It’s been a week for sweeping proclamations about mass media. We’ve seen the latest requiem for the death of the novel, courtesy of Will Self, and just for good measure, Salon posted a long op-ed proclaiming that the much-vaunted TV renaissance of recent years is all in our imagination: “Stephen Colbert Won’t Save Us, ‘Game of Thrones’ Is Not That Good,” crowed the headline, “This ‘Golden Age’ Of TV Is a Big Sham.” Bah. Humbug.
TV has always been looked down upon as a medium, and Salon’s Alexander Zaitchik jumps in with both feet in this respect, leading with an exhortation to “stop calling this TV’s golden age… it’s still the Idiot Box.” He’s not done, though: the piece goes on to argue that “this celebration of TV’s new ‘golden age’… [is] dangerous, and sad,” and pines for the good ol’ Kill Your TV days, when people knew that “[s]taring at images on a little screen — that are edited in ways that weaken the brain’s capacity for sustained and critical thought, that encourage passivity and continued viewing, that are controlled by a handful of publicly traded corporations, that have baked into them lots of extremely slick and manipulating advertising — is not the most productive or pleasurable way to spend your time.”
This political dimension comes to dominate Zaitchik’s argument: he speaks of a “televisification of the left,” whereby the left has abandoned its suspicion of TV as an instrument of propaganda and indoctrination in favor of a celebration of how great last night’s Game of Thrones was. It’s true that the left has often regarded TV with suspicion. Over the lifetime of television, we’ve envisaged plenty of suitably Orwellian dystopias where the populace is placated by the small screen, whether literally or metaphorically — it’s a lineage that runs from prescient stories like Brave New World through THX 1138 and Videodrome to latter-day examples like Wall-E and The Hunger Games. It’s not just film and literature, either — look at The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s “Television, the Drug of a Nation,” for instance, whose lyrical thesis can be inferred from its title. TV, so the theory goes, is inherently bad: it dumbs down its viewers, making them easy to manipulate and, ultimately, oppress.
When you step back and actually interrogate this assumption, though, you come to realize that… well, it’s horseshit. I’m no great fan of TV — indeed, I had to chuckle when I read Zaitchik’s disclaimer about not being labelled “the tweedy bore and pretentious prick who makes a loud public show of not owning a TV… for the record, I’m not that guy,” because I am that guy. I’ve never owned a TV. I couldn’t give less of a shit what’s big on network television. I don’t care who wins American Idol. I had to google what in God’s name Duck Dynasty was when the news broke about the dickhead with the beard being homophobic.
And still, I’ll say this: TV is great these days. And that matters. I mean, sure, on a purely quantitative basis the majority of TV is shit. But so is the majority of film. So are most novels. So is a whole lot of visual art. So is most of the music you see in the charts. There’s not an art form in the world that produces more quality than rubbish. For every artist who creates a masterpiece, you get a thousand people who paint like George W. Bush.
The question is whether there’s something inherent to TV that makes it somehow inferior to other narrative forms. Zaitchik’s piece starts from the assumption that the answer to this question is “yes”: “The old arguments were about structure, advertising, structure, ownership, and structure, more than they were about programming content, or what time of the day you watched it. Less has changed than remains the same.”
Despite using the word “structure” three time here, he doesn’t really elaborate on what he means by it. But let’s assume that he’s talking about the way the TV industry works. And yes, it’s the industry and culture surrounding it that has been problematic — the fact that there is so much airtime to fill, the fact that budgets have historically been low compared to film, the fact that its business model requires viewers to sit through swathes of advertisements, etc. Media cross-ownership also remains a problem, and the amount of power wielded by magnates like Rupert Murdoch is an indictment on the FCC (recently proven, yet again, to be a paper tiger as far as regulation in the public interest goes). These problems remain entrenched — as I wrote here a couple of years back, if TV didn’t exist today and someone proposed it in its current form, they’d be laughed out of the room.
But here’s the thing: if you focus on “structure, advertising, structure, ownership, and structure” at the expense of programming content, you’re missing the point. Sure, the majority of network TV remains awful, unless retrograde CBS comedies about man-children and American Idol are your thing. These aren’t what Zaitchik’s writing about, though. No, he takes aim squarely at what we call Quality TV. It doesn’t matter how good the shows you’re talking about are, he suggests — the very nature of TV itself remains a problem. There’s also an assumption here that TV is a sort of monolithic art form — it makes no difference whether you’re watching Cosmos or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, because if you’re sitting in front of the idiot box you’re sucking on the teat of corporate culture.
There’s a contradiction here, though. TV can only be considered actively destructive if its content has a demonstrable effect on its viewers — if its “extremely slick and manipulating advertising” can influence their purchase patterns, if its political biases can shape the views of its viewers, etc. But if you start from this premise, you’re surely arguing that content — and, by implication, programming content — is important.
Zaitchik is having none of this argument: his piece concludes with the the claim that “you are… an exceptionally shallow media critic if you think the problems with television ever had anything to do with the quality of the scripts.” No, you’re an exceptionally shallow media critic if you dismiss the any artform out of hand. 96.7% of American households have a TV — if you’re refusing to interrogate what’s on those screens, you’re not doing your job as a critic. (“This is so beneath me I haven’t even WATCHED it” is the single worst argument in the world of criticism. It translates as, “I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I have prejudices opinions so I’m just going to talk about it anyway!” Get the fuck outta here. It’s pretty simple: if you’re going to write about television, at least bother to watch television.)
It should come as no surprise that TV content is far more important and influential than a critic who doesn’t watch it is willing to give it credit for — and, as such, any increase in quality content should be celebrated. TV’s ubiquity means that being able to represent, say, the lives of the Broad City girls on screen is important, despite the way Zaitchik sneers at Grantland critic Molly Lambert’s excitement about a show where the world on screen is “populated with chill women who refer to everyone as ‘dude.'”
This isn’t a zero-sum game, either — the argument that people who are lost in their TV would otherwise be worried about Big Issues is hopelessly idealistic. Zaitchik suggests that “[getting our heads fully around global warming] will be impossible if we no longer even understand the dangers of chuckling along to Kia commercials while flipping between Maher, ‘Merlin’ and ‘Girls.'” C’mon, dude.
Not only is Zaitchik naïve about what people would be spending time doing if they weren’t watching TV, but he doesn’t seem to realize that we’re far more self-aware in the way we approach TV these days than we used to be. The vision of viewers slumping on the couch as they’re drip-fed indoctrination is outdated, if it was ever true. As far back in 1990, David Foster Wallace was writing about how advertisers were appealing to viewers’ self-awareness and sense of irony in pitching their products. It’s no accident that the most acclaimed TV show of recent years, Mad Men, is literally about advertising.
People know their entertainment is corporate-sponsored. They know there’s a trade-off. They know they’re being sold an aspirational world wherein everyone is white and middle class and perfect, a world that they’ll never be quite able to attain, no matter how fast they run on the consumerist hamster wheel of life. But shit, let’s not pretend TV is unique in this respect. All art comes with a trade-off, with the awareness that what you’re consuming is in a way trying to consume you. The movies are just the same, and so to varying extents are most other art forms. Visual art is a corporate-sponsored trading card game for the insanely rich. To single out TV in this respect reflects nothing more than a double standard applied to low vs. high culture — or, put more bluntly, to snobbery.
This world exists inside the TV because it also exists outside the TV. Life is a compromise. Every day we get up and strike a bargain with capitalism, trading our time on earth for money that we use to buy more time. This is the world we live in, and in this respect, TV is the perfect reflection of our lives. It’s not by accident that the TV-as-mirror metaphor crops up again and again in postmodern literature.
Ultimately, rejecting TV entirely is tilting at windmills. As our most ubiquitous and influential artform, it’s not going anywhere. We’re not going to end up in a world where everyone smashes their TVs and returns to some imaginary utopia where they consume non-corporate-sponsored high culture. The nature of TV’s content is perhaps more important now than it’s ever been — in a world of DVRs and torrents and Netflix, people are freer than they’ve ever been to weed out the shit they don’t want in favor of the stuff they do. The choice is there. You don’t need to kill your TV, because you’re smarter than it. Why not just stop attacking the poor machine, and make it work for you?