Logically, TV should be just one in a series of interchangeable parts: a big monitor that gets input through a cable. It can be hooked up to a computer to show BitTorrents, or to a TiVo to store information, or to a DVD player to display video. It can be plugged into an Xbox, a VCR or even that crappy WebTV thing that old people get. The point is, your television is a widget-just another household box filled with mysterious wires among other household boxes filled with mysterious wires that work together to entertain you.
And yet it isn't. TV has a kind of cultural weight that other electronics, even those much more vital to our survival, don't. Computers, for example, are useful tools-they let us process words and blog and Turbo Tax; they connect us to information; and sometimes, if we're very lucky, they allow us to telecommute in our jammy jams. In the popular consciousness, a computer is a two-way gizmo, connecting humans to other humans. It allows people to read news written by other people, view websites created by other people and download porn featuring other people. We see the computer as a portal to a collaborative world of human interaction, and that makes sense because that's what it is.
For some reason, though, we give TV more credit. We anthropomorphize it, and imagine that it has something to do with the programming it shows us. Obviously, television sets have no more to do with making broadcasts than desktops have to do with making the Drudge Report, but because so many factors are involved in producing shows, they don't seem to come from another human. Thus we credit (or blame?) the messenger. We talk to the TV like it can use our criticism to create better shows, and we get mad at the TV when it only has crap to show us.
There's a long-running joke on The Simpsons that the TV is everyone's favourite family member and most trusted adviser. Someone's always hugging the TV or fighting with the TV or sweet-talking the TV or whatever. It's great for laughs, and I know it's supposed to be a criticism of lazy parenting and our fat-ass culture, but I think it works so well because there's more to it than that. TV really does seem like part of the family-like a pet maybe, or like that happy little television on the TiVo logo-and not just for the reasons listed off by alarmist critics (Nobody reads anymore! Kids these days don't know how to use their imaginations! Our attention spans are too short! Fat people are the root of all evil!). No, even for the most die-hard, PBS-tote-bag-owning, reality-show-scorning, BBC-import-watching snobs, television has an importance and familiarity that other inanimate gadgets don't. Take those people who don't have TVs in their homes-in being so vehement about their superiority, they reveal that they too are victims of TV's baggage. Televisions have become, somehow, more than the sum of their functions.
So the question is: Why? Why does your television demand so much love and attention from you?
So the question is: Why? Why does your television demand so much love and attention from you? You'd think that microwaves or pacemakers or laptops would be so much more alluring, because they're useful. Personally, I suspect that it has to do with our exposure to television as children, but not in an evil or insidious way. I remember that when I was nine or ten, I secretly thought that all inanimate objects had feelings. I'm pretty sure this is universal. I felt bad for toys that never got played with or appliances that broke or shoes that the dog chewed up. I went through a stage where everything, including the TV, seemed like a target for empathy.
Kids really do think that TV can love them back. And with good reason, sort of. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, devotes a whole chapter to children's television programming and why it works. (And it does work, both to entertain kids and to educate them. He cites a study that found that kids who watch five hours a week of Sesame Street perform better in school than their TV-abstaining counterparts, even twelve and fifteen years later.) His research indicates that children understand their world through narrative. In a confusing universe filled with weird adult stuff, kids make sense of things by telling stories to themselves, and TV is all about telling stories. That's all it does. And, like a child, it can tell stories about really exciting things like robots or dinosaurs or robot dinosaurs. TV is the only object in a house full of potentially sentient objects that appears to like you back, to care about you as much as you care about it. And so, even as adults, we have a special kind of fondness for it.
That's my theory. I'm sure it would give those television-is-evil people the screaming meemees because it ignores the terrible, horrible consequences of childhood TV-watching, like the commercial brainwashing, the attention-span drought and the lack of vigorous outdoor play. There's merit to all of that, but you know what? Television isn't a scourge. Sure, kids can watch too much of it and probably do; TV can definitely make people lazy and boring and sad. But that's not TV's fault any more than it's chocolate cake's fault you're a lard. TV, in the right dosage of the right program, can be just fine. So lay off the haterade, Totebag McGee, and you might just find that Deadwood's not so bad after all.
Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn't get what the big deal is about the OC. No offence.