40 acres. That's considered heavy traffic; my cousin who lives a few miles away averages about that many cars a month.

Nailed to the mud-porch wall there's a "Century Farm" plaque, bestowed on farms that have been in the same family for 100 years or more. There's no indoor plumbing. Water comes from the well house and the toilet is in the outhouse. From the time my great-grandparents came over from Scotland until now, no one has ever bothered to get a phone line hooked up to the house.

But this summer, the farm had something that's been missing from my California apartment for nearly two years: a television.

As far as modern conveniences go, I would have preferred a toilet that didn't require dodging mosquitoes and lightning strikes to reach in the dead of night. I'd gotten used to not having a TV, and its presence rankled me.

Even before it was turned on, I hated the way it looked--a sculpted black plastic box in the middle of a rustic farmhouse with lace curtains, old-fashioned wallpaper and sepia-toned photographs of crotchety Scottish ancestors on the walls. It seemed out of place, like the strains of "La Vida Loca" that came out of a pickup that passed the house one afternoon (the third car of the day). And my mom apparently hadn't seen a recent issue of Martha Stewart Living that offered tips on how to elegantly integrate an ugly-ass TV into a country home.

My reaction surprised me. I am by no means an anti-TV crusader. I'm not a card-carrying member of TV-Free America (www.tvfa.com), and I've never pressured anyone to participate in National TV-Turnoff Week (April 24-30, 2000). Some of my best friends have televisions. But that 19-inch Sony this past summer made me realize how much better things are without a TV.

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Feed Me TV: Four arguments for the avid consumption of television.

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BEFORE I SOUND too high and mighty, let me state for the record that I originally gave up my own TV as a goodwill gesture. My wife and I were separating and we only had one set. She was moving to an apartment with free cable. It seemed like the thing to do. I didn't give up TV because I hated it. I fully intended to buy another one when I found the time.

Like a smoker, I went through withdrawal for about 10 days. I realized how often the conversations of intelligent, funny people who read books and go to plays and everything quickly turn to TV. It brought back painful memories of grade school when I missed an episode of "The White Shadow" and was frozen out of an entire lunchroom conversation ("Did you see Coolidge dunk it last night, man?" "Umm, no, I had to go to my grandpa's birthday party."). I sat there feeling deprived when people talked about Kramer's wacky antics or how cute Dharma was. Princess Diana died? I even had a conversation with a Catholic priest about a show he thought captured the life of a Catholic priest. Of course I'd never seen it. Even worse were the purveyors of obscure cable offerings, people who only watched "good" television and shunned network offerings. I couldn't even fake it with them.

I'll confess I really missed watching the Giants. Suddenly, the only time I could legitimately yell "You fucking idiot! What's wrong with you?" was on the highway and not at the TV when Estes walked another batter. (I only write this because I'm reasonably sure Estes will never read it; I know his psyche is very fragile.)

Worst of all, there were times when I really felt like I didn't have anything to do. I didn't want to read. I was too tired to go out. I'd organized my photo albums. I'd talked to everyone I wanted to talk to. The ultimate time-waster wasn't there anymore. I felt like Michael Keaton in Clean and Sober. What the hell do you do once you've quite drinking ... or watching TV?

Back in the days when I had a television, I only watched about 6 hours of it a week, and I still felt like there was a void in my life. Imagine what it's like for folks who do serious TV watching. A television is on 7 hours and 12 minutes a day in the average American household, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Once I was TV-less, it didn't take long for things to change. I started forcing myself to hang out. I saw Sleater-Kinney on a weeknight. The people at the coffee shop and the bookstore soon knew me by name. I wrote my long-lost college pal Stinky Crincoli and found out he's a born-again Christian. I saw my friends more. I read Moby Dick. I practiced the robot in front of the mirror while I listened to the Gap Band. (OK, that last activity doesn't really bolster my argument that life is better without TV, but it's still more fun--and aerobic--than watching Dawson's Creek.) For a while I was enthralled by the Web, but that turned out to be about as bad as TV. I listened to the Giants on the radio, which enabled me to continue swearing in the privacy of my own home. And I actually went to more Giants games.

Basically, in large and small ways, I started to get more things done, more things that mattered to me. And I began to determine my own schedule, not the one dictated to me by the networks.

NOW WHEN I GO TO A BAR or someone's home and the TV is on, I feel like the only sober person at a party full of drunks. I realize how stupid it all is. It becomes quickly apparent that even shows like The Sopranos or Homicide: Life on the Street are only palatable when compared to really bad programs. Watch them in a vacuum and they still stink, just not as bad as their competition.

Getting news from television is an even bigger waste of time than trying to squeeze entertainment out of it. I used to watch the local 11 o'clock news and get infuriated at the way newsreader Pete Wilson shamelessly mugged for the camera. For stories about horrific crimes occuring in other places, Pete employed the obligatory shake of the head, a calculated mixture of sadness and low-grade anger. It wore a little thin when there were five similar stories on every newscast. Why does a Northern California news program cover a double murder in Texas anyway? All it does is distort reality. The Los Angeles Times reported last year that network news increased coverage of homicides 336 percent between 1990 and 1995. The actual homicide rate in the U.S. declined 13 percent during the same period.

Yeah, I know that everyone else knows how bad the local news can be, but what about the national news? CNN? The Sunday political talk shows? Would anyone really feel out of touch with the world if they stopped watching all this crap? Ten minutes a day with The New York Times could replace hours of scripted TV news coverage.

Friends argue that they turn the TV on for background noise and aren't really watching the thing. I don't buy it. TV is a great distractor, enticing those in the room to watch and break their rhythm and then start working on something else. I don't want to get all Zen about it, but how can anyone do one thing well when his attention is drawn to something else, even if it's just the sound of the TV? It seems ridiculous now, but I used to read the Sunday New York Times, watch an NFL game and have breakfast all at the same time. I thought I was getting a lot done and enjoying myself. I was wrong on both counts.

I'll admit that I did have some fun watching TV in Iowa. My mom, brother and I watched Walker, Texas Ranger one night. I'm not sure if it's considered a sitcom, but it was damn funny. Walker acted like an automaton with a low battery. His female sidekick didn't do much besides moan "Oh, Walker," or, when she was really emoting, "Oh Walker ... I love you." We all had a good laugh at how bad it was.

Things got a little more disturbing when I found out Walker is considered a "family show" because it has a "moral" each week. Forget the fact that 10 people died during the show and that Walker would have lost his badge and been hauled up before a grand jury for his dubious police work. (Chuck Norris, by the way, is the author of a book titled The Secret Power Within: Zen Solutions to Real Problems. Apparently Chuck sees no contradiction in embracing Zen and starring in an ultra-violent cop show.)

The average American child, including those searching for moral lessons on television, has seen 16,000 murders and 200,000 total acts of violence by the time he or she reaches 18. I'm not trying to blame incidents like Columbine High on TV violence alone, but let's get real. Can anyone seriously argue that kids aren't harmed in some way by watching that much carnage? Even Hollywood executives know it's dangerous; 80 percent of them believe there is a link between TV violence and real violence, according to a U.S. News and World Report article published last year. And the kids themselves know the violence isn't good for them, even though they watch it religiously. An MTV national survey revealed that 91 percent of children felt "upset" and "scared" by violence on television.

BUT SOME elements of televison are even more repellent than violence. Have you seen the KFC commercial with an animated version of that old cracker Colonel Sanders dancing to shouts of "Go, Colonel! Go, Colonel!"? It is so grotesque, so hopelessly bad, that I had to laugh when I first saw it in Iowa. My mother's only comment was "Disgusting!" My brother, a mild-mannered high school teacher in his 40s, jumped up and did his own version of the dance. (Hey, you have to make your own fun when you're in corn country.) It seemed harmless until I had to watch the damn commercial 12 times in a row during one evening of TV. Then I couldn't get the jingle out of my head when I went running the next morning. Now I'm sitting here in San Francisco writing about it. I'm fighting the urge to get up and do the "Go, Colonel" dance right now.

My point is that even smartasses whose only goal is to mock the TV they are watching can't help but be subtly influenced by it. I have friends who pretend to be above it all and watch TV with a keen post-postmodern eye and an overarching sense of irony. I don't think anyone in front of the tube on a daily basis can avoid being altered by the 2 million television commercials he will see by the age of 65. The fact is, if we can sing even one commercial jingle, especially for a product we don't even like or use, we've been affected by commercialism.

In The Overspent American, Harvard economist Juliet Schor found that each additional hour of TV watched per week by individuals in her study sample correlated with an additional $208 of annual spending. And that's just what could be tracked. The evidence is clear. The more TV we watch, the more junk we buy ... and the more likely we are to do the "Go, Colonel" in public.

I was sorry to head home after three weeks on the farm. I knew I'd miss sitting in the backyard that looks across 10 acres of wetlands. I'd miss running on dirt roads and talking baseball with my brother. I'd miss reading a biography of Ché Guevara in blissful silence three or four hours a day. But I wouldn't miss the TV at night.

Unfortunately, I couldn't escape the black box by leaving Maple Leaf. Instead of a movie on my flight back to San Francisco, I got to watch episodes of Dharma & Greg and Frazier without the sound. (Earphones were $3.) I tried to read, but the screen was just five feet in front of me. The flickering images of former coke fiend Kelsey Grammer kept distracting me, along with the laughter of my fellow passengers.

"We've had nothing but positive feedback since we started running the programs in June," Kellie Schechinger, Northwest Airlines manager of on-board communications, explained when I called to ask about the shows. "The only thing that people have mentioned is that they'd like more programming."

And I thought flying couldn't get any worse.

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From the October 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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