In the 1980s, Dan Hubbard and Richard Catinus were two brainy young guys trying to sell Apple computers when I was working in a government office that used IBMs. While outlining the advantages of using a Mac for my work, Dan mentioned in passing that, after reading Jerry Mander’s book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, he and his wife had decided to raise their children without a TV.
They wanted to give their kids a more enriched life, he told me, one that wasn’t influenced by a diet of bland television programming. About 15 years later, I heard that a young girl with the same last name won a prestigious science award and wondered if the parent’s no-TV decision was a factor in their daughter’s early success.
Dan was a smart fellow so I paid attention to his book recommendation. I headed to the library and borrowed what would prove to be a life-changing read. Mander argues brilliantly that TV is dangerous to viewers, the environment, and—the factor that worried me most—our democracy. He proposes that the medium discourages vigorous thinking and discussion, instead confining human understanding to a rigid channel. After the compelling read, I tossed my little Hitachi, smack in the heyday of M*A*S*H, Three’s Company, and Happy Days. I was in my early 20s, living on my own, and had been spending most evenings sitting on the couch watching sitcoms for three or four hours after working all day. It wasn’t a very different routine from the one I’d had growing up. The novelty of an alternative lifestyle seemed like a perfect challenge, and I went at it with the usual righteous determination of someone that age. I didn’t want a co-dependent relationship with a television.
So, I spent most of the next three and a half decades without one.
I grew up as one of six kids in a small flat in Montreal and had never been a huge reader or had much quiet time. Now, I figured, was my chance to change that. A typical weeknight in those years without TV consisted of wolfing down a large bowl of Kraft dinner with a glass of red and retiring to a dilapidated chaise lounger to spend an evening reading. Every so often I’d lean back, look out the window, and ponder an especially enjoyable chapter.
The tranquility of evening reading in my very own rented bachelor suite on Vancouver Island was thrilling. After a few satisfying book hours, I’d listen to some Spirit of the West or Madonna or Fleetwood Mac, maybe write a letter to family or friends back east, and putter around, getting ready for work the next day. I really came to know myself in those years.
I read a library tome, an introduction to 500 great books, and jotted down the titles that looked interesting to me. I gave the list to my sister in case anyone in our large family was ever looking for a useful gift idea for me. My siblings surprised me that year and delivered 30 wrapped books for my 30th birthday. That thoughtful present set me up to a habit of reading 30 or 40 books a year for most of my adult life.
Not having a TV habit enabled me to use my leisure time to pursue different interests. In 1986, I took a leave of absence from my government job and went to Tokyo for a year to learn about Japanese culture and work for a local advertising firm. In 1990, I won a competition for an international Rotary scholarship to the Philippines. I took night classes at the University of Victoria over a 20-year period and managed to earn a bachelor’s degree and a humanities diploma (I was probably the slowest person ever to earn a degree, but I had fun learning). One summer, I took a peace research course in Norway, and for several years I mentored a boy with dyslexia. I seriously doubt I would have pursued these adventures if my life had centred on keeping up with my favourite TV programs. My time was unmediated by a screen.
There were, of course, downsides of not owning a television in the pre-internet age. Visiting nieces and nephews were horrified at the prospect of spending a cartoon-free weekend at Aunty Thelma’s. I was frequently the odd one out at the water cooler, as colleagues and friends discussed the latest episode of their favourite show. I remember two friends talking about some person named Roseanne and thought: “This woman sounds like a jerk, I hope I am never introduced to her.”
TV then had strange effects on society. I had read about people in some countries using the show Friends as a teaching aid to learn English. After seeing an episode at my sister’s place, I thought the idea was strange. The lines delivered by the actors sounded like clever and witty phrases concocted by writers. No one I knew talked like that in everyday conversations; if they did, I would have thought they were a bit off. The sitcom-language-study model is fine for learning new words as long as you realize no one actually speaks that way.
I also avoided amassing a surplus memory full of unerasable real and staged violent scenes. Once while visiting a friend, I saw the television news of two girls hanging from a mango tree in India. The young women were strung up after being raped. I wept at the sight and still ache from that painful scene. Another time, I walked into my brother’s house as a scene from CSI was on the prominent living room screen. A group of young women were celebrating as they partied in a limo when one of them stuck her head out of the sunroof waving a glass of champagne—just as the car veered under a low-hanging sign. The memory of the five-second horrific glimpse still sends shivers down my spine. I have not been desensitized to violent images and have no impervious armour.
It is hard to believe that 100 years ago there was no such thing as television. And now, after millions of years of human evolution, few people on the planet exist without daily exposure to a steady stream of perpetually shocking images, as well as constant sales pitches from our televisions and screens.
After 15 years without a television, I married a man who had a big-screen TV. Television was a disappointment. I was traumatized to find the newscasters’ nostrils were bigger than my head, or so it seemed. The images looked kitschy and over-the-top. Sitting by the radio and listening to CBC News had been much more interesting than watching an announcer sit behind a desk reading a teleprompter. It felt hollow and lonely to be sitting in a room with another human being when we were both silently staring at a TV in the corner. The marriage was short-lived, and the big boring box exited with the man who loved watching it.
I spent another 10 years enjoying life without a TV until 2011, when I fell in love with a man who had three TVs. (Men with TVs are everywhere.) This time I was more careful. I laid bare my disclosure: I wasn’t interested in television, particularly violent content, but I did enjoy thoughtful movies. He played his cards well. Every weekend we spent together he would borrow a movie from the library. He consulted lists of the “most inspiring movies”—Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Dead Poets Society, and Groundhog Day—and we saw them all over the course of a couple of years. He also saved carefully considered programs and weaned me back to the worldwide tube. Usually anything with David Suzuki, 60 Minutes, or political humour worked for me.
After seven years of blissful weekends, we decided to live together. The expectant question on my mind was: How will I cope with television in my midst?
At first, the most shocking thing on TV was the wavy red, blue, and green, ribbon-like digital graphics on CTV’s station identification. The novel optical illusion of the compelling artwork was mesmerizing. I couldn’t get over the richness of the colours and the sharpness of the images. I felt like a child observing something fantastically new. TV in the early ’80s didn’t look like this. In those re-entry months, I found many programs and ads to be hysterical. I would actually slap the arm of the couch and nearly roll over laughing. The Olympic Rona ads were goofy comical—I got a kick out of the circle of about a dozen needle-nose pliers opening and closing to mimic synchronized swimmers, and the relay race with a Rona employee running across the country to deliver a single tool to a worker on the job. There was one shoe store ad where a woman was in her closet trying on half a dozen pairs of new shoes while dancing around as if in a state of delirium. Her husband kept calling her for dinner. He should have called a psychiatrist. The whole thing was too silly.
I only watched one episode of a reality TV show and it was absurd. Ozzy Osbourne was dumping a huge bag of large chocolate bars into a drawer in a cavernous kitchen, while nearby little dogs pooped on the floor. I pitied the poor souls who had to live in such a desolate environment. That was the end of reality TV for me. I agree with film director Spike Lee as he commented in a 2016 CBC interview with Peter Mansbridge: “I think one of the worst things that has ever happened to America, or the world, is reality TV…. [Reality TV] put the worst elements of us human beings on television, and made it entertainment.”
In 35 years, the evening entertainment medium has gone from Happy Days to an insulting assortment of so-called reality shows and a frightening abundance of crime dramas. We have gone from Perry Mason to Judge Judy; from “betcha can’t eat just one” or “reach out and touch someone”—cute ad jingles— to a barrage of stress-inducing, digitally constructed morphing monster graphics with laser beams shooting out of their everywhere as they inexplicably chase the latest version of the new car being advertised. I don’t get it.
And then I saw the sensational Wild Canada, a four-part documentary series on CBC’s The Nature of Things, narrated by David Suzuki. We have watched it several times and each time it makes me feel grateful to be alive and living in a country that is still full to the brim with magnificent natural beauty and thriving wildlife compared to many other places on the planet. I imagined what television could be if all the content were all as thoughtfully produced. I was reminded: It is not the TV itself, but the content we select.
After six months or so, I came to the new habit of watching an hour or two of television every day with my partner. My favourite daily program is CHEK TV, a local five o’clock community news show produced by a station that has been successfully employee-owned for nine years. They do a good job of covering events on Vancouver Island and they talk like sane, everyday people you might chat with at the grocery store.
If I had to pick a single weekly television show to watch, Real Time with Bill Maher would be the one. The program is well-named; the content feels real. I could actually imagine having a decent conversation with the guests; they aren’t there just to flog their books or their movies. We never miss it and are disappointed when Maher takes a holiday. What more could you want from a TV show when you sit down to relax after dinner, holding hands with your lover on a Friday night?
I enjoy some of the broad range of TV fare, but with the focus on President Donald Trump this past year in both news and entertainment, I am becoming bored. If I flip through the channels it usually feels like a waste of time. Violence, conflict, and anger are predominant themes. I don’t laugh at the TV as much as I did at first. The shine is off. Some days it is beginning to feel as if watching television takes me away from myself and makes me feel less alive.
When I am home alone, I never turn on the television. Frankly, I don’t even know how to. But I’m okay with that.
I never set out to be a freak, but reading the Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television in my early 20s led me down a different boulevard. TV-free living offered a rich set of decades for me—but I doubt I will venture back there. Recently I have been thoroughly enjoying the brilliant documentary filmwork of Ken Burns, especially his series on the Roosevelts. (Eleanor Roosevelt is my new hero.) Mind you, I do find myself winnowing my way into my partner’s heart with my audiobook-listening habits. At the moment we are getting refreshed by reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and we just finished swooning over Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. Reading together is even more pleasant than watching a little TV together. I’m torn.
But I am grateful to that Apple salesperson for the excellent book recommendation.
Mr. Mander had some compelling arguments.
Thelma Fayle is a freelance writer who has lived in Montreal, Tokyo, and Victoria. She has nine completed writing projects in play: two children’s stories, a play, a screenplay adaptation, a non-fiction book, a radio-play, and three magazine articles. Eagles, dandelions, hospice, architecture, horticulture, television, peace activism, drama therapy, and the Oxford English Dictionary are subjects. A late-life BFA honed writing skills, but the UVic Humanities Diploma inspired writing about the phenomena of life.