Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television: Inherent Bias

In this excerpt from his book "Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television," Jerry Mander discusses how television must resort to technical tricks to create an illusion of unusual or novel activity because it's inherently boring.

| January/February 1980

From Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, copyright© 1977 by the author. Reprinted with the permission of William Morrow and Company, Inc.

What's the matter with our modern, technologically based society anyway? Why isn't it more satisfying? Why do so many of us now feel that some vague something hounds us and diminishes us and makes us into something less than we should be? Most specifically of all, do we really use television and so many other "benefits" and "tools" of our technological age—or does it use us? Jerry Mander speaks the unspeakable and asks the unaskable in a remarkable new book that is being completely serialized in this magazine. This is the ninth installment in the series.

Argument Four: The Inherent Biases of Television

Along with the venality of its controllers, the technology of television predetermines the boundaries of its content. Some information can be conveyed completely, some partially, some not at all. The most effective telecommunications are the gross, simplified linear messages and programs which conveniently fit the purposes of the medium's commercial controllers. Television's highest potential is advertising. This cannot be changed. It's an inherent bias of the technology.    

Artificial Unusualness

The technical limitations already described conspire to create a far deeper and much more serious problem: TV is boring. It is inherently boring.

With information confined to only two sensory modes, with sensory synesthesia shifted, with low-definition imagery, with the total loss of context (aura and time), and with viewers whose thought processes are dulled, the producers of television programs begin with a difficult task. How to create interest through a medium that is predisposed to turn people off?

My friend Jack Edelson has put it this way: "It's the most curious thing; when I watch television I'm bored and yet fixated at the same time. I hate what I'm watching and I feel deeply disinterested but I keep watching anyway." His statement was echoed by dozens of letters I have received, and children describe their TV experience in similar terms.

The hypnotic-addictive quality of the medium goes a long way to keep the bored viewer fixated before the screen. So does the fact that our mediated environments don't offer much by way of stimulation. TV is the only action. However, there is much more to this bored fixation than that. Television producers and directors, deeply aware of the inherent limitations of the medium, have developed a vast technology of tricks—a technology of attachment, actually—that can succeed in keeping a viewer engaged despite the lack of any real desire to be watching. Most of the techniques were originally developed by advertising people, who have always had vast amounts of money available for experiments and whose raison d 'etre is to develop technologies to fixate the viewer.

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