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The Centre of the Universe

Now that network television has all but disappeared from our everyday consciousness, it’s difficult to convey how central it once was to how we viewed ourselves. When I was young, when both I and television were in our formative years, television was my window onto the real world. Wherever I was at the moment was not the real world; our living room was not a real living room, our furniture was not real furniture. It was shabby and old, it was not Mary Tyler Moore’s furniture, which was always modern and new. Real people had new, modern furniture. My bedroom was not Beaver Cleaver’s bedroom. My clothes were not neatly hung in my own closet, my bed was not perpetually made, I did not do homework at my own desk, under my own desk lamp, I did not have an older brother who would alternately tease and help me. We did not live in a dream house, like Donna Reed. My father was not Ward Cleaver, who was always calm and caring and fair. My father did not know best. Beaver Cleaver’s father was a success at work and a good father at home; every problem Beaver Cleaver had – and they were often the same problems I had — was solved in under half an hour. That was how real families worked. My father struggled to stay in his job and was always worried about something. He was not Ward Cleaver, and therefore, by the merciless logic of the young, he was not a good father. Our house was not a real house. My family was not a real family. That was the pervasive influence of television. As Bill McKibben argues in The Age of Missing Information, when television positions itself as the centre of the universe, everything else feels peripheral.

It may seem to be a bit late to be criticizing television. The television world has changed. In the recent movie Late Night, Emma Thompson plays a maturing talk-show host who is losing her audience because she refuses to acknowledge that the old talk-show format is no longer relevant to contemporary reality. Her monologue, in which she makes fun of Twitter, falls on uncomprehending ears. She was like a stand-up Protoceratops making jokes about mammals, to an audience of mammals.

Television has changed, but that’s not to say it has evolved. Television is no longer the centre of the universe. A large part of McKibben’s argument against television was based on his analysis of the advertisements shown on tv: the point of most tv ads, he wrote, was to make the viewer feel inadequate as a human being if he or she didn’t have the product being advertised. Last year, for the first time, subscribers to Netflix outnumbered subscribers to cable and satellite tv, and Netflix doesn’t have ads. That seems like a change. This year, however, Hulu is inserting advertisements onto the screen whenever a viewer hits the “pause” button. Research shows that viewers pause a movie for two reasons: to go to the bathroom or to get a snack. So, if a Hulu viewer pauses a movie, everyone else in the room gets to watch an ad for either Charmin bathroom tissue or Coca-Cola until she gets back. Too on-point? A little unsubtle? If so, viewers are not deserting Hulu in protest. If Hulu is successful, then Netflix and Amazon-Prime won’t be long in following suit. It isn’t heartening to see the new technology slipping back into the ways of the old paradigm, but it does confirm that paradigns die hard. Once Emma Thompson has her talk show renewed, we don’t want her to go back to making jokes about FaceBook. But that’s what seems to be happening.

Actually, advertising now is different from the advertising complained about by Bill McKibben. You can watch an entire ad now and not have the faintest idea what product is being promoted. And ads now are largely AI-directed, that is, ads can be directed to your individual television screen based on programs you’ve watched recently (“Recommended for You”), your internet searches, and your recent purchases, including the food you have in your refrigerator. If you’ve been searching on-line for a weekend cottage in the Muskokas, for example, you are probably going to receive a lot of cottage-rental ads on your computer and your phone and, in the near future, on your television. It’s been happening for years on websites such as Amazon, where, if you search for a book, say my novel, Up From Freedom, the Amazon page will tell you that you might also enjoy other titles related to Up From Freedom, such as Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. But AI doesn’t always get its algorithms right. The page for Up From Freedom also tells viewers that they might also want to purchase Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life, by Louis Zamperini, and Profit First: Transfer Your Business from a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine, by Mike Michalowicz. So don’t be surprised if, when your partner pauses a movie in order to make popcorn, your streaming provider displays an ad for the new Mazda. And we’ll be right back where we were in the 1970s, watching ads for products we don’t need, can’t afford, and will want to buy anyway.

However, neither Netflix nor Prime nor Disney can position themselves as the centre of the universe. Television’s position has been usurped by the smart phone. We know this because in every series I’ve binge-watched lately, the protagonists have spent almost as much time on their cell phones as they have talking to one another face to face. A character has a dramatic conversation with someone, or receives a revelatory text on her cell phone, then looks at the character standing beside her as if to say, “What? Did you say something?” My television is no longer the window onto the real world, it is a window through which we watch someone else communicating with the real world.

I don’t remember Beaver Cleaver watching television. Mary Tyler Moore worked in a television station, but I don’t recall her even having a television in her apartment. Donna Reed had a hifi, but no tv. I don’t think that was an oversight. I think the network gurus didn’t want viewers to think there was another universe out there, beyond the one they were watching. What would Beaver Cleaver watch on tv, anyway? Another tv show? Wouldn’t that have been kind of dizzying, like seeing oneself duplicated to infinity in opposed mirrors? And would the network have been able to sell ad space twice, once on their own program and again on whatever program the Beave was watching? But from a viewer’s point of view, I wouldn’t have been able to believe Beaver Cleaver was at the centre of the universe if I saw him watching the centre of the universe on television. The Beave would have been too much like me, not part of the real world, but watching it on television.

Jerry Mander makes an interesting point in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.“The question of what is real and unreal is a new one,” he writes. “The natural evolutionary design is for humans to see all things as real, since the things that we see have always been real.” Over five million years of human evolution, we have only had to discern between the real and the unreal for the past two thousand years or so, since the beginning of representational art. Adults have learned to distinguish between a statue of a person and a living person, but children still innately believe that what they are seeing is real. Show a child a photograph of a train and ask him or her what it is, and the child will not say it’s a picture of a train, they’ll say it’s a train. (And we will say, “That’s right! Very good!”) When I was eight, and looking at a television program that depicted a family, I readily believed that I was looking not at an illusion of a family, but at a real family. I remember watching Roy Rogers on television and believing that the bad guys were real criminals who, sentenced to death for some capital offence, had opted to die by being shot by Roy Rogers. How else to explain what I was seeing: a real human being shot and killed by another real human being?

Given the changes that have taken place in the television world, does television still have that power? Have we become hyper skeptical about what we see on television? It might seem that we have. We don’t believe that some sports events are real: professional wrestling, for example. We don’t even believe most news programs anymore. And we certainly don’t believe that “reality tv” is real.

If that’s true, then I think we are the poorer for it. Being able to distinguish between real and unreal should not mean that we believe everything to be fake. I would rather be that imaginative, amazed child watching a real family solve real problems in half an hour, than be the cynical consumer who knows he is watching a bunch of actors playing fictional roles that have nothing to do with real life. We still need the illusions. In recent polls, nearly three-quarters of us say we make important life decisions based on how we see fictional television characters make important decisions. We see how family crises are resolved. We see how good jobs are obtained and then kept. We see how friends are supposed to behave towards one another. The point about the willing suspension of disbelief is that it is willing.

In evolutionary terms, two thousand years is less than a second in the life of an elephant. What I have described as the way we watch television is also the way we read books. We need that suspension of cynicism, that dive into the realm of alternate realities. We need to imagine. Television doesn’t have to kill the imagination, it can provide an entire universe within which our imaginations can freely roam. Television is not the centre of the universe: we are.