America's Love Affair With Television

This essay was written by Brandon Monk.

Inspired by A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace.

It was a coincidence that the first book I finished reading using an e-reader was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  I got a Nook for Christmas in 2010, and it lead me into a book reading binge. Recognizing how fast I was going through books with the device I made a resolution to write something down about each one so that I could take something from the reading experience. The ability to turn a page with a press of a thumb without adjusting or shifting your position made for a supremely convenient experience. Immediately, I declared that I would purchase all future books on the device. Later, I learned this statement was misguided because many publishers had not started releasing books in e-format.

Nevertheless, I did read David Foster Wallace (DFW) early on and found his discussion of TV ironic given my new “addiction” to the Nook.  From his work I thought out a few realities of television which is a technology he struggled with most of his adult life, even admitting to intentionally avoiding the set while doing his most serious writing. Here are the ideas that I took away through his inspiration to think about the subject:

1.  TV caters to the lowest common denominator and strips away your ability to be unique.

TV is designed to appeal as many people as it possibly can so that advertisements are worth more and the revenue stream will steadily increase. The dollar rules and the collective dollars of the collective assembly is the target.  I don’t think it is a new idea, but it is one worth recognizing in the context that everyone one should realize that you aren’t going to set yourself apart from the masses by consuming TV.

2.  TV does not encourage the treatment of a particular subject with breadth or depth.

The aim of TV is to fit entertainment bang between commercials.  The creators of TV programs have limitations imposed by the format. Attention spans being what they are, it is impossible to cover any subject with the same breadth or depth that a book can.  Complicated ideas are typically discarded in favor of a hook that will drag you through the next commercial break.

3.  TV destroys focus and mutates attention span to fit its format.

Watching TV transforms your patience and your brain to a focus on the program, but the experience is completely passive.  It asks nothing of you, and as a result there is no need to give full attention to the material.  When you need not give full attention, you don’t practice that.  Lack of practice leads to lack of skill in this department.

4.  TV has a clear focus, consumption as opposed to creation.

In conjunction with the passive nature of the experience there is typically no call to action with TV.  Rarely is the suggestion that you leave with inspiration to go into the world and create or give something back.  Instead the call is to tune back in for more consumption or, through advertisement, to express your consumptive self on a given product.  Missing is the call to contribute.

These realities are not necessarily an argument to avoid TV completely.  TV is not going anywhere.  In order to create something that is going to be appreciated by the masses these days you have to be familiar enough with the effects of TV to be able to communicate given the reality of its huge impact.  I am not advocating abandoning TV, but while trying to create something new and unique or while working to explore something with a new depth and focus you may find TV is a poison.


After reading this post, someone suggested I follow-up this article by reading Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson.  I finished it and wanted to add these thoughts.

Johnson asserts the basic hypothesis that IQ has risen as a whole over the past 20 or so years, and that one possible explanation is the increasing popularity and complexity of social media, including television.   By way of summary, Johnson sets out by stating that twenty-five years of increasingly complex television has honed our analytical skills.  He then moves on to argue that increasing IQ across society, known as the Flynn effect, provide some empiric evidence that his theory is correct.

Johnson paid particular attention to reality TV in setting forth the argument that these shows shift our brain toward focusing on  the emotional lives of the people around us.  The part of the brain that tracks subtle shifts in intonation, gesture, and facial expression, Johnson thought, were sent into overdrive while we watched these shows so that we could make judgments about whose side we wanted to be on.

After reading Johnson’s book I would echo his sentiment that there is need for more study to determine whether a true connection exists between the increasing popularity and complexity of television and some skill that translates to other areas of life. The reason I put the question that way is because if we just get better at watching TV by watching TV and the skill increase does not translate to other areas, there is limited value.

I believe the only point that is called into question by Johnson’s hypothesis would be point 3. above, TV destroys focus and mutates attention span to fit its format. The other conclusions inspired by DFW are not contradicted by Johnson’s conclusions.  I would consider amending the idea in point 3. if there were a study along the lines above.  I may even consider adding an additional sentence which would clarify that TV may, in fact, increase emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence probably can be practiced by watching humans interact with humans in a real way.  In that way, TV may increase our ability to read social cues.  This ability readily translates into success in the “real world.” In that way, it would be unfair of me to call watching TV a “completely passive” activity. This area is certainly one where scientific study would be worthwhile.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Kansir


  1. Dorothy W.

    I loved that essay, and that entire book. Wallace is one of my favorites ever! I thought a lot of the ideas in the essay weren’t really new, but I wonder whether they seem old because of Wallace’s essay? Anyway, I love his writing.

  2. readlearnwrite

    I think you are really on to something there, Dorothy. I remember Wallace saying in the interview piece by Lipsky, Although We End Up Becoming Ourselves, that one of the things an author does, if he is doing his job, is to make the reader feel smart or realize how smart they are. I think Wallace consistently captured that in the book of essays.

  3. Joseph Dante

    I really do think our way of thinking is changing – and quickly. I’m not so sure about intelligence (how we measure that is so difficult to determine and problematic anyway), but I do think things like the internet and television have encouraged a preference of breadth of knowledge over depth.

    I’m not so sure about how watching television – in particular, reality TV – makes us more emotionally intelligent, simply because I don’t see humans interacting with humans in “real” ways. If anything, I always feel like I’m being emotionally manipulated by things on TV, rather than establishing or strengthening more emotional connections. A lot of things shown on TV come off as really dishonest and fake to me, which is probably why I’ve grown to appreciate things like books and movies more and more.

  4. Read.Learn.Write

    Good point, Joseph. While we may catch 5 seconds of real interaction we miss the days of relationship that lead to that point.

    I feel manipulated by TV, too. All commercials are basically logical fallacies when it comes right down to it.

  5. AMD

    TV is making people smarter? Oh, please. Living abroad, I’ve gone years without any exposure to American TV. After “re-exposure” I was always struck by how shallow and empty it seems.

    I recently read in the Journal of Direct Instruction that children’s books have 50 percent more rare words in them than does adult prime-time television. Certainly, grown up’s books have more than that. Seems like a convincing argument for the role of books in vocabulary development.

  6. Read.Learn.Write

    Johnson’s argument is an interesting one but it is limited and basically unproven. At the end of the day, though, we have to admit we can’t get better at reading social cues unless we practice. Johnson suggests a very limited skill could be learned from TV. He then went on to write a book to make his point. I find that ironic. I’m not entirely sure that Johnson isn’t just making a great case that watching TV makes you better at watching TV but not much else.

    Personally, I see TV more like DFW does.

    Thanks for the comments. I enjoy hearing what people think about this.

  7. Ruth Chambers

    Many years ago, I enjoyed TV because there were good programs, passive or not. Today there are no programs I watch on a regular basis, other than evening news programs. Can you believe, I’ve never seen (nor do I have any desire to) a reality show!! The one thing I’ve noticed about my lack of exposure to TV is that people talk, not so much about the programs, but about the commercials. I’m left in the dark so many times because people are talking commercials, and I don’t have a clue.

    1. Read.Learn.Write

      Particularly around Super Bowl time commercials rule, of course.

      You could always just ask about a book and act like you’re talking about a TV show, I guess. Just make them out to be the weird ones because they don’t know what you’re talking about. 🙂

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