Happy World Television Day
By Don Portolese
Unbeknownst to your humble writer, World Television Day takes place every 21st of November and has been celebrated since the UN declared it so back in 1996. This important world body decided to celebrate this day because of the tremendous potential and influence this apparatus has over our daily lives. If they didn’t realize that the potential for good had lost out to corporate interests and advertising by 1996, they either didn’t watch television or resided in one of the many parts of the world where television has yet to infiltrate. Still, it has caused me to reflect upon the reason for a day such as this and the tremendous influence that television had over my youth, back in the days when I actually deigned to turn it on.
The idiot box (or television as some call it) has evolved a great deal since my younger days. From the large, state-of-the-art, Zenith or Magnavox consoles to the slender flat-screens that can occupy an entire wall of our homes, it’s comforting to know that we still feel that a television should dominate half of our living space. What’s more, statistics from Nielsen Media Research indicate that today the average American home has more TVs than humans. Now there’s some real progress. Despite my disdain for this rectangular fixture and its unrealized potential, I can’t help but think back nostalgically to my youth and my relationship with television. In many ways it was a lot like I was. It was young, unsophisticated; it had yet to realize its full potential.
Growing up, there was one television in the house. Most of the TV watching was done together as a family. That is, we all watched whatever my father wanted to watch. As children, we also took turns as the remote control. My father would have us stand by changing channels until we arrived at a program that he liked. Children of today should be thankful that the remote control unit is a standard television accessory. With the number of channels to choose from nowadays, they could spend half of their evenings changing among the over 200 channels before their parents could settle on a specific program.
Other television memories were listening to the National Anthem, the American flag waving heroically, while a television station ended its broadcast day. Off the air? What would insomniacs and television junkies of today do if stations ceased to broadcast in the wee hours of the morning? How would they suffer through an entire night of harmonic rainbows or off-air static blizzards until the world reawakened to a new day of programming?
With the end of the broadcast day came the turning off of the television, a long and hypnotic process that fascinated me. I was entranced by the diminishing blip of old cathode ray televisions when they were turned off. The horizontal line that gradually grew smaller until the whole world was set on the head of a pin and finally disappeared. As a child, I wondered if others had the same eerie sense that the world had all but stopped.
I don’t necessarily remember having watched a lot of television as a child. Back in those days my friends and I spent most of our time outside climbing trees, building forts and running around in circles. You certainly didn’t come home so you could watch your favorite television program. Still, when I think back, I did spend a good many hours in front of the television.
What I remember most was the incredible array of Science Fiction movies and programs that fanned the flames of my imagination. The space race was in full vigor and the threat of atomic annihilation lurked around every corner. Aliens and mutant creatures, the products of some distant apocalypse, populated the television world. The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, Retik the Moon Menace, etc. inspired me to get off my ass and out the door to play games inspired by the very programs I was watching. We were spacemen, aliens, enormous prehistoric monsters…, cowboys, soldiers; we were invincible… until our mothers called us home for dinner.
Television also shaped (or mutated) my sense of humor. I remember being tickled by Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers and so many of the comedy greats from well before my time. Television gave me a connection to the black and white past of my parents. It taught me what was funny.
Late night TV had even more of an impact. I remember the evening lineup of comedy and drama from other galaxies and parallel dimensions on WPIX Channel 11. At eleven o’clock there was the “Odd Couple”, after that, the “Honeymooners”, followed by “Star Trek” and back to back episodes of the “Twilight Zone”. I was blown away by these programs. As a youngster, I would either beg to stay up or wait until my parents went up to bed and sneak back down to watch them.
I can’t deny that there is still good television out there: Programs like “Seinfeld”, “The Simpsons,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” as well as the spate of excellent programming on HBO are excellent examples. I am confident that the creators of those programs grew up on the same television programming as I did. While there are quite a few good programs out there, I could go on at greater length naming the programs and other aspects of today’s television that thoroughly appall me.
With the advent of 24 hour programming and Reality TV there is just too much out there that is simply an insult to our intelligence. We are no longer dealing with 13 channels as we did when I was growing up. We are lambasted by around 200 channels. Unfortunately, of all of those channels, there are only about thirteen that have worthwhile content. Despite continued requests to choose the channels we want as consumers, the great gods of cable force the other 187 down our throats. Most of them are not only obnoxious but detrimental to our imagination and moral make-up. They run afoul of what the UN had in mind when it declared this day important.
And what about advertising? Advertising has become more a part of television than the programming itself. It used to be that a few commercials would come on every fifteen minutes and you would be back to your regularly scheduled program. Now commercials are so frequent and insidious that it’s difficult to tell which is the program and which the advertisement. What’s worse is that people now refer to commercials as though they were the programming: “Did you see that Geico commercial with the cute salamander?” What on Earth are we coming to?
This new and more sophisticated formula does not foster democratic ideals among its viewers as the UN declared. It has reduced us to a homogeneous band of Pavlovian hounds who laugh, cry and whose mouths water on command as they have been trained to do after too many years with this squarish companion.
Too many years with television has also made it so there are no new and original experiences anymore. Anything that happens in our daily lives can easily be cross-referenced to a television program. It’s far easier to associate our experience with an episode of Seinfeld than to enjoy it as something specific to our own existence. Doesn’t anything original happen to us anymore?
Discovering World Television Day made me wonder if there was a day to celebrate another important invention, the Internet. I wasn’t disappointed. Since 2005 we’ve have been celebrating Internet Day each and every 29th of October. What is disappointing is that, like television, the Internet also has tremendous potential. Unfortunately, that potential is being eroded by the same powers and at an even faster rate than the TV. This tremendous invention with the potential to bring us together and educate us in so many ways (sound familiar?) will soon be under the control of corporate interests. We can fight it for a while, but with so much money involved, there is little we can do to stop the influence of those nefarious forces whose only purpose is to sell us on a product or idea.
The beginning of anything revolutionary always seethes with potential. Unfortunately, that potential is inevitably commandeered and we are left disillusioned and cynical. Perhaps the television of my youth was still new-fangled enough to add an air of mystery and potential to my childhood. Those that grew up with the internet probably feel the same way. It seemed more personal; something that helped us make sense of our world. Unfortunately, it has become so pervasive that, for many, it has become their world.