Tuesday, 1 December 2009

drug of choice?

Television is a malevolent influence. This statement ought to be self-evident, but, especially in Hong Kong, most people would deny it, almost as an article of faith. It is a curious fact that television is widely considered to be a positive influence. Appealing to the heavy weight of Chinese tradition, which it is perilous to attack, proponents claim that it brings families closer together.

This is palpably untrue. When a family sits down to watch television, they watch television; they may chatter inanely, but they do not communicate. Conversely, when a set is left on as a background filler, it provides sufficient distraction to seriously impair the ability to think. Without thought it is impossible to express feelings, even about fellow family members. What is felt but not expressed is rarely assumed. Far from drawing the family closer together, television drives it apart, each member into their own tiny, self-contained universe.

However, I’m not advocating the abolition of television. Like the atomic bomb, it cannot be uninvented. But we should learn not only to live with but also to use constructively the demon that has become such an inextricable part of all our lives. This we have so far failed to do.

On the contrary, we have allowed the television set to become an instrument of control, because we have not stopped to consider what it is, what it does or what it represents. Television is essentially a relentless projector of images, a distorted montage of unreality. It is constrained by the dimension of time, always moving forward beyond hope of recall. Even the development of video recorders permits no more than a measure of control over the composition of that montage; such devices do not provide a closer approach to reality. How many viewers ever stop to consider that the images they are being shown have been selected by an unseen director? And have they ever considered the images that are not shown? Finally, television provides input to only two of our five senses, one the all-powerful sense of sight, which has the capacity to delude even the most conscientious observer. Bearing in mind that millions of people rely on television, and many form a world view based on what they see, this cannot be a good thing.

But the real danger, and the tragedy, of television is that it is addictive. It is as debilitating as any drug, robbing the viewer/user of the power of discrimination. And the tragedy is that this quality has led to its prime use in modern society: as a means of capturing, and holding, a mass audience, who are then easy prey for advertisers and their subtle or, more frequently, heavy-handed blandishments. This too is probably inevitable, but it does create the quite reasonable expectation that those who have the opportunity to engage in television broadcasting show some degree of responsibility. This seems to be lacking in Hong Kong.

In a few places, television broadcasting has been established and subsequently funded by a licence fee on all sets—an attractive idea, but much too close to being thought a form of taxation to be acceptable in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, what does seem to be acceptable in Hong Kong is broadcasting with the sole purpose of making as much money as possible. Television stations provide as cheap—and as shoddy—a service as they believe they can get away with.

This is precisely what has happened; existing provision is woefully inadequate. If the two terrestrial stations had approximately equal shares of the audience, things could be different, but in Hong Kong we have the odd phenomenon of one station being so completely dominant that it can fill our screens night after night with mindless garbage with no perceptible adverse reaction from its audience. The minority channel can be as adventurous as it likes; in practice, it will make no difference. This is odd because in practice the output of the two stations is broadly similar, so the only plausible explanation for the imbalance is a kind of brand loyalty, which effectively reduces broadcasting to the level of selling soap powder and clearly demonstrates how advanced the narcotic process has become.

The mention of advertising calls to mind yet another danger: the influence that advertisers have, directly or indirectly, on what is and what isn’t broadcast. If an advertiser’s instinct is always to stick with a familiar formula, then programs that are experimental, adventurous or controversial will never see the light of day, unless, that is, a significant audience segment is no longer prepared to watch the mind-numbing drivel that passes for the proven formula.

This is more difficult. Complaining about the quality of television programming is a perennial pastime, but one in which the logical next step is never taken. Not only should we be prepared to boycott a station that refuses to upgrade its programming, we should also be prepared to take the same action against companies and their products that associate themselves with especially bad programs—or with insulting adverts, for that matter. Unfortunately, what constitutes a bad program is an endlessly debatable question and one impossible to answer objectively.

Perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps, given the tedium, the drudgery, the sheer ordinariness of everyday life, we need our daily fix, like any other addict. Perhaps we actually like television. Perhaps we might be permitted our harmless little daydreams.

And then you wake up. A little-known fact about Victor Lustig, the man who famously sold the Eiffel Tower, is that he attempted to sell it a second time, because the first victim was too embarrassed to admit that he’d been done up like a kipper. A similar principle underlies the perpetration of every successful fraud.

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