TV or not TV?

Not Hamlet’s question (although it’s not a bad Mondegreen), but…

I’ve been struck over the past few days by several people (librarians, librarian bloggers) pointing out that They Don’t Watch TV, Don’t Want to Watch TV, Don’t Even Own a TV.

It’s pretty clearly a point of pride in some cases, although in others it’s just a lifestyle comment.

By comparison, I don’t happen to own a DVR–yet–but that’s mostly because we’re cheap, own an S-VHS VCR that provides comparable quality, and haven’t yet gotten quite sick enough of a growing flood of commercials every five minutes even on the major networks to kick in for the DVR and watch everything on a slight-delay basis. It’s not a point of pride that I don’t own one, and that lack of ownership is likely to be a temporary situation (go back and reread the previous sentence if you wonder why); when, in the past, I’ve commented on reasons for not (yet) owning a DVR [OK, “TiVo” if you only know the dominant brand name], it had to do with the prevalent comment that “we see so much more TV since we got one” and our lack of desire to watch a whole bunch more TV. Thus, a few months ago, commenting on the lack of a DVR was a form of lifestyle comment; now, it’s just something we haven’t purchased yet because we’re cheap, slow, and not particularly fond of collecting Things. (One advantage of always living in tiny starter houses: With no room for Things, you tend not to accumulate them.)

Back to the point: I was particularly bemused by a librarian who feels the professional need to know about pop culture–but neither owns nor plans to buy a TV. Isn’t that a little like feeling the professional need to know Unix but neither owning nor planning to buy a computer?

Yes, TV is mostly crap. (Sturgeon’s Law applies to TV even more than it applies to books, music, and the like. Actually, what he said was: “Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud.”)

But, quite apart from the usefulness of having the Weather Channel and CNN and local news available at certain difficult times, TV also has remarkably good stuff, even excluding pay channels. The best of TV stands up to critical scrutiny and bears comparison with all but the very best of movies (and I’m not sure about the qualifier there) and, certainly, most books. And by “the best of TV” I don’t mean TV movies, miniseries, and specials–TV movies are, after all, just that: Movies made for broadcast, but movies nonetheless. (I was going to say “made for the little screen,” but that’s silly these days.)

I mean series. I mean network series. I mean Northern Exposure, Moonlighting, Desperate Housewives, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and any number of others over the years. Some of them hits; some failures. (OK, I don’t mention much in the way of CSI/Law & Order/etc., mostly because I’m an early-bird and just don’t watch 10p.m. shows much.)

Our local TV critic, who I frequently deride (at least internally), claims that TV making is, on the whole, superior to movie making. I’m not sure I agree–but there’s a craft to building characters whose interaction and lives continue to matter over the course of a hundred hours or more that’s different and in some ways more impressive than putting together a script that starts and ends in 90 minutes or 2 hours. And, of course, a typical TV show has to work on a much tighter budget (both in dollars and time) than a typical movie; TV can’t really just keep us in the seats with fight scenes, explosions, and special effects.

I’m certainly not arguing that anyone who Doesn’t Own a TV should run right out and buy one–just as I’d reject an argument that I need to run out and listen to lots of rap music or that I’m obliged to run out and buy PDAs. Personal time is one of the few true zero-sum games; if you find your time and attention more valuably spent on other things, well, good for you. (Seriously.)

On the other hand, your choice to opt out of an entire slice of contemporary culture doesn’t give you moral superiority. It’s a choice, comparable to choosing never to eat Asian food or pizza: Neither a commendable nor a necessarily unfortunate choice.

(Yes, it’s Friday.)

7 Responses to “TV or not TV?”

  1. Dorothea Salo Says:

    The local non-cable Spanish-language channel runs a Family Feud knockoff called “100 Mexicanos Dijeron.” Mind-candy though it unquestionably is, it’s the best darn thing for increasing my knowledge of real Spanish idiom (as opposed to classroom talk and scholarly writing) that I’ve ever seen, and I dearly wish I’d had it when I was teaching Spanish to undergrads. Step aside, Destinos!

    Yesterday I learned six non-vulgar ways to say “I’ve had it up to here.” :)

  2. rochelle Says:

    TV. I used to say, “I’m sorry I don’t watch TV,” but got past it. I am not a particularly discerning viewer and watch a lot of crap. But, it’s crap that a lot of other patrons watch and want to talk about. I don’t think a public librarian can afford to be format prejudiced if he or she is going to be working at a busy reference desk. Even if you choose to not watch TV at all, you’d better know how to find info online about it. My film literacy is pretty poor, but boy, do I know my way around IMDB.com.

  3. Fiona Says:

    Hear, hear, Walt. I have many friends who claim to not watch TV, but it is no better or worse than any other form of media, as long as you’re using it actively.

    Much agreed with Dorothea about how useful TV is for language learning, I watch France2 Tempo news a few days a week (which is on the multicultural TV station I used to work for).

    The only show I watch regularly is Arrested Development, but I do like to watch documentaries, and the occasional movie on TV. I have no interest in cable, so we have the 5 free channels and that’s it (of which two are government-owned). And TIVO doesn’t exist in Australia, which is a good thing or I’d have bought one.

  4. Angel Says:

    I am not much of a TV watcher myself, but I make sure I know what is up and coming. Looking up information online for just about anything on TV pretty much makes it easy to find what I need and still be able to talk about it with people. It does not mean I don’t watch TV: I just don’t watch whatever is one the Nielsen ratings at the time. For instance, I am still grieving shows like The X-Files are gone (but they are on DVD, so the grief will pass). But it is also a reflection of my schedule. Like you, I don’t do too many 10pm shows, and I often prefer things like documentaries (love the History Channel) for instance. So, what am I trying to say? Well, as a librarian, I don’t think you have to watch every single thing, but you better have at least a good idea of what is on and how to quickly learn about it. In this day and age, learning about it is pretty easy.

  5. walt Says:

    All good points. Angel’s right, as I’ve learned dealing with hit movies that I would never, ever watch: You can be informed about a cultural phenomenon without actually taking part in it. Not 100% informed, I don’t believe, but well enough to comprehend conversations.

  6. Brian Says:

    At parent/teacher conferences some years ago, my kid’s teachers would say something like: “I wish I had a whole class of students like your daughter. How did you do it?” My reply: “We let her watch a lot of TV.”

  7. Bill Dueber Says:

    Not TV. For my wife and I, it’s not that we’re dicerning viewers — just the opposite. We’ll sit and watch absolute crap and never talk to each other or get any work done quite happily. Er…unhappily.

    So we get good series via NetFlix and have the best of both worlds.


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