Television: a study in contrasts

This morning, I surfed over to Jeff Rice’s blog and read this entry called “Media Mind,” which is a reflection on a New York Times Magazine essay by Steve Johnson called “TV Makes You Smarter.” Here’s a relevant paragraph from that article, one that makes me think it might make for a good reading assignment in the class I teach called “Writing, Style, and Technology:”

But another kind of televised intelligence is on the rise. Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties. This growing complexity involves three primary elements: multiple threading, flashing arrows and social networks.

In other words, not all television is crappy, and I think this has always been the case, actually.

Anyway, on my way back from the gym (where, among other things, I walked/jogged on a treadmill while watching TV), I heard this BBC News story on Michigan Public Radio about an organization called White Dot that is claiming this as turn your TV off week. It was the usual “TV is bad for you” story, but with an interesting twist. As the White Dot web site makes clear, this organization wants folks to turn off TVs that are invading public spaces (bars, pubs, cafes, etc.), and they want them to use this universal remote device to do it. To quote from their web site:

At EuroDisney, before they can see “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”, visitors are ushered into a dark, carpeted room to wait for the next show to begin. Stuck there, with nowhere to go, they are forced to watch Kodak commercials on long banks of televisions. Standing in line at Disneyland is now a business all in itself. And these visitors, who’ve already paid their money, are now the perfect captive audience.

Luckily, on the day I was there with my young daughter, I had a prototype of the TV-B-Gone universal TV off switch. Very slowly, I pulled it out of my bag and aimed it up at the nearest television. I pressed the button and my mouth fell open. The entire bank of TVs on my side of the room had gone black.

“Man,” I thought “the future starts now!”

First off, if you go to a place like EuroDisney and are steamed about how you are constantly being bombarded by media messages and commercials, I think the televisions you are forced to watch while waiting in line are the least of your problems.

Second, there are plenty of places to go where you can enjoy a “TV Free” environment in public. I can’t think of a coffee shop that I go to that has a television, and while I go to plenty of restaurants and bars that have TVs, most of those places have areas where you can sit and be pretty much away from TV.

Third, it seems to me that going into a crowded bar and messing with the TV with this TV Be Gone device (during a Pistons playoff game, for example) is a way to get yourself a good ass-whoppin’. And that’s the thing: while these White Dot people see a TV in a bar as an invasion of their precisious personal space, most of the people in the bar are there to be a part of a community experience, one that involves watching a sporting event on TV.

Personally, the whole argument is pretty irrelevant to me right now. I used to watch quite a bit more TV than I do now, but I think I have more or less passed out of the demographic for “ideal” television viewer. Nowadays, I mostly watch the Food Network, Comedy Central, network news, and CNN. I watch stuff on HBO once in a while (Six Feet Under, for example), but I think I can count on one hand the number of network shows I watch on an even remotely regular basis.

Just don’t use that TV Be Gone thing on me….

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