The power of Television – pulling the plug proves the point

Asked by the National Museum of Film & Photography to write an article for its magazine Archive about the power of television, I explained that – despite being the first occupant of the Greg Dyke Chair of Film AND Television at the University of York – I had been on a one-person TV viewing strike since March 2003. Would this disqualify me from discussing the issue, I wondered? No, we decided after some reflection, perhaps not. I realised that writing about not watching television – and the effect this abstention had had on my life – could be an original and fruitful way of proving how powerful, intrusive, diverting, mind-numbing and phobia-inducing television (along with its audiovisual first cousin the Internet) has become, as we plough blindly on into this hi-tech 21st century.

Channels sprout up like weeds. Broadcasters digitise, diversify and dumb down. News infiltrates every second of the day and night and can even be viewed on a mobile phone. Richard, Judy and Auntie Oprah decide what books we should read whilst film, theatre, music and art gurus dictate our taste in – high, low and middle brow – eye and ear culture. Commentators and programmers claim to defend free speech and uphold objectivity whilst in practice relentlessly preaching the victors one-sided, post Cold War gospel of Western Supremacy and Capitalism Rules OK. Endless propaganda for our consumer society – ‘there IS no alternative, so just buckle down, empty your brain, spend your money and join the herd’ – masquerades as educative information, informative info-tainment, escapist entertainment or in-depth documentation of the ‘other point of view’. Reality TV tells the truth because it is real, but goes little further than revealing the unreal-life of those living their lives especially for TV. Big Brother is not watching you, you are watching Big Brother – and being brainwashed, mangled, soft-soaped and spun dry, day in day out, like never before in history. The power of Television – tell me about it. Or, perhaps I – as an ex-TV watcher, as a convinced and fully paid-up member of Tele-Addicts Anonymous – should try and tell you.

First of all, how did my viewing strike start? How and why did I switch off and not switch on again? In other words – and the analogy to the addictive, but ultimately harmful habit of cigarette smoking is a good one – how, and why, did I give up? ‘How’ is the easy part: I stopped. One day in March 2003 I decided that I wished to liberate my brain – and those overworked feeder organs the eyes and ears – from the opinions, ideas, jokes, dramas, triumphs, untruths and disasters of others. Remove myself from the hypocrisy and hype of politicians, from the obscenity of warmongering and killing in the name of freedom and democracy, from that endless indigestible diet of the weak being destroyed and destabilised in the name of us, the strong. Cleanse myself of the clogging tar of too many other-people’s lives – in fiction, in news, in sport, in hybrid faction form; wean myself off sugary soaps and senseless sitcoms, reassert control over my own agenda and save my brain cells for something better than the instant but addictive – and basically barren – brew of under-whelming overviews, second-rate series and fear-inducing news served up by most broadcasters worldwide.

But surely, you may ask, millions survive this diet without resorting to a fast, to total abstention? Why suddenly decide that TV has taken you over and is no longer under your control? Why not go on living your life with a harmless daily dose of small-screen ‘poison’ merrily pumping round your mind and body, zapping the nooks and crannies that might otherwise think for themselves? Well, the answer in my case is to be found in the coincidence of two major news stories in March 2003 and my location at that time. I was at the centre of one – at the epicentre of its very scary content – and sickened by a second, unfolding far away. In the first I was an unwilling but inevitable participant, in the second – as is more often the case for viewers – I was just another impotent onlooker watching avoidable horrors take place against my wishes elsewhere in the world.

The second came first. In late March 2003, the Americans – supported by their ‘brave’ British Poodle – illegally invaded Iraq with the express aim of using a vastly superior arsenal of missiles, bombs, guns, tanks and ‘non-lethal’ chemicals to ‘shock and awe’ the Iraqi people into submission or – as it was euphemistically called in the top-spin trailers that preceded the main movie – into ‘liberation’. I had seen this one coming and, after being glued to endless precision-bombing replays and studio sandpits during the 1991 Gulf War, decided in advance not to watch any news from Iraq or listen to justifications for the aggression from Bushwhackers, Blair-witches or along-for-the-ride Berlusconis. As a result, for two days I did not watch any news – nothing else counts as news when a bully’s about, even in Hong Kong and even on Chinese State Television.

But then the second story broke, right under my nose: five people entered a lift, one of them sneezed and a week later two had died and the other three were infected with a new and unknown virus. The Severe Atypical Respiratory Syndrome had jumped from the civet – a small, and up until then harmless wild cat found in South China – to humans and was now jumping from human to human at an alarming rate and in a way that no one could foretell: if one sneeze could fell five, what would five hundred or five thousand sneezes do in a city of six million? SARS was news and the HKSAR – the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region – where I lived and worked was at the story’s centre.

Instead of mindlessly watching people don masks and have their temperature taken whilst myself drinking beer, munching crisps and stroking a domestic cat; instead of smugly shaking my head as I stared blankly at workers disinfecting their fingers after pressing the lift button and walking warily around each other in a repressed state of total fear and panic; instead of experiencing the usual unconscious schadenfreude and sense of ‘rather you than me, mate’ that watching the news induces in most of us, I suddenly found I was one of those people on the screen. No longer the viewer, but the viewed and shit-scared.

I would return home – having held my breath during the crowded, one-minute, thirty-floor ascent to my apartment – remove and discard my disposable and possibly now infected surgical mask, scrub my hands and take my temperature and hope, just hope, that the man in the taxi queue who had put on his mask after sneezing was not infected. Then I would watch the news. Iraq had second billing now; killing fields far away cannot compete with death on the doorstep. But the news did not help. No one knew how SARS was spreading. No one knew how to prevent infection or cure the infected and this daily parade of over-informed ignorance made things worse. Night after night clueless experts speculated against a backdrop of climbing infection and death rates. Wild new theories on how the killer could be caught (‘SARS airborne’, ‘SARS sewage-borne’, ‘SARS bird-borne’) were espoused, increasing my sense of repressed hysteria, decreasing the effectiveness of my already pressured immune system – ‘Fear can reduce natural resistance faster than AIDS’, one expert warns – and leaving me too scared to go out and get the organic, wholemeal food I needed to boost my body’s defence system.

I began to watch the war news too; too zonked after SARS bulletins to resist reports from Iraq. Impotent anger fused with the potent fear of pneumonic death, until one evening I could take no more. I screamed at the screen: ‘Leave me alone!’ and somehow found the strength to turn the wretched thing off. From that day on, I stopped watching all news programmes and cut down my newspaper intake to one weekly digest. I’d fight SARS and my debilitating outrage at the war, I decided, by taking back control of my life; not continue to live it – or have it lived and defined for me – through the lives, words, deeds and misdeeds of others on television. It was a good move and later, when government adverts about SARS began to pop up in every commercial break and BBC World – in the wake of CNN – became BBC World War, I extended my ban to all TV programmes.

The first two weeks were tough, very tough, like they are for the smoker quitting cigarettes. But gradually I felt television’s power – and the addictive hold it had maintained over me for so long – begin to lessen. I became less frightened on the streets. I used common sense to protect myself against SARS. I began to get things in proportion, make space in my brain for my own thoughts. I no longer rushed in from work, turned on the television and waited to be told what to think and feel; no longer allowed my own thoughts and opinions to be turned into worthless also-rans in the torrent of expert opinion, political hypocrisy and fear-mongering coming from the box. It no longer mattered what Bush or Blair said. I could not hear them. The spread of SARS no longer terrified me. I knew that I and my friends and colleagues were still alive and well and, if one of them fell ill, I could personally and positively take action. My own immediate world became once again the main conduit for information, emotion, concern and action.

And, as the months passed and I continued to resist the urge to watch television, the extent of my ‘liberation’ and the mind-numbing nature of the ‘nicotine’ box became more and more apparent to me. The passive consumption of other people’s power was replaced by a surge in personal power. I began to think, act and create more clearly – as the ex-smoker begins to breathe more deeply. I began to understand and value the importance of my own judgements, views and opinions. A few months later, I read of a TV-viewers strike in Italy. Protestors at Berlusconi’s media monopoly were asking people to stop viewing for a weekend. Street parties and dance parties were held instead; the screens stayed dark, the politicians lost their platform, the advertisers got worried. It worked. Television is powerful only because we watch it, not because it possesses some inherent strength or quality.

If we gave as much attention to each other as we do to TV and the Internet, we would undoubtedly all feel more empowered, less alienated and more in control. Not that I am advocating fulltime withdrawal for everybody – though it would be a very revolutionary act. But I do recommend a week or even a month of total abstention. You will be amazed at how much better you feel, how much more clearly you think and how much more time you seem to have. And then, when you do return to watching – because, on reflection, television is more like alcohol than cigarettes and, perhaps, not too bad for you in small doses – you will watch with a sharper and more critical eye, be more selective. Go on a diet every now and then – like you do with any other sort of diet – and give your mind, soul and body a break. And if Bird Flu flies in on the wind, don’t wait for the experts to wind you up and wear you down – throw the box away and go for an energising run.

© Richard Woolley. April 2006.

[This article originally appeared in the magazine ARCHIVE, journal of the (then) National Museum of Film & Photography in Bradford, UK.]