The television in my childhood home rarely went dark. We had a TV that sat on a stand with wheels so we could swivel it around from the living room to face the dining table during meals and then back again.
As I got ready for school, we turned on Channel 13’s morning show, and I would often stop to watch Ernie Lee play the guitar and sing “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucile” or “I wish I was a Teddy Bear.” In the afternoons, I logged countless hours watching The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Merv Griffin Show, and Guiding Light.
After dinner, you could find my family viewing Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Welcome Back Kotter, the movie of the week…the list goes on. Sunday evenings meant The Wonderful World of Disney, The Lawrence Welk Show, or possibly 60 Minutes. I started watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live at a young age, often staying up late by myself.
My love affair with television burned long and strong for decades. Once, in my early 30s, I tried a “summer without TV”–but certain exceptions had to be made for Grand Slam tennis tournaments and other “special” events, and the whole thing fell apart rather quickly.
My husband and I first discovered binge watching way back in 2002 when we consumed the entire first season of 24 on DVD in about four days. Cable, VCRs, TiVo, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime–these have all been both a blessing and a curse to my kind.
As I started to write this piece, I asked myself: What is it about TV that has so captivated me over the years? As a writer, I appreciate great storytelling and compelling characters. The aesthetically inclined side of me confesses to being seduced by well-composed shots, the artful use of music, and gorgeous settings, clothes, and people.
But, the great Marshall McLuhan might suggest that I look deeper than the content, that I examine my habit and its impact on my life because “the medium is the message.”
In January of this year, I attempted to go a month without television. Giving up my morning dose of The Today Show would be easy: After decades of dedication, I had been hate watching the show for several years (at least), so it wasn’t much of a loss. Fortunately I had already scaled back on mindless channel surfing–you know, the kind that results in watching the Home Shopping Network, marathons of Tiny House Hunters, or old Match Games.
All my “primetime shows” (oh, what a quaint term) did not have to be viewed in real time, so I could get back to them starting in February if I so desired. On the other hand, just saying no to The Daily Show before falling to sleep was going to be more difficult.
The objective of this experiment was to open up time to write and read and work on other more productive projects. I had recently heard more than one successful blogger-turned-author reveal on a podcast that they simply had to give up TV to make any progress toward their goals. As a bonus, I was also hoping to sleep better without any screen time before bed.
Social media was not exempt from this exercise. I decided to limit myself to two 15-minute sessions per day. I would set the timer on my phone before jumping on Facebook or Instagram, and I had to stop when the alarm went off. Unless I was in the middle of reading a particularly enlightening article (yes, my life is full of loopholes).
Most likely, my experiment would be deemed a failure by any reputable scientist. I did not last very long before allowing myself to watch one hour of television in the evening with my husband. I did not write very much. I did not post on this blog at all between Dec. 31 and May 1. My one accomplishment was to give up TV in the mornings completely and permanently.
Maybe I’m selling the month short. I did learn a lot about myself, particularly through the social media restriction, which I am proud to say I maintained for all 31 days. With limited time for Facebooking, I tried to make the most of those minutes, which included refusing to take part in pointless political arguments. And I tried not to go on Instagram unless I had something to share that I thought people would genuinely like.
So, what did I learn during my January experiment and the months since?
Well, I’m battling against years of conditioning. I watch TV out of habit and often without much thought. Patterns have been set through decades of practice, deep grooves worn in my brain.
The idea that I won’t watch at least some television every single day seems downright unnatural. And why shouldn’t I grab my phone a hundred times a day to check, um, whatever?
My brain hungrily awaits stimulation. It wants to be fed. I have trained my mind to be passive, cluttered, and consumptive. Even while researching this piece I found myself watching the “pivot” couch scene from Friends–a scene I have seen close to a million times. The internet is a dangerous place for people like me!
It’s going to be an ongoing project to whittle down my media diet. As it went with smoking, I won’t be able to go cold turkey. I will need lots of time to ease myself into no longer being a TV addict.
When I reach a plateau, I must press on. Morning TV and channel surfing are gone. Reality TV, except for a few respectable hold-outs, is a thing of the past. Weekend TV and sports have been mostly excised. Next for uprooting is watching late night shows in bed. And then the big challenge, my evening fix of well-crafted dramas and the increasingly rare comedy.
I can’t say for sure that I will not make room for any TV in my life. What would life be without shows like Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad, or The OA? And what about Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver?
Maybe I can get my habit down to five hours a week. Would that be so bad?
My goal is to shape my life into something more varied and creative. If I can find a way to combine TV with the life I want to lead, then good for me. But if I can’t, I know now which one has to go.