Giving up television 

1 January 2003

First off, I have to admit the falseness of the title. You can’t give up television.

You might want to. You might try. You might even succeed for about 24 hours. But, eventually and inexorably, you will fail.

Giving up television isn’t possible. Even if, through some superhuman effort, you did manage to actually stop watching (rather than just claiming to have done so), you can’t escape TV.

Arrive at work and you’ll be told, often within five minutes of stepping through the door, about the latest happenings in EastEnders or Coronation Street. It’s a given that, at some point during the day, someone will turn to you in a moment of silence and say, “did you watch that programme last night?”

Isolate yourself from your workmates and friends, and you’ll avoid this. But you can’t pick up a newspaper – not even a broadsheet – without encountering television in every other article. Pick up a tabloid and you’ll find a substantial daily publication that is all about television – even the adverts try to provoke reminders of the associated television commercials.

Want to avoid this onslaught and read your local freesheet? Good luck. If your neighbourhood has been on television (or mentioned by it, or even referred to tangentially) you will find it on the front page. Headlines that claim affinity to some transient television-created 15-minute celebrity because they once stayed as a child in a caravan park that was a bus ride from a railway station that also serves your town will forever be the top story.

And even if you managed to avoid all of that vacuous input, even down to the billboards inviting you to watch some waste of time on ITV1 or something worthy-yet-still-tacky on BBC2 that have sprung up on every High Street, you still couldn’t do it.

I know. I’ve spent the last three years trying to wean myself from The Box in the corner.

It started simply, sometime in 2000 or thereabouts. I have Sky, and therefore have, at the best guess, some 200 or so channels available, a pitiful 80% being nakedly devoted to shopping.

Of the remainder, some I felt I couldn’t live without. If I was feeling blue, there was Paramount with familiar comedy. On UK Gold was a host of BBC entertainment programmes I had previously enjoyed. Granada Plus served up a delirious diet of American eye-gum and Anglia drama.

Pushing further down the field, there was a panoply of instant headline news to gorge upon. Further still was re-dubbed A&E Network historical ‘documentaries’ (it turns out the Americans won everything, ever, without help or, indeed, a reason to be fighting in the first place. Little did we know).

Finally, there was a battery of pay-per-view pornography, all featuring – from the 10-minute ‘freeview’ segments – women with very large assets who seemed to enjoy nothing more than rubbing them for their own amusement. I assume so, anyway, as they amused me for quite a different reason, meandering from ludicrous to hideous via everything in between.

Then one day I found, with an audible start, I had been sitting for over an hour flicking listlessly through all seven million or so channels, and their Plus One varieties, resting on each programme for no more than 30 seconds or so.

A thought suddenly occurred to me. I was falling out of love with television.

I’ve been in love with television now for my almost my entire life. My earliest memories all feature television, somewhere, even if The Box in the corner is just peeping over someone’s shoulder – usually with me craning to see it.

Television and I built up a close relationship even before television could keep up with my voracious needs. When I first fell in love, television needed frequent breaks from me, but was probably horrified that I followed television where it went.

Two hours of daytime testcard? I’d be watching and waiting. An hour of Pages From Ceefax? I was ready to be entertained even before I could read.

Start a new channel – as with Channel Four in 1982 – and television must have known that it had a fan for life. Only a true fan would watch the IBA holding card, the promos on a seemingly endless loop, the reminders to store the new channel on your unused ‘ITV2’ button and, inevitably, the snow in between one Trade Test Transmission and the next.

Then came 24-hour television, of sorts, as TV started to get up early and I followed for my dose of Anna and Angela or Selena and Frank. Television started to push my boundaries by staying up later, reaching 3am and then carrying JobFinder until 5.55. But I followed, as often as being severely exhausted allowed.

Music Box on Yorkshire had to be watched, though the mindless chatter meant little. Then PoV, as part of Anglia (and many other station)’s overnight output had also to be seen, despite the really mindless chatter meaning literally nothing to anyone who watched.

King of the heap was Central, who kept up a solid diet of terrible but cheap dubbed movies and editions of Donahue, and BBC Select, the subscription service that offered Moira Stewart reading the pharmaceutical headlines and scrambled pictures (and sound) aimed at farmers.

The farmers didn’t watch, and the BBC abandoned the service. I did watch – perhaps the only person to do so – and came to love television even more. Finally, TV was on, in one form or anther, when I wanted to be watching.

The satellite revolution brought more delights I couldn’t get enough of. More awful talk shows. More cheap adverts. More movies that weren’t ‘straight to video’ so much as ‘straight into the North Sea’, encased in concrete lest they pollute the rest of the planet.

And, finally, the ultimate display of television’s love for me and my love for television. Digital Satellite. An almost unlimited number of channels. A 24-hour diet (though most go off between 3 and 6am, thus giving me a chance to grab some sleep away from my beau) of television without limits.

And we both lived happily ever after.

Until that day, when I had wasted an hour of my life on television without actually finding anything to entertain, inform or educate me.

Never mind. The next night, I was back, lying in front of The Box in the corner, idly flicking. And finding nothing.

This was very odd. Television was offering me everything I had ever wanted, all of the time. And it didn’t interest me.

There must, evidently, be something wrong with me. Why would this unadulterated flow of programming suddenly stop appealing to me?

The question answered itself. It was simply an unadulterated flow of programmes. Nothing television was showing was designed for me. It was all designed to be watched in the background – the visual version of commercial radio.

When had this happened? When did television turn its back on me in this terrible way? I could, from a political point of view, name several potential dates (some of which are actually before I was born and just slow burning).

At that point, I decided to give up television. It’s been nice knowing you, but it’s over. So long, and thanks for all the eyestrain.

But it isn’t possible. Whilst you can stop the mindless grazing in search of entertainment – of any sort – you can’t escape television itself.

And I didn’t manage to give up. The lure of ‘The Simpsons’ on Sky One during dinner, or Starkey’s digging in the knicker drawer of history on The History Channel still had me hooked.

But I did manage to detach. If I missed a programme I had read about (by mistake, obviously) I didn’t mourn or worry. I let the programme go.

I know this is easier to do when television is suddenly offering several hundred chances to see the same programme or film over the next two years, but I still gave up the “oh no, I’ve missed…” syndrome.

Next, I gave up ‘appointment television’. This is where television schedules several new episodes of a single programme in one block, or new episodes of several programmes in one block, or a mixture of the same stripped through the week or at the same time in the same place all the time (it’s a wide definition, I know).

That was actually very easy to do. Drop the guilt that television places upon you, and missing a programme simply because television told you to watch it becomes easy to do.

Next, give up surfing. Easy. It was never rewarding – proof not only that television had fallen out of love with me at the same time I had fallen out of love with television, but that television had come to hate me personally – and finding other things to do was easy to manage.

I went back to reading, devouring a whole book in an evening: something television would have edited down to fit an hour (and given an acceptable if boring ending) or spread out over several weeks, usually at ever-shifting times just to fool me 6 weeks in.

Finally came news. I love news, possibly more than I love(d) television. But only television does rolling 24-hour news. Radio Five Live pretends, but descends into sports coverage whenever the opportunity presents. The ITN News Channel has disappeared off DAB (being the audio track of the unlamented television channel, this was no more than methadone to a heroin addict). LBC, available over the internet, is like listening to people die in a messy road accident.

So this was the hardest to give up. But television actually helped. Teletext, more specifically Ceefax, gave me an instant, always-on fix of news at any time, better written and more succinct than television or radio has ever managed. This, I suspect, explains the BBC’s desperate attempts to abolish it.

But that leaves a single gap. The Simpsons. And here is the rub. I’ve given up television. I no longer have any feelings for the genre, though I maintain a fond memory of past good times we had together.

But I can’t tear up that final link. The equivalent of keeping wedding album years after the divorce for me is The Simpsons. I’d like to say the same about Futurama, from the same stable and actually much funnier. But it isn’t stripped. It doesn’t creep up on me and draw me in.

Whilst every other programme – even my once-beloved and still much missed appointment programme ‘Star Trek’ – has dropped away, The Simpsons remains.

One day, I know, I’ll give that series up too. At that point, television for me will be a part of my history. I’ll remain forever fond of the good times, and sour at how I was betrayed. And even guilty for abandoning television when it so clearly needed me.

But I’ll be free, sometime after the next episode of The Simpsons.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Wednesday 30 November 2022