The average American watches 4.2 hours of TV a day.
That makes television the number one American passtime, far surpassing sports, work, reading, school… in fact, just about everything but sleep.
Americans spend more time watching television than anything else.
For the past fifty years in fact, we have all been participating in a kind of massive sociological experiment: What happens when a society spends 4.2 hours a day, every day, staring at a glowing screen.
What does it do to us?
Suppose we had decided 50 years ago that instead of watching TV, we were all going to devote 4.2 hours a day, every day to playing tennis. What kind of culture would we be?
We would all be in great shape.
We would all wear white all the time.
Serena Williams would be a Senator from New York.
Suppose we all had spent 4.2 hours a day, every day of our adult lives playing the piano?
Everywhere you went, there would be pianos. Rich people would have pianos in their bathrooms.
Chris Whittle would start a company that put a piano in every classroom in America.
Jet Blue would have in-flight pianos at every seat.
But we didn’t do that.
We didn’t devote 4.2 hours a day, every day for the past 50 years to playing tennis or playing the piano. We devoted it to watching TV.
If playing tennis gets you in great shape and playing the piano makes you musical, what does watching TV teach us? What kind of a society does our number one activity make us into?
Television watching, above all else, teaches passivity.
When you watch TV, you are supposed to sit there silently and take it.
When people talk back to TV sets, we put them in mental institutions.
Good TV watchers observe without talking back.
For fifty years, we have for 4.2 hours a day, every day, conditioned our socity to be passive.
So when a President, for example, sends troops to Iraq based on a lie, we just sit there and watch. We don’t complain. We don’t question. We watch it. Average people and US Senators. This is what we have been taught to do.
We have been instructed every day in endless hours that life is about watching. That there is nothing you can do to change what is happening in the world, on that small screen.
And that was what the technology allowed. TV, and hence, our window on the world – our electronic reality for 4.2 hours a day, was created for us. Our job was to watch.
But now, that technology has changed.
Now it is possible, for the first time, to seize control of the means of producing that 4.2 hour a day reality and craft something that is uniquely ours; a personal statement. Now it is possible to change the relationship – to make the television experience active and not passive.
This requires a complete rethinking of a world that has been fairly stable and comfortable for 50 years – they make it, you sit silently and watch it.
What happens if you make it?
What happens if you seize control of the medium to express your opinions?
Aren’t your opinions as valid and as important as Katie’s? Maybe moreso?
Video on the web, small cameras, easy edits – they give us the opportunity to change a 50 year old pattern of behavior. We no longer have to sit back and passively ‘take it’. We can now participate in the vast national electronic dialogue that goes on nightly across the nation.
But to do this requires a kind of fundamental rethinking of what television is. What television journalism is.
It cannot be passive – not anymore. And it should not be. It should be robust and aggressive.
In 1452, Gutenberg’s printing press changed forever the relationship between power and average people. It put the power to publish into the hands of anyone with an idea… and a press. The Constitution, a printed document begins with the words WE THE PEOPLE. It does not say, ‘we the anchors’. ‘We the celebrities’. ‘We the hosts’.
Now, 500 years later, video on the web puts the power to publish images and video into the hands of anyone who wants to do it. It fundamentally changes the relationship between power and average people. The potential now exists in the world of video, television and images, to change the basic nature of our relationship to the machine.
We need only take it.