Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Saga of TV and Me

I watch very little TV. Let me see if I can quantify that. The last program I remember watching was some Discovery thing trying to popularize string theory. I was out of town back in April or May. I think. Before that it was around Christmas time. In younger days I watched several hours a night. So why the change?

It started over 25 years ago, when I started dating my the lady who is now my wife. I'd been a stalwart fan of Saturday Night Live, but suddenly I had other things to do. She wasn't all that keen on sitting around watching TV when there were places to go, places to dine, places to walk and talk in. John Belushi was no competition.

We married. I worked on my "Piled High and Deep;" she worked as well. Our tastes in TV weren't quite the same, and we didn't really want to use up all our together time on TV anyhow. We are both readers, and apt to miss program start times if already involved in a book.

Kids started coming along. Somehow the free time started going away. Still, we found time for a few shows. Then the oldest kids started staying up until 7 or 7:30 or even 8, and wanted to watch TV. Surprise! If we let them watch a show, any show, they got wired and wouldn't go to bed on time. It could take a half hour longer to persuade them to go to sleep on nights when we let them watch a little TV than on those nights when there wasn't anything good on early. But if we sat down alone to watch while they were awake, they came racing in to watch too.

Solution: we quit watching the early shows. And then later ones.

I started becoming thoroughly fed up with the national news. (When I was a bachelor I'd used it for timing dinner: get up and stir during the commercials.) In half an hour they covered maybe ten stories, left out large chunks of background, and completely omitted international news. One injured American got 3 minutes, a quarter million drowned Chinese got 15 seconds. The local paper was pretty poor, but covered more news in more detail in far less time--and I wasn't a slave to its timetable. The local news had weather reports, which was sometimes important for planning; but they weren't reliable about when the report started, so I often missed it and got happy talk nonsense instead.

The Olympics we watched some of, but at the time the networks covered only Americans and switched back and forth between sports with stomach-churning abandon. Disasters we watched: Challenger and San Jose. The San Jose quake I discuss elsewhere: suffice it here to say that coverage was stupid and horribly unbalanced. The Challenger coverage was done by scientifically illiterate talking heads repeating themselves, sometimes with an incremental item; punctuated by interviews with NASA officials who didn't know enough yet either. I learned my lesson, and unfortunately had to apply it to Columbia: watch for 5 minutes and go away for 2 hours and hope they've learned something in the interim. (Usually not.)

Specials we hoped the kids would get something out of we watched. I don't know what the Met thought they were doing with Fafnir in Sigfried that year, but that was the dullest and most obscure dragon I've ever seen. The kids were bored stiff.

I watched less and less. Pretty soon about the only time I saw anything was when I was out of town in a hotel and too tired to work. And that was a shock. A decade and a half of pushing the envelope of taste, using shock for a cheap laugh, had transformed the culture of the sitcoms. I felt slimy after watching a little: they were tasteless, vulgar, cynical, and recognized no morality beyond "Don't do someone permanent damage." Maybe I should have looked around more, but I gave up. OK, maybe the educational channels? (We don't get cable, so I wasn't familiar with them.) Generally much better, but something was missing. It took me a while, but I finally figured out that the shows were generally spoon feeding the viewer. Some things you understand more easily when you see them, but just as with the news, you generally learn more faster from reading. And there's not so much of the "look at the pretty picture" chatter.

This doesn't mean the TV isn't on much. It is, but it plays videos most of the time. We home school one of our daughters, and there are some fine works on natural history (Life of Birds is a favorite) and history. (I had to hide the Star Wars videos, though.)

So I spend free time in repairs, reading, and writing. I'm getting a bit faster and I hope better from writing here. I have no idea what people refer to when talking about actors anymore, and it doesn't bother me.

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