Bread and Circuses: The Temptation

Please follow and like us:


Maria browses the Internet on our new HDTV.

My Internet service provider, Time Warner, has always probably held that I was a strange customer.
When I first called them up to order service, they were incredulous that I wanted only Internet service and no cable access for television. They had all sort of special deals, the customer representative explained to me, to bundle high-speed cable modem access to the Internet with all the cable TV stations. “No,” I was patient but firm. “I just want a contract for Internet access but NO cable TV.” I got what I wanted.
For almost two decades I have turned my back on what has been called “the great unacknowledged educator of our time” – television. In my early twenties I took my TV out to the desert and blew it up with a shotgun blast at short range and have lived without it ever since. At the time TV seemed to me like an insidious plot to make my country stupid, and I would have none of it; the act of destroying my TV was a ritual cleansing of sorts, and I continued sans television until I got married at 36 years of age. After long negotiations, my wife and I agreed to own a TV hooked up to a DVD player but with no cable TV access – I could live with that. For a wedding present my good buddies Jim and Marty bought Maria and I a TV, something that brought them much mirth. “Let’s buy Richard a TV!” they laughed together. These past five or so years we have watched movies on DVD with Jim and Marty’s TV in our living room.
But this holiday season we acquired a new HDTV, and this has changed things. Time Warner regularly sends me “special offers” trying to entice me into buying more of their communications services. “You already have the Internet coming through our pipes into your home,” they say, “so why don’t you simply add on TV and phone services, too. We could hardly make it more easy than this.” To be more specific, their latest offer is cable TV, high-speed Internet access, and digital phone for a hundred bucks per month. Their whole approach is to get customers to have all the services bundled together. The Time Warner logo emphasizes this, and they have special offers to get customers to commit to Time Warner for all their communications services.
If I canceled my analogue phone service with ATT and committed to Time Warner digital phone, I could almost get TV in the bargain for what I pay now. It would essentially be cable TV for free! And now that I have an HDTV, I could have all the new HD cable stations without spending any more money per month. It would take just one phone call.
I am tempted.
It all comes back to the same dilemma as always: time and priorities. That precious spare time, after all one’s obligations to the rest of the world are settled – how does one use it? On my deathbed, will I regret having missed television? Or will I regret not having delved further through the stack of books next to my bed (often wait in vain) that await my limited time and attention? So what if the HD signal is wonderful and rich and vibrant? Is there really much on TV that is worth it? Anything really worth my time will eventually come out on Netflix sooner or later. And my wife is trying to get into painting and a sense of space and quiet – no new electronic distractions – would help.
I tend towards wanting to control the pace of dynamic media entering the household. I tend towards voting “no” on TV in our household. When I watch TV in hotels, it seems like such a circus. It seems they would do anything to keep you from changing the channel and losing advertisers – they are in the “boredom killing business.”


From Network (1976)
(25.7 mb)

There are flying graphics and flashing lights and everyone-is-so-excited – seemingly designed for an audience with the attention span of a gnat. I think I would want more quiet and introspection and less circuses and noise in my life (and the life of my family). I know there is good programming on TV, but if it really is that good I can wait and get it on Netflix. If the movie is any good, I can wait six months. I could care less about sports and sports coverage. I read two newspapers a day and am informed about the world there and on the Internet.
What is left?
On the other hand, there is so much I want to write – so much I want to read. In this sense, I harken back to the days of Lincoln, Jefferson, Bacon, Montaigne, Boethius, and Seneca where distractions were fewer. I don’t see how TV brings me closer to discovering myself – to living as deeply as did people in the past. I see TV as taking me away this. TV seems to me all about entertainment, and I don’t really want “entertainment.” I want something more. In the past people were thrust back more on themselves. It got dark out and you lit a candle and wrote, read, or talked with family or friends. They didn’t use TV as a form of electronic anesthesia.
What can TV offer me? I don’t want sitcoms. I don’t want a laugh track. I don’t want celebrity gossip. I don’t want “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” I don’t want wit and style. I don’t want to watch others play sports – I want to play sports myself. I don’t want simulated life – I want real life. I want fulfillment. I want truth.
And I have that pretty good right now without TV.
On this first day of 2008, what is the best use of my precious time? Just because HDTV nowadays has more vibrant color and a wider 16×9 format, is the content of any higher quality than previously? I don’t think its any better than before. So I am inclined to say “no” to Time Warner and their tempting offer.
What do you think? Am I missing something?
I am open at this moment to the opinions of others, especially those different from my own.

Wife on her way to Stage 6 and downloading 1080p DIVX clips to play on new Sony Bravia HDTV via her laptop.


  • Leslie

    Just because you have it doesn’t mean you have to watch it.
    Our cable company’s internet is more expensive by itself – we save money by getting basic cable, because they throw in cable internet at a discount price if you have cable TV – it’s substantially cheaper to have BOTH cable TV and internet than to just have cable internet. So we have cable TV, but we rarely watch it. My toddler watches Mister Rogers and we watch the World Series and Superbowl if the Red Sox or Patriots are playing – although we were able to do those things even without the cable. Having access to cable TV hasn’t changed our viewing habits.

  • Spencer Burke

    It doesn’t sound to me like you have much of a dilemma. You don’t seem to need television in your life, and neither does your wife or Julia for that matter. You seem to be thinking that you might as well just because it doesn’t cost you anything extra, but that kind of logic doesn’t make you pick up a ratty old couch on the side of the road with a “free” sign when you already have a perfectly nice couch at home. You have more than enough activities and entertainment to fill your free time several times over. Why bother adding more?
    When I was growing up we had cable , but I wasn’t allowed to watch it. Sometimes I would watch videos of disney movies or discovery channel specials, but I spent most of my time reading books and playing outside instead. I know that when I have children I want to raise them away from the pervasive influence of television.
    There are certainly many programs of worth on TV. I love the West Wing and the Office, but I watch these on DVD (which come without the filler of commercials). Since coming to college, I haven’t missed the TV at all. There are always better things to be doing with your time, and though I know that television passes as quality family bonding in many places, I think it’s better to leave the “panem et circenses” to the romans.

  • Robert Marshall

    Mr. Geib if my little sisters would not stop speaking to me, I would take the television in my house and light it on fire in the street. I believe that box alone is causing so many problems in our world today, it almost makes me break a sweat just to begin. Television has virtually brainwashed our entire nation. People don’t read. People don’t know the history of the nation. They only know what the news tells them, and Mr. Geib, the news is owned by rich individuals who have opinions and lots of stake in the government. The media is the 4th branch Mr. Geib. And the television is the computer chip implanted in every citizens brain controlling their every thought and action. I need to look like that because Brittany Spears does, all the way to, defeat terrorism, defend freedom! What does that mean Mr. Geib??? Those are the most general terms you could possibly use, the public does not know what they mean, but they follow blindly because there are so many of them, and it would be so hard to go against that mass. Look at our celebrities Mr. Geib, those are the roll models of todays youth! They have no comparison for greatness and it makes George Bush almost seems like a decent leader Ahhh! I am just ranting now. Anyways, television is the opiate of the proletariat, and the 4th branch has got this nation so doped up right now, we are on lock so tight, the America I thought I knew is just a thread now, lasting only in the words of Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, and dare I say Theodore Kaczynski? Don’t get cable Mr. Geib, read W.B. Yeats and go for a walk in the evening.
    with all respects,

  • Tom the Rocker

    I’ve lived with television my whole life up until about four months ago when I moved to College. It definitely had its use to me as a youth, and it killed many hours of boredom. However, as I matured I grew to dislike it. Especially the inane, puerile, incipid choices of my sister that seem to reflect the popular media of today. When I was enrolled in your American Experience, being regaled with tales of your shotgun wielding rebellion against the machine, I thought it may have been a little extreme, but I soon saw the brilliance of your action, and found my own television viewing gradually becomming based around the news and the classic, mindless background sounds of 70’s cartoons on Boomerang. Then when I went to College I altered my viewing schedule to one half hour a week for NBC’s the Office. I soon realized that I could watch that online as well, and I stopped even that. Anything that you would use the television for you could do just as well online or with a book.
    It seems to me that the television would be of little use to you. Your judgements on it are overall quite accurate. Leslie does have a good point in that you would not have to watch it, but her point only seems valid if the cable would ultimately mean you’re spending less. If you’re expending even a dollar more, then it does not seem worth it to me.

  • Chadd

    I think that it’s good to have TV around, even if you don’t watch if often. You might be worried about Julia watching too much TV as she grows up. I watched TV nonstop as a child, as much as I could. What did that do to me? It made me realize how stupid most of it was, and by the time I entered High School I was done with it. I have a TV in my room, and Kalie has one in her living room, and still I never get around to watching it. I do homework, I spend time with her, I go to class and I work all the time. TV has never gotten in the way of any of that. But if I can’t sleep some night, then I do enjoy putting on the History or Discovery channel – though they lack in depth, they provide you with at least a pretty good summary of some topic, and professors from good universities are often the only people interviewed for such shows. CSPAN is also an incredible channel, as well as its many brother channels, like CSPAN2 and 3. I don’t know if you’ve watched any of them, but CSPAN provides committee hearings in Congress, things which are usually summarized for us – this way we can see it ourself. Now it’s campaign stuff mainly, but that’s also incredibly important. CSPAN 2 often has “book TV”, where a professor or professional writer will come on and talk all about their new book and what inspired them to write it. Far from pushing me away from reading, it can help me discover more books that I will like, or diffuse my interest in a book that I shouldn’t buy afterall.
    There are many evils in the world. There are many things that destroy lives and waste time. TV just isn’t one of them. If you have the resolve, you won’t watch it. More than that, I hardly thing that you would be someone that would watch a dumb show just “because it’s on”. If it’s cheap, then I think that TV can provide you with at least some passive learning, or worthwhile half-hour of entertainment. I think that’s it’s far too easy to be pretentious about TV, like Spencer, and I think that most people here are railing against TV because it makes you sound more sophisticated – it doesn’t. TV can have its moments, so as long as you don’t watch America’s Next Top Model, I think that you can get some genuine good from TV.

  • Eric Palmer

    Our TV broke almost a year ago, and we decided not to replace it. I was amazed at how many people offered to replace it. People wanted to GIVE us a TV. I wish they invited us to dinner that much. But we opted out. No TV. It’s been great. And I do think not having the TV available makes a huge difference. My wife was pregnant with our second child at the time, and she said that in the last few weeks before it broke, the TV was on all day. She was glad to see it go. So was I. Since then I’ve read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the Odyssey, and a half dozen contemporary novels. And I’ve played with my son and daughter. I will admit I do watch movies and past seasons of The Simpsons and The Office on the computer’s DVD player, and YouTube has become a family favorite, but it’s not the same thing as the endless onslaught. I’ve seen TiVo help a lot of people get more out of their TV viewing experience, and control it more, but I like our set up fine for now.

  • LA Brooks

    I haven’t had television for a long time and find myself in the same dilemma as you are, and I’m also having the same response. I fear that what precious time I do have should be devoted to projects I love doing, work I love doing. As far as relaxation goes – there’s always movies to rent. My movie rentals are probably pretty close to what a cable bill would be, or my half of one anyway, but I like having the control of what I expose myself to. You could argue, that I would still have control if I ordered tv by just turning it off but the temptation to numb out totally is so delicious I might have a hard time doing that. Let us know what you end up doing.
    P.S. I think you are a very smart and it does make a difference when you learn things or do things and share them with others. The argument for you and I could be that when we aren’t watching television we are doing things that filter down to the greater good of all kinds of people. Perhaps that’s just more in line with my beliefs and goals. even if at times I become self-indulgent. I like to think I’m boning up for more creative work during those few moments.
    Frankly, I’m at the point where movies are starting to make me ill and I’m the one whose choosing them. I should mention I live in Oregon where it rains a lot.