The Thing People on Television Never Do

What’s the one thing you never see people on television doing? They’re shown fighting, swimming nude, having sex, using the restroom, and a host of other things you wouldn’t expect would be fodder for public consumption.

But one thing people on television never (or almost never) do is watch television. This is odd, since people who want you to do something usually try to make you think “everyone is doing it.” Thus in Nike ads, everyone seems to be running or swimming or biking. Everyone at parties is shown drinking plenty of beer. Nobody gets anything important done anymore without a laptop computer.

These images are ubiquitous on television because this is what advertisers pay for. But televisions: Where are they? You’d think the people who sell televisions would insist that every house on television have a television in every room and someone watching it intently. But on television programs, televisions are notoriously absent – from houses, bars, and hospitals – even though they’re nearly impossible to escape in real life.

Why is that?

The answer is obvious. If a television show showed people watching television, those people’s lives would be so boring we wouldn’t be able to stand watching them. So what does that tell us about ourselves when we’re watching television?

The one thing television can’t show honestly is itself. It’s not that they can’t break the spell about how “the magic” of television is made. There are plenty of programs that show the cameras and the operators. David Letterman made a career of it. They can show how television is made; what they can’t show is what television does. They can’t be honest with their viewers about the effects of viewing. So although you can find television shows about all sorts of social ills – drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, abortion, human trafficking, child abuse – there aren’t shows about the deleterious effects of viewing television and TV advertizing.

You won’t see a television show about people who watch television compulsively, buy things advertized there they don’t need – and how this ruins their lives. You’re even less likely to watch a television show about people watching television and then brainlessly taking on the attitudes they’ve seen there – say, for example, someone watching re-runs of old West Wing episodes and then mindlessly repeating the shallow arguments they heard there from one of the “cool” characters.


How about a show about someone who watches television news and just believes everything he sees and hears? That might be funny in a sad, sardonic sort of way – like the movie Being There, where all the characters hear exactly the message they want from the meaningless utterings of a pleasant, but simple-minded gardener. A group of six people could watch the same television news show and come away with six completely different accounts of the day’s events. “The President is selling us out.” “The president is bravely standing up to the Congress.” “Why can’t government get anything done any more?” “Government is taking over our lives; it’s a tyranny.” “The Cubs won again today. Was there a story about the president?”

How about a television show where good people watch television and after a few years, become selfishly shallow, abandon their children and friends, divorce, and buy so much junk they go deeply into debt they can never repay? We’ll call it a “reality show.”

Pope Saint John Paul II at the beginning of his encyclical Fides et Ratio points out that, “The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings,’ that is as those who ‘know themselves.’”

Novelist Walker Percy has a wonderful series of meditations on our modern refusal to come to terms with “knowing ourselves” in his delightful book Lost in the Cosmos, which begins with this quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche: “We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves,” and with Percy’s question: “How can you survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself.”

Televisions, computers, and iPhones are the perfect instruments for those who want to know everything about everything, but know nothing about themselves. The gadgets can reveal many things. The one thing you don’t usually see is yourself. Perhaps as a public service, every video screen should come equipped with a little “viewer’s box” – the kind you see when you’re using Skype or Google Chat – so that you have to look at yourself while you’re looking at the screen.

What would you see?

You might see a person interested and engaged – for a while. But if you were endlessly checking texts on your phone or watching television to “kill time,” what would you see then? A person sitting, staring blankly? A person with empty eyes? A person being drained of life?   Would you turn off the television, computer, or iPhone, or just stop using the “viewer’s box”? Would you turn away from the video screen, or just from looking at yourself looking at it?

If you saw that person on the television doing what you’re doing, would you say to yourself, “How sad! Why doesn’t that poor person break free from that horrible machine and go out, sit in the sun, talk to people, visit a park, take a walk, raise a family – you know, like the people on television do?”

St. Augustine in his Confessions tells the story of his friend Alypius who, though resistant at first, became addicted to watching the violent Roman circus games. It is not without reason that Roman tyrants used the games (“bread and circuses”) as an opiate of the masses, dulling their senses to their enslavement, both spiritual and political.

“Unreal city,” is how T. S. Eliot described our situation. “The Waste Land” was the name of the poem.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.