When I was little, my uncle got me into the Peanut Gallery of the Rootie Kazootie Show, a Howdy Doody knockoff that had a brief run in the early fifties.
We made the long drive to New York, to a studio near the dreary West Side waterfront. Somehow I had imagined an elegant theater with a huge audience. Instead, it was like a cavernous old warehouse, with a massive tangle of wires, lights and cameras, and a little bleacher for parents in the rear.
I remember feeling let down right away. The show seemed swallowed up in all the apparatus and confusion. I could barely see, with the cameras and lights blocking my view. These idiots, I was thinking.
About midway through, a clown appeared with a big tray of Coca Cola. A little better, I thought. They had instructed us beforehand to look happy and squeal with delight; more stupidity, but I would do my dance for a free bottle of coke.
Except for one thing: someone had forgotten the refrigeration. Not a kid to take displeasure lying down, I shoved the offending bottle back onto the tray. “I don’t want it,” I shouted, for the nation to hear, “It’s warm.”
The studio went silent. My father was gesturing frantically, something I couldn’t understand. This was the sponsor. Finally, the clown turned his back to the camera, hunched forward, and growled at me through his painted smile. “Dammit kid,” he said, “Take it and shut up.”
That’s pretty much what I did, where TV was concerned. From the day my father lugged our first little Admiral into the living room, I took up residence at the foot of the new throne. The front four of the New York Giants couldn’t have moved me from my spot. The Lone Ranger. Howdy Doody. Sometimes I’d even get up early and watch the test pattern, and puzzle over the hidden meaning.
Over the years, the thing lost its grip. Possibly it began when we moved to a rural area with crummy reception. Maybe the experience with the clown planted a seed. Whatever, at some point I drifted out of the TV orbit, and never re-entered. I catch a Celtics game at a friend’s house, or a presidential debate. But for weeks on end, my only experience of TV will be through the window of a restaurant or bar. (Don’t people talk any more?) I’ve never even owned one.
No doubt I’m out of it in some ways. For one thing, I’m a pop culture illiterate, except for what I pick up from the Enquirer in the supermarket line. From Star wars to Miami Vice to NYPD Blues, it’s all a big blank. (Or was it Star Trek?) But compared to the suffering in Bosnia and the rest, this seems a manageable burden. I think I’ll survive.
I’m also free – of television at least. Program planners and sponsors don’t set my schedule. In the evening, I do what I want: read a book, play basketball at the YMCA, plod ahead on writing projects that aren’t breaking any speed records. Nothing fancy. But at least I feel like I’ve done something, instead of having something done to me.
It seems to me that our attention is the most valuable thing we have, (which is why advertisers pay so much for access to it.) One could even say it’s what we are. I’m amazed at how people actually give themselves away – actually pay cable fees for the privilege – to a medium that just wants to make them want something, and then crave more of that wanting.
Also I think I’ve avoided somewhat that weird effect TV has on the sense of reality. I tend to see the world through my own experience, rather than through the ersatz and contrived version on the tube. The experience may be provincial, but at least it’s mine.
This came home to me one night about a month ago, as I was getting off the G4 bus in Washington, near my house. A woman came rushing after me. “Excuse me,” she said. “You left your checkbook on the seat.” It had slipped out of my back pocket. Without her intervention, my main financial record would have been lost.
At that moment, TV was telling millions of Americans that the OJ verdict had unleashed a tidal wave of racial animosity across the land. Yet the woman was black, and I am white – the only white person on that bus, in fact, and pretty much in the neighborhood too. If racial tension existed the way TV said it did, I would have experienced it. But I didn’t.
Was television merely reporting the supposed racial tension? Or was it also fomenting it? “It’s pure manipulation,” Dick Gregory said recently of the way television played the race card, all the while blaming Johnnie Cochran, who I’m told did his part. Most Americans, white and black, live in racial ghettos, with little daily contact with one another. TV becomes the nation’s racial reality – and so turns us all into the version it portrays. This is true of a host of other problems as well.
What would happen, I wonder, if we all made a declaration of nonconsent, and insisted on experiencing these issues for ourselves? Might we not create a new reality, by this very insistence? The most subtle and insidious effect of TV, I think, is to convince us that our own experience doesn’t matter, and that reality exists someplace out there. It has literally separated ourselves from ourselves. Now we need to take ourselves back.