IN DEFENSE OF TELEVISION—-If It’s Making You Dumber…You’ve Only Yourself To Blame

March 31, 2011

Whatever your's not the TV's fault.

Got a problem?  Surely, there’s someone you can blame.  Americans love to point their fingers at anything that will help explain, rationalize or otherwise dismiss any of their own faults and shortcomings.  Unfortunately, most seem to forget that old playground proverb that says, “whenever you point a finger, there’s always three pointed right back at you”.  Nonetheless, everyone still seems to have an excuse for everything.  Too fat?  It’s genetics.  Your kids do poorly in school?  It’s ADHD.  Fed up with politics?  It’s the Republicans.  No matter what ails you or what predicament you face, there’s someone other than yourself to blame.  And nothing shoulders more of that unwarranted blame than Television.

Pick a problem plaguing our world today and you’ll surely find someone saying that TV is at fault.  Violence, laziness, ignorance, corruption and moral decay all have their bony fingers pointed directly at the glowing black box that sets innocently in every one of our homes.  But just as with all of our other problems, affixing blame onto television is ensuring that the blame is misplaced.  Viewers shoulder the blame.  We shoulder it not only for our viewing decisions, but also because of the ways that we relate to the content of the programming choices we make.  Television will give back exactly what we seek to get out of it.  The way in which we engage with television will determine the results.  So if your TV is making you dumber, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

I’m sure you’ve heard all this before.  Many have already made the argument that if we would just pick up our remotes and change the channel from MTV to C-SPAN, the world would be a better place.  If only we could just see fit to watch “Masterpiece Theater” rather than “Jersey Shore” our culture could arise from its cesspool of iniquity and once again thrive.  This is not my argument.  Television doesn’t need to be ‘high-minded’ to have a positive influence.  What matters is how we respond.  Even the simplest or tawdriest of programs can be meaningful depending on if and how we seek to derive meaning from them.  My argument deals more with the way we process information and less with the substance of the information that is provided.  TV programming of all varieties can prove to be enlightening if we as viewers make the choice to put our minds to work.  As soon as we make the choice to allow TV to merely serve as a mindless daily sedative, then that is exactly what it will become.

For instance, ABC’s “The Bachelor” is one of the most inane shows ever conceived.  It is a show that promotes narcissism, materialism and shallow relationships and stars a group of irrational, young bubbleheads who share the word “amazing” as the only adjective in their collective vocabulary.  At first glance, this show possesses no redeeming qualities and quite possibly makes anyone who watches it not only stupider, but also a little more cynical and shallow as well.  But is that really true?  We all watch TV from a subjective vantage point, so depending on the viewer’s attitude and disposition, perhaps even this monstrosity could reap positive results.  For those who watch analytically and make sure their brain remains working even while the TV is on, doesn’t “The Bachelor” have plenty to say about the flaws of modern relationships?  Personally, when I watch, I’m often wondering to myself what makes it possible for a young woman to honestly believe she’s in love with a man who is simultaneously sharing intimate moments with other potential suitors.  “The Bachelor” may not be an accurate reflection of relationships in 2011, but that doesn’t mean that when its layers are peeled away there isn’t still something valuable to learn about human nature.  By resisting the temptation to get caught up by the choreographed drama and emotion that the show’s producers try to create, you’re left with the chance to ponder the motivations and desires of good-looking, seemingly successful young people and how they approach finding a mate.  As shallow as “The Bachelor” is, it still allows you the chance to think deeper, if you’re so inclined.

When we put our brains to work, lose our passivity and become actively engaged in our programming, almost any show can escape its seemingly narrow confines and provide us with something worthwhile.  Take MTV’s “Teen Mom” for instance.  On its surface, and similarly to a whole host of other ‘reality’ shows, “Teen Mom” is nothing more than basic voyeurism.  It is providing the viewer a simple opportunity to gawk in amazement at the sorry state of those who are less fortunate than themselves.  But this is a show that, if viewed with a curious rather than judgmental mind, can provide an immense amount of information and insight into a phenomenon that affects countless people across the country.  “Teen Mom” is not just about the poor parenting techniques of 16 year-olds, it’s about incredibly important issues such as abortion, adoption, domestic violence, the value of education and the role that healthy families play in sustaining a productive society.  If it is viewed merely as a shocking spectacle, it loses its potential to teach.  But if we go beyond just ‘watching’ and seek to understand how it reflects the world around us, following a show like this can be an enlightening experience.

The same is true for a whole host of shows.  We watch “Hoarders” and “Biggest Loser” and “American Idol”.  It can be entertaining and emotionally engaging, but at the same time, can’t it also be educational?  We’re fascinated by their situations, their addictions and their ambitions, but can’t we also be stimulated by the lessons they provide about materialism, consumption and our quest for fame?  “The Biggest Loser” should not be seen as a show about weigh-ins and silly competitions.  It’s a show about our culture’s relationship to food, our declining active lifestyles and our search for fulfillment in all the wrong places.  But in order for those lessons to sink in, we have to actively seek them out.  It’s analogous to going to the zoo or a museum.  We can walk through and be fascinated by the animals and the displays and be on our way, or we can stop and examine the details, read the presentations and absorb their broader purpose.  If we want television to be more than just an attraction, then the responsibility is ours to make that happen.

However, that responsibility also includes a caveat.  Active thinking is not the only requirement necessary to make watching television educational or meaningful.  Unfortunately, it also matters “what” we’re thinking about.  If you watch a national cable news broadcast and through its false presentations it compels you to ponder whether or not our President was actually born in America, then you’re probably not accomplishing anything positive.  If you watch endless hours of sports commentary and it leads you to waste your mind contemplating which team should win Friday’s big game, then you’re also on a fool’s errand.  Following the nightly parade of police blotter details on your local news may get your mind whirling, but chances are all that thinking won’t bring about many worthwhile results.  It’s great for a viewer to be captivated by a show, but if all the show is doing is causing them to reflect on a certain celebrity’s dancing ability, then perhaps it’s not the most effective use of their mind.  We should all be able to recognize for ourselves if the programs we’re watching have the capability to provoke constructive thought.  In all of the previously mentioned examples, constructive thought is indeed a possibility.  Making our television watching meaningful requires the viewer to not only make wise choices, but to also then be conscious of the reaction those choices will most likely to draw out.

If what I’ve just described seems to require too much effort, don’t worry.  There is an unprecedented amount of television programming out there that by its very nature is enlightening and doesn’t require any mental discipline to achieve its beneficial results.  Grab your remote and everywhere you turn you’ll find a show about remodeling your kitchen, the lifestyles of ancient Mayan civilizations or how to cook delicious bbq brisket.  You can learn about swordfishing and wilderness survival in the afternoon and catch up on genetic science and American history later that evening.  Anyone who wants to bemoan the value and educational capabilities of television is certainly not paying close enough attention.  Stimulating, thought-provoking television is available for even the most discerning of tastes.  And the networks that broadcast these shows are not just relegated to the periphery.  Channels like HGTV, Discovery and The Food Network are some of the most-watched cable channels on the air.  Whatever topic interests you, whatever subject stimulates your brain, you’re sure to find a presentation of it somewhere on your television dial.  If a viewer was so-inclined, they could focus their viewing exclusively on educational programming and still never run out of options.

But how many of us are quite that dedicated about their TV viewing habits?  Even though we may aspire to make television-watching a worthwhile endeavor, the intelligent, high-minded programming often loses out.  We watch TV because we want to laugh, because we want to be entertained and because we want to root for our favorite teams.  Television serves as an escape, so naturally people are going to be quick to choose shows like “The Office” instead of a new episode of “Frontline”.  There is nothing wrong with this phenomenon.  But as with almost every option we encounter in our consumer culture, moderation is the key to achieve positive results.  It’s okay if you like to eat donuts, just try not to have one for breakfast every single day.  The same is true for television.  You may like to watch “Family Guy”, but you probably shouldn’t make that your choice every night.  As I’ve already explained, something of value can still be taken away, regardless of which show you choose.  Perhaps you missed out on a captivating recount of the 2008 financial crash when you chose “The Office” instead of “Frontline”, but who’s to say that some biting satire of corporate culture, mixed in with a few laughs, can’t be just as enlightening?

Those looking to place the blame on television for whatever social ill they have in mind will probably not be swayed by my arguments.  Many just reflexively view TV as a sub-standard format that will always be playing catch-up with the “more intellectual” entertainment options like cinema, live-theater and books.  I can still remember the desperate pleas of my English Teachers imploring us, for the sake of our own cognitive futures, to turn off the TV and pick up a book.  I will always be someone that defends the value of literature , but I never understood why TV received such a bad rap.  Reading can be a wonderfully enriching enterprise, but there are aspects of our lives and our culture that can be much more accurately reflected and conveyed through a television screen.  And let’s not pretend that the breadth of idiotic TV programming isn’t matched by an equally wide breadth of idiotic books.  I recently went on vacation and paid particular attention to the reading choices the people around me had made for their flight and for their time on the beach.  Everywhere I looked, my fellow vacationers had their noses buried deep in celebrity biographies, factually-challenged political screeds, dime-a-dozen mysteries and dull religious hot air.  I saw no one reading the classics, no how-to books, no research-driven non-fiction and and nothing that rose above what’s innocently known as “light reading”.  Books are great, but there’s no way that reading Sarah Palin’s latest offering is anymore enlightening than watching an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”.  They’re both fluff and both should only take an hour to get through.

The biggest problem with everything I’ve just laid out is that ultimately, the quality and depth of each individual’s television-watching experience is completely up to them.  It’s this unfortunate circumstance that gives the ‘blame TV’ crowd its most compelling argument.  TV can actually be dumb.  It can be violent, it can be lazy and can be apt to reflect a shallow understanding of our world.  But that’s not TV’s fault.  On the whole, TV responds to what the market demands.  If vast majorities of our society wanted smarter programming, then it would most likely be so.  But our society instead demands hours of cop shows about dead hookers, over-dramatized ‘reality’ programs, dishonest newscasts and exploitative spectacles of those who are downtrodden or different.  TV gives that to us because apparently that’s what we want.  But TV did not create those desires.  Our flawed inclination to watch awful TV is caused by a whole host of factors strung throughout every fabric of our culture.  Blaming television is merely making it a scapegoat for broader problems.  Television is not so much the cause as it is a reflection.  The opportunity exists for all of us to allow television, even in its current state, to have a positive affect on our lives.  So sit down, tune-in and bask in its enchanting warm glow.  TV is your friend and it doesn’t deserve your scorn, because if watching TV is making you dumber…you’ve only yourself to blame.


THE EXPENDABLE CONSUMER: Why Are the Biggest Companies So Willing to Treat Us So Bad?

January 10, 2011

What, you still thought the customer was always right?

The old adage says that you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  However, the sharp-tongued individual is always quick to respond that even more flies will come your way with bullshit rather than honey.  Our corporate masters, those who offer up their services and sell us their junk, most certainly embrace the latter.  Anyone who has made a purchase, set foot in a big-box store, attempted to call customer service or been involved in any kind of transaction involving a Fortune 500 company in the last few years will most certainly attest to that notion.

Whether its your bank, your cable provider, your grocery store or your least favorite restaurant chain, you undoubtedly have a horror story about some kind of consumer-related atrocity that was committed at your expense.  We’ve all been wronged, and yet we all, sometimes without choice, begrudgingly line up for more.  Those tales of marketplace malfeasance are cataloged on a fascinating website I recently discovered located at  Consumers like you from all across the country have gathered at The Consumerist to form a kind of support group where people share their accounts of how huge multi-national corporations have robbed, humiliated and generally taken advantage of them usually without any remorse or reservation.

The Consumerist has provided me with endless hours of reading enjoyment.  Some stories I can relate to while others cause me to shake my head in disbelief.  You can search their archives by the topic of the transgression.  Had trouble with a car dealer?  Been screwed on a return?  There’s sure to be someone with a similar story.  Or perhaps your beef is with one company in particular?  Feel free to scroll through The Consumerist’s list of corporate offenders.  Who’s the object of your ire?  WalmartBank of AmericaUnited HealthcareMicrosoft?  They’re all there…and it’s a bad-business-buffet…a veritable who’s who of goonish, profit-thirsty corporate jackasses.

No matter the topic, no matter the company at-fault, they all have something in common.  They all treat their customers like crap.  Each and every last one of them regards each and every last one of us as no better than that fly they’re hoping to attract with their giant, stinking bowl of BS.  The stories that people have posted on this site are horrific.  Here’s one about a girl who died while waiting for CIGNA to decide if she qualified for a liver transplant or not.  Here’s one about an old woman who bled to death because  Comcast’s Operator couldn’t connect her 911 call to the police dispatch properly.  And here’s a famous one where JP Morgan Chase sent an employee to change the locks on a house they thought was in foreclosure, except it wasn’t and the owner was at home while they broke in.

But the most amazing part of all of these stories is that no matter how obscene the offense, these companies suffer minimal damage and are able to return to raking in gobs and gobs of our money.  Now certainly, as consumers we are sometimes left with minimal options when it comes to refusing to do business with these corporations.  People will continue to eat at McDonald’s because their prices are low.  I’ll continue to get my cable from Comcast because they’re the only provider at my address.  My wife and I wanted to do business with a local bank, but that bank ended up selling our mortgage to Bank of America whether we liked it or not.  They’ve got the game rigged and they know they can essentially treat you as badly as they like and you’re sure to come crawling back for more.  And even if you’re fortunate enough to be able to put an end to this abusive relationship, they know there is another sucker standing right behind you who doesn’t have that same kind of luck.

So the American Consumer is bent over a barrel and our corporate masters are free to treat us like crap.  But the logical question that follows is “why would they WANT to?”  Obviously, companies have made the determination that it’s not a big deal to lose a customer because plenty of current and future customers are there to take his or her place.  But isn’t it the goal of business to attract and KEEP as many customers as possible?  Let’s say you own a business and you have 10 customers.  You’ve pissed two of them off and they’re going elsewhere, but you’re not worried because you have three new ones lined up as replacements.  So you say, “I can afford to lose those two because I’ve got three new ones coming in.  I used to have 10 customers, but now I have 11.”  That all sounds well and good, but am I the only one who thinks the most sensible plan of action would’ve been to not piss-off those first two customers, keep your original 10, still add 3 and end up with 13 instead of 11?  I can’t for the life of me figure out how this willing and seemingly intentional purging of customers makes the slightest bit of business sense.

Why are we so expendable?  I know they all already make truckloads of money, but greed is the only language these bastards speak, so why aren’t they willing to make two truckloads instead of just the one?  My wife and I hate Walmart and we refuse to shop there.  Doesn’t that bother them?  Shouldn’t they covet our money?  Why are these corporations so willing to do so many things that drive all of us up the wall?  I could be a happy Verizon customer if their contracts weren’t so unreasonable.  I’d still have a Chase credit card if they didn’t randomly jack-up their rates.  Take a second and think about how many companies you’ve become so frustrated with that you promised yourself to never again buy their junk.  Doesn’t that mean anything to them?  I understand that Subway isn’t going to go bankrupt if I stop buying their subs, but shouldn’t they still want to try to keep me nonetheless?

There’s obviously some kind of cost/benefit algorithm that they’ve concocted that justifies this.  But that’s absolutely crazy.  That means we live in a culture that has decided it is actually more beneficial and profitable to screw your customers than to treat them well.  Our largest corporations have made the calculus that making terrible products and offering pathetic service is a better business model than doing things right.  So it obviously doesn’t matter how angry it might make you that HP or Motorola has their customer service center somewhere in India.  You may fuss and fume after spending hours on the phone with someone who barely speaks english and vow to never buy their crap again, but it doesn’t matter.  That customer-service center that ruined your day saves them enough money that your patronage is expendable.  We can only deduce that they have come to the conclusion that making a quality product or offering professional customer service is a loser, no matter how many of us promise to leave.

These companies have become so large and powerful that they no longer need to worry about losing customers.  They feel complete freedom to employ whatever money-saving tactic they desire.  Those tactics are set into motion at our expense and yet their profits will still continue to grow.  Take a look at The Consumerist’s list for “The Worst Company in America” competition.  This is a list of the worst offenders in the country.   They each have their own unique and repulsive track record of giving their customers the shaft and putting their profits over their customer’s happiness.  But here’s the amazing thing…all of those companies are all WILDLY SUCCESSFUL!  They’ve taken a dump on millions of American consumers and they’re getting rich while doing it.

So what’s the solution?  The most obvious answer is to say that we, the angry customers, haven’t been diligent enough about withholding our business.  Millions of us may have been wronged, but unfortunately, the thousands who have fought back haven’t been able to make a big enough dent.  But such is the nature of a free-market system.  For as long as people continue to buy from these companies, they’ll continue to survive.  To see these barbarians of business brought to their knees, we need to be unwavering in our resolve.  We need to be organized and determined to prove to those who have trespassed against us that their actions will have consequences.  We, the consumers, ultimately decide how profitable or successful these companies will be.  Our power to make that determination is only as strong as our willingness to present a unified front of opposition.

Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against us.  Our idealized “free-market economy” isn’t nearly as free as we would like to believe.  Not everyone possesses the freedom of choice necessary to avoid these corporate crooks.  “Mom & Pop” stores are losing the battle and alternatives to Big Box Stores are hard to find.  The financial world is centralized between a small handful of companies and any effort to work with a local bank can often be an illusion.  We may choose to avoid fast-food restaurants, but we still unknowingly buy our food from the companies that supply them.  For every instance where we can choose to abstain, another instance will arise where we cannot without incurring a hardship.  All of that is intentional.  Competition is the hallmark of a free-market society, but in the corporate world, competition is something to be dismantled over time.  These companies spend their profits in Washington with the explicit purpose of limiting our options.  Every dollar we give them is a dollar they’ll use to ensure that we have no choice but to come back again.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely prefer honey over both vinegar and bullshit.  But too many of us flies are allowing ourselves to be captured by that ever-growing mountain of BS.  If we want the sweet stuff, we’re going to have to start demanding it.