A world without television

I have this romanticized notion of what the world might be like without television.  Part of this comes my reading of the Golden Age of science fiction, which is generally agreed to have taken place from 1939-1949 or so.  Part of it comes from when my Grandpa used to talk about what it was like growing up in New York City without television.  When I was younger, of course, I couldn’t dream of such a thing.  Now, the more television I watch, the more I try to imagine how the world would be different without it.

Let me be clear:  this is not meant as a diatribe against television, nor is it to say that all television is crap.  Theodore Sturgeon said 90% of science fiction is crud.  I think Sturgeon’s Law applies to any medium, including television.  But there is the other 10% that is worthwhile, and without the crud, we likely wouldn’t have the gems.  It is for these gems that I have a difficult time giving up on television entirely–something that I would really like to do.  I’ve never been a visually inclined person, nor a willingly passive receptacle.  Reading a book generally gives me much more enjoyment than watching television, or going to see a motion picture.  Nevertheless, there are television shows I’ve watched that have had a strong impact on me: M*A*S*H, NYPD Blue, and The West Wing to name a few.

Even so, more and more I find myself imagining how the world would be different without television.  Intuitively, I feel like it would be a better place, but I can’t really support this.  My imagination fails at the task.  I once tried to write a story about it and couldn’t do it.  I finally decided it was because given our technological developments and our natural progression, television is inevitable.  Still, I am envious–even jealous–of those people who lived in a world without television.

In such a world, the things I loved thrived.  Science fiction boomed during the 1940s and even into the 1950s when television was a new an unproven medium.  A youngster’s raw material came from books and magazines, and often these were science fiction books and magazines, or their first cousins, comic books.  Coming home from work, one didn’t have to wonder if there was anything to watch.  There was no anxiety over the next episode of American Idol, or the final season of LOST.  Of course, there was radio, but that was almost as participatory as reading.  With the rise of television in the 1950s came a decline in reading, in particular the short fiction markets.  Television was easier entertainment.  For one thing, you didn’t even have to know how to read!

Today, there is so much television and it is so tightly bound to our daily lives, that we have to play catch-up.  The DVR has replaced and improved upon the VCR.  We can now watch shows at our leisure.  We probably record much more than we used to, and many of us have backlogs of show to watch, to fill those nights of reruns.  I can remember the days before the Internet.  The Internet really took off in 1994 and it has changed our lives in a clear and dramatic way.  I sometimes long for those days before I found myself constantly checking email; and then blogs; and then Facebook and Twitter.  But I was never part of the generation before television.

Television seems to add a level of stress and anxiety that was absent in the pre-television days.  That’s not to say that stress and anxiety did not exist in the days after the stock market crash of 1929 or the dark days before World War II.  But television added a new kind of stress: to be in the know, you have to keep up with the programming.  There are social pressures that were absent in the days before television.  Perhaps some of those pressures existed in radio days, but the stations and programming are limited.  Today, I have access to something like 700 channels.  Sometimes I don’t even know where to begin.

If television didn’t exist, I feel like I might get more done.  I might spend more time with the family, engaged in activities that don’t involve staring passively at a screen.  I might read or write more.  I know there are people out there who eschew television completely, but their will power exceeds mine.  And besides, there are some things that I like about it.  But there are also things I really hate about it.

Television has evolved into a medium whose sole purpose is to sell products.  Advertising has taken over.  Even television news is merely a vehicle for selling products to the kind of people who would buy them.  As a mass media, it takes the path of least resistance and expense, which means it tends to dumb down its programming to the lowest common denominator.  Newspaper articles tend to do this, too, these days. But like television, newspapers are using copy to sell products.  Books, I think, are different.

Most books don’t contain blatant advertising.  Oh, sure, I own Ace paperbacks from the 1970s with cigarette ads stuck in the center.  But those are the exceptions.  Books tend not to have as wide an audience as television, but they are not "broadcast", they are, more often than not, "narrowcast".  We call this narrowcasting, "genre".  Because books don’t attempt to reach the widest possible audiences, they don’t have to be dumbed down.  Because the content is paid for by the readers, not advertisers, there is no undue influence of advertising (at least that I can see).  There is no noise and light pollution that comes from watching television.  (Ah, what would it be like to look out the window and not see scores of windows glowing in electric-blue light?)  I can’t sit in a room with a television running and read a book.  My attention and ability to multitask in such an environment is limited.  But I can sit in a room with others, when all are quietly reading.

Maybe the world would be better without television.  We have farmed off a lot of our information to television.  Would we be better informed citizens if television did not exist?  Certainly newspapers, or the Internet equivalents would have to be of better quality than they are now (and perhaps they wouldn’t be dying off).  Would we be a more literate society?  Would we be able to engage in public debate in a more meaningful way if every time we had something to say, we didn’t have to fuse our position down to soundbites made ubiquitous by television?Would we have better control of our spending if we weren’t bombarded by 20 minutes worth of unnecessary products for every hour of television we watched?  I can recall even as a youngster watching Saturday morning cartoons, saying to my parents, "I want that!  I want that!" to every toy I saw advertised.  ("I want, I want, I want!" I can hear my folks’ voice echoing in return even now.)

There is an argument to be made for television pushing boundaries–race, sex, sexual orientation–to a wide audience that might not otherwise be reached by books.  (Think "after-school" specials.)  These arguments are certainly not to be denied.  All in the Family led the pack in this respect.

Perhaps it is simply that television is too big.  In most instances, I’m left feeling empty in a way that does not occur when I read a book, even a bad one.  For one thing, with books, in most cases, it is still possible to engage the author.  Write an author a letter (or send them an email) telling them how you enjoyed their book, or how you disagree with something, and chances are you’ll get a response from the author.  That is not true of television.  Often times we don’t know who the writers are, simply because writers of television programs are not highlighted in the way a writer of a book is.  Then, too, because it is a mass-medium, the actors, directors, and producers get so much mail they probably have no ability to respond in a meaningful way.  I don’t know about other genres, but I know that within the world of written science fiction, there seems to be an open dialog between most readers and writers.  There are conventions that serve this very purpose.

I realize that I am in the minority on this.  I realize that what I am doing is nothing more than casting back a nostalgic eye, seeing greener pastures behind me.  Television is here to stay and is constantly evolving.  Most of what comes out of it is crap, but there will always be gems among the junk.  But I can’t help looking back and wondering: are we really better off?  And more than anything else, wondering what it would be like living in 2010 with all our modern conveniences–except television.  It’s not a fair game, I realize that.  But I dream of it nonetheless.