Tuesday , April 16 2024
Are you sure the problem is with the medium and not, say, the choice of programming?

In Defense of Television

A recent article on Newsvine, entitled "Television Is Keeping You Down," suggests that there is nothing of value on television, a sentiment that is often expressed by people that I know, like, and admire.

Television is keeping you down? Really? Are you sure the problem is with the medium and not, say, your programming choices? Or is it that what really drives you mad are the statistics about just how much television people watch? If your article was entitled, “Reality Shows Are Keeping You Down” or “Spend More Time Listening to Real Music Instead Of Cover Songs On American Idol” or “Choose Your TV selections More Carefully,” I’d agree with you 100 percent.

But instead I think you went too far in your rant.

First let me explain my situation with television. I only watch two programs daily – The Daily Show (how appropriate!) and the Colbert Report. I don’t think I’ve watched a weekly program live since… well, the last one I watched regularly was either The West Wing or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I agree with you for the most part about the quality of programming but I think it’s also a bad idea to generalize as much as you have, as with this statement: "After thinking about it, I realize all television programming is completely worthless to the viewer." I watch the programs I listed on DVD. I have done the same for Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Oz, often while reading the great, snarky recaps of Television Without Pity.

Are you really calling those programs "completely worthless?"

My guess is what you’re really saying is that most TV is crap but not all of it. And if you said that I would agree with you. There are some programs that are exceptional. Take The Wire, for example. That is quality programming, as was Buffy and The West Wing.

I’ve been watching each of those three programs on DVD and I have to say as much as I love books – and I read about two books a week – few books are of as high a quality as those shows. A case has been made before – and will continue to be made by others – that some of the best programming currently being made is on television, a lot of it on HBO and Showtime. Meanwhile there is a lot of crap out there in books, especially, on the best-seller list.

Are you really suggesting that it’s better for me to read a Nora Roberts book than to watch the final season of The Sopranos? Every medium – be it TV, books, the Internet (I’m looking at you, MySpace) – has loads of crap. As much as I, too, want people to watch TV less and read more (or, even more importantly, learn to read) I think attacking the medium itself is missing the point.

The point is selecting quality and then watching the quantity of that programming you select. And even as I say that I feel a twinge of hypocrisy for having a Netflix queue with more than 500 movies. I wonder if there’s a documentary I can add to my queue about addiction to DVDs? Hmm, I’d add it but Netflix says my queue is already too full. Damn.

Or should I stop watching those too?

I think you started to nail the issue in the first paragraph but then dismissed it when you wrote, "Still others would do this by dividing between poorly written programming and HBO programming." I’d replace the word “HBO” with "well-wrtten programming", leaving you with viewers – myself included – deciding for themselves which programming is well written and which is not well written and then choosing accordingly.

If there’s a detectable trend or factor in the programs I’ve mentioned (The Wire, Buffy, West Wing) it is that The Wire is superior than most fare. Should I feel guilty for watching TV? No. Do I feel inferior to those who junked their TV? No. Do I feel upset that more people seem involved in the voting process of American Idol than the American government? Hell, yeah, but that’s another issue entirely, one having more to do with apathy than television as a medium.

One last thought before I leave you: documentaries are television, too. I watch a lot of documentaries, often reviewing the best of them. Many of the documentaries are eventually shown on television or get some of their funding from television-related companies. I learn a lot from those documentaries, whether it’s telling me what really went down at the Olympics in Munich in 1972 (an Oscar-winning documentary, One Day In September shown on HBO but never screened at a theater, is quite educational) or Eyes On the Prize, one of the best programs summarizing the civil rights era.

Would I rather people read Taylor Branch’s books on that era? Of course. But if I can barely find the time to read that, and remember how much and how fast I read, then is that really a fair expectation?

If I was unsure my stance on this issue made sense, that uncertainly dissipated after I read an article in The Washington Post today – which I just seeded – about an 11-part PBS series called America At A Crossroads, which explores complicated issues involving faith, civil rights, and related topics. You want to tell me that is “completely worthless”?

In closing, I agree that there is much bad TV. But I think it’s a mistake to dismiss all television just because much of it is mindless crap, just as I think it would be unfair to dismiss all Internet sites because the most visited sites are porn, or literature because many of the best sellers could be written by computer programs given a formula by Nora Roberts.

Put simply, not all television is bad – just most of it. The trick is to understand that there are other buttons besides “on” and “off.” Yes, that one that lets you change channels is also pretty good.

If you had told me a week, month or year ago that I would one day rant in support of television I’d have thought you crazy. Hell, I’ve had my cable TV turned off and on at least five times in the last year, as I decide whether or not it’s worth $20 a month to be able to watch Comedy Central. But just as I think Larry Gonick is right in a recent interview with me when he said that Howard Zinn replaces bad history books with books of rants/woes, I think it’s a mistake to suggest the solution to bad TV is to just turn it off.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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