As I sit down to write this, I am reminded of a book lying on my shelf all these years that I should’ve read. It’s called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. A sentence from a review on the title page says “a scintillating analysis of television’s effect on culture”. If only I’d not wasted all those hours watching television and read it instead… I curse myself.
It wasn’t a well thought out or conscious decision. It happened a few years after the news media began flourishing and new channels started appearing on screens with a speed that one found it difficult to keep count. It was a time when everyone I knew seemed to have switched to news channels, the term ‘anchor’ was in the process of being coined and you could not enter a drawing room without hearing about one or the other talk show.
I don’t think I arrived at the decision gradually. I was selective to begin with, in what talk shows I wanted to watch. And then I just stopped watching tv. All of a sudden. I would rather wait for the newspapers the next morning to know what had happened and why. As for the earth-shattering news, it would reach me with or without television.
It was as if the nerves were calmed, the constant buzz in the house replaced by the much-needed silence. There was not one particular instance to warrant this; perhaps a steady assimilation of everything I considered wrong about the frenzied news media.
The beginnings of news media were not so inauspicious, I agree, and we were all glued to the new format without realising how this high drama substituted for the ‘entertainment instinct’ within us. But the subsequent trajectory and overdose took the steam away, at least for me.
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The style and level of conversation on television was such that I as a parent did not want my children to watch it. The decibels failed to distinguish between sound and noise, something that one otherwise kept warning the children to be cautious about. In retrospect, I think, that must have been the impetus to switch the television set off. Note that the thud of breaking news and ugly split screens had not taken over yet. Note also that we kept using our television set — to watch films instead.
Now if you’re a journalist trying to survive without tv, there is this nagging feeling that you may have missed out on something big. This happened with me too. Thankfully, whatever little of this big that ever happened made its way to the social media. You could then watch the few minutes of the ‘transformative’ clip at your leisure and be a part of the conversation with confidence. The live television could die for all you cared.
I was quite a television person in my younger years. I grew up on PTV. Even though more options had started appearing while I was growing up, like STN for entertainment and CNN for news, the PTV remained the standard-bearer, the sole provider of free entertainment. I relished much of its programming, especially music and drama. The news was all contrived and censored but the 9pm bulletin commanded the loyalty of the entire family alongside the dinner that was served at the same time.
The only authentic news I can remember was about the imposition of martial law or death in accident of a not-so-favourite president — that too in the regular news bulletin. The rest of it was all propaganda, decorum, and, maybe, correct pronunciation.
The actors and singers were the real heroes as were the hosts of quiz programmes, comedy and stage shows. Those behind the camera, the writers and producers, were household names. Many of them were larger-than-life figures at a time when life was much simpler. And slower.
With time, there was clamour for more television which was addressed by the satellite dish in the 1990s. Soon people started adjusting to more channels that they could surf and watch. The pixelated Doordarshan gave way to better picture quality on Zee TV. Then there was MTV et al to choose from till the nation got its final solution in Cable tv. As PTV lost its monopoly, the viewers lost their drama and music shows, and some like me never regained them.
Ironically, not watching tv has not taken away the hysteria. The conventional followed by social media have made it even more complex and distracting; the buzz is still there — in the mind than in the room. But I am still happy about the silence around which is rather comforting. It gives one a chance to think more and choose less between all those cooking shows, plays, films and news channels. A chance to reflect that if a military dictator takes credit for this opening of airwaves, why we don’t question what it has done to us collectively. What happened to ideology, activism and even debate?
I open Amusing Ourselves to Death and start reading the Foreword: “Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley [Brave New World] and Orwell  did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision… people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was there was no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism…”
I must start reading the book.