I’ve mentioned on and off that I don’t watch TV, and several readers have curiously asked me why I do that and how I manage life without TV. So I thought it’s about time I write an article on it.
I haven’t been watching TV for a long time, since about 2009. By TV, I mean watching shows direct from TV networks or channel surfing. I still catch my favorite shows off DVD or online, though the frequency is decreasing. The last new shows I caught were Prison Break and Dollhouse (as I’m a fan of Joss Whedon’s work), both of which have ended their runs.
In the past, I was a regular TV viewer like most people. I wasn’t a TV addict or a couch potato, but I would watch TV whenever I feel like it, usually after school and in the evenings. That probably averaged out to a few hours a day. Shows I watched were drama serials, animes and variety shows on SBC / TCS (now MediaCorp).
Then slowly, I watched lesser and lesser TV. It wasn’t that I just woke up one day and decided that “This is it – I’m not going to watch TV from today onwards“. It was more of a gradual transition to a TV-free life. During university years, I’d still catch an occasional drama or two. When I started work, I stopped watching altogether because I was so busy. It remained that way even today.
And truth be told, my life didn’t crash from not watching TV. Looking back, I don’t feel like I have missed out on anything. In fact, I feel my life has changed for the better. In the past years of not watching TV, I have experienced numerous positive changes, such as increased consciousness, more clarity, more time to do what I want, productivity, freedom, and so on.
In fact, about a month ago, I tried watching TV again to see how it would be like after so many years of not watching. I gave myself 1 hour, but I couldn’t last beyond 20 minutes. The shows felt boring, the programs seemed empty, the advertisements were pointless – it just felt like a waste of time. I’d much rather be doing something else.
There are many reasons why I don’t watch TV, and I’ll share you my 10 biggest reasons you should not watch TV.
1. Watching TV Wastes Time
“They put an off button on the TV for a reason. Turn it off . . . I really don’t watch much TV.” – George W. Bush
Not watching TV has given me a lot more free time to do things I love. I remember in the past, I’d mark out shows I want to watch on my schedule. Then I’d arrange my activities around them. While I was watching the shows, other activities had to be put on hold. I didn’t count, but I was probably spending at least 3 hours/day in front of the, if not more. That’s quite a bit of time spent in front of the black box and doing nothing else. In retrospect, that was a big waste of my evenings.
5.1 hrs wasted away, every day
Nielsen research showed the average American watched an average of 5.1 hours per day, or 153 hours of TV a month (Q1 of 2009). That’s 1/3 of the time we are awake! This figure is increasing too, quarter by quarter. 5.1 hrs/day is nearly 2,000 hours a year, or 78 days – 2.5 full months. Even though these figures reflect the American population, the figures for other regions probably don’t deviate much.
With all this time spent watching TV, it’s a wonder how we even have time to do anything else. Just imagine if we spend a fraction of this time working on our goals – we’d already be making so much headway by now.
False sense of productivity
The one thing I noticed about TV is how it gives you an illusion that you’re missing out from not watching. At least, it gave me that impression. The TV trailers would go “This Thursday is Blockbuster Thursday – Be sure to catch Movie #1, Movie #2, Movie #3, back to back! You CANNOT miss this!” Or “This holiday season, all the best movies are coming home to you! You won’t want to miss this for anything!“. For a period of time, I’d take time out to catch those shows, then feel accomplished after I’d watched them.
But these shows never stop airing. They just keep going on and on, and once you are done for the week, new trailers will run. It’s like a vacuum that sucks you in and keeps you there. I also realize that I don’t ever accomplish anything from watching TV. Yes it helps me to relax and chill out at first, but after a certain amount of time I feel more sluggish and tired from watching. Then at the end of it, there’s no specific output. I’ve gained nothing and done nothing.
2. TV Slows Down Your Brain Activity
There’s a reason why they coin the term “couch potato”. Excessive TV watching turns you into a potato in time. Research has shown that when you are watching TV, your higher brain regions shut down, and activities shift to the lower brain regions [Source: TV: Opiate of the Masses]. Your lower brain is set in a “fight or flight” response mode. In the long run, your higher brain regions experience atrophy due to lack of usage. There have been studies that TV viewing among children leads to lower attention and poorer brain development.
At the end of the day, you don’t need a medical study to tell you whether TV slows down your brain or not. Since TV is a 1-way medium, you don’t engage and interact. You only sit and watch. When I was watching TV in the past, I would feel sluggish and insert. After a while, I would feel sleepy. Compare this with other activities say talking to a friend, using the computer, reading a book, writing articles, I am a whole lot more active. Imagine spending so much time in front of TV every day – it’s a matter of time before you turn into a zombie. It’s not a coincidence that heavy TV watchers are also stagnant and passive people.
Here’s an excerpt on the effects of TV on us:
When you watch TV, brain activity switches from the left to the right hemisphere. In fact, experiments conducted by researcher Herbert Krugman showed that while viewers are watching television, the right hemisphere is twice as active as the left, a neurological anomaly. The crossover from left to right releases a surge of the body’s natural opiates: endorphins. Endorphins are structurally identical to opium and its derivatives (morphine, codeine, heroin, etc.). Activities that release endorphins (also called opioid peptides) are usually habit-forming (we rarely call them addictive).
Indeed, even casual television viewers experience such opiate-withdrawal symptoms if they stop watching TV for a prolonged period of time. An article from South Africa’s Eastern Province Herald (October 1975) described two experiments in which people from various socio-economic milieus were asked to stop watching television. In one experiment, several families volunteered to turn off their TV’s for just one month. The poorest family gave in after one week, and the others suffered from depression, saying they felt as though they had “lost a friend.” In the other experiment, 182 West Germans agreed to kick their television viewing habit for a year, with the added bonus of payment. None could resist the urge longer than six months, and over time all of the participants showed the symptoms of opiate-withdrawal: increased anxiety, frustration, and depression.
That’s why people who watch TV have trouble quitting, because they are addicted. If we want to be conscious people living conscious lives, it’s time to break out of the TV addiction.
3. Most TV Content Today Is Consciousness-Lowering
The average TV show today is consciousness lowering, resonating in the levels of fear, guilt, grief, desire and pride. This differs across TV networks of course – some channels have better content than others. My comments are in reference to mainstream channels/show.
Some examples of shows that are more consciousness lowering than consciousness raising:
- Fear Factor, a reality TV where people are dared into doing fearsome stunts for a sum of prize money. You see people getting scared, terrified, forcing themselves through the stunts for the prize money. I’ve only watched an episode where participants are asked to eat a pie of worms, and I can’t say it’s inspiring stuff. I hear about other episodes from friends and they didn’t seem to be done in good taste either.
- Extreme Makeover, a plastic surgery reality show that does “extreme makeovers” for participants. Participants are people who are unhappy because of their looks. They are given extreme make overs that include surgery, after which they are showed as happy and confident. It somehow drives an underlying message to use surgery as a solution for low self-esteem.
- Joe Millionaire, a Bachelor-like show based on a ruse. Contestants compete to win the heart of a guy (Joe), thinking he is a millionaire when he’s not. Throughout the show, he lives on a facade of wealth and luxury and the contestants are led on to believe so, up until the finale where the truth is revealed and the final contestant has to deal with the revelation. I don’t see the point behind the ruse. It seemed more of a stage antic to draw viewers without any meaningful intent behind it at all.
That being said, there are several shows which have positive influences. For example, I genuinely enjoy America’s Next Top Model (despite it being a seemingly superficial show since it’s about modeling) as Tyra Banks, the show producer, drives several empowering messages via the show. She often emphasizes on the importance of inner and outer beauty, a refreshing reminder in the image-centered world today. She also welcomes plus-sized models and shorter than average models, making a statement against the fashion industry’s narrow definition of beauty in the form of rail-thin and tall frames. I also like The Apprentice on the whole (despite the over-focus on fingerpointing and fighting at times), due to its insights on project management and people management. Oprah, Ellen and Tyra’s Shows are empowering shows too, based on the few episodes I’ve caught on and off.
Here’s one way you can use to see if something is consciousness raising. Get a sense of how you are feeling first before watching the show. Then as you are watching the show, take a moment to assess how you feel.
- How are you feeling? Happy? Joyful? Upbeat? Motivated? Inspired? Or scared? Worried? Annoyed? Disgusted? Angsty? Weighed down? Stressed?
- What are you thinking? Positive thoughts? Or negative thoughts?
- What do you feel like doing? Do you feel charged up to take action? Make a positive difference? Or do you feel nothing? Lazy? Just want to go and sleep things away?
If it’s the former group, then the content has consciousness-raising effect; if it’s the latter then you can probably do better without it.
4. Lack of Quality Shows
By quality, I’m not referring to production quality. There is no dispute that production quality today is higher than ever. Quality refers to the content of the show.
The Message Driven in Shows
Just a decade ago, I remember there were shows which defined moments in TV history. One example is Buffy (The Vampire Slayer). Buffy was one of the most iconic shows ever, and was listed as TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, Empire’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time and Time’s The 100 Best TV Shows of All Time). BTVS represented many strong themes, such as female empowerment, loyalty, friendship, love, growth, redemption and triumphs over life’s difficulties. It would pave the way for shows with empowered females such as Charmed, Alias and Dark Angel.
But today, there is hardly any show with that level of impact. There is the occasional good show here and there, but none that has that kind of definitive message. They seem more like good drama and entertainment than anything else. For example, earlier seasons of Charmed would have a “message of the day” embedded in each episode, which gave the viewer something to think about afterward. However, in the later seasons, this became replaced by repetitive dialogue and rehashed plot lines. It was just empty entertainment after a while. I watch, I laugh, but I’m not sure if I learn or pick up anything at the end of the day.
There’s too much of the same stuff nowadays, and lesser genuine, informative content. Looking at the local TV programme schedule, it consists of the usual few travelogue/food tasting shows, variety shows on slimming/shopping/fashion/etc, 2-3 ongoing singing/talent competitions (alternating between American Idol and local English/Chinese/Malay singing competitions), reality shows of some sort, and dramas with cookie cutter plots. It’s much faster for me to get information I want from Internet than to wait for TV networks to churn out something meaningful.
The genre of reality TV was interesting when it first started, but after some point it became over done. After a while it seemed like network producers were just doing one reality show after the next, creating different spin offs which barely last. I’ve lost count of the number of singing competitions and sequels in Singapore. There is merit for a singing competition, but after a while it seems more like the TV producers are more interested in having successful talent shows than discovering talent.
TV networks are getting overcommercialized. There are more sponsorships and product/service placements in shows than before, more than half of which aren’t related to the show themselves (American Idol, as an example). Back when I was watching American Idol (season 4 or 5), it was strange seeing the finalists sing and dance to a Ford music video every week. There was a total of 4,151 product placements in its first 38 episodes during season 7. I’m okay with commercial advertising, but only where it is relevant and beneficial to the consumer. Most product placements today seem force-fitted. It’s as if the network producers prioritize commercial needs over viewer needs. I believe it’s possible to integrate both together, but producers have not found the sweet spot yet.
In the context of Singapore TV, there have been numerous local variety shows commissioned by sponsors (for example, a beer company, another of a beauty company), and these shows seem to be more advertising outlets for the companies than genuinely informative.
5. TV is Linked With Lower Life Satisfaction
Research has showed that heavy viewers of TV report lower life satisfaction and higher anxiety [Source].
Many of us watch TV, specifically drama serials, because we want to see the stories unfold for the characters. What’s going to happen to X? What Y get the outcome he/she deserves? Will A and B get together? What will the ending be? It’s all very exciting, and the cliff hangers keep us yearning for more. Then for the whole week, we wait excitedly for the next episode to see what happens.
I realized many of us watch TV because we see ourselves in the characters. That’s why TV network producers study viewer demographics and produce shows in line with our needs, so we can relate to the characters. We see the characters living life, going through tumultous challenges, overcoming them and finally achieving what they want. We feel happy for them when they get their happy ending. But what we really want is the same happy ending for ourselves.
No matter how many shows we watch and how the characters develop through X episodes, watching TV isn’t going to give us the life we want. To get the life we want, we need to get out there, take action and create results for ourselves, not live vicariously through TV reels. The happy outcome is ours for the taking, if we start working towards it now.
6. Pointless Advertisements
Watching advertisements is one of the worst ways to use our time. A regular 1 hour segment is made up of 40 minutes actual content and 20 minutes advert. That’s 1-third of TV viewing time, which is a lot. The ads are either a trailer for an upcoming TV show, an advertisement for a product/service or an informercial. The adverts are rarely ever relevant – usually we buy the products because we see the ads, not because we need the products. Many times it’s just an ad to scare us into buying something. This is linked to the next point, which is…
7. Not Watching TV Saves You Money
TV drives us to buy things that we won’t buy. Whether it’s the stand-alone advertisements or integrated product placements, we get spurred to buy things when we see them. And there’s a reason why, too. The advertisements have direct messages and sublimal messaging to drive us to purchase. Research has shown heavy TV viewing is linked to higher material aspirations [Source].
Fact of the matter is, most of the times we buy things because we saw the ad, and not because we have a real need for those things. The adverts play up on your fears and desires to trigger you to buy their products. They tell you, in one manner or another, how your life sucks now and how you will be happier and live a better life after you buy that product. How many times have you watched an ad and feel like “Wow, I have to go buy this when I drop by the store next time” or “That looks good, let me add this to my shopping list”? Have you ever thought if you really need any of that?
Consumerism and purchase is rarely a solution for happiness – it’s usually a coverup for unhappiness. We might be happy the instant we buy something new because it is an immediate gratification of a current need, but in the longer-term we dip to our previous state of desire and dissatisfaction. It has been proven that more material goods makes us happy to a certain extent. Beyond that point, happiness is not more on this.
It’s been a few years since I stopped watching TV, but I reckon the products advertised are pretty much the same. Shampoo, skincare, toothpaste, slimming services, make-up, food and beverages, restaurants, furniture, etc. In the past, I can be buying different brands of cosmetics, shampoo and skincare in a few months, even though I have not finished using my previous products. Most of the times these purchase behaviors are triggered by ads I see on TV or elsewhere. After I stopped watching TV (and subsequently adverts), I have a lot lesser consumptions inclinations. I only buy things when I need them. Naturally, this cut down my expenditures too.
8. TV Sensationalizes
“The media can wreak great harm on the family when it offers an inadequate or even distorted vision of life, of the family itself and of religion and morality.” – Pope John Paul II
There is a lot of sensationalization on TV. Sometimes it’s the sensationalization of what’s there, making it bigger than it really is. Other times, it’s something created out of nothing. A lot of things are hyped up. Scenes of people crying, bickering, fighting, taboo, sexual content, ugly human behavior etc are played up a lot, especially on reality TV. Many times, they don’t serve anything other than to create drama and it’s quite pointless. If I’m a TV viewer, I’m watching to either (1) be entertained (2) be informed or (3) be educated. I don’t find hyped up content to be entertaining, informing nor educational. Biased content that reflects the intentions of the TV producers yes, but none of the 3.
There’s also the sensationalization of TV news, which is a whole different topic by itself. I’m halfway through writing an article on this, and will be publishing it within the next week.
9. Your Life Is More Important than the TV Schedule
When I used to watch TV, my schedule was tied to the TV programme schedule. Hence, if the TV networks was airing my favorite show at 7pm Wednesday, I would have to free up my weekly Wednesday evenings. When the show started, I would have to abruptly pause whatever I was doing to catch the show. The same thing applied when commercial break ends. After the episode ended, if it was a cliffhanger, I would wait in anticipation for next week’s episode. It was like my life was being steered by TV.
After I stopped watching TV, my schedule was freed up. I stopped planning my life around the TV schedule. For the shows I do want to watch, I watch them on demand, either online or via DVD. There’s no need to wait for TV networks to air the shows I want to watch.
10. Build More Meaningful Relationships
TV is one of the favorite pastimes in familes. They spend evenings in front of the TV screen, watching show after show. Even though everyone is sitting together in the same room, they aren’t bonding with each other. Each of them is just developing an isolated connection with whatever’s on the TV screen.
Now, imagine if all this time is spent talking to each other. Say, asking how each other’s days are, understanding each other, discussing tomorrow’s plans, being a part of each other’s lives, just hanging out. Isn’t that a more meaningful way to connect? Why build a connection with the television and characters on screen when you can be building a connection with real people? TV might be a proxy to bond with each other, but it’s clearly more fruitful to bond with each other directly. I definitely find the latter more meaningful than the former.
Occasionally, my friends and I will have sleepovers at each others’ houses. Whenever the TV is switched on, everyone gets glued to the show that’s airing, and no one ever talks. Then after say, 2-3 hours of TV watching, the night is over and it’s time to go to bed. Compare this to when we spend the 2 hours catching up. Suddenly, we gain new levels of understanding about each other. It’s a lot more rewarding than watching TV together.
After all these years of a TV-free life, I doubt I’ll ever return to watching TV. With internet and prevalence of social media, there’s lesser place for TV in our world today. My information and entertainment needs are readily met with the internet. Out of my list of things I can do, TV is not even on the list.
Alternatives To Replace TV
Here are more rewarding and fulfilling activities to replace TV:
- Exercising – Jogging, swimming, playing sports, cycling, aerobics
- Catching up with friends
- Reading a book
- Journaling, Writing, Blogging
- Strolling / Hiking
- Take a course / class of your interest
- Hanging out with friends
- Talking with your parents
- Organizing your room
- Setting your future goals
- Planning for your goals
- Doing things you love
- Read the archives at TPEB
- The list goes on
More Resources on why you should not watch TV:
Try 14-Day TV-Free Program
If you’re unsure of whether a TV-free life is for you, try out a 14-day program without TV and see how you feel. Let me know how it goes