Must See TV?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Since 1994, we have had National TV Turn-Off Week every April. Families pledge to pull the plug for a week and explore other possibilities: fun and games, reading and conversation, the arts and civic engagement.

This year, I had been looking forward to the early arrival of TV turnoff because I knew my dated analog screen would go blank on February 17, the date set by Congress for the nationwide switch to digital. I thought I’d see just how long I could go before buying the converter box.

President Barack Obama, however, apparently did not want any American to break the TV habit, particularly not cold turkey. He successfully urged Congress to postpone the switch to June 12, claiming that the government had not done enough to prepare Americans for the transition. John Podesta, the head of Obama’s transition team, made the case in a letter to lawmakers: “With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date.”

Now, to what exactly were the most vulnerable Americans “exposed”? Were they exposed to a harm or a good? During National TV Turn-Off Week, we are annually informed how detrimental TV viewing can be. It is strongly correlated with poor school performance (and the average child spends more hours per year in front of the tube than in a classroom); it is linked to the upsurge in obesity and poor eating habits; it can cause “mean world syndrome” (a form of depression brought on by too much violent local news); and it harms family life, friendship, and citizenship.

What would be the problem if some fairly small number of Americans lost reception? Being without TV is not like being without heat or electricity. It is a perverse notion of equality that insists that the government must help ensure uninterrupted access to a technology that successive surgeon generals have warned against.

The switch from analog to digital was meant to be morally neutral. Government obviously doesn’t want to appear inconsiderate of the inconvenience to citizens or, worse, seem to be paternalistically shutting off entertainment for some but not others.

Paternalism, however, can take various forms, and it’s hard to imagine a more condescending version than this one. Obama and his allies believe us to be so clueless and enfeebled that we lack the ability to navigate changes in the technologies on which we most depend. You would think that the self-interest we take in our self-indulgence could be trusted to motivate us—but no, we need more government support (as in the federal stimulus plan, which provided coupons for digital-TV converter boxes for 12 million households at a cost of $650 million).

Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French observer of American democracy, warned of a phenomenon he called democratic despotism: what we now call the nanny state. Like a helicopter parent, government becomes the agent of infantilization. Tocqueville predicted that this “immense tutelary power” would “take charge of assuring their enjoyments. . . . It likes the citizens to enjoy themselves, provided that they think only of enjoying themselves.” As he sarcastically quipped, “Can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?”

Tocqueville feared that this well-meaning governmental assault could eventually reduce proud, self-governing citizens to “nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, whose shepherd is the government.”

With public works of all kinds now on the national agenda, maybe we’ll soon see a program in which caring and concerned agents of centralization go door to door delivering converter boxes to the “most vulnerable” couch potatoes in the land.

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