What’s wrong with a TV-induced coma?
Television’s detractors say that TV dulls the senses. That’s not always such a bad thing.
Those people who disapprove of television, and thus don’t watch it, accuse the medium of softening the brain. It is a passive medium, they say, which requires no mental effort, and which lures people away from engaging in stimulating, assertive pastimes, whether they be cerebral, such as reading, or physical, such as playing sport in the outdoors. Within some circles you still hear the expression ‘I never watch television’ uttered with pride, those doing so seeking to confer some sense of social superiority.
I never understand it when journalists, writers and academics boast that they never watch television, for the same reason I find it odd to hear similar claims that ‘I never read the tabloids’ or ‘I won’t read The Da Vinci Code’ or ‘I will never go to a football game’. TV, tabloids, trashy novels and sport are pursuits that interest people. If social commentators of whatever hue want to understand the world, then surely they should understand what the world likes, and why.
Of course watching television can deaden the senses, if that’s all you do all day. And some programmes can be worse than others. This struck me over recent evenings as I found myself watching late-night coverage of the snooker World Championship on BBC 2. I would like to give you a brief rundown of the action between Ronnie O’Sullivan’s struggle against John Higgins or Stephen Maguire’s awesome show against Anthony Hamilton, but I have to admit I wouldn’t be able to furnish you with the details, for televised snooker is one of the most soporific spectacles there is.
Perhaps it’s the near permanent hush of the auditorium, interspersed with melancholy clacking of colliding balls, or the funereal attire of the match officials, or maybe snooker as an observational sport is just intrinsically very dull. It’s impossible to concentrate on the action, one’s mind forever wandering off into different places. It’s akin to watching weather broadcasts. As soon as broadcasts commence, my brain is elsewhere. If I do pay attention it’s to wonder why the Republic of Ireland never seems to have any weather at all, or ponder over the fact that weather girls always seem to be pregnant these days. Yet I still can’t remember if it’s going to rain tomorrow.
There are many other contenders for programmes that empty the mind or make it wander, such as the second half of the Saturday football results service, which has the same effect as BBC 4’s Shipping Forecast. It’s not as though they render you total zombies, it’s just that they don’t do what they say on the tin, so to speak. Rather than calculating the odds for Hartlepool United’s promotion campaign, you just begin to wonder: where on Earth is Rushden & Diamonds, and why do Scottish teams such as Queen of the South and Heart of Midlothian have such romantic names?
Like the Shipping Forecast, these recantations are rhythmic, poetic, with names etched on our consciousness from childhood. Similarly, BBC snooker is comforting because it has eluded time. It’s protagonists still dress up as if they are going to a 1930s dinner party, and competitors such as Steve Davis and Jimmy White are seemingly immortal. They were playing snooker when Ian Botham was turning out at Lords and Daley Thompson was winning Olympic medals, for heaven’s sake.
Such boring programmes, along with the likes of Songs of Praise or The Antiques Roadshow, act less to inform or entertain than to serve as infantile pacifiers, as visual bubble bath. So I guess I am guilty of letting television soften the brain. But I am not the only one. It’s depressing to read in listings, or see on advertisements, promises that such-and-such a programme is ‘relaxing’, or that we can ‘unwind’ in front of the box with this show. Sure, we all need to relax, but you might as well take Valium instead.
It is suggestive of an age of anxiety, manifest on Classic FM’s constant exhortation to ‘relax’ and ‘chill out’ all the time. In the stakes of the annoying things people say, ‘relax’ is second only to the now common bid farewell, ‘take care’, which insinuates that a) you are a fighter pilot about to return to Iraq, b) the world is an unspeakably dangerous place, or c) you are a hopeless imbecile whose hobbies include playing ‘chicken’ with trains or who has a penchant for swimming out to sea in the middle of thunderstorms wearing only a metal helmet.
You notice this celebration of television’s ‘relaxing’ powers whenever you visit Bed & Breakfast hotels, where lounges are always touted as ‘relaxing’ because they have television sets. Hotels are where we become passive beings, where everything is done for us. Likewise, it is no surprise that the most calming shows come on Sunday, that day of relaxation. Even Martin McGuinness is said to be a great fan of nature programmes, but then again I suppose he’s always had a fair amount to get stressed about. Yet, if the rest of us weren’t all so stressed, we need not feel the need to relax in the first place.
Television’s detractors are correct when they say the medium can dull the senses, and it’s certainly not healthy to use TV sets as pacifiers for children, whose brains are still growing. But for the same reason, it’s not wise to give gin to children to keep them quiet, either. It doesn’t mean we adults have to suffer.
Anyway it’s Wednesday evening, and I’m off to the pub now to watch AC Milan vs Manchester United, and hopefully get excited. By a strange coincidence, there’s a film on BBC 1 later tonight starring Michael Douglas. It’s called Coma. I think I’ll stick to the snooker. I’m sure it will have me comatose in no time.
Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.
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