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!