After WWII, when television was really being widely marketed in America (since people could actually afford them for the first time) one of the primary selling tactics—aside from Keeping Up with the Joneses—was family. ‘TV brings families together’ was the idea. Advertisements showed Mom and Dad, smoking Old Gold or Newport cigarettes on the living room couch with little Jimmy drinking his Ovaltine, awash in the heady glow of “Howdy Doody” or commercials for laundry soap. Together. Social mores were created as the neighborhood kids would come over to watch it while mom served cookies made from a package (also a shift in tradition).
The Baby Boomers grew up, drenched in this new TV zeitgeist. And then, somebody voiced that famous cry, ‘But What About the Children?’ Suddenly, TV was to blame for all of society’s ills. Obesity came from sitting too long (it couldn’t have anything to do with the proliferation of fast food restaurants or pre-packaged foods, the shift from rural to urban lifestyles, etc.). Social cohesion was deteriorating because now—instead of one TV in the living room bringing everyone together, most families had one in the living room, one in the bedroom, one in Little Jimmy’s room, and one in the kitchen for Mom to watch while she waited for the Valium to kick in. The dream was over. TV—you bastard. Look what you did to us? We trusted you! Well, fool me once, buddy.
But I would like to go on record in defense of TV. I think the problem isn’t so much the medium as the amount of exposure. I will also say that many of the ills blamed on TV already existed—TV just exposed us to them. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. That same pampered generation who grew up on TV—and then turned on it (let’s not call them “The Baby Boomers.” Let’s call them “The Judas Generation”) have forgotten just how important and useful TV can be for family togetherness. I’ve had some great times watching TV. Some of my fondest memories are of watching TV shows and movies on TV with my older brother. To be honest, it probably didn’t matter too terribly much what was on; we’d joke and laugh along with Mel Brooks’ movies and episodes of “Saturday Night Live” or “In Living Color.” We’d watch “The Twilight Zone” or “Dark Shadows”—really, it’s likely that my love of horror and sci-fi films came from shows like this, as well as watching slasher flicks on TV with my sister. In college, my friends and I watched “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and did our own versions while watching bad, bad movies. Quotes and allusions to TV shows and films run on TV (though edited) continue to color our lexicon. ‘Bugs Bunny’ cartoons, “3 Stooges” shorts, “MASH” reruns; references to these shows pop up in conversations I have with my family all the time. They are references to good memories that we share.
I’m not saying these shows were all high art (or any of them were), but to assume nothing worthwhile can be gained from any art that isn’t deemed “high” is to completely fail to understand some of the more important uses of art. (And to be a jerk.) Art can do a lot of things—educate, incite social discourse, impact us emotionally, etc.—but one thing it does well is leaves us changed in some way. Isn’t laughter a change?
Of course, an argument can be made that many TV shows have been very important. I mentioned “MASH”—as the show progressed, it shifted from straight comedy to social awareness, presenting ideas that might easily have been foreign to some young (and old) minds. Take Oprah—I’m not a fan, but she is an African American woman who appeared in the homes of millions of Americans five days a week, a woman many other women, and plenty of men, turned to for advice, whose influence was widely felt and accepted. This is no small feat in a country that remained segregated in many, many Midwestern, Northern, and Southern towns and suburbs through…well, even now, frankly. I don’t even need to mention the impact new broadcasts have had on us all.
TV can educate in more basic ways. I spent many Sunday afternoons with my father watching “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and learning about nature and wildlife. Do I even need to mention “Sesame Street?” (Pre-Elmo, of course.)
Of course, there’s crap on TV. But there’s crap everywhere. So we have to sift through it. Also, TV is full of advertisements, the dangers of which…well, that’s a different essay altogether, I think. But nobody watches commercials. You surf or go get a drink of water or whatever.
But what I’m dancing around, here, is that question I dropped but didn’t answer: What about the children? The question is, will I use TV as a surrogate babysitter? Of course not. That’s bad parenting. I should go on record at this point and confuse the hell out of everyone by stating that I don’t actually have TV—we do own two sets, but neither of them receives any channels. We watch movies on them. We simply don’t have time to watch TV, so we don’t pay for it. But I will watch TV with my daughter. Some. I will show her reruns or DVDs of “The Muppet Show.” I will show her “Sesame Street.” When she gets older, we’ll watch Mel Brooks’ movies together, and “Airplane,” and all kinds of TV shows. Hell, we’ll probably break down and get TV cable at some point. And we’ll laugh. And maybe we’ll learn something. And we’ll quote them to each other and nobody else will know what we’re talking about. Unless they’ve seen these shows. But most people will just think we’re dorks. And that’s okay.