I killed my television. Please don’t kill me for saying so. As a repeat offender, I understand that admissions of this sort tend to get interpreted as boasts akin to “I speak French.” A reverse snobbery pervades in which stupid looks down on smart from below. Television, an unparalleled tool of mass conformity, never threatens individuality as much as when one of its audience cuts for the exits. So long as television manufactures normal, killing your television will always appear as the height of abnormality.
Everybody knows the Wright Brothers first flew the airplane, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, and Al Gore invented the Internet. Nobody knows who came up with television. Would you want your name associated with Joanie Loves Chachi, Amish Mafia, or Chris Hansen? “What thrilling lectures on solar physics will such pictures permit!” declared scientist Lee de Forest prior to the device’s public availability. RCA honcho David Sarnoff foresaw sets unleashing “a new horizon, a new philosophy, a new sense of freedom, and greatest of all, perhaps, a finer and broader understanding between all the peoples of the world.” Three words: Honey Boo Boo.
A perusal of the cable listings reveals that the show starring that unlikely beauty-contest entrant plays today for eight straight hours on TLC, which is an acronym that once meant “The Learning Channel.” The looped boredom might work as fare played on a re-education camp’s closed-circuit screens. But educational television? A Learning Channel? Orwell laughs. If only it required barbed wires and guard towers to force people to tune in to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, my faith in my fellow man might be reinvigorated. Alas, millions view willingly. Can I secede from the human race now?
I’m all too human, too. When my satellite receives transmissions, and my brain doesn’t, television seduces. When I do TV, I do it dumb. Cage fighting, shows that revel in the pain of amateur stuntmen, and a certain yellow creature who lives in a pineapple under the sea make wasting time not such a waste of time. After a few years of that, I turn off television before it turns off me. A box that makes imagination obsolete eventually obliterates imagination.
The remote navigating through hundreds of numbered stations creates the illusion of infinite choice. But amidst the many numbers is but one channel. Dial position separates A&EBravoTLCLifetimeMTVE!VH1. Content doesn’t. A horde of hoarders, tattoo artists, and storage-locker vultures passes for someone’s idea of everybody’s idea of entertainment. If you covet other men’s wives, have they got a show, or 10, for you. There’s Basketball Wives, Mob Wives, Army Wives, Sister Wives, Starter Wives Confidential, and at least a half dozen incarnations of the Real Housewives brand. Such a startling dearth of creativity could come only from a generation lulled into retardation by the idiot box.
If $16 trillion in debt and state-subsidized abortion haven’t clued you in to society’s attitude toward children, the fact that U.S. households now contain more televisions than kids might. “The average American watches nearly five hours of video each day, 98 percent of which they watch on a traditional TV set,” Nielsen gleefully reported last year. The programming may be at its most primitive. But the technology has never been so advanced. Porsche, apparently discovering that people prefer watching to driving, just unveiled a 16-foot television. This Porsche could be all yours for only $650,000. There is no substitute—really, there isn’t.
In Fahrenheit 451, a wall TV cost merely $2,000, a third of Montag’s annual income. Inflation makes even Ray Bradbury look more Miss Cleo than Nostradamus. The late short-story writer’s oeuvre, especially the part included on cable’s Ray Bradbury Theater, reads as a prescient warning against passive electronic entertainment. In “The Murderer” (1953), Bradbury casts the tube as a “Medusa, which freezes a billion people to stone every night.” In “The Veldt” (1950), a couple relies on a futuristic television set to raise their brats, only to discover in horrible fashion that their children’s allegiance has shifted to their proxy parent. The apocalypse referenced in “Almost the End of the World” (1957) occurs when sunspots blow out broadcast transmissions, forcing people to arise from the couch to converse, bowl, drink, eat homemade ice cream, and stage concerts. Even in the 1950s, when futurists still backwardly dreamt of the medium’s enormous potential, Bradbury recognized something stupid this way comes.
Television appeared to Bradbury as a Medusa. It strikes me as a zombie. You can’t kill what can’t die. I may not be watching. But in the airport waiting area, on the gym treadmill, at the gas pump, on the elevator, in the restaurant bathroom—television watches me. There’s no escape. Mesmerized by television for five hours a day, Americans can’t help but take on the characteristics of the living dead. You are what you view.