The High Cost Of Television

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two years ago, I got rid of cable, reasoning that while the world
might be full of idiots, I wasn’t going to pay $40 a month to
look at them. — Fred Reed.

the always insightful Reed wrote a piece on the control of television
over the thinking of modern society, not just coast to coast, but
around the globe. It was titled, “Managing Us.” He began with
four simple points:
crucial truths of the current age may be these: First, people
will watch any television rather than no television. Second, sooner
or later they will begin to imitate what they see on the screen.
Third, while you can’t fool all of the people all of the time,
you can fool enough of them enough of the time, especially if
you are a lot smarter than they are, and do it patiently, calculatedly,
over time, like water eroding stone. And that is all it takes.
Finally, television is scalable: Swathing the earth in Baywatch
is not much harder than covering a state.
The result has
been the spread of the same worldview across the globe.

The genius
of television is that, to shape a people as you want, you don’t
need unrestrained governmental authority, nor do you need to
tell people what you want of them. Indeed, if you told them
what to do, they would be likely to refuse.

No. You
merely have to show them, over and over, day after day, the
behavior you wish to instill. Show them enough mothers of illegitimate
children heartwarmingly portrayed. Endlessly broadcast storylines
suggesting that excellence is elitist. Constantly air ghetto
values and moiling back-alley mobs grunting and thrusting their
faces at the camera — and slowly, unconsciously, people
will come to accept and then to imitate them. Patience is everything.
Mold the young and in thirty years you will have molded the
society. Don’t tell them anything. Just show them.

television is magic: People can’t not watch. No matter how bad
the fare is, how much it offends against their most deeply held
values, they will stare at it rather than be alone with their

Child Is This?

I am a child of television. When I was seven, in 1949, my parents
bought a Farnsworth TV. Officially, the set bore some other brand
name. For some reason, I scraped off the pasted-on brand’s logo,
and beneath the overlay was the word “Farnsworth.” Who was Farnsworth?
He was the most important unknown inventor of the twentieth century.
He invented television.

I escaped from TV, briefly and sporadically, when we moved to Augusta,
Georgia, then to Denver, Colorado, and then to Marietta, Ohio, 1949-52.
Those cities did not yet have TV broadcasting. But, intermittently,
I returned like a dog to its vomit even in this period when I lived
with relatives in the Los Angeles area. My addiction deepened. The
only thing that kept it from becoming total was homework, which
has declined as an American educational phenomenon, decade by decade.

I stopped watching TV completely when I moved to Irvington, New
York in 1971, to join the staff of Leonard Read’s Foundation for
Economic Education. I lived rent-free upstairs in FEE’s aging mansion,
where there was no TV set. When I married, I moved out of FEE’s
quarters, but my wife and I did not buy a TV. That period of cold
turkey broke my addiction.

When I started publishing my newsletter, Remnant Review,
in 1974, my wife and I — now back in the Los Angeles area —
came to an agreement. The person who wanted to watch a TV show would
pay 25 cents per half hour. The money would be given to charity
at the end of the month. We allowed only these exceptions: the evening
news and documentaries.

Within a month, we were spending on average 50 cents a week. I would
pay for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” My wife would pay for the show
that immediately followed, “The Bob Newhart Show.” Both shows were
produced by MTM productions. By putting a minimal price tag on “free
TV,” we cut our viewing to almost nothing. There was nothing worth
watching at 50 cents/hour.

Time is not free. On the contrary, it is our only nonrenewable resource.

I bought a VHS video recorder in late 1979. I did not own a TV set
then. I was probably the only person in America who owned a video
recorder and no TV set. I bought a set in early 1980. We had cable
TV from 1980-85, and I watched it some. But then the set got hit
in a lightning storm, the screen went pink, and I turned it off
for good. In Tyler, Texas, there was only one local station. The
city was located where TV signals from neither Dallas nor Shreveport
could be picked up. You had to have cable to get more than one station.
I refused to get cable. So, my children did not grow up watching

I had satellite TV for one year in 1999. I watched only three channels:
the History Channel, American Movie Classics, and Turner Classic
Movies. Then I canceled the satellite service, just as Fred Reed
did. I had used it mainly for high-speed Web access: DirecPC. For
that, it was a great service. I plan to sign up again, but without
the entertainment hook-up.


Today, I watch only one show regularly, the CBS show, “Sunday Morning.”
It runs for 90 minutes. It reminds me weekly of what this medium
can achieve, and how infrequently anyone achieves it.

The show begins with the news. This is a short segment. Then it
goes to longer segments on what I would call human interest stories.
There are ads, but only in between segments, so the segments’ continuity
is not broken. There is a movie review. There are a few observations
by the show’s pleasant host, Charles Osgood. That’s about it. I
would not change anything.

None of the segments is earth-shaking. Recently, a town that has
an annual sheep festival was featured. There was a segment on Madison,
Minnesota, which is the national center of lutefisk, a generally
inedible Norwegian recipe of dried cod fish flavored with

Morning” still bears the imprint of Charles Kuralt, who hosted it
from 1979 until 1994. He died in 1997. Kuralt also produced and
starred in about 500 segments of “On the Road,” 1967-83. He and
his TV crew, a camera man and a sound man, toured America in a motor
home — actually, six motor homes in succession. They covered
something like a million miles, mostly on back roads. The show would
feature a small town or an interesting person in a small town. Kuralt
had a gift for locating the beat of a shrinking heartland America.
If I were told that I had to spend a week, morning to night, watching
videotapes of any show in television history, “On the Road” would
be my choice.

The success of “Sunday Morning” for over two decades indicates that
its producers are in touch with America’s viewers. The show features
the bright side of this nation, little things that have long made
the nation tick. The show is a weekly visit to three or four of
Peggy Noonan’s thousand points of light. There are no exposés,
sensationalism, or scoops. The show reminds us of what still ties
together small-town communities, one by one. This is nostalgia for
most of us, but the real world for a few of us.

Larger Picture

The lowest common denominator of mankind is very low. As late-coming
heirs of the Western tradition, we tend to forget this, although
the founders knew better. It has taken two millennia of preaching
and teaching to drag a portion of mankind, kicking and screaming,
up the moral embankment. You might call it the long march from X-rated
culture to G-rated.

G-rated culture was short-lived and narrowly concentrated: in the
West from about 1830 to 1960. The debauchery and crime of eighteenth-century
London after the sun set was not confined to Soho. It took the Victorian
age to place internal and external boundaries around this debauchery,
violence, and crime. Victorian upper-class culture may have been
more the product of the Queen’s prim etiquette than John Wesley’s
stern Methodist morality, but it did reduce temptation by isolating
it both geographically and culturally. The era’s warning against
sexual behavior that might scare the horses at least demonstrated
concern for horses.

King Edward VII, followed by World War I, undermined Victorianism
in England. The Bloomsbury group, with John Maynard Keynes at its
center, undermined it still further in intellectual circles after
the War. Keynes’ new economics was part of an all-encompassing,
self-conscious, anti-Victorian debauchery. He was an apostle
in more ways than one.

The broader Keynesianism is alive and flourishing in films and television.
So is his economics.


The medium of television, as a technology, is spectacular. Its hardware
is worldwide through satellites. Its software — the programming
— is increasingly despicable morally and correct politically.
It shares this same bifurcation with the film industry. The disparity
between hardware and software grows ever-more flagrant.

Television appears to be free. This is an illusion. The illusion
persists because people are not taught from an early age to understand
either the time value of money or the money value of time. The free
market, price-competitive entertainment industry is steadily undermining
Western Christianity’s crucial doctrine of the value of time, both
for individuals and societies. Jesus said, “I must work the works
of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no
man can work” (John 9:4). In this sense, television is enormously
expensive to modern man. The night is coming.

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