Long live TV

A colleague of mine, upon hearing that I am about to give up satellite TV in favor of a Hulu/Netflix solution, congratulated me, but not on my future $90-a-month savings. “Watching less TV is probably a good thing,” he opined, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I had expressed no intention of watching less TV. I’d simply said I’ll be getting my programming elsewhere.

“Less TV is good for you” is one of the more annoying truisms I know. Compare the reflexive anti-TV sentiment to “Reading fewer books is good for you.” You’ll never hear that. But why not?

I like books. There are books in piles and on shelves in every room of my house. But I’m puzzled by the automatic virtue that our culture bestows upon them (even books that are shite, or books that aren’t half as intellectually stimulating as Jersey Shore. OK, maybe that’s the same thing).

The casual disdain for TV watching is also evidenced by the term “couch potato,” which never refers to book readers, even though I suspect that they and their reading material tend to get cozy on a well-stuffed piece of furniture. Instead, the phrase exclusively targets the pitiable, grease-streaked slobs who watch “too much” TV.

An aside: I grew up in the Netherlands (both my parents were Dutch and of course only Dutch was spoken at home), and yet by the time I emigrated to the United States I spoke English fluently. That useful skill came mostly from watching subtitled-in-Dutch TV shows produced in the U.S. and the U.K., and ditto movies. (Yes, high school helped.)

Come to think of it, I learned German the same way. Fabelhaft, oder?

My kids have a pretty impressive vocabulary in large part thanks to TV. We were playing Scrabble a few months back and the oldest (9) put AGLET on the board. I told her gently that’s not a word. She begged to differ, and she was right. They’ve arguably learned as much from Phineas & Ferb and Dinosaur Train as they have from conversing with me and my wife, or from working with their teachers. We also watch PBS and the National Geographic channel and other educational fare, but I’m a little loath to bring that up because I’m not trying to grant legitimacy to TV-watching (that’s like buying Playboy purely for the great articles). TV-watching is a plenty legitimate pastime as is.

For instance, if you want to learn more about the inner workings of the U.S. banking system and the government’s role in it, you’d be better off watching South Park‘s brilliant Margaritaville episode than boring yourself to tears with a couple of Thomas Friedman’s tomes. You’ll probably learn more about American politics from twenty minutes of watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart than from a day spent viewing C-SPAN.

Even schlocky, pulpy TV fare — let’s say, the average “reality” show — can be remarkably illuminating, in an almost anthropological kind of way, considering how much it conveys about the state of our culture. ‘Good’ TV isn’t necessarily Masterpiece Theater or a nine-part Ken Burns documentary about the history of the textile industry.

And I’ll add this: For my money, in terms of character development, rich plotlines, and story-telling skills, shows like Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and the new cable hit Homeland, are more or less the equal of novels by Jonathan Frantzen, Gary Shteyngart, or Jonathan Lethem.

My fondness of TV is strengthened by a few people I know who’ve ditched their sets on principle. To each his own, but they tend to prattle on about their bold stance against barbarism in ways that are roughly as enjoyable as listening to the piffle at a Prius Owners Club meeting.

Like literature, TV is a conduit for information and entertainment. Thankfully, those two often go hand in hand. Both media are roughly each other’s equivalent. A book enthusiast who reads only slop surely has nothing on a TV aficionado who watches slop-that-moves, let alone on a TV fan who watches something a little more filling and nutritious.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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