Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
Television has been on my mind a lot lately. This is probably true for most people, but chances are the reasons are different. Fact is, I don't watch a lot of television. I don't subscribe to the sole cable service (TCI) offered in my area and consequently my viewing options are limited to the two or three broadcast stations I can pick up using a pair of ancient rabbit ears. So I'm not thinking about this or that show necessarily, but rather television itself. Television the medium. Television the technology.
At some point I suppose I fell out of the habit of watching TV. When I would turn on the tube, to watch Late Night or catch some Clinton Inquisition footage, I found myself unfailingly dismayed by the ongoing slide of television content into ever greater depths of boorish stupidity, not to mention the plunging content-to-ads ratio. That's why the main uses for my television these days are a.) rental video viewing and b.) CD caddy.
Nevertheless, television has been on my mind a lot lately, like I said, and it's not because I'm watching more than usual, or even looking for misplaced CDs. It's because I'm trying to watch less, and finding that I have increasingly little say in the matter.
Television has become positively pervasive. Take a look around you, in restaurants and bars, airport terminals, waiting rooms of all kinds, elevators, ATMs, classrooms (!), and before long, I should think, even bathroom stalls. More and more today you go into these places only to find them practically festooned with CRTs, continually switched on and spewing forth babble and an incessant barrage of flashing, cavorting and distracting images. They're always positioned up high, near the ceiling for maximum exposure and minimum access. CNN even broadcasts a special "airport" version of it's newscast--characterized as such by a 50/50 news to commercials ratio and zero coverage of airline mishaps, I'm sure--hawked no doubt as a "valuable information service" for the business traveler on the go. In fact, at Sea-Tac airport here in Seattle, Delta airlines decided it was such a valuable service that every fucking gate and waiting area required two or three of the things. Now you can't even find a seat in the terminal that doesn't have a CRT or three blaring down at you. Don't like what's on? We gots one station. Want to lower the volume? Live with it, pal. Calling it practically Orwellian is no exercise in hyperbole.
Anyway, this was the mental stew--three parts frustration, one part helplessness, and a dash of nihilistic rage--that sat steaming atop my own mental TV tray when I happened to stumble across the book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. An increasingly vocal critic of television myself, something in the title (the word elimination perhaps, hmm?) resonated with me and I snatched up a copy. And I'm glad I did. Reading the book has given me a greater understanding of television and its impact on both people and the society at large. I feel more informed, and more necessarily wary. But most of all, I don't feel like turning on the TV often anymore. And I think if more of us felt that way it would surely be a good thing. And that's why I'm writing this.
His five years with FMG followed ten years of work in public relations and advertising. In his introduction to Four Arguments, Mander writes, "During that time, I learned that it is possible to speak directly into people's heads, and then leave images inside that can cause people to do what they might otherwise never have thought to do." But the novelty and thrill of having that kind of power eventually wore off, and he found himself more and more critical of the advertising industry, its methods, and his role within it. He left FMG, and in 1972 founded the country's first non-profit ad agency. He began work on Four Arguments in 1974 and the first edition appeared in print in 1977.
As the title suggests, the book presents four general arguments for "the complete elimination of television forever." An extreme position, many might argue, but Mander maintains the thesis throughout the work that the medium itself is unreformable, and that the problems inherent in the technology are dangerous "to personal health and sanity, to the environment, and to the democratic process." And curiously, even though the book was published two full decades ago, most or all of the arguments are equally timely today. Even the technological limitations of television on which Mander focuses in one chapter haven't changed much in the intervening years. So although some of the references to dated television shows may jar the reader's temporal sensibilities, the point in each case still gets across very effectively.
The arguments are meticulously constructed, and presented at an easy pace of incremental development that makes reading the book and following the flow of the author's logic a real pleasure. This book is, without a doubt, the most compelling and persuasive work--on any subject--I've read in some time. Ultimately it arms the reader with an acutely critical perspective regarding television and the activity of television viewing, causing her to think twice when reaching for the remote, and to reflect on the motivation for doing so in the first place. We've been so conditioned to believe that television viewing is harmless overall, and even offers the benefits of relaxation or access to valuable information, that if we could just address the problems with programming television would be fine. Unfortunately, it happens that none of these is true, and Mander does a great job of explaining why in consistently clear and lucid prose.
So, what about the arguments? To be honest, there is no effective way to paraphrase or distill the work to its "essential points" without completely ignoring much of the text. Because even though the book is divided into four general arguments, each one is based on a hundred or so pages of development, often involving numerous sub-points and sub-theses that form the foundation for later arguments. Instead I will describe the outline of the book and attempt to highlight some of the more important elements.
The arguments are divided into four chapters, titled The Mediation of Experience, The Colonization of Experience, Effects of Television on the Human Being, and The Inherent Biases of Television. I'll briefly discuss each in turn.
The Mediation of Experience. This chapter consists of three sections titled The Walling of Awareness, Expropriation of Knowledge, and Adrift in Mental Space. It discusses our increasing detachment and isolation from the natural world, and how technology changes the fundamental contexts in which we live and interact. It describes the growing mediation of existence, where we, instead of actually going places and doing things ourselves, spend more and more time in technologically mediated settings (e.g.- in front of the television) watching other people do these things, or viewing scenes from distant places and news reports about situations that are unrelated to our own experiences, far removed from our own local reality.
Mander discusses our reliance today on the knowledge of "experts" to answer questions about biology, technology, medicine, physics, astronomy, etc., and how this has made us dangerously susceptible to suggestion. He argues that we have lost touch with the natural environment due to our increasingly urban, technologically mediated environment. All of this results in perpetuating our reliance on secondary sources, not only for information and knowledge, but also for experience itself.
Anytown, USA. Prime time, Thursday night. Hundreds of thousands of rapt viewers watch a show that spotlights the antics of a group of friends (tm) who get together and do lots of fun, wacky things (and very rarely, it seems, watch TV). However, the majority of the viewers themselves are sitting alone in darkened rooms, staring at a glowing box, participating vicariously in the activity of "good times with friends" instead of enjoying the experience themselves. Suppose the cast of Friends spent the 22 or so minutes of each episode quiescent in front of a television set instead of getting together and talking, meeting at the coffee shop, playing sports, confronting issues, etc.? Does anyone believe that ratings wouldn't plummet with such a format? Yet this is the very activity most viewers are involved in when they tune in and watch. This is what Mander means by "the mediation of experience."
The chapter concludes with a lengthy bit of analysis that draws some comparisons between the techniques for autocratic control described by Huxley and Orwell--and used by organizations such as est and the Moonies--and those characteristics of television that seem particularly useful for employing them.
The Colonization of Experience. Chapter two begins:
It is no accident that television has been dominated by a handful of corporate powers. Neither is it accidental that television has been used to re-create human beings into a new form that matches the artificial, commercial environment. A conspiracy of technological and economic factors made this inevitable and continue to.
This chapter focuses on how "television and its parent and child, advertising, have contributed to this process of [technological and corporate] concentration, and how it was inevitable from the moment of its invention that television would be used this way." It deals with how we and our experiences have been appropriated by commercial interests for the sake of boosting profits. It provides a useful discussion of the meaning of the words "value" and "productive" in a business/economic context, explaining in lucid detail how, according to the "capitalist, profit-oriented mind, there is no outrage so great as the existence of some unmediated nook or cranny of creation which has not been converted into a new form that can then be sold for money."
This is crucial, I think, because it underscores the real essence of how we view natural resources and their intrinsic worth. In the capitalist ideology, so well represented in the corporate-dominated television medium, an uninhabited desert is "nonproductive" until it is mined, irrigated or developed. "A forest of uncut trees is unproductive. Coal or oil that remains in the ground is unproductive. Animals living wildly are unproductive." He follows with a discussion of the concept of scarcity, also in the business/economic sense, and describes how it is imposed and preserved in the interests of, again, corporate profit.
He then extends the argument to illustrate how the same philosophy drives business to "convert the uncharted internal human wilderness into a form that desires to accumulate commodities," with the goal being to encourage individual consumption (over collective ownership of goods) and greater dissatisfaction with natural experience and who we are. It serves as a refreshing reminder of the fact that the very best (read: most productive) societal organization from the capitalist perspective would be one in which each of us lives in isolation (certainly in groups no larger than the nuclear family) from one another, sharing nothing and therefore consuming all goods and services at a rate of one-per-consumer, and so thoroughly dissatisfied with ourselves that we seek to re-create ourselves over and over again according to the dictates of each short-lived trend or fad.
The chapter then continues with an explanation of the homogenizing, unifying effect that television, particularly advertising, has on the viewing public. This aspect of television has continued to come under considerable scrutiny recently by Progressive and Left critics like Richard Barnet and John Cavanagh who point out that "although hundreds of millions of children and teenagers around the world are listening to the same music and watching the same films and videos, globally distributed entertainment products are not creating a positive new global consciousness -- other than a widely shared passion for more global goods and vicarious experience."1 If anything, this situation has only become more dire in the two decades since Mander cautioned us about it.
He follows with a description of how advertisers use television (and other media) to create a "need"--for electric carving knives, feminine deodorant spray, hair dryers--where none existed before. The last section contains some informative (though dated) information on the remarkable concentration and centralization of media interests in this country. Things were bleak when Mander was doing his own research for the book in the mid-1970s, but since then things have gotten far worse. Today fewer than ten media conglomerates dominate U.S. media. The five largest--with annual sales between $10 and $25 billion--are News Corporation, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and TCI.2 This lamentable consolidation of media power into even fewer hands is taking place during a period of unprecedented acquiescence by the FCC, who recently gave away $70 billion dollars of public broadcast spectrum to private broadcasters for HDTV, and who are at this moment working to implement the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which will remove all current limits on media ownership. This means that not only will we have very little choice among viewing and programming options, but also that we will lose the power to regulate the very organizations that make these choices for us.
Effects of Television on the Human Being. This chapter focus on the psychological and physiological effects of television on viewers. Often complaining about the dearth of information available on the subject, and the difficulties this presented in the course of his conducting research for the book, Mander addresses issues such as the effects of television lightwaves on the human body, how television deadens perception and suppresses neural activity, affects sleep cycles, narrows focus, reduces sensory stimulation, and more.
He presents a compelling argument that television viewing leads to hyperactivity and Attention Deficit Disorder among children. The findings presented in this section are particularly important today when pharmaceutical companies have convinced so many parents that the real cure for these "conditions" is liberal doses of Ritalin®. The very fact that parents would be willing to serve as accomplices in the drugging and addicting of their children is, at the very least, a sad commentary on the almost complete absence of publicly available scientific data concerning the physiological impact on children of hours of daily TV viewing. But I suppose it would be absurd to expect much televised commentary or reporting critical of the medium itself, so people who get most of their news and information from television would likely never have access to such information. Based on the most recent surveys, that works out to about sixty percent of the population.
Mander concludes the section with some very disturbing facts about how television viewing can make viewers extremely susceptible to suggestion, noting, for example, the similarities in brainwave activity between TV viewers and people who have been placed in a hypnotic trance. Finally, he discusses how the images we accept into our minds, whether from television or any other source, remain there and may influence us--our perceptions, behavior, etc.--until the day we die.
This chapter was the most troubling for me because it contained so much information that was entirely new to me. Anyone who's read Neil Postman or other well-known critics of television is probably familiar with the dangers generally associated with television viewing. But many of the physiological effects that Mander reveals seem to exist somewhere outside the realm of public discourse and general knowledge. Even the reader who considers Mander's data with skepticism would have to acknowledge that the subject itself--the physical effects of TV viewing--has received very little attention in the decades since the introduction of this now-pervasive technology.
Finally, in The Inherent Biases of Television, Mander turns his attention to many of the biases, limitations, and shortcomings intrinsic to the technology itself. This chapter draws on each of those which preceded it to argue that television actually is unreformable, that the medium itself is fundamentally biased toward the crude, the loud, the fuzzy, the simple, and the superficial, to name but a few characteristics.
In my favorite section of this chapter, Artificial Unusualness, Mander describes how producers exploit the technology to fixate the attention of viewers on vacuous content that might otherwise quickly become excruciatingly dull and unappealing. He explains how the excessive use of "technical events"--scene changes, zooms, voice-overs, fades, etc.--conspires to keep the viewer in a state of rapt attentiveness, luring him ever forward "like a mechanical rabbit teasing a greyhound." If producers chose not to use these "technical tricks," Mander argues, viewers might actually become aware of boredom, and perhaps even get up and do something else--go for a walk, talk to friend on the phone, read a book, whatever--which would result in the failure of producers to accomplish their primary objective: delivering viewers (that's you and me, folks) to advertisers.
He concludes this section with Thirty-three Miscellaneous Inherent Biases, a sampling of which follows:
Mander concludes the book with a brief section titled Impossible Thoughts, some ruminations on the viability of eliminating television and some final arguments on why he thinks doing so could only be in our best interests.
And then you remember that Four Arguments was published over twenty years ago, and since then things have only gotten worse. Consumerism is rampant. Television is more than pervasive, it's ubiquitous. More than ever before we are using technology and media--especially television--to export American culture overseas and spread the Gospel of Free Markets, excessive and conspicuous consumption, and style over substance. If Mander's wake up call fell on deaf ears then, what hope is there that people will pay attention today?
It's my guess that a lot of factors conspired to limit the exposure of Four Arguments when it was originally published. He refused to do the talk show circuit or otherwise promote the book on television. Distribution channels were sharply limited, as was his promotional budget, I'm sure. In other words, I doubt that a significant, meaningful portion of the population has ever heard of the book, much less read it.
And that's why I'm here.
I'm here to tell you that there are some real problems with television, and if you happen to watch a lot of television chances are very good that you are aware of only a fraction of them. It is my firmly held conviction that too much (i.e.- daily) television viewing leads to: ignorance, susceptibility to political manipulation, apathy, lethargy, ignorance, poor health, loss of analytical skills, poor dietary habits, skewed perceptions, social retardation, ignorance, reduced attention span, low self-esteem, hyperactivity and diminished sensitivity to, well, most anything.
If you want to know why I think television viewing leads to these things, I suggest you read, for starters, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. If you're not one to read books, yet somehow find plenty of time for TV watching, I suggest you read the book as the first step to reclaiming your life. In fact, just read the book. If you've read it before, read it again. It has plenty to offer the second time around.
Since you've already got an Internet connection, the easiest way to procure a copy of the book is to order it online at Amazon.com. Your local bookstore probably has a few copies as well.
Finally, here are some informative links on the subject of television, such as this one that features some TV statistics and this report on TV and Health, both courtesy of TV-Free America. You may also want to check out the White Dot web site.
1 Barnet, Richard, and John Cavanagh. "Homogenization of Global Culture." In The Case Against the Global Economy, ed. Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996.
2 McChesney, Robert. Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy. New York: Seven Stoies Press, 1997.