Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Do you remember 1983? If so, what were you doing in July?

Because that's the month that marks my last serious connection with one of the main drivers of American mass culture: Television. I could push the date further back, to spring of '82 perhaps, when I first started dating. Or later, to fall of '94, when Laura and I formally disconnected the antenna on the television we hadn't watched more than once a month in the four years we'd been living together. But August 12th 1983 is probably the best date. That would be the day I got my driver's license and was formally free of being stuck at home in any meaningful way. That's the day I stopped knowing what was on on any given evening.

This comes up because over the years I've had any number of conversations that follow a certain pattern.

1. Someone will ask me something about television, a program, an event, something.

2. I say I don't watch television.

3. They say, "oh really?" or "I don't watch it either," or something else that acknowledges that they've heard and processed what I said.

4. A bit of time goes by and then they make some reference to something on television and are quite surprised that I don't know what they are talking about.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 up to half a dozen times before it sinks in.

Sometimes this will happen more than once with the same person. It's understandable really. Television plays a central role in American culture and most people watch at least some television, often without even registering that they're doing so. I have no moral or cultural objections to television, it just doesn't interest me all that much.

The only non-DVD* television shows I've watched since 1994 are scattered episodes of Myth Busters,(~15-20) The Daily Show,(~5-8) Muppets Tonight (~5-10) and Whose Line is it Anyway, (10-20) all seen either while staying in hotels or because friends taped stuff and insisted we would enjoy it.**

From '83 to '94 I watched occasional episodes of Night Court, (~5-10) Next Generation, (~5-8) Deep Space Nine,(~5-8) The Young Ones (~15-20) and Cheers (~6-12), mostly because it was on when I was visiting someone.

I've never seen a single episode of Friends, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or The Drew Carey Show. Nor have I seen Voyager, Firefly, Buffy, Angel, Babylon 5, Xena, Hercules, BSG, or any other f&sf favorites of the last 25 years. I have never seen an entire episode of reality tv of any kind.***

I am not plugged into television culture and haven't been for 25 years. But it is so pervasive that even people who've known me that whole time and know that I haven't been watching television are often surprised when they talk about some show, or a star or director of same, and I don't have a clue who they're talking about.

I find the phenomena fascinating and occasionally frustrating.

*On DVD we've watched two new shows: Dr Who Seasons 1-3, and The Big Bang Theory. We've also watched two shows from my childhood: Soap and The Muppet Show, but those don't add anything to my post '83 cultural literacy.

**and they've been entirely correct.

***not quite true, I did watch one episode of the Nineteen Hundred House because friends thought Laura and I might be interested.


Ally said...

There's not much else other than Doctor Who and Big Bang Theory that are worth watching. Even here in England they are the best programmes on TV! Though I couldn't have considered ever missing Buffy/Angel!

But as for what I was doing in 1983... being a kid and de-barking tree branches to make bows and arrows! TV wasn't much of a distraction back then (apart from Doctor Who, original Battlestar Galactica, Day of the Triffids and Fraggle Rock)!

Douglas Hulick said...

Fall 1983? I was a freshman in college double-majoring in (of all things) Computer Science and Mathematical Theory. How things change (says the guy who ended up with two degrees in History and minors in English and Anthropolgy ;)

I find the phenomena fascinating and occasionally frustrating.

Unfortunately, being in the cultural minority means you're the one who is going to perpetually be on the short end of the assumptions. Comes with the sanity, I fear. :)

lydamorehouse said...

1983 I was still in high school. I have no idea what was on TV, except possibly "Remmington Steele," which I loved.

I actually watch a lot of TV, but I try not to. We don't have cable, but I love to catch things on DVD, like "Dexter" and "The Closer." I've religiously tuned into PBS to catch my weekly installments of "EastEnders," which I've been addicted to since it first debuted in Minneapolis/St. Paul sometime in the early 90s.

I also try to keep up with the SF/F shows like "Lost" and "BSG."

I actually find TV a source of inspiration. ARCHANGEL PROTOCOL was partly inspired by two TV shows: "X-Files" and "American Gothic."

Michael Damian Thomas said...

In 1983, I was going from 2nd to 3rd grade. I watched a lot of TV. I still do, but now it tends to be sports/documentaries. I usually wait for the DVDs/Magic Internet Fairies for scripted shows.

I believe that television is an amazing medium for storytelling. Much of it's crap, but Sturgeons Law works everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I was 14 that year, getting ready to start my freshman year of high school that fall.

That's about all I remember.

I've never been big on tv (honestly most of it bores me to death), and I thank my grandmother for that. We didn't even have cable in our house until 1985; before that we got NBC, ABC, CBS, and KET (PBS) over the air. But I never was really allowed to watch. If she ever caught me sitting with it on, she'd turn it off and put a book in my hands - and if the weather was good, she'd send me outside. I spent most of my childhood up trees reading.

DKoren said...

1983? Eeeee! I was in high school. Boy, that seems forever ago!

When I moved to the mountains in 2003, I opted not to get cable. Haven't had tv since, haven't missed it, other than occasionally, I really want Turner Classic Movies. If I could somehow only get that channel, I would. But Netflix gives me most of the older movies I want, and as far as TV shows, I'd rather watch DVDs of "Route 66" and "Have Gun-Will Travel" than most anything made today.

But it is definitely hard to get through to people sometimes that no, I really don't watch current tv unless I'm a guest at someone else's house.

And I get soooo much more done in a day without tv, which is the best part.

Anonymous said...

I grew up overseas, where our only television options were dubbed John Wayne movies. So the whole tv addiction passed me by. I do admit to watching football and basketball on the box, but am usually doing something else at the same time.

I too have seen specific shows when visiting family or stuck in hotel rooms, but I never turn on the tv by choice. Nice to know I'm not the only one who says, "Huh?" when someone refers to a Friends or Seinfeld or Simpsons episode!

Anonymous said...

Oh, PS - 1983 - ski bum in Aspen!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Fall of '83. That would be the year I don't remember. I know I was skipping lots of school, but aside from that, that me is such an alien that I'd be hard pressed to tell you much about her.

What amazes me is that it's impossible to know who you will know about and who you won't. It almost follows media coverage but doesn't quite in some strange ways.

Anonymous said...

We have and use or tv, but like most of the people I know, we don't have cable, and it's used mostly for movies (And PBS to distract the children.) (Kelly, we watched Buffy last winter, and liked it, and I'll highly recommend Firefly, but then you'll have your heart broken when you realize it lasted 11 episodes.)
I think it's funny that most of the people I know don't watch tv, and probably is a reflection about how abnormal my group of friends is (Yeah, I'm looking at you.) If the National average is 8hr/day, then somebody is picking up a lot of slack. I went away to a conference earlier this year and of the group I traveled with, most of us didn't watch tv, but then spent all our spare time in our hotel rooms flipping channels like crack addicts.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to tell you what I was doing then, you would all think you're old. c_C

My relationship with series on the magic box:

Part 1: Absolutely nothing, though there's vague memories of Star Trek TNG

Part 2: Saturday anime on Scifi! Anime! Explosions! Punks! Weird as hell LSD imagery!

Part 3: Farscape, Angel, BSG, and every anime series in existence

Part 4: Why is so much anime so boring? Oh, yeah, I've seen all the decent shows. :P

Now? The old hobbies aren't completely ignored, but I've realised books are so much more LSD.

Kelly Swails said...

Fall of 1983: Starting third grade.

And Ken and I watch a fair amount of television, though he watches more than I. I generally don't turn it on unless there's something I want to specifically watch, while the first thing Ken does upon arriving at home is turn on the TV. As for regular shows, I'm lucky in that my faves are all on one night with the exeption of Lost; Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Heroes, and Chuck.

Now, I'm a sucker for watching old movies on TV.

Kelly McCullough said...

Over on her blog Tate says of this post:

He doesn't actually say that thing you often hear from English and creative writing instructors say, which is "Turn off your TV" with the corresponding implication that people who watch TV waste their brains and all their creativity pools on the floor at their feet, but this implication lingers in between the text.

I'm going to repeat here what I said over there:

The reason I didn't say it is because I don't believe it. I specifically said that I have no moral or cultural objections to TV, it just doesn't interest me.

I find it fascinating how many people assume that my not watching TV means that I condemn the idea. Not true. I really really really don't care if other people watch TV.

The reason I blogged about it is right there in the post--Americans talk about TV shows on a regular basis and when I explain to them that its not a subject I can really participate in because I have no frame of reference, many of them either don't believe me or don't process the information and keep asking me questions that could just as easily be in Sanscrit for all the sense they make to me. I find it to be a fascinating phenomena.

Michael Damian Thomas said...

I didn't read your comments that way. In fact, I found it quite refreshing that it wasn't an anti-television rant. When Lynne worked at la-di-da Yale, she had many co-workers who were actively hostile about those plebes who watched television. My wife was the rebel in department because she used a Xena bag at work.

I think that too many “intellectuals” try to justify their entertainment by belittling somebody else’s. Yesterday, I was in Border's, and I overheard a conversation between two young lady fantasy readers. They were talking about how small the SF section was, and then they turned the corner into Romance. Out poured the sputum. You would have thought that every Romance reader and writer had taken a dump on their lawns.

The moral- like what you like, and don’t put down what somebody else likes in order to feel better about your own taste. That’s how I read your entry.

Kelly McCullough said...

Michael, all I can add to that moral is applause.

Bill Henry said...

For about a decade now, the whole "kill your television" thing has felt to me like a slow-to-go-away cultural hangover from the pre-cable TV days, when there were fewer than a handful of broadcast channels and, yes, most of what passed for "grownup" programming was pretty much shite. (With many wonderful exceptions, to be sure, but generally speaking, I think you know what I'm talking about.)

Today, though—today's a whole nuther ball game. All you have to do is watch something like HBO's Deadwood, where one genuine f——ing genius, David Milch, is given what is apparently no-holds-barred creative control to create, write, and produce a unified three-season story arc, and . . . wow.

(Yes, I'm watching Deadwood on DVD right now. Addicted with a BSG-level intensity. F——ing Netflix can't send the f——ing discs f——ing fast enough.)

Bill Henry said...

Wait, was I supposed to say what I was doing in 1983?