Do you watch much TV these days? As I ask the question, I realize how dated it sounds. There used to be one object in your house with a screen. It was called a television, and at any given time you were either watching it or not watching it.
I’m sure my story is not unusual for people of my age. When I got home from school I would watch old cartoons and sitcom re-runs (Bugs Bunny, Andy Griffith, Gilligan’s Island, Hogan’s Heroes). After dinner, my father would switch on the national news (always NBC). After that, there would be a few hours of prime time entertainment courtesy of the three major networks.
“We don’t have a TV” used to be a faux-careless bragging point, much like mentioning your most recent marathon time. It was easy to throw it into a conversation, a virtue signal for the brown-rice and Birkenstocks set. “Hill Street Blues? That’s a TV show, right? We don’t have a TV at our house. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”
If it was too much of a stretch to say you didn’t own a TV, there was a fallback position: “We do have a TV, but we only watch documentaries.” The full version goes like this: “I have a disassembled black and white TV in a box under the bed. When there’s science documentary I want the kids to see, I rebuild the set for one night and then tear it down when the show is over. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”
Now people are watching less and less TV, but still spending loads of time looking at screens. Distributing bragging rights and shame is so much more complex! For instance, I can say in all honesty that I cancelled my cable subscription two years ago, and I might go for weeks without turning on my TV. But it’s a misleading statement. I subscribe to multiple non-cable sources of video content (Netflix, Amazon, AppleTV). I watch a lot of YouTube videos. And even though I have a nice TV on my living room wall, for some reason I prefer to watch shows and sporting events on the iPad in my lap.
Everything has to be qualified more carefully. Abstinence humble-bragging requires more specificity. “I don’t have a TV and I never use any of my screens to look at any content that could qualify as the kind of thing that used to be on TV. Although, come on, of course I look at the cat videos that friends send me.”
True abstinence from screen time seems almost like an impossibility now. You’re more likely to feel shame or envy these days because your friends are much better curators and reviewers of high-quality binge-watching than you. “I don’t often binge watch, but when I do, it’s an award-winning drama series. And after it’s over, I unplug the cable and groom my alpacas. Also, my kids will get into a much better college than your kids.”
TV is dead. Long live TV!