Tuning Out Of Television
It was Marx, Groucho and not Karl, who once said that he actually found television to be quite educational; whenever someone with whom he was sharing a room got up to turn it on, he’d find himself a good book.
Educational indeed! Maybe it was one of his brothers, maybe a fellow member of the celebrated troupe, but whenever someone dared flip on that switch and bring to life those technicolor scenes, Marx would retire to the pleasures of the written word. He opted for the monochromatic ink on the page, rather than the iridescent images on the “boob” tube. I suppose, then, that in some indirect way, we have television to thank for his later body of work. The omnipresence of the television set must’ve been for him the ultimate academic tool. It was his impetus to learn. Because of it, or rather, in spite of it, he was able always to find an excuse to read, to broaden his mind, and to forge his wit. Through the novels he enjoyed so well, Marx was able to sharpen his brilliance and refine his gift. He was able to craft, far away from the TV set and the obtunded mass, his legendary vaudevillian skill.
As noted, this was the wisdom of a Marx named Groucho and not Karl, but the former realized an opiate of the masses when he saw one. In Groucho’s opinion, television had become just that. It was a numbing agent, a device to foster ignorance, and an intellectually-draining drug.
Beginning in Marx’s adulthood and throughout the rest of his long life, TV had become in America a kind of national infatuation. As a country, we’d entered a great awakening, only this time it was a televisual religion that stirred our prophet-seeking souls. Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards, and Finney were replaced by Trebek, Carson, Carey, and Springer. It was an indiscriminate, ecumenical faith to which we could all adhere. Television was a revelation. It was something from which our hypnotized population couldn’t easily turn and walk away, as did Groucho. Simply put, it was too enticing and we were massed by its shepherding call.
It also was everything. It was a box of mysteries for every curiosity; a playhouse of pleasures for every intrigue; an apothecary of remedies for every ailment and a panacea for every imagined ill. And it was always ready, tuned to the exact wavelength of your liking. In the words of Marx—this time of Karl and not of Groucho—from each, the TV asked only for your time, but to each, it promised you innumerable wonders. It gave you, the dutiful viewer, everything you wanted and more. So long as you could suffer a few intermittent interruptions (though even the commercials were to become in time tolerable and eventually desired) the pleasures of the couch, the screen, and of the passivity existing between them would be yours for the keeping. For decades, the television wielded over Americans an intoxicating aura. More addictive and accessible than most any other medium of escape, since its dissemination in the 1960s into nearly every home, Americans have spent endless, idle hours besotted by the screen.
But it looks as if the golden age of the television has passed. Its day, for all intents and purposes, is done. Every indication is that the influence of the once all-power bunny ears has been folding and waning—and waning fast.
Based on the Nielsen Total Audience Report, a survey that measures exactly what it is people around the world “watch, listen to, and buy”, television ratings have fallen precipitously in recent years. On the whole, between 2014 and 2017, television viewership has fallen by just over 10%. Breaking this number down further still, it’s clear to see why the traditional “brick and mortar” television companies are beginning to sweat and to feel a bit anxious.
For said companies, the demographics and their future market dominance of our attention augur ill. For millennials aged 25 to 34, traditional television viewership has decreased by 24.7%. As for those aged 18 to 24, there’s been a 33.1% decrease. That accounts only for the Millennials. Jumping into Generation Z, or those born after 2000 and aged 12 to 17, the decrease in viewership is greater still. It stands for them at 37.9%. Children between the ages of 2 and 11 (the youngest, statistically relevant demographic of this subset of the nascent Generation Z) are reported to be watching slightly more television than the other groups. This, however, is scant consolation for the television companies. Those counted in these infantile and pre-pubescent years are watching only 22.2% less than the norm. Add to that the fact that their decision to watch or forgo television (or any other medium for that matter) is largely not of their own, but one made by their parents, and the future of television looks bleaker still. The youngest youngsters in this group probably have little say when it comes to the means by which they receive their entertainment; for a moment’s repose, mom and dad will distract the kid with whatever glowing device is closest at hand. When these children do come of age, they’re likely to follow in the custom of their immediate teenage elders, who are running away from traditional television like an antiquated plague.
The only statistic about which the TV companies might feel sanguine is that of the viewership of Baby Boomers. Our hoary elders aged 65 and beyond are actually watching slightly more television than they had in years past, but only slightly. They’ve increased their viewership by 1.3% from the norm. Certainly, our elders are living longer, which means more viable years of TV consumption, but the young adults and children eventually succeeding them share not this same predilection.
This doesn’t mean, though, that Millennials are abandoning the screen wholesale. They aren’t seeking out reading, as Groucho might’ve prescribed, as a remedy for a generation afflicted by the chronic over-consumption of television. Far from it. After all, it’s Millennials, more than anyone else, into whom you’re bound to walk as they tap away on their gadgets and phones. It’s Millennials whose necks curve at ninety-degree angles and whose skulls fall from their perch as they salivate over Twitter and fondle Instagram. It’s their spines that have folded on themselves in a new kyphotic slump, one that’s quickly developing and becoming an epidemic after hundreds of thousands of years of bipedal postural evolution. Take us back to the African savannah—all was for naught. Soon, the devices will be at our feet and our bellies on the ground. We’ll be no better than beasts.
If anything, it’s to our screens, now miniaturized and digitized, that our eyes are evermore inextricably bound. Screen time hasn’t diminished. If anything, it’s increased, but does this mean an illiterate, analphabetic age is on the rise?
Groucho’s fears can be put to rest. Reading hasn’t been rendered entirely obsolete and the written word hasn’t yet breathed its last. The website Statista tells us that, when polled, nearly 80% of American Millennials report to have read a print book in the past year. Further, in a statistic that would make even Gutenberg grin (if only for the reason that it would pad his pockets), Millennials actually prefer a tangible, physical book with spine, covers, and pages. That alone is surprising and rather encouraging, considering all of the other types of “e-books” to which they might have access.
It’s safe to say that the post-television world is here. With it comes a new age, but not so new that we’ve forgotten the sensuous, peculiar joy of holding a book in our hand, a thought in our head, and a pulse in our heart. Groucho, I’m sure, would be glad to know as much.