TV in America

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Long-time readers will remember that I haven’t owned or regularly watched television since the late ‘90s (yes, really). In fact, I tend not even to turn it on in hotel rooms, as television has gotten so distant from my life and consciousness that I never even think to look for the remote control.

However, on recent trips to the United States, I’ve flipped on the television in my hotel room for a brief period each evening, simply to try to stay somewhat connected to U.S. culture and trends.

And on some of our travels in Europe, we’ve turned on the television in our hotel or AirBNB just to get a feel for what French and European television covers these days—and, I’d hoped, to help expose me as much as possible to the French language. (I’ve had struggles learning it, my friends. Struggles.)

When you haven’t watched television much in decades, you’ll find it surprising when you do. Partly because of how much it has changed since you last watched. (For example, television when I last watched it did not have nearly as many graphical effects zooming around on top of the programming at all times, scrolling and flipping. Nauseating.)

I’ve learned that television in the United States doesn’t have higher or lower intrinsic value or quality than what I’ve found on European television—though it does have a few differences in the types of content presented. American television focuses considerably more energy on food programming and house flipping and European television obsesses more with talent shows of all varieties (though particularly singing).

In Europe and in the United States, reality television rules the airwaves.

However, I did note a few peculiarities about American television that I haven’t seen in European television:

  • The people on television in the United States—from the celebrities, the “reality show” celebrities like the Kardashians, and the regular-folk-ish reality-show contestants—have grown more and more artificial in appearance. They almost look like mannequins. From soaring cheekbones and pinched noses, to loads of makeup, to fake backsides, to artificial hair and eyelashes. Maybe one or two of these things wouldn’t get noticed as much—yet they often appear in overwhelming combinations in a single person.

  • American television leans heavily on loud and dramatic music throughout the entire program. Viewers get constantly bombarded with dramatic bing-banging after every line, every cut between characters, and every show segment.

  • American television programs could last only ten minutes, given the amount of actual substance provided. However, American television drags the stories on as long as possible through cutting back and forth between people looking at each other with overlays of the dramatic music, cutting to commercial breaks every two minutes, and then returning from commercial only to summarize what happened before the commercial break—which takes up at least half the show time before the next commercial break.

  • The commercial breaks in American television feel eternal. Anyone who thinks broadcast media advertising has gone the way of the dodo needs to think again. Clearly, television advertising lives and breathes and just seems to expand into as much space as it can get.

In sum, everything on American television has gotten amped up to eleven, from the looks and attitudes of the people to the ways the programming gets produced.

Though I can’t say I enjoyed any of the European television we’ve watched—and I don’t blame language barriers for my lack of enjoyment—I found television in the United States stressful and frustrating. Everything felt borderline hysterical—and took forever to get to the point. (Though, often, the show ended and I discovered that, in fact, it had no point.)

I can’t say these forays into television watching have convinced me to buy a television again. I’ll stick with books, cultural events, and live entertainment. Thankyouverymuch.