Compulsory Television

News at Home

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book, co-edited with Glen H. Stassen, is Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future (Paradigm Publishers, 2007).

Have you noticed how television pervades public places in the United States?

Television sets now broadcast programs constantly in airports, train stations, bars, fast food areas and cafeterias on college and university campuses, elevators, and many restaurants.  Have you noticed their blaring presence in waiting rooms while your car is being serviced, while you are seeing a doctor, or while you are visiting a hospital?

It is certainly hard to escape them.  Some years ago, when I was lying in hospital bed after some surgery, with tubes running in and out of me, I was treated to nearly a week of television pounding away in my room day and night, presumably at the request of my (unknown and unseen) roommate.  I began complaining to the nurse that I had had a serious operation and was supposed to be recuperating, rather than distracted from my own thoughts and reading during the day and kept awake at night by constant television commercials, quiz shows, and idiotic howling.  But she seemed mystified as to how I could I possibly object to this treatment.  Wasn't television the American Way?

Ultimately, near the end of the week, after complaints to numerous hospital officials, I was transferred to a double room where it turned out I was the only patient.  It was an enormous relief--at least until I discovered that, even in this setting, a television set was churning out the usual loud and hysterical drivel.  Slowly and painfully, I crawled out of bed, wheeled my various carts over to the howling monster on the wall, and turned it off!  I immediately felt much better.

And I was becoming personally acquainted with the phenomenon of compulsory television.

In George Orwell's powerful novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949, television is a key means of maintaining a totalitarian state.  It destroys independent thought--or any thought!--and convinces people to blindly follow Big Brother.  The novel's hero, Winston Smith, is free to follow his own musings on occasion only because his apartment has been poorly designed and, thus, he can take refuge in a section of it that the otherwise all-pervasive television set cannot reach.

Today's reality is actually somewhat more depressing than Orwell predicted.  Admittedly, we have not yet reached the level of government propaganda purveyed by television that is envisaged in Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Even so, if one watches Fox News, there is not much to distinguish its jingoistic, overheated approach from the demonizing, militaristic rubbish of Pravda and Izvestia during the dark days of the Soviet Union.  Moreover, television promotes endless commercialism and consumerism, in which individual greed is portrayed as the highest value and concerns about other people or the environment are marginalized.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of television is that it has fostered widespread ignorance and illiteracy.  As study after study has demonstrated, it is dumbing down Americans to such an extent that no amount of remedial education in our schools can overcome its effects.  A just-published report by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has found that Americans are reading less and less and that their reading proficiency is declining at very disturbing rates—a situation that the NEA chair attributed largely to television.  Indeed, as virtually any college teacher can attest, today's students know much more about TV shows than they do about literature, the arts, science, civilization, or the world.  Of course, nothing is terribly new about this situation.  Back in May 1961, FCC chair Newton Minow accurately described television as "a vast wasteland."

What is new, though, is television's ubiquitous nature--and our consequent inability to escape its mindless blare.  It has not only taken over our private homes (where we still retain the right to turn it on or off), but—in recent years--our public spaces (where we do not).  We have arrived at the stage of compulsory television.

Why is television so ubiquitous in public places?  Surely not because most people demand it.  In the TV-drenched waiting rooms where I have sat, most people are not watching it.  Indeed, many people--much like Winston Smith--are resisting television blather by trying to read, to think, or to talk among themselves.  Sometimes, when it appears that no one is watching a TV program that is blasting away, I get up and ask the assemblage if anyone would mind if I turned it off.  No one has ever objected.

But, if there does not seem to be much of a constituency championing all-pervasive TV, what forces lie behind the policy of compulsory television?  Why are so many institutions buying apparently unnecessary television sets, paying the substantial electricity bills for them, and compelling the public to watch the broadcasters' noxious programs?  Exploring these questions would make an interesting research project.

Meanwhile, here is a modest proposal.  The next time you are in a public place with a television set--or multiple television sets--blaring away at you, tell a staff person that you find compulsory television aversive and suggest that you and many other patrons would prefer that the TV sets be removed.  If we can drive cigarette smoking out of our public places, perhaps we can do the same with television.  After all, TV merely provides a different--and perhaps even more dangerous--form of pollution:  mind pollution!

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SF Ferguson - 9/2/2008

Tanks for an article that expresses my feelings perfectly. I think it's very scary that this is not a big nation-wide topic of discussion.

The analogy of public smoking is apt. Not that it's much of a choice, but if I had my druthers I'd rather sit in a room full of smokers than in an airport lounge with CNN for 3 hours.

Andrew D. Todd - 12/13/2007

As George Comstock noted in his _Television in America_ ( Second Edition, 1991), television is something that people watch when they don't have anything better to do. Television is constructed in such a way as not to require commitment for extended periods of time, such as an hour or two, because that would require the viewer to forgo the possibility of doing something else on short notice. If someone comes by, one can turn off the television, and go off with them to do something else. A decent movie has an extended plot which does not make sense if one comes in at the middle. By contrast, sitcoms have little or no dramatic development. There are cable television channels, notably American Movie Classics, which screen good movies, back to back, but I think you would find that AMC is under-represented in the television screens in public places. The same would apply for public broadcasting, BBC imports, etc. Television was always a bit reluctant about carrying movies. It did not bid for the first-run movies. It preferred to show movies at three in the morning. When television made its own movies, they were notoriously bad. Television was always much more oriented to the regularly scheduled show, stressing slapstick comedy. There is only very limited overlap between the marketing side of television and movies, notwithstanding that they share a lot of production facilities, actors, etc.

Traditionally, a first-run movie is sold as an "outing," that is: hire a baby-sitter, go out for dinner, and go to a movie with about an R rating (NC-17 as they call it now). Nowadays, movies are commonly viewed in the form of rented videotapes, and more recently, as rented videodisks-- more or less like library books, with an ongoing transition to the paperback book model. Effectively, the movie industry is recapitulating the development of the pulp fiction industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are these little handheld videodisk players, with a little screen and earphones, which cost a hundred bucks or so, and allow you to treat a movie as a kind of paperback book. Of course, you can also watch a movie on a laptop computer. The movie industry is having ongoing arguments with its customers, mostly about whether or not the customers should be expected to go to the movies, instead of viewing movies at home.

The television industry is in persistent economic difficulties. It is having difficulty retaining the most desirable advertising demographics, such as young men. The reason seems to be mostly competition from the internet. The internet provides such a large assortment of possible activities that it is very difficult to keep up.

It is understandable why people who run waiting rooms would like television. Television has a coded message that "your time is of no value." That is of course convenient for people who have an economic policy of making customers wait around. This means that one has to distinguish between television in waiting rooms and television in other kinds of public spaces. There is an interesting paper, David Weir's "The Moral Career of the Day Patient" (in Eric Butterworth and David Weir, eds., _Social Problems of Modern Britain: An Introductory Reader_, 1972). Weir applies Erving Goffman's theory of institutions (_Asylums_, 1968) to comparatively short-term hospital visits, such as day surgery, but such an analysis could be extended to a doctor's office visit, or waiting to board an airliner. Goffman introduced such notions as that of the "greedy institution," which seeks to monopolize the loyalties of its participants. In Goffmanian terms, if you bring along something to a medical waiting room that you can work on, say a manuscript in the process of being red-penciled, that amounts to telling the doctor that he is not your father-confessor, and it tends to be resented.

Of course, most businesses do not have the luxury of having waiting rooms-- they simply cannot afford to take the customer for granted to that degree. I suppose there must be restaurants which are dominated by television, but I am certainly not aware of any large chains which do it as a matter of policy. Restaurant chains are usually intent on moving customers through, not on keeping them sitting around. Similarly, the high-priced sector of the automobile business is increasingly dominated by car-rental, where the customer has an entirely different relationship to the automobile mechanic. One pattern I have noted on the various high-tech blogs is a certain ongoing controversy over people using personal electronic devices, notably laptops, in places of public accommodation, such as fast food restaurants, coffee shops, etc. This manifests itself in various directions, eg. WiFi access, electric power outlets, but the basic question boils down to "camping out," that is, sitting for long periods with only minimal purchases.

Maarja Krusten - 12/12/2007

Interesting essay, Dr. Wittner.

Hospital waiting rooms with blaring televisions (at all hours) are awful. I suppose they are meant to provide distraction and a way to fill time, but the imposition of images and noise on people who might prefer to read or meditate is terribly inconsiderate. It raises rather than lowers stress levels and not just for those waiting for admission or procedures.

When you're stuck in a waiting room you may not be able to use earphones to shut out the tv. You may be accompanying a patient, in which case you might want to chat with him or her in order to provide reassurance and support. That is a merciful thing to do especially when the family member or friend knows he or she is a terminal case. Naturally, you want to reach out to him or her and soothe his or her nerves during a terrible time. But you just can't shut out the noise from the tv.

As to reading, I like what an official said about the value of books at

"The habit of regular reading awakens something inside a person that makes him or her take their own life more seriously and at the same time develops the sense that other people's lives are real." I, too, think reading helps to develop a sense of empathy. That goes for reading non-fiction and fiction. When I glance at the Washington Post's message boards, I'm astonished at the self-centered comments some anonymous posters make. Sometimes there is a lack of empathy for other cultures, sometimes for other generations, sometimes just for anyone not like the poster. I'm thinking of comments such as "old people shouldn't ride the subway during rush hour," which came up in a discussion of the crowded Metro trains in Washington. But seniors are people, too, and they have to accept medical appointments when their doctor's can fit them in -- and not all of them drive.

The same inability to relate to others appeared in a recent op ed in the WaPo by Garrett Graff in which he said we find it "cute" to watch our grandparents and parents struggle with VCRs and cellphone. I don't know about you, but I don't, I never laugh at such images. Many members of the “World War II generation” accomplished much in their lives and had many skills (not all of which we share) that they used well when they were in their prime. I say, leave ‘em in peace, don’t use them to get cheap laughs. I doubt anyone who has read a lot about the near past and spent time talking to their parents and grandparents about those times would have taken the approach Mr. Graff did.

There's a total lack of empathy in some of the comments on some message boards which makes me wonder what the source is. Are the people just self centered and we happen to see that self absorption show up in some message boards? Or don’t they read books that open up other worlds beyond the ones they themselves inhabit in their friendship circles?

The Internet and TV provide information and some knowledge, but the best way to broaden your horizons and immerse yourself in other people's lives is to read books, in my view.

Jon Marte - 12/11/2007

I do not watch a tremendous amount of television and I am always finding myself being "illiterate" compared to those who do.

Not in the sense of being able to read, but having comprehension of modern culture.

As many universities have classes on "information literacy" and primary school is supposed to teach people how to read and comprehend the English language, perhaps there is another form of literacy which is every bit as essential as being able to read and find information you want- TV Literacy.

Frankly, I understand dead civilizations more than I do the one in which I live. In a way, the average TV viewer has a higher level of literacy than I do.

This really doesn't have much to do with the article, but it's what came to mind.

Carol Hamilton - 12/10/2007

When I reported in for surgery five years ago, it was six in the morning and I was groggy from forcing myself to get up so early without food or coffee. The large waiting room was almost empty, and the tv was already blaring. When I asked the nurse behind the desk if she would turn it off, she appeared astonished, although no one was watching and the few other patients looked as groggy and unhappy as I did. And I agree that omnipresent tv discourages both reading and quiet introspection. It's a disheartening phenomenon.

jason ssg - 12/10/2007

I understand the point being made here about the pervasive public presence of televisions, but... some of the thoughts expressed feel outdated.

As the content on television continues to be increasingly tailored with "boutique"-like channels serving increasingly small niche interests, some aspects of television viewer-ship seem almost more democratic (more in some areas than others) than ever before. Sure, the bigger corporate interests still have a vast lions share, but we are seeing more and more viewers moving away from standard network television fare and going more towards alternatives ranging from surprisingly cinematic television dramas, science-themed and nature-themed informational/entertainment programming, to special interest programs revolving around everything from the latest video games to robed monks reviewing scripture.

Then there's the question of literacy.

While it's true that people are reading fewer books, how is the level of reading effected by internet usage? It's very common amongst almost everyone I know to lose an hour on an average day to looking up information on a subject and suddenly finding themselves hooked into reading up on a dozen other loosely connected subjects, reading thousands and thousands of words simply by virtue of wide ranges of information being so very readily accessible via internet connected desk top and lap top and palm top computers and various bluetooth and wifi devices. It's become possible to read great works of fiction and non-fiction on ones phone while commuting on a train.

Of course, I grant- the general level of literacy on the internet is questionable, at best... but still- the "decline" in literacy over the last 15 years I'm sure must be in some way ameliorated by the shear increase in interpersonal interaction via words done by an increasingly large portion of the population (though it has inversely lowered the quality of the written word in general, as well, "IMHO," heheh).

I'm curious to see what form "literacy" and the pervasiveness of visual entertainment will take in coming decades as computers, televisions, telephones, wristwatches, mass mailer coupon books, and cortical implants mesh and meld into a barrage of both text and graphics, portable to the point of absolute ubiquity.

Tim Matthewson - 12/10/2007

I like Mr. Witter's essay and believe that I have said much the same at various times, bemoaning the decline of literacy, and the rise of media. From Ortega y Gasset to the critics of the boob tube in the 1950s, there has been a constant stream of criticism of media, it's too passive, it's boring, it's creating generations of morons, and it dangerous to democracy, humane values, and the vigilance necessary to preserving our society.
Perhaps these assertions are accurate, but are we so certain? Is it not possible that we are seeing the emergence of new forms of literacy, that is, a new visual literacy. Philosphers have developed the study of semiotics and people in the visual arts have been developing new ways of talking about the increasingly rich visual experience in our modern society. Mr. Witter knows where he stands on these questions, but I hope that there are others out there who will focus on the development of visual lateracy and its connection to the declining word culture that has dominated the West since Gutenberg's movable type.