By Tom Robotham
As an instructor of media studies, I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways in which various mass media affect our lives. I’m struck, especially, by the fact that today’s children can barely imagine what life was like before the advent of smartphones and the internet.
There is, of course, some comparable technology for every generation. Consider, for example, that even our oldest citizens today never knew a world without radio.
For me it was television. And I can’t help wondering how that has affected me.
Its profound impact on me is underscored by the fact that one of my earliest memories—from the age of 2—places television front and center. The mental picture remains clear: It’s 1958, and I’m sitting on the living room rug in my pajamas, with my sister next to me and my dad behind us in his easy chair, watching an episode of The Donna Reed Show.
From then on, television remained a daily companion. There was something supremely comforting about those family sitcoms, in particular: Leave it To Beaver, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show, to name a few. And why not? They depicted lives devoid of any serious problems, shepherded by parents who were unfailingly gentle and wise. When minor problems did arise, due to the shenanigans of Eddie Haskell, for example, they were always resolved by the end of the episode.
The TV Westerns of the era tapped into other fantasies. Early on, I favored Roy Rogers, but that was soon supplanted by grittier shows—Gunsmoke, especially, and Have Gun Will Travel. For one thing, I’m certain that my lifelong love of horseback riding is due in part to those shows. As a mid-century American boy, moreover, I naturally had a desire to grow up to become a tough guy. And so it was that heroes like Matt Dillon lived in me even when the programs were not airing, as I strapped on my toy six-shooters and practiced my draw.
There were the cartoons as well, of course, which brings another memory to mind. When I was 5, my mother took me on a train trip to attend her sister’s wedding. In the evening, as we sat in the dining car, I told my mom I wanted spinach. She never served it at home, but I’d been well-schooled in its magical effects, thanks to Popeye. When it came, I was disappointed in the boiled dark-green slop. It looked nothing like the stuff that Popeye ate. I ate it, nevertheless, hoping that it would give me muscles like the ones he had.
More compelling still, during those early years, was The Adventures of Superman. As soon as I heard the intro’s opening words—faster than a speeding bullet—I was riveted. The appeal was multifaceted: In addition to reveling in the fantasy of being bullet proof and able to fly, I had a serious crush on Noel Neill, the actress who played Lois Lane after the first season.
Then there were the commercials. Some, like those for Ring Dings, made my mouth water, and I think it’s fair to say that television in those days wasn’t a very good dietary influence, Popeye notwithstanding. There was, as well, the Marlboro Man, who made me want to smoke and undoubtedly fueled my desire for bubble gum “cigarettes.” The most vivid commercial of all, though, was for PF Flyers, which promised that they could make you “run faster and jump higher.”
As I grew into adolescence, I watched TV less often, preferring to gather with my friends, drinking beer, smoking weed and going to concerts. Nevertheless, TV remained a staple. At night, after hanging out, I had a ritual of going home and turning on reruns of The Honeymooners. I watched a lot of it on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, too, when New York’s independent stations would air old movies. Thanks to them, I fell in love with the films of W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers, among other stars from before my time.
On Saturday evenings, moreover, there was one show I wouldn’t miss: All in the Family. It was fortuitous that television was maturing during the same period that I was. The ways in which it made fun of Archie’s racism, in particular, coincided with my own struggles to comprehend our racial divide as I navigated life in an integrated high school.
During my college years, I watched TV only occasionally, but after I graduated and began working the night shift at a newspaper, it once again became an anchor—especially the late-night reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which came on as soon as I got home. Lots of people my age had the same ritual. In 1985, in fact, when I had my first date with a woman I ended up marrying, I asked her if she watched much television.
“I don’t need a television,” she said. “I have a fireplace.”
I laughed, immediately recognizing it as a line from Mary Tyler Moore, and she laughed in turn when I picked up on her ironic comment. A year later, as we sat in pre-marriage counseling with our priest, he asked what brought us together.
“Television,” I said, half-jokingly.
He looked at me quizzically, and I said, “Never mind.” But there was some truth to that.
Throughout our marriage, we watched a lot of TV together: L.A. Law, Friends, and ER, among them, then, when HBO debuted, The Sopranos, Sex and the City and many others. When our kids were young, I also enjoyed living through a second childhood, in a way, as I watched their favorite shows with them—everything from Blue’s Clues to Rugrats to Dexter’s Laboratory.
For the last 15 years, post-divorce and living alone, television has remained important to me. Since I don’t have a nine to five job, I often watch it during the day—CNN, primarily. It can get irritating, mostly because of the nonstop pharmaceutical commercials, which make my want to hurl my TV out the window, but I like a lot of the anchors and commentators, and they can be of great comfort. I happened to be watching, for example, when the attack on the Capitol unfolded. I don’t know about you, but I felt intense anxiety as it was happening, and in the absence of real human companionship, I was glad to be in the “company” of the news team.
That’s one of the great things about television: It can still bind us together as a community and a nation—not as strongly as it did during my childhood when I joined 73 million other Americans to watch The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, but to some degree.
I sometimes wish we still had the common ground that existed when there were only three networks, but the benefits of streaming technology outweigh the negatives. Chief among them is that MLB.TV allows me to watch my beloved Mets, as I did as a child in New York.
I do wonder, as I reflect on the fact that I’ve never known life without TV, whether it’s had a negative effect. Among other things, I suspect that my addiction from an early age eroded my attention span. Much as I love reading, I’ve rarely been able to do so for hours at a time. I also think a lot about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, which argues that television turned everything into mere entertainment. I suppose there’s a contradiction there: that I love TV on the one hand and, on the other, think Postman’s study is one of the most important books of modern times.
So be it. I happen to think Facebook and its offspring are far more culturally corrosive than television, and I think Postman would agree, were he alive today—though he would probably observe that it’s just part of a continuum that began with TV.
That said, it’s all here to stay. The best we can do, as he himself concluded, is to become media literate—and I’m not sure how you do that if you’re not actually a user.
Given what I do for a living, in other words, watching TV is at times part of my work. Much of the time, though, it remains for me what it’s always been—a source of entertainment, a comfort when I can’t sleep, a vessel of news and information, and, depending on the show, a catalyst for deep reflection. Surely, for example, the Netflix show Our Planet serves that purpose.
In short, growing up with TV no doubt had its downsides. But as Churchill said of alcohol, I always got more out of it than it got out of me.