Television: The Irresistible Force


Havre de Grace. -- We recently acquired a television antenna. I'm not at all sure it was a wise idea.

Before I was married I didn't own a television at all, but marriage involves sacrifices, and soon there was a little black-and-white portable television perched on the cedar chest in the living room. I can remember watching "The Waltons" on it.

Now we have two children and two color televisions. I know where the children came from, but I'm not sure about the televisions. They just appeared, like Faulkner's Snopeses, and made themselves comfortable. Each one had a rabbit-ear antenna, and pulled in three or four channels pretty well.

Now, however, we've really gone high-tech. With the help of an electronically savvy friend, we installed an antenna that looks like a prop for "Star Trek." When we throw a switch indoors, it revolves majestically above the roof. I had to take a branch off the maple tree to clear a path for it.

With the new antenna, predictably, we can tune in many more channels. This provides many new viewing opportunities. If we're still not sufficiently entertained and informed, we can anticipate an even greater selection when The Cable finally slithers into our neighborhood.

There was a time in our house when the television was only turned on for the evening news and a few shows that followed, but now it seems to go for hours on end. This is disconcerting, all the more so because when I pause to look at the screen what I see there is usually interesting and sometimes fascinating. Would-be censors and self-appointed tastemakers fuss incessantly about what's on television, but content isn't the problem. Whether the content is good or bad, television relentlessly takes any time we give it and then asks for more.

And good television is much harder to resist. Even the best television, while it purports to inform us about life, really insulates us from it. It makes us spectators and not participants. Time spent passively watching is time forever lost; it will never be spent actively. I don't subscribe to the theory that television makes bright people dull, but I think it does limit them, adults and children alike.

The scholastic achievements of motivated children, who read well and study conscientiously, probably aren't diminished by the hours they spend before the television. They do their school work, and then take their TV time from other activities -- from sports or hobbies or friendships. They pay a different and less obvious penalty than do their duller classmates who shortchange their homework to watch television, but it's a penalty nonetheless.

Intelligent adults who watch a lot of television pay a price too. Their TV habit probably doesn't interfere with their performance at work; if it did they would do something about it. But it uses up time they could spend in other ways.

Each decision to turn on the television is presumably a rational one, but the decision to leave it on for another program is often simply inertial. And in the long run, it seems at least possible that much of the time spent before the flickering screen, whatever the programming, could have been better invested in exercise, in family or social or civic activity, or even in sleep.

Nowadays we're likely to know -- or think we know -- television personalities a lot better than we know the neighbors. Is this bad? I suppose that depends on the neighbors. But it certainly makes for less cohesive neighborhoods.

And yet, in an age when technology and intellectual ferment are more closely linked than ever before, is throwing out the television a legitimate option? I know people who think it is, and who live what appear to be reasonably fulfilling lives without a television in their homes. But this approach is the secular equivalent of entering a monastery. It won't work for everyone.

Television and other forms of instant communication played a critical part in most of the great geopolitical events of the last few years. This technology lifted the Iron Curtain, and it threatens to destroy the last few totalitarian regimes that survive around the world. If we're going to participate fully in the life of our times, we are going to have to learn to deal with it.

Those of us from the last generation in which it was still common to grow up without a television in the house may have a less balanced perspective on this subject than those who came after. Our fears that the power of television will eventually doom literacy, corrode moral and aesthetic standards and turn the citizens of the world into couch potatoes are no doubt unfounded.

The world adapts with dazzling speed to most of the new complexities of modernity. Most of it has already adjusted to television, and those of us who haven't quite managed that will soon be history. Concern about the implications of a new television antenna will seem as quaint as Great Grandpa fussing about the Model T spooking the horses.

We can have a good chuckle over it some evening in the future, when the next big storm knocks out the electricity and we're sitting there in the sudden silence wondering how on earth we can fill the time until the picture comes on again.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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