Kill Or Be KilledSmoking, Boozing and Whoring Have Nothing On America's Latest Public Health Problem: Television. Or So The Do-Gooders Would Have You Believe
Here's the scoop: Television can kill you. I don't mean your Zenith is going to sneak up on you as you're doing the dishes and garrotte you, or smother you with a pillow in your sleep. (But wouldn't it be neat if it could?)
No, it's going to be a slow and terrible death -- like a Jerry Lewis telethon, or five nights of Dateline NBC.
But don't take my word for it. I have it on good authority from the people at TV-Free America, a non-profit organization in Washington D.C. You may know them better as the sponsors of National TV-Turnoff Week.
This year's big turnoff was April 22-28. If your set is on now, don't worry. The week's officially over. You can get back to slowly killing yourself.
Now, Lord knows the last thing we need is more grim tidings about what's killing us. If the saccharin doesn't give you cancer, the alar in the apples will. That, or the cigarettes. Or the fat in your Big Mac. Or the booze.
And now the television. Dammit, you can't have nice things.
The experts have spoken: "For decades, research and studies have demonstrated that heavy television-viewing may lead to serious health consequences," according to TVFA. "Now the American medical community, which has long voiced its concerns about the nation's epidemic of violence, TV addiction and the passive, sedentary nature of TV-watching, is taking a more activist stance."
Shut it off. Kill it, for God's sake, before it kills you.
"Excessive television watching exacts a tremendous toll on our nation's families, communities, environment and health," says TV-Free America's Henry LaBalme.
What sort of toll does TV take? Glad you asked, chief.
But follow the logic here -- the more TV you watch, the more likely you are to stuff your face with junk. The more junk you stuff, the fatter you get. You certainly aren't going to be out exercising, getting fresh air, gathering rosebuds while ye may, and so forth.
Then one day, when you waddle over to the Frigidaire for another pint of the Haagen-Dazs just before that Petticoat Junction rerun starts on Nick at Nite -- Bang! Massive coronary. Utter blackness. An open-casket slumber party.
And let me tell you, they don't get cable in the afterlife, sport.
So, in that sense, TV-Free America may have a point. Get off your ass and get a life, fatty. Find a hobby. Plant some marigolds. Go join a health club. I'll gladly join you -- just as soon as Buffy the Vampire Slayer is over.
What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stupid
Bad enough that television is killing you--or at least making you feel all icky. According to TV-Free America, it's also making you dumb.
Tacked up in my cubicle at work is this bumper sticker that TVFA sent me a few months back -- "SURGOEN GENEREL'S WARNIG: Telivison Promots Iliteracy."
Kind of clever. I sort of believe it, too. Anyone who pays any attention whatsoever to the mindless, soulless automatons getting churned out of the public schools these days can't help but believe it, at least a little bit.
Here's an interesting factoid: Your garden-variety American youth spends about 900 hours a year in school and about 1,500 hours a year in front of the tube. Which doesn't leave much time for listening to Marilyn Manson albums and giving your parents guff.
The TV-makes-you-stupid argument goes something like this: Kids get hooked on TV early with Sesame Street and the Power Rangers and Barney. They watch a lot of junk, see a lot of violence, get brainwashed by a lot of commercials and before long morph into the aforementioned mindless, soulless automatons who don't think deeply, don't read much and buy what they're told to buy.
As arguments go, it's not bad. There is lots of evidence to back it up, too.
I think of my own experience. I used to watch a hell of a lot of television when I was a tyke. So did most of the Vidiots. You may not be aware that Philip Michaels used to be parliamentarian of the Northern California chapter of the Colt Seavers Junior Stunt Man Society. Between the two of them, Greg Knauss and Peter Ko are veritable encyclopediae of useless '70s TV trivia. And Regis Snell has forgotten more about Abe Vigoda than you and I will ever know.
These days, I'm a little more discriminating about what I watch, but I still take in my fair share.
Here's the thing: we're not exactly a bunch of chimps. We're literate guys. We read -- and not just Entertainment Weekly. We know things about... stuff. Some of us even write serious things read by serious people. For money. Seriously.
What does any of that prove? Probably nothing. But I suspect a lot of very smart, very professional people could say much the same. We watch, we read, we're not taken in by the razzle dazzle. Unless you count that Sarah Michelle Gellar. She's... mesmerizing.
What If They Gave a Sweeps Month and Nobody Came?
In any event, seems a lot of people have bought this whole TV-will-kill-you- and-make-you-stupid thing. Reading TVFA's propaganda, you find out that the ratings have fallen every year since TV-Turnoff Week began four years ago. It's no accident that this year's festivities coincided with the first week of May sweeps.
Yes, people are watching less TV -- an average 3 hours and 44 minutes today compared to four hours a day in '96. According to Nielsen, about a million fewer households tuned in at prime time during the '96 and '97 spring sweeps periods. And viewership among teens, kids and the coveted Gen-X audience has dropped some 16 percent since this time last year.
But just how much credit do the good folks at TV-Free America and National TV Turnoff week deserve for the decline? Probably not as much as they'd like you to think.
For one thing, they're only talking about ratings for the big-four networks -- that's the three big-time networks, plus ABC. Now, everyone knows that network viewership has been plunging as people flee to cable and pay-per-view.
It's a question of quality. Why bother with whatever the hell CBS airs on Monday nights when USA airs Walker, Texas Ranger five nights a week? Why punish yourself with crappy new episodes of NYPD Blue, Law and Order and Homicide when those shows' infinitely better reruns air nightly on FX, A&E and Lifetime?
The big four introduced about 30 new shows this season. Of those, maybe nine are still on the schedule. And a few of those won't be back in the fall, either.
It isn't that a lot more people turned off their televisions last week. More likely, they just tuned elsewhere.
In the Final Analysis...
I think TV-Free America has it all wrong. If everything is a public health epidemic, nothing is.
TV is killing you? Big deal. Sooner or later, we're all going to die of something. TV is making you fat? Just set up that treadmill in front of the box and start hoofing it, fatty. TV is making you stupid? Maybe. But, let's be honest, you weren't that bright to begin with.
So if you're not going to turn it off for your health, or your figure, or your mind, why turn it off at all?
Because in the final analysis, television sucks. Until it stops sucking, until the networks stop cluttering the airwaves with such schlock as Hiller and Diller and pretentious flatulence like Nothing Sacred, TV isn't worth watching.
That's the reason why TV viewership is sinking faster than Leonardo DiCaprio's frozen corpse at the end of "Titanic" -- most of the shows that make it to the networks nowadays are the big suckeroo. It has precious little to do with whether or not the Idiot Box is driving us all to an early grave.
Though when you think about it, do you really want to live in a world in which Fran Drescher continues to find work?
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