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I heard there’s some good shit on TV tonight …

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I heard there’s some good shit on TV tonight … Time is a scarce resource on television. However, if one still — as is so often the case nowadays — uses precious airtime for trivial matters and meaningless ‘entertainment,’ there must be a reason. Television is — still — for a large part of the population one of the primary sources of information and worldview. Thus, filling program schedules with trivialities becomes an effective means to — instead of functioning as an instrument for shaping opinions and fostering reflection — push aside important information that citizens would need to exercise and develop their democratic capabilities. Television, through its focus on personalities and banalization of various ‘affairs,’ creates a poor environment for

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I heard there’s some good shit on TV tonight …

I heard there’s some good shit on TV tonight …

Time is a scarce resource on television. However, if one still — as is so often the case nowadays — uses precious airtime for trivial matters and meaningless ‘entertainment,’ there must be a reason. Television is — still — for a large part of the population one of the primary sources of information and worldview. Thus, filling program schedules with trivialities becomes an effective means to — instead of functioning as an instrument for shaping opinions and fostering reflection — push aside important information that citizens would need to exercise and develop their democratic capabilities.

Television, through its focus on personalities and banalization of various ‘affairs,’ creates a poor environment for real knowledge dissemination. Instead of serious opinion formation, we get demagogic programs where quick-witted, shallow individuals with limited knowledge expound on everything and nothing, but especially on topics they know nothing about. Haste is widespread, and space for thought is scarce, so it’s essential to quickly serve up pre-digested cultural fast food. And the armchair critics are always ready to spout off some catchy and flippant response to the hosts’ perpetually impossible questions.

Then there are news and debate programs where competent and skilled researchers and experts are flown in from all corners of the country at great expense, only to attempt to make their voices heard for twenty seconds while a narcissistic, self-indulgent host constantly interrupts and steals the spotlight. Simultaneously, we’re expected to listen to what debaters are saying and read more or less intellectually devoid text messages scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Clearly, the producers are more afraid that someone might get tired of the constantly interrupted attempts to speak than they are of information overload.

Simply engaging in a calm and educated conversation is not enough in our televised gladiatorial games of today. If there are no conflicts, they are quickly fabricated so that a fictional exchange of ideas can take place in front of the TV cameras. And despite often not being allowed to say anything, the ‘experts’ week after week participate in debate and opinion programs. Apparently, one is willing to endure any humiliation just to be seen and mingle on the television stage.

Watching TV has become one of our time’s most popular legal sedatives. From the stress and insecurity of working life, we come home to the artificial security of television’s representation of our lives. When we can’t muster the energy to live our lives ourselves, we tune into TV. There, we get a caricatured reflection of the life we could have lived. To avoid succumbing to spiritual apathy, we adapt. Either you unquestionably follow along, or you’re relentlessly left behind. Woe to those who can’t participate in the day-after chatter about the evening-before episode of the indoor soap opera or the run-and-play program! Thus, we sit there, day after day, fearing that we might miss out on something. We don’t know what, but there must be something, and those who don’t watch always risk missing it.

On the TV screen, the myth of success is cultivated, and our dreams are realized. TV sanctions the demand for rubbish by endorsing complete harmony. ‘Give people what people want.’ In other words, let people have the TV that TV itself has advocated. The creed of conformity — constant repetition — perpetually reproduces the same junk.

TV entertainment has become an extension of work, where the imitations of reality are supposed to give us new energy. The falseness of soap operas is meant to shield us, as viewers, from our own. In the world of soap operas, our despair becomes a promise of — despite everything — a continued future. Real tragedy dissolves into nothingness. Human contact becomes superficial touching. Depth becomes a glossy surface. Television has become the emotional industry of our time, where deep human emotions are transformed into commodities that can be bought and sold through the airwaves. Everything is to be unabashedly experienced. The consequence of constantly being fed false emotions, an impoverishment of our inner lives and difficulties in recognizing genuine emotions, doesn’t concern the media industry and its apologists.

People and humanity are reduced to a masquerade of stereotypical falsehood where only exaggeration is true. The world and reality must be filtered at any cost through the contextless order of soap operas. Thus, the illusion is created that reality is an extension of the artificial life played out on the TV screen. In soap operas, the postmodernists’ abolition of the individual is realized in the form of pseudo-individuals flickering across the screen. In soap operas, every person is interchangeable and can even return from the dead if necessary.

Soap operas are a way to escape from everyday life with synthetic daydreams where promised satisfaction compensates for real deprivation. With soap operas, culture has renounced its autonomy to — as Adorno and Horkheimer express it — “proudly align itself among consumer goods.” They are one of the visible signs of culture’s barbaric decline in the global cultural marketplace’s colonization of our lifeworld.

TV no longer needs to pretend to be culture. The fact that it’s nothing more than a business is actually used as legitimacy for the ruthlessly levelling rubbish provided to its viewers.

Soap operas are the epitome of superficiality. Their uniformity and schematic clichés culminate in an undifferentiated mess whose only advantage is complete interchangeability. Create your own soap opera — zap between channels, and you’ll get a more digestible mush than what the soap opera writers themselves cook up!

Soap operas have become a system of non-culture, ‘a stylized barbarism’ that differs only slightly from commercials. In fact, many view the commercial television advertising breaks as a refreshing break from all the dumbing games and quiz shows, soap operas, and other garbage with which we pollute the medium.

I heard there’s some good shit on TV tonight …Daring to criticize television is banned as arrogance from those who think they’re better than others. Television’s apologists see their product as the people’s culture, liberated from unnecessary and cumbersome aesthetics and ethics. Critical distance is merely cultural snobbery. What must be fought against at all costs is the thinking of human beings. Developing one’s own thinking is dangerous. Diversity must become uniformity. And creativity and critical thinking are replaced by passive and dehumanizing consumption.

But one can always dream. I hope that in the future, we can at least recreate good public service channels that broadcast quality programs without pandering to the audience’s taste with voyeuristic and exhibitionistic home programs and intellectually devoid game and quiz shows. And that, without futile competition with countless commercial channels, we don’t broadcast the same dumbed-down rubbish in indistinguishable packaging. Because I believe that even though television’s development in the neoliberal era mostly resembles the old tale of Frankenstein, who created the monster he then succumbed to, it is never too late to admit one’s mistake and turn back.

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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