Why Bother Watching?

When you think about it, watching TV is a really dumb thing to do. It's dumb because there's really no need at all for us to do it. There are hardly any surprises in what we see there. There is hardly anything that we see on TV that we couldn't see or find out about from some other source. Very little of what we do find out is useful, or worthwhile, or reliable. We complain all the time that the quality of TV content is going down the tubes. (no pun intended.) We always say that TV takes up too much of our time. So why do we spend so many of our precious waking hours sitting in front of the darned thing?

The answer's not hard to find. We like it. It's easy, and entertaining. It makes few demands of us as audience. It constantly confirms for us that we are OK, and that if anything is wrong, then it's because of someone else, somewhere else. What's more, it tells us that whatever is wrong, we can solve it by buying something to stop it happening to us, here. TV confirms us to ourselves. It tells us we survived.

It shows us the people who are less fortunate than we are, but they are far away, and we can soothe any conscience we might have about their plight by sending money to a post office box. It helps us feel both superior and philanthropic right in our own living rooms. It gives us the excuse to disregard the needy in our own midst, whose quiet requests for spare change we can ignore as if they were on another channel. It tells us we succeeded.

It shows us the kinds of people we should aspire to become, with lots of detail about how these people are dressed, what kinds of products they use, what cars they drive, how they talk, where they go for entertainment, what values they have, and what things, beliefs or people they currently despise. It tells us we belong.

Most of all it shows us stories with a beginning, a middle and a happy ending. If the ending is not very happy, then it makes us smile at the end using one of many sentimental tricks. It tells us not to worry.

TV is almost totally predictable. We can watch ten minutes of a show and predict almost exactly how it will end, and yet we continue to devote hundreds of the remaining hours of our short lives to watching these endings. I'm just as bad as anyone else. I'll watch the end of a ball game when my team is winning (or losing) by a huge margin. I'll watch a movie I've already seen three times before. I'll watch yet another episode in a series that never alters its formula one iota. I'll stay up late at night to catch my favourite series that's in syndication now for the fourth time since it was cancelled.

Most people will admit that TV is as I have described it, and that they like it that way, and intend to go on watching the stuff.

Pleasure has a lot to do with why we indulge ourselves so much in TV. We like things that are familiar and predictable, things that stroke rather than challenge our belief systems. They make us feel comfortable both with ourselves and with the world. But surely, pleasure can't be the whole story: there must be other needs that are being met, and other assumptions that are being fulfilled for us. I wonder what these are.

Some would claim that people watch TV out of lack of imagination. The couch potato, in their estimation, is a person who lacks the energy or the initiative to get off the sofa and do anything for themselves. Others laugh at these assumptions pointing out that watching TV is a harmless way of passing time, and that people are perfectly capable of judging when they've had enough.

Yet others talk about the style people have of watching TV. Some are passive viewers. They seem to be engrossed in the show. Their eyes are riveted on the screen. If you speak to them, they are unaware of you. They are "gone". Others are active viewers. They are constantly moving their eyes over the screen. They talk back to the program, to the characters, or comment out loud about the situations, giving frequent indications that they both realise that what they are watching is a fiction, and that they realise that its representations are open to interpretation. These people are still "there".

There is the talk too about the direct link between TV viewing and behaviour. This argument is often brought up in relation to violence on TV and its effect on the behaviour of children who are exposed to it. The same argument is used about negative representations of women or of minorities. Advertisers believe their ads make viewers behave in certain ways, so why shouldn't the values in the programs have the same effect?

Whatever the case, watching TV is a fascinating thing to investigate, even though it may be a dumb thing to do.

© 1999 Chris M.. Worsnop