Calling TV stupid makes you seem smart - but why does TV still invite such disrespect?

NEW YORK - It's not my place to defend TV-watching.

Being a TV

critic, I call attention to particular shows, good and bad. I assume

the people I'm addressing have no problem with the notion of watching


But what about TV's teetotallers?

How many times have I heard their lofty pronouncements: "I don't watch TV" or, even more blunt, "I don't own a TV."


say it with a sly mix of apology and boastfulness. Their frequent

explanation: TV is filled with reality shows, and who wants to see that

crap? Or maybe no excuse is offered, as if TV's stigma as a waste of

time were too self-evident to mention.

It seems to me that kind

of logic is like refusing to eat anything because you might get fat. And

yet: If you publicly reject TV, you rise in many people's estimation,

even triggering guilt among many TV devotees (in the same way an

outspoken vegan can inspire guilt among frequenters of Burger King).


a response unique among the many forms of arts and entertainment. Has

anyone ever burnished his image by boasting of never going to the

movies? Or never seeing plays or attending concerts?

But condemn TV as inherently stupid - and in many people's eyes you look smart.

It was ever thus. TV has been getting a bad rap since its earliest days.

Just consider its earliest nicknames: boob tube; idiot box.

Consider the words of pioneering TV wiseguy Ernie Kovacs: "Television is a medium because it is neither rare nor well done."


the timeless words of bygone FCC Chairman Newton Minow: "I invite you

to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on

the air and stay there ... until the station signs off. I can assure you

that you will observe a vast wasteland."

"Vast wasteland" was

coined in a speech by Minow a half-century ago, when there were just

three commercial networks, no cable-network options, few shows in

colour, and fuzzy, snowy pictures (with high-def transmission barely

dreamed of). And yet "vast wasteland" is a term still wielded against TV

today, as if nothing had changed.

In short, the snob appeal of

dissing TV is as attractive today as it was when Milton Berle was

cavorting in drag as Mr. Television.

But do TV defectors need to

be reminded that TV's wasteland, immeasurably more vast today as it

sprawls across hundreds of channels - far more than the handful of

channels in the past - is relieved by broad swaths of solid

entertainment, and by patches of inarguable brilliance?


given up trying to remind one friend of that. She makes a point of

seeing every feature film when it opens in theatres, but disdains TV as a

septic tank of reality shows and nothing else. She has never seen

programs such as "The Sopranos" and "Modern Family," "Breaking Bad" and "Downton Abbey." And no, she doesn't own a TV.

Even the people who perform on TV seem likely to voice a dismissive attitude toward their own medium.


few years ago I wrote about my experience interviewing TV stars and

realizing that, out of hundreds I had spoken to, fewer than a dozen

copped to being gung-ho fans of TV. The rest of them (if the subject

came up) would tell me they were too busy to watch. They don't shun just

the programs they appear in. They don't watch TV, period. Watching TV

is what their public does, not they, who have better things to do. Or so

they claim, almost visibly holding their nose as they say it.


stigma of "television" becomes all the more nonsensical as the nature

of TV (what does "TV" even mean?) is increasingly in flux.


watching a TV show on an iPad more socially acceptable than watching it

on TV? (Maybe so: I've heard people who boast of not owning a TV readily

admit to watching shows online, as if that somehow redeemed them.)


as time goes on, more and more shows all too similar to "TV shows" are

originating not on TV but on websites. Will people need to skip those,

too, in order to maintain their no-TV cred?

Meanwhile, social

media are offering an enhanced way to "watch" television. The so-called

second screen (of a computer, tablet or smartphone) offers companion

sites for a communal experience to viewing any given TV show, and for

offering feedback to that show. Increasingly, TV is a two-way street,

though it remains to be seen whether this active-response system to what

you watch will de-stigmatize TV viewing as shamefully passive.


what's wrong with passive viewing anyway? People who see lots of shows

on TV are slammed as couch potatoes, while people who see lots of films

at their local movie house earn the honorific of cineaste.


get me wrong. I don't recommend watching TV as a default mode. I don't

advocate binge viewing, any more than a wine critic encourages binge


But I'd like to see a new attitude about consuming TV.

In 1958, the great TV newsman Edward R. Murrow said that, if TV didn't

rise to its pro-social potential, it would be "merely wires and lights

in a box."

More than 50 years later, Murrow would surely cringe

at "Jersey Shore" and "Hillbilly Handfishin'." But there aren't many

wires in a modern flat-screen, nor, strictly speaking, are there lights,

and its components aren't contained in what you'd call a box.


maybe it's time to consider what TV is. And to rethink who we are as

its viewers - and what that makes those of us who refuse to watch.

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