Before I can help you find the wholesome goodness in today’s viewing menu, it occurred to me that I probably need to start with a whole entry dedicated just to prodding you to turn the TV on! Don’t be afraid. Your palms will not grow hair no matter how long you work your remote.
Television is a medium, and as such, it is only as good or bad as the wielders of the tools. It is up to members of an audience to thoughtfully discriminate amongst a medium’s offerings; to reject it wholesale is to admit an unwillingness to educate oneself, and the consequence is to miss out on the really good stuff while misguidedly feeling smug about it. It’s been the shortcut to sounding intellectual for many parents to boast that their children aren’t allowed to watch TV. They’re usually the same parents who chirp that their kids have systematically consumed aisle upon aisle of offerings at the library. Newsflash: most books, juvenile variety included, are utter artless crap. But they’re books, and books are always good, and reading always means learning, right? This is why the TV-spurning parents don’t bat an eye when their daughter plops down with My Little Pony and pores over the 20-plus-page advertisement for an overpriced junky plastic toy horse collection, or their son mutters “Pow Pow Pow” while leafing through the latest bit of violence in his favorite Japanimation series that differs from its network TV counterpart only in it’s being printed on paper.
Every medium has its great, its uselessly bad, its guilty pleasures and every variation in between. Many people assume, for example, that all art – like books – must be good if it is well known. Well, even Picasso had bad days, but take your typical Picasso; it’s great. It must be great because “they” say so and you don’t want to be the dumb ass who says you don’t get it or feel it, so you nod your head - good sheepie. If you care about art, you need to inform yourself so you can at least understand why so many do deem the typical Picasso as great, even if his work doesn’t become your personal boat-floater. And if you don’t care about art, it would be very brave and full of integrity to just say so rather than pretend you have an opinion. Okay, so move over here now and take your Thomas Kincade. Ooooo, pretty. This is decoration, art’s popular cousin. Any application of paint to canvas or paper for the purpose of coordinating with the drapes is décor. Bad “art.” Now step over here, into the realm of the guilty pleasure. This is where you will find art that may have yet to be taken seriously, or that has already been pronounced frivolous but still emits a siren call that only you seem to hear. For me, this would be kitschy mid-century children’s primer illustrations, like those in Dick and Jane or Mark and Janet. To me, they have the dual edge of being so idyllic in their depiction of childhood while at the same time betraying all of the demented values of their era: sexism, racism, xenophobia and class discrimination. I get a thrill out of thumbing through the pages and feeling the simultaneous lull into the suburban dream along with the tension that comes with knowing that these images were in some part intentional brainwashing tools. It speaks to me, but it’s not anywhere near universal, and most anybody else would simply see outdated drawings, so it qualifies as a guilty pleasure – the kind I have to explain and defend, but more often just don’t bother to discuss.
In literature, you would have the same sketchy path to tread among the good, bad and stupid; and again, most people would just wholesale agree that any book is good and certainly better than watching TV. I don’t think Faulkner fans would appreciate being put in a book club with the acolytes of Danielle Steel, although they may secretly go home and read David Sedaris. An “avid” reader should not be socially praised any more than a Survivor-watching couch potato. In these situations, “avid” usually translates to “I’ll consume anything.” How about movies? Easy. Sunset Boulevard: great if you know why, Titanic: pure manipulative, romance-by-numbers schlock, Auntie Mame: ridiculous and zany, but supremely lovable guilty pleasure. Music? Most Beatles and Bob Dylan: great – all together now – “if you know why,” Celine Dion: manufactured ear-stink, anything that moves you personally, but you instinctively know to turn the volume down on when you’re at a stoplight: guilty pleasure. Dance? Studio-trained genres (ballet, tap, jazz, modern) are considered art. New forms of dance (hip-hop, krump, pop-lock) are destined for the canon. Line dancing? Sad and bad. And to quote Sparky Pilastri in Bring it On, “Cheerleaders are dancers who have gone retarded.”
With every form of art, expression and entertainment, there is going to be some serious genius, plenty of room for personal taste and emotional response, and a monumental glut of sewage. But I never hear anyone boasting that they threw away their iPod because Lil Wayne resides alongside Coldplay in recent Billboard rankings, or that they declare themselves born-again illiterate because there is more Barnes and Noble shelf space reserved for Manga than there is for poetry. How is it any less extreme to shun all of television?
Big bad TV. Can the whole five-hundred-plus channel universe really be a carnival of debauchery, stupidity, advertising manipulation and your impending ass fat? Like any bustling metropolis, TV has its elegant districts (Ovation Channel, some PBS, a few hours on Bravo and BBC, Fine Living, Travel Channel), its flashy big production “supermalls” (the major networks, American Idol all on its own, the Disney Channel, HBO), its charming little neighborhoods (Noggin, HGTV, TLC, National Geographic), the sports complexes (Fit TV, ESPN, some weekend network programming), a great deal of the nondescript (Food Network, just about every game-show, anything with Regis Philbin, Matt Lauer, or Tom Bergeron), the vapid and juvenile hangouts (much of MTV, much of Disney, The CW, daytime soap operas), and the skanky parts of town that decent folk like to steer clear of (much of Fox, VH1, syndicated talk shows of the Springer/Povich variety, E!, Oh!). Don’t freak. You don’t want to be like one of those militia families in Montana, sitting your life out in a bunker waiting for the world to end, do you? You need to venture forth, familiarize yourself with the surroundings and find the things you think are good. Trust in your TIVO/DVR; used to its full potential (fiddle with it until you are proficient in the programming menu and search tools, the season pass, setting recording to start early and end late, the 30 second skip, and finessing the fast forward) it will reduce your family’s exposure to ad time and images you don’t want to see by over 90%, and if used to schedule all programming, it will eliminate over-watching, impulse-watching and channel-surfing - it is an invaluable tool.
Okay, now with a little help from your trusty TIVO/DVR, a programming guide and a little initial research, you and your family can safely navigate the TV landscape and only go to VH1 when you feel like slumming. Maybe a good way to start is by tackling the medium as you would a college survey course. You can easily design your own class in a movie queue from Netflix or Blockbuster, if you subscribe, and a library card or browse-fest on Amazon.com. There are some stellar books on television studies that are scholarly, but still very accessible, such as: Television Studies and The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids. Hopefully, this academic approach will compensate in perceived gray matter lost while blissing out in Mayberry. Another tactic is to dip a toe in a genre you already enjoy in books or movies, like, say British whodunits. If you’re a classicist, you will very likely enjoy Mystery on PBS as they primarily dramatize the universal favorites like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and you will nearly always recognize some of the actors as well-respected stars of film or stage. No commercials, PBS, very highbrow, very low shame. Not reliably free every Saturday night at nine? Set a season pass in your DVR and watch it when it suits you – no guilt that you should be doing something else that conflicts with the timeslot. Maybe you are dying to see what all the American Idol fanaticism is about, but you feel all dirty inside for sinking to the common denominator. Get off the snob stool – so you like talent shows, what’s the big deal? Maybe you were Florenz Zeigfeld in your former life. Use your DVR, zip through the mentally challenged people’s auditions if they offend you, race past the 20-plus minutes of ads per hour-long episode, and you have a nice half-hour chunk of show.
How about the kiddies? Do you think you’re really doing them a great service by denying them access to their own introduction to pop culture? There was a son of college professors in my dorm who grew up TV-free. He could play guitar and read in four languages. He also never kissed a girl and often walked around campus with a ski mask over his face. When a friend of mine asked why he wore the ski mask, he replied, “Sometimes, it’s better to be unseen.” Did TV warp your brain or make you “slow?” Guys, as members of the Sid and Marty Krofft generation, we all have to agree that if H.R. Pufnstuf didn’t make our brains ooze out our orifices ain’t no TV gonna. Still, we strive to be more savvy than our parents and we can be by previewing what we intend to allow our kids to watch rather than trusting CBS to handle them with care while we have a Saturday morning sleep-in; particularly when they are still too young to work the remote themselves.
May I suggest a rule of thumb that before your kids are old enough to understand primary money and economic concepts, they should be exposed to as little advertising as possible? Basically, when they start learning how to plan their allowance, they are then old enough for the introduction to Pandora’s box of ways to waste their cash. And once introduced, the sooner they learn how it feels to blow their money for the week, several weeks in a row, the better for them in life. Another thing to rightly shield children from until they are old enough to be discussing such issues as mortality, war and the world’s cruelties is the jading effect of violence as entertainment. This one should be held out on as long as feasible.
Contrary to what many TV snobs believe, avoiding irresponsible consumerism and violence while still finding quality entertainment for children is not impossible or even that difficult. My personal situation only gives me insight to the preschool set, but I like what I see and what I’ve read. Just based on what I hear my kids and their classmates discuss, I believe that many of the shows offered today can teach some school concepts better than we can. Most of them can thank Blues Clues, Oobi and Thomas and Friends for knowing their shapes and colors by age 2, and my 2 and 3 year olds are getting the fundamentals of grammar and reading as much from Between the Lions as from all the book reading, sight-word cards and explaining I do with them. My upcoming entry on “Kid TV: What Blows the Mind and What Just Blows,” which is what this article started out as before my ranting got the better of me, will go into greater detail on the programming blossoms amongst the weeds.
Please ease your mind about adding some shows to your kids’ schedule by looking at the abundant research attesting to television’s positive effects on children’s learning, as well as refuting the flimsily-tested AAP decree that babies will be doomed if exposed to TV before the age of 2. Here are two well-written and copiously researched examples: The Columbia History of American Television and Children's Learning From Educational Television: Sesame Street and Beyond. And if while the tikes are soaking up rudimentary division from Mickey Mouse, you can tend to that soaking tub of dishes (glancing periodically over your shoulder), then go for it! You aren’t being a jerky mom or dad and Mickey isn’t babysitting – you’re multitasking. So long as you’ve seen what they’re going to be watching, and you’re the one in control of the remote and the time limit, you are simply adding another enriching activity to their day.
You owe it to yourself and your children to be educated about the choices TV offers rather than to simply close your mind off from such a mainstay of culture. I’m not saying watching Iron Chef has the same uniting influence as the first lunar landing, but where else will you hear the phrase “Yam Battle?” So, peel the “Kill Your Television” bumper sticker off your Volvo, carefully place your Kincade cabin scene bookmark in Marley and Me, pop a bowl of Paul Newman’s low sodium, and get that toned ass in the couch. It’s time to work the thumb muscles.
In Part 2, “Kids’ TV: What Blows the Mind and What Just Blows,” I will wade fearlessly through the morass of preschool programming to discriminate, as we learned here, between the good, the guilty pleasure and the slush pile to avoid at all costs.