Why you’re still watching TV

Sunday, November 1, 2020 - 9:25am

NOSELL

PBS Western Reserve

They put TVs in hospital rooms. You don’t think twice about it while you’re there, probably because you’re distracted by whatever reason you’re there in the first place. The wall-mounted, boxy television set perches in the corner of a bare room reeking of antiseptic and bodily fluid. Sometimes it’s tuned into a generic game show with a host that tries his best to mimic a more charismatic person. Or it plays the kind of daytime soap opera that exists only to be background noise to drown out the silence between the beeps of heart rate monitors and IV drips. 

It sits, and it watches. It sees you hunched over in a plastic chair with just enough padding to prevent complaints. It sees you hunched over and fighting back tears and the bone-aching heaves that come with desperation and grief. It sees you propped up on pillows with a needle in your arm and stickers on your chest that leave a gooey residue that won’t go away after three showers. It sees you dazedly lifting up your arm for the nurse to take your vital signs in the middle of the night. It sees a doctor point at a chart of a pain scale from zero to ten with little cartoon faces beneath the numbers because they know you’re hurting and demand you tell them just how much.

There is a TV above you, and the sound is off. You don’t always need to hear it to know it’s there. It will always be there, no matter how many familiar faces and complete strangers come and go. In fact, it’s one of the few pieces of hospital furniture that doesn’t come with wheels for trips up and down the wide, cavernous elevators. Of all the things to bolt into the wall of a room no one wants to be in, they chose a TV. They put TVs in hospital rooms because they know you need it.

If movies represent the spectacle of show business, the magnitude of blockbusters, the insane celebrity of its stars, TV represents all things small. A miniature version of the silver screen, television arrived in homes and quickly replaced the radio as the hearth of the house. Furniture was arranged around a grainy black and white screen and stayed there indefinitely. Instead of intimate fireside chats with President Roosevelt, Americans of the early 1950s tuned in to reassuring domestic sitcoms like “Mary Kay and Johnny” and “I Love Lucy.” As a formal update of the radio, the TV had to prove itself valuable in the lives of consumers. 

Rather than opt for the theatrics of cinema, television burrowed its way into the daily routine of the country and offered a constant stream of content into the home. News broadcasts, comedy and variety shows and talent competitions gave television a broad range for appealing to every member of the family. And at the time, there was nothing more important than protecting the American nuclear family. The TV forced itself into the home until it became a fixture so permanent, no one could consider it anything but essential. The attachment that the American public felt to the television laid the foundation for an entire media industry built upon an unspoken trust between the consumer and the consumed. 

The images on the TV screen reflected the desires of the people who watched it. Light entertainment about everyday American life has remained a constant since the days of “I Love Lucy,” partially because the post-war “return to normalcy” period never really ended. In the 1960s, audiences could flip between the civil rights movement to “The Andy Griffith Show” to the newest casualties of Vietnam. With more access to information, more viewers demanded to see who they were, who they wanted to be and how their country fit into the same rabbit-eared box that a family like theirs could. The smaller scale of the TV widened the scope of what audiences saw as belonging to them. The television gave the people ownership of an entire medium. It was built for them, targeted at them, so fundamentally connected to their lives that it created a new, more intimate relationship with viewers. 

That intimacy has only strengthened over time. Despite its many technological competitors for America’s attention, the television still remains the center of our homes. The couches still face the screen, whether it’s playing Netflix or cable. The advent of streaming services has only increased its presence in pop culture because now nearly every program is available somewhere for you to rewatch over and over again. Unlike movies, TV shows have hours of content to feed its audience; you don’t have to stop watching. It doesn’t have to end. It will always be there, sitting patiently on its stand in the center of your living room, waiting for you to come home. 

You lift the remote to your TV and see the nurse call button just below the volume adjuster. There’s nothing on, but there’s always something on, so you start scrolling through the channels. You flip to  “SpongeBob SquarePants” and laugh at a stupid starfish who lives under a rock. It’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen, or at least it feels that way right now. You flip to “The Office” and realize you’d still rather be here than at work where your boss makes Michael Scott look like a genius. You flip to “M.A.S.H.” because you want to remember what it was like when you were a child and could look up to brave doctors with good hearts and half as much paperwork as the ones making their rounds to your room. 

You flip to the news and turn the sound off. The TV is just far away enough so that you can’t see the headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen. You don’t need to hear what the announcer is saying; all that matters is that he’s talking to you. Because you need it. TV is a fixture of who we are and a comforting permanence we are so often deprived of. You have always needed it. Everyone does.

Daily Arts Writer Anya Soller can be reached at anyasol@umich.edu.


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