TV UK, 23 March

'David Burke sees interactive TV as part of a sinister plot to "manipulate" viewers and turn us into zombies.'

Dolan Cummings

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Tell me this: do you like books? What, all of them? Most of them are pretty rubbish: boring, stupid and badly written. People only publish them to make money, you know. If you had any imagination, you would get on with your own life instead of wasting time on second-hand thoughts. And as for TV.…

Some readers will remember a TV show called Why Don’t You Switch Off Your TV Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead? in which funny-looking teenagers told rubbish jokes and demonstrated things to do with bits of string. David Burke at least spares us the fun alternatives to TV in his polemical Counterblast: Switch Off Now (BBC2, Thursday at 11.20pm).

Justifying his own appearance on the tragic lantern, Burke compares his programme to the warning on a cigarette packet. Probably this is an accurate analogy, as I can’t see anybody taking any notice. Pre-empting our defiance, Burke warns us that we are addicted to TV. Apparently TV companies employ thousands of bright young things to come up with devilish ways to keep us hooked. The only defence is to switch off completely.

Amid the ranting, our missionary actually makes some sensible points. Daytime TV is an insult to us all; kids should spend some time outdoors etc, etc. To those of us who claim to watch TV selectively, he offers the challenge, ‘Have you never come home from work, switched on just to see what’s on, and then sat watching rubbish until it’s time for bed?’. It’s a fair point. My flatmate does nothing else. But is TV really to blame, or is my flatmate just morally weak? I must remember to tell him that.

Determined to condemn TV as a medium rather than simply lamenting its underexploitation, Burke rehearses the old argument that TV impoverishes the imagination by presenting us with a finished product. This is lame.

Think of your favourite novel and try to picture its characters. If you are anything like me, the hero will look a bit like yourself, and everybody else will be a blur. What about the costumes and domestic interiors? Even if the author has described these in detail, any picture in your head is likely to be very vague.

The intellectual effort involved in reading a book is not in imagining the visual details that TV producers go to such lengths to recreate. The struggle is to get inside the mind of the author or his characters, to rethink difficult thoughts and to grasp complicated situations. TV doesn’t do that for you: in fact its weakness is that many programmes don’t give you enough to work with. TV is no substitute for books, but its audiovisual character can stimulate our imaginations in ways that books can’t.

Where Burke gets really wacky is on the subject of interactive TV. Broadcasters are developing new technology to monitor individuals’ viewing habits in order to target them with appropriate adverts. Burke sees this as part of a sinister plot to ‘manipulate’ viewers and turn us into zombies. Again, he attributes TV with irresistible power over intellectually fragile viewers. Maybe some of us would actually prefer to get adverts we might be interested in, instead of endless ads for chatlines and investment savings accounts (ISAs), especially if it means no subscription fees.

Underlying the whole argument is a casual contempt for us poor schmucks who are taken in by the TV conspiracy. David Burke’s White Dot website (1) contains the devastating revelation that Jerry, Elaine and Kramer from Seinfeld are not really my friends. They’ll be telling me next that Buffy the vampire slayer isn’t really my girlfriend. Shows what they know.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See the White Dot website

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