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
TV.

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.”

They
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).

It’s
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.”

Consider
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?

I’ve
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.

A
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.

The
stigma of “television” becomes all the more nonsensical as the nature
of TV (what does “TV” even mean?) is increasingly in flux.

Is
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.)

And,
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.

But
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.

Don’t
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
drinking.

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.

So
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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