Next time you turn on the tube, you might read the following disclaimer: “Television might be hazardous to your health. Please watch at your own peril.”
According to a recent study, long hours in front of the boob tube can rot your brain. I’ve felt instinctively that this was true but it’s nice to know there is some science to back up what I’ve been saying for years.
There is a great irony in that I am a guilty party here. If television is a mind-numbing drug, then I work at the pharmaceutical company.
I directed my first television show 40 years ago, and I feel very lucky that I have been able to work on some very high quality movies and series.
At its best, television offers a tremendous amount of information and let’s you travel around the globe from your living room chair. It can also provide a much-needed diversion from a stressful job or relationship.
It’s a matter of degree. If you zone out for six hours a day watching escapist programming that does not stimulate your mind and get your synapses firing, then you are probably going to pay a price, both physically and mentally.
A recent book by a University of Arizona professor was entitled “Get up! Your Chair is Killing You”. So it’s not just a mind issue, it’s a body issue as well, as the more you get off your ass and move around, the less likely it is for your heart to attack you. If you sit down at work all day, have a big meal and a couple of glasses of wine, and then plop yourself down in front of the tube for a few hours before hoping into bed, you can see how this can be seen as a devolution from being a hunter-gatherer!
Content is important too. Some networks that purport to be news channels shamelessly produce crap that is mind numbing at best. The coverage of the Republican primary is a great example. They’ve turned an important political process, a keystone of our democracy, into a laughable gong show.
Carl Bernstein, Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame, said of election coverage that television “programs the circus and provides three rings”.
The election is almost a year away, and history tells us the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and early national polls tell us very little about who the eventually nominee will be—do the names Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, or Sarah Palin come to mind?
Jeb Bush and John Kasich have great resumés but they just don’t “pop” on television and it’s killing their otherwise legitimate candidacies.
Meanwhile, because of the entertainment value that a Donald Trump has provided, the faux news networks spend countless hours covering the pre-season as if it were the World Series.
And we’re stupid enough, or bored enough, to watch. And that goes for me as well. I swore that I wouldn’t watch the last Republican Debate but I started listening to it in the car and turned on ABC when I got into the house. As penance, I’ve been retreating to BBC World News to get some perspective.
Another interesting trend is that far from just reflecting on our society, television has greatly influenced our behavior. Not just candidates personally attacking each other but much more onerous activities. Many studies say that the amount of violence in the media has desensitized the last few generations to the effects of violence.
And this raises a very difficult question: what if they gave a beheading and nobody covered it? What if there was a mass shooting and the killers were never glorified so that they could become tragic heroes and role models to future copycat psychos? I’m still a journalist and these questions haunt me because we want to weigh these decisions in the context that our viewers and readers have a right to know what’s happening in the world—a key component in our democracy.
There is a much more frivolous consequence to the amplification that television provides. A story about a deflated football can generate hundreds of hours of coverage. Football and baseball players celebrate small victories with outrageous demonstrations that never occurred before there were cameras all over the stadiums.
When I played football, you made a great play and acted like that was your job and got right back in the huddle. You didn’t throw up your fists and look to the heavens or act like a two-year old in the end zone.
When Mickey Mantle hit a home run that won the final game of the World Series, he trotted around the bases and was met with some handshakes and hand slaps when he got back into the dugout.
Now a baseball team wins a regular season game with a walk off home run, generating a mosh pit on the mound that has actually resulted in serious injuries to teammates.
And all because there are cameras pointed in their direction. Marshall McLuhan warned us 50 years ago that the medium was becoming the message and that little box in our living room would manipulate our behavior in ways at the time we could never imagine.