Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Turned off by the TV turn off

There was a time when I thought participating in a national “Turn Off the TV” campaign was a pretty cool thing to do. No longer.

Part of my disillusionment with letting the tube go dark has to do with its effectiveness, or lack thereof. It fits right in with the notion that – if we all don’t buy gasoline on a certain day – we can change the behavior of the big oil companies. Pardon me if I play the skeptic.

Expecting that a one-week TV turnoff may “prime the pump” to a lifetime of reduced television watching is, to my mind, disingenuous.

All of this is not to say I’m opposed to the concept. Spending 29-34 hours a week plopped in front of the tube – as the average American does – is probably too much. And it detracts from doing more productive things, especially if the viewer is consumed by reality shows and “shock” television. That's the cheaper fare that helps television production companies and the networks turn a better profit. Quality costs. Junk is cheaper.

Better, I think, however, to focus on the quality of television that is produced and watched. That’s a tougher row to hoe, but its outcome would have far greater impact.

It’s easy to be absolutely cynical about the prospects of television transforming itself and offering better quality programs. I suspect there’ll always be a market for shock television and pornography. I must confess that even until very recently, I didn’t believe there was any way to stem the decline of television programming into an abyss of self-absorbing muck.

But my cynicism has given way to a flicker of optimism for the future. It has been fueled mostly by the high quality programs of public television and a handful of cable channels (History Channel, C-SPAN, and a few others).

But the real clincher was to see veteran smut peddler HBO launch its seven-part historical series on John Adams. A superb series that stands head and shoulders above an earlier tripe-cast called “Deadwood” (with apologies to a few of my South Dakota friends who believe that distorted history is better than no story at all).

Turn off the TV this week? I don’t think so. But it would be a good idea to start pushing the industry for better programming and supporting those offerings with our viewership. Admittedly, really good television programs are few and far between – but they can be found. They and their sponsors should be supported.

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