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Surprises for Me on TV

More than 30 years ago, I read one of those books that managed to influence my entire life. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (yes, go ahead and click on it—it’s still available at amazon.com) was a best-seller in its day and despite the reductionism of its undeniably catchy title actually presented dozens of arguments for why television watching wasn’t good for you.

Interestingly, the author, an ad executive named Jerry Mander, didn’t spend much time on actual program content. (Even back then everyone was worried about TV violence, TV dumbing us down, the “vast wasteland,” and so forth.) Rather, his points focused on how TV affected our bodies and minds.

Mander’s four main points for the elimination of television…

• First, by watching TV, we allowed it to replace our own participation in activities. The talking heads on TV discussed politics, we didn’t. We watched, but didn’t play, golf, tennis, baseball. Even “good” TV, like Sesame Street, kept children from being children and us from interacting with them. Watching a ballet was not the same experience as attending one.

• Second, the complete passivity and immobility of TV viewing is unhealthy for mind and body alike. TV exerts significant mind control—just listen to how many people talk about what they watched the night before. Consider how many of us have become incapable of an original political thought. We spout little more than someone else’s sound byte. And regular TV watching is about as healthy as Marlboros: regular viewers gain weight and get flabby muscles and deteriorating heart function. Hidden cameras on families watching TV show them motionless, barely breathing, eyes fixed on the screen. And now, years later, we’re just as inactive, spending hours on the internet, shifting from couch to desk chair. Once a potato, always a…

• Third, with us in this totally passive state, TV emerges as the single most controlling entity in our lives. It guides our opinions, purchases, and lifestyle choices. It determines what makes us happy, sad, and fulfilled and establishes often destructive and nearly always limiting norms for the way men and women “should” appear, behave, and live their lives. We, the watchers, experience life second-hand, through TV show characters. It is they who laugh, fall in love, have adventures, smell the flowers, sing songs, go traveling to exotic places, and engage in animated conversational banter. Not us. Book author Mander asks us to recognize that 100 years ago, everybody who was alive engaged in their lives as direct experience. Real people did the real seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, feeling, and understanding. There was no alternative. The very idea that life sensations could be processed for secondary consumption did not exist.

• Mander’s last argument, that TV had no democratic potential because its content was guided by economics rather than by audience participation, does still stand, with the exception of the minimal effect of community access networks. Otherwise, everything you watch is controlled by what you buy, not by what you want or need.

So starting in 1978, after reading Four Arguments, I virtually stopped watching TV and never returned to it, to the extent that I’ve always been pretty much clueless about TV references in conversation. Mash, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, Sopranos, The Wire, The Office, Leno, Letterman—I’ve missed them all.

Of the four arguments, my own reason for quitting TV wasn’t exactly complicated. There was no intellectual snobbery involved, no concern about my mind being controlled. I’d been beset by weight issues since childhood and when I learned that watching TV would make you fat, I decided not to watch. That was the end of that.

These days, however, when visiting my 88-year-old aunt in Florida, I am compelled to hear, “Well, at least you can watch the news, for god’s sake, David. You’re not fat.” She prefers what she calls the “good middle-of-the-road coverage” found on Fox.

So a few years ago I joined her and sat, to put it mildly, spellbound.

The delivery of news itself had remained pretty much unchanged over the years, some clown looking sincere reading a few sentences somebody had written a few minutes earlier. As Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye might say, “What phonies!”

I was transfixed by the commercials for pharmaceutical drugs. Of the ten commercials I endured, eight were for drugs and virtually all of them targeted conditions related to unhealthy lifestyle choices: diabetes, arthritis, heartburn, tobacco addiction, constipation. All began with “Ask your doctor about…” and ended, after a rapid fire list of lethal-sounding side effects, “Call your doctor immediately if…”

“Do patients actually ask you about all these drugs?” my aunt inquired.

“Not my patients, thank god.”

One of the pleasing benefits of working in an integrative health center is that you, my patients, are sensibly phobic about most drugs, so the number of “Ask your doctor…” questions I receive is near zero. Our patients make lifestyle changes. Instead of popping a Nexium to ward off the late-night ravioli or Lipitor to cover the second plate of Buffalo wings, they actually just make better choices. This certainly makes my life easier as a physician.

Since drug commercials are banned in virtually every country but the US, I imagine invaders from outer space would take one look at US TV and choose our country to attack first, figuring we must be the weakest and most chronically ill on the planet.

We’ve spent our lives watching TV, and now we’re gobbling pills to treat what we’ve done to ourselves.

If you’re asking this doctor for advice: Turn off your TV and…

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3 comments on “Surprises for Me on TV
  1. Barbara Newman says:

    Dear Dr. Edelberg,

    I just had to write to say that I always love your blog posts, but today’s
    was especially fine. Sometime in my 20s I made the Four Noble Vows: never eat at McDonald’s, never drink a Coke, never wear blue jeans, and best of all, never own a TV. I’ve kept them all quite happily, and I’m sure they account for the pretty good health I enjoy!

    Living counter-culturally ever after,

  2. Natalie Turner-Jones says:

    Dr E,

    I couldn’t agree with you more about your views on Television (no pun intended).

    I cancelled my TV subscription with Comcast as soon as it was up because I couldn’t believe that I was paying $160 a month for TV that I hardly ever watched. I was also annoyed by its ability to hijack my mornings, dominate my free time in the house, and dictate where I put my furniture. But not enough to get rid of it entirely. Oh, no — I was just going to find a cheaper deal.

    As I looked over my finances, it became apparent I’d need to wait a month or so. I wasn’t sure I’d survive it — but I’d try. 7 months later, I am still without TV. Instead, I have my furniture re-arranged around my bookshelves and coffee tables where I have pens and journals. I write more, do more creative things, contemplate more, and indulge my ADD by dipping in and out of the hundreds of books that feed my habit in the late evening. If I want to watch something, it’s intentional and undoubtedly something I can locate online and watch for free. I now read my newspaper subscription to the Tribune and have found a few favorite columnists. I also enjoy listening to NPR much more. I now have space for my yoga practice in a now large chunk of my living room that is otherwise unoccupied. No TV. I put it on freecycle.

    Just had to share that with you — you’re probably one of the few people I know who gets it.

    Bon courage,


  3. Kate Maver says:

    When I was three, right after the Beatles played Ed Sullivan for the first time, our tv went on the blink. Dad thought it was a waste of time and money, so we didn’t get another one until my 8th grade english teacher started assigning ABC After School Specials (Oh! The irony!). Since I never had it in my formative years, it never had a foothold with me. I read instead, and I wrote my own stories. My parents were very liberal with trips to the library and selections from the Scholastic Book Club. I taught myself guitar and piano. I made stuff. I drew and painted. On Saturday nights, I listened to the Midnight Special on FMT.

    When I got to college, I read Jerry Mander’s book, and I felt doubly blessed to have grown up without the boob tube. Nowadays, I watch Netflix on it once in a while, and the Rose Parade, and Glee is my guilty pleasure, but TV is definitely not the center of my life.

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