A Shrinking Wasteland

As media converge, is it time to cancel Howard Beale?


I'm tempted to turn on a television out of sheer cussedness. But the truth is, as TV Turnoff Week draws to a close, my eyes remain unblemished by cathode ray. That's not a measure of my sympathy for the warmed over ideology of self-satisfied Guy Debords manqué who are determined to save us all from the insidious predations of the corporate media. It's a small measure of just how irrelevant Howard Beale–style rage against the "idiot box" has become. I have consumed plenty of media this week: A few dozen RSS feeds and National Public Radio kept me up on the news, while streaming video of Strong Bad Email and The Old Negro Space Program kept me amused. Maybe this weekend I will fire up the tube to order a cheesy horror movie from my cable company's On Demand service or watch a TiVoed episode of Battlestar Galactica with a friend, or pop in a DVD of my favorite TV series of recent years, Joss Whedon's sci-fi western Firefly, which (as it happens) I never got to see on the air before the bright minds at Fox cancelled it.

Some of that media consumption sounds like a lot like "watching TV," of course. But a closer look—close enough for the rays from the screen to burn out your eyes—shows how dramatically our relationship to media has changed.

For one thing, we're shifting to more participatory media, like the Internet. American teens and young adults already spend less time watching television than they do online, and the people with the most experience using the Net spend several hours fewer each week watching TV than do their less-wired counterparts.

But the way we watch TV programming has also changed. Where past generations gathered 'round the vacuum tubes to listen, absorbed, to the latest adventures of Lamont Cranston, we tend to consume radio as background while driving, jogging, or working. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that younger Americans are increasingly doing the same kind of multitasking: The TV may be on as background while we surf the Web, but only as one more pane to ALT-TAB to as we graze in our pixellated pastures.

Anti-TV screeds such as Jerry Mander's TV-phobe cult classic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television seemed a little silly even when they were first published. Now they read quainter than Ozzie and Harriet. It's increasingly not the case, for example, that we "watch television, not television programs," as a common critique had it, letting the undifferentiated manifold of spectacular images sear themselves into our retinas. Mechanisms for more precise choice in programming, like TiVo, are caught in a feedback loop—camera pointed at its own output screen—with smarter, more sophisticated, and more intellectually demanding of viewers. It's now common to find whole seasons of popular shows offered on DVD soon after they've aired; that means it's less necessary to hold viewers' hands through each episode—miss something? You can probably get last week's installment on demand—which in turn makes it more appealing to view the shows in a format that makes it possible to run back and see what you've missed.

The Internet also means that TV isn't an alternative to meaningful interaction with a vibrant community of human beings, but a prelude to it. Devotees of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer gather in online fora to dissect the fine points of plotlines and review their favorite (or least favorite) episodes. Even the most niche shows have an online water cooler around which to gather.

All that may explain why the turners-off have had to goose publicity for Turnoff Week by converting an innocuous voluntary exercise into a campaign of public obnoxiousness, encouraging sympathetic "culture jammers" to shut off televisions in public places using a keychain-sized device called TV-B-Gone. Adbusters puba Kalle Lasn claims in an interview with Salon that the purpose of this is to free us from the tyranny of airports and bank managers who "force us to watch TV in public places." But even granting that—let's call it idiosyncratic—definition of force, Lasn's strategy doesn't comport with his rhetoric. He recounts leaving on an airport TV because it was tuned to a nature show—good thing it wasn't Fox News, huh?—and then recalls having to flee a sports bar after shutting off a television there. The folks who'd gathered explicitly to share the experience of watching a game must not have appreciated their liberation. Ingrates.

Sometimes, of course, TV does retain that "narcissus as narcosis" numbing effect critics complain about —when there's a screen hanging in a bank for people waiting in line, as in an anecdote Lasn cites in his Salon interview. But then, that's why it's there: precisely because most of us don't especially want a precious human moment with the person behind us in a bank line. How many of us actually want to deal with, say, a stranger's unsolicited views about our soul-crushing corporate culture on the way to cash a check? For the most part, though, the standard critique of TV now lands like a Gilligan's Island pratfall in a Simpsons world, a world in which we're participatory co-creators as much as passive consumers.

Maybe surreptitiously switching off a set allows the TV-haters to squeeze a few last drops of frission out of a dated activist passion. But me, I'm as bored as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore.