Loathing television — or claiming to do so — has become a badge o f honor. This never ceases to astonish me. Every day all across this great cable-riddled, satellite-shadowed land, millions of people routinely boast of their contempt for and abstinence from television with the same moral superiority and disdain they reserve for strip-mining, Newt Gingrich or the clubbing of baby seals.
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a loather of television. In my opinion this is trendiness of the nuttiest sort. Who in his or her right mind would not honestly have to rank the device with other marvels of the modern age like medicine, global phone service, the automobile and indoor plumbing? Is there, after all, another force in the world that so unites, informs and, every now and then, even entertains us?
Many people say they don’t watch TV because it’s so mind-numbingly terrible and then change the subject so you don’t ask how they know if they’re not watching. These people, who love referring to TV enthusiasts as “couch potatoes,” will be interested to learn of a study just published in The New England Journal o f Medicine. It offers dramatic proof that a person watching TV burns exactly the the same number of calories as a person reading a book. Or listening to opera.
Many people say that television would be better if there were more programs like “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Nova” or “The McNeil Lehrer Report.” What they mean, of course, is that television would then be better for them. But would these same people ever suggest that the magazine industry is odious simply because it produces periodicals other than The National Review and Architectural Digest? Or that other people should not be able to pick up Mother Jones, Cracked or any of the fine biker glossies?
TV’s sublimely democratic nature is, in fact, its chief virtue. There is literally something for everyone on the dial these days — everything from “Gomer Pyle” to graphic surgical procedures. How ungenerous to suggest that television should cater only to smartypants. How would these arbiters of TV taste like it, if, say, radio decided to cater only to country-western fans? Not very much, I reckon.
Certainly, most television blows. This is unavoidable, as there are hundreds of channels and 24 hours in a day to be programmed. On the other hand, there is only so much literary genius to go around. Thankfully, there is now a device that effectively screens out 100 percent of the medium’s undesirable material. It’s called the off button.
Who wants around-the-clock genius — literary or otherwise — in their face, anyway? Serious art and penetrating analysis have their place and ennoble us, but let’s be honest: Life can be a stinky bag of laundry. Diversion has its place as well. And let’s not underestimate the medium as a source of information. There are few things I enjoy more than sinking into a big chair, surfing the dial and picking up a little “Headline News” here, a blast of Learning Channel science there, then over to an interview with Edward Albee on Bravo, then back to "Geraldo" for — what else? — the latest on the Simpson case. Television can be as informative and educational as any library, bookstore or museum. And a whole lot more fun in some cases. Look, even Jean-Paul Sartre had to lighten up once in awhile. What do you bet he did so by watching Jerry Lewis movies on the late show?
There’s a time for high art and for low-brow laughs; for serious reporting and talk-show piffle; for Fanny and Alexander and Tango and Cash. Television is defined by its contradictions in the same way that humans are. Referring to his equal love of the sacred and profane in his fellow man, Walt Whitman dismissed the conflict with a wonderful line: “I am vast — I contain multitudes!” I believe Whitman would’ve gotten a massive kick out of television and the buzzing, blurping cathode mirror it holds up to humankind. I may not be quite as hopped up on the human race as he was, but I do find it endlessly fascinating, and I’m grateful for the ability to monitor it, learn about it, commune with it and share a laugh or tear with it — an opportunity that television is unrivaled in providing.
And if I have to sit through an occasional commercial for 2000 Flushes, that’s a price I’m happy to pay.