Essay: Why would anyone live without a TV? The reasons might surprise

Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes professor of English at SMU, writes about living without television.


I am neither a technophobe, nor a Luddite, nor a troll who lives under a bridge. I welcomed the Internet. Although I refuse social networking, I am addicted to my email connections to the rest of the world. But I have a confession: I do not own a television.

This is not a flagrant brag or an assertion of intellectual superiority from a pointy-headed, ivy-towered intellectual. I actually like television; it’s just that I don’t think I want one in my house.

How come? It’s probably not what you think.

First, some facts. About 99 percent of Americans have a TV in their homes, according to many of the experts. Clara Moskowitz, writing in the online magazine Live Science, of the people without TVs, says that two-thirds fall into what we might call the camps of the usual suspects: the crunchy granola types, too pure to be contaminated by vulgar media displays, and the ultrareligious right (think of the Amish or even more worldly people), also too pure to be contaminated, or have their children tainted, by the same displays.

Marina Krcmar, author of a study called “Living Without the Screen,” interviewed 120 people in 62 households without television and 92 people in 35 households with TVs. She came up with the same predictable results: Whichever side of the spectrum they occupy, left or right, the un-televisioned people have the same objections: to sex and violence, to consumerism, to the intrusiveness of the medium itself.

Some additional statistics: As of 2010, according to the Nielsen Television Report, the average American home had 2.93 TV sets, up from 2 in 1990, and there are more TVs per home than people (2.54). Among 8-to-18-year olds, 71 percent have a TV in their bedroom, says the Kaiser Family Foundation, and if you include all the devices that deliver programs, children watched about 4 1/2 hours of TV a day in 2009, up about 40 minutes since 2004. The national campaign called “Turn It Off” isn’t succeeding very well.

Almost 50 years ago, on May 9, 1961, Newton Minnow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission , delivered what has come to be known, somewhat inaccurately, as the “wasteland speech.” Speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters, Minnow took as his subject “Television and the Public Interest.” What is now remembered is the negative part of his assessment, rather than the other, positive half. Minnow said, “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.” He went on: “But when television is bad, nothing is worse … a vast wasteland.”

In 1961, we had three networks. Now, the number is almost incalculable, and getting bigger by the day. Everyone knows the gripe: 1,000 channels and there’s still nothing to watch.

I sent out a request to my colleagues: Whom do you know who lives without television? The replies were many and immediate.

The majority came from semi-purists, that is, folks who own a machine but have no cable hook-up. They use the TV strictly for DVDs and films. One colleague described his brother, who raised six children without a TV — just a DVD player for watching wholesome movies. My colleague says: “Their belief has always been that the ‘lessons’ learned from watching TV run against the grain of the values they have been encouraging vis-a-vis their home-schooling. Or, rather, that there were better things to do with their children than to have them watch TV.” The children are older now and living at home — except for one who is attending seminary to prepare for priesthood.

Another, younger colleague says: “I am still hiding from that maw of consumerism. My mother-in-law has a TV, so I am often reminded about how smart I was to throw the last one over my apartment balcony. It is like having a stupid stranger in your house who refuses to stop talking.”

I was relieved to see that it’s not just a generational theme. One colleague, on the under side of 30, a worldly, happily married woman, admitted that not only does she lack a television, but that five years ago she gave up her cellphone . This is practically unthinkable for someone of her age. She also gave up on Facebook but insists that she now maintains even closer contact with friends from all stages of her life — and on many continents — than previously.

Then came the reply from a charming, youthful graduate student who said: “I’m too easily mesmerized by it and so stopped watching it in any kind of regular way in the mid-’90s. So it’s simply a personal weakness. If I happen to see it on at a friend’s house, the feeling is much like having a cigarette after having had some herb: ‘Wow! This is a really, really unique cigarette and it’s like burning so … slow, man. Can you believe that stuff? It’s like the embers are so for-freaking-ever. Fire.’”

His confession hit a raw nerve. The fear of addiction — think of alcoholics who cannot take a sip of wine without worrying that they will go down the long slide to drunkenness — is one of my motivating forces. I grew up in the ’50s. I Love Lucy, Your Show of Shows, The Jackie Gleason Show and Dragnet were staples of my imaginative escape from dreary suburbia. Glamour, drama, comedy: the stuff of un-ordinary life.

Today I agree with those experts who say that the best writing and acting are not on stage or in film, but on television: Glee, Law & Order, The Wire, 30 Rock: the list goes on. These are great shows, which I see in hotel rooms or friends’ houses. The tradition goes back to St. Elsewhere and Cagney & Lacey. Other fans have other favorites, and not just on educational television.

I also have to agree with my student who uses the marijuana metaphor: I like trash. I have been gripped, albeit with horror, for 10 minutes or so, by The Real Housewives of [Fill in the Blank], or The Bachelor, or Jersey Shore. How can people be so stupid and inarticulate? A wasteland, indeed. I’ve been transfixed, as well, with greater wonder by QVC: After all, where else can you find the brilliance of salespeople who can talk nonstop, enthusiastically and with polished sincerity, about utterly worthless stuff (the fake jewelry is my favorite) and then engage with charming, vapid banter with the pathetic people who call in with cooing gratitude. It takes all kinds.

Finally, I confess: It is not just fear of becoming a couch potato that has kept me from giving in. It’s laziness. My recent television history follows. Fourteen years ago ,my TV broke. It had rabbit ears, and got (when the cloud cover was right) about five stations. I had no cable hook-up. I said to myself, “You’re going to be on leave starting in two months, and you’ll be out of town. Get a new set when you return.” But I never did. I just sank into much-desired solitude.

Ten years ago, I moved into a high-rise building. I set aside a place for the television, certainly not in the living room (too vulgar) but in the bedroom. Still, the television never came. Last year, I bit the bullet and surveyed my neighbors. Some recommended the cable connection, some recommended satellite. Attentive salesmen came out and presented me with the various packages: hundreds of channels, various contracts, plans and possibilities.

It was all too much. Too much choice. Choice is supposed to be the glory of capitalism, but to simple-minded me, it was a deterrent. I froze; I just gave up. I don’t want too much choice.

For choice, I have always had a stack of six or seven books by my bedside. They don’t require a contract. They don’t make noise. I have become used to this. I also have another secret. When I retire, I plan to sell most of my library, thousands of books that have stood mostly unopened for decades. I don’t need them. Perhaps I have never really needed them. I intend to buy a Barcalounger and an enormous flat-screen TV, or whatever the state-of-the-art technology will be. I’ll be able to see all of The Sopranos and everything else I have missed during the past decades.

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