In defense of TV

It sounds like a cliche, but last time I was checked--about three years ago--dating sites were still full of people who proudly proclaimed,

"I don't own a TV."

"Neither do I," I would retort, "but I still watch TV."

Actually, this was and is a lie. I do own a TV, but it's used exclusively as a monitor for our video game consoles. We watch our television shows on our computers. It's a crazy, mixed up world we live in. The point is, ownership of a television set is neither necessary nor sufficient for watching TV.

I suppose "I don't own a TV" just got codified as the standard high-horse way of saying "I don't watch TV," but I'm fairly certain that at least some of these folks did watch shows on Netflix or Hulu or Youtube or whatever. They got to bask in their anti-TV pride on a technicality.

Why is it a point of pride to not watch TV?

"Stop watching television" is a widespread simple living mandate, so I know it's kind of odd that my blog topics are frugality, minimalism, and TV. I just knew that, if I had any hope of sticking to a blog, it had to allow me to write about TV. I just love watching TV. Just as I'm always reading one or more books, I'm always in the middle of one or more TV shows. I even maintain an extremely rarely updated blog, Key Episodes, where I watch entire run of a TV series so you don't have to, and tell you which episodes to watch if you want a good sample of what the show has to offer.

I don't see watching a TV show as that much different than reading a book. Nobody tells you "Stop reading books." Sure, reading War and Peace is more mentally engaging than watching Family Guy. But then, watching The Wire is more mentally engaging than reading Twilight. You can argue that certain works are more or less trashy, but the medium isn't necessarily to blame.

What's so wrong with a little trash from time to time, anyway?

This is an argument I've had a lot defending the genre of romance, but it works just as well for TV. My feeling is, nobody has the right to mock anyone else's guilty pleasure (for lack of a better term--I don't think you should feel guilty). Almost everybody likes something that's trivial or silly or not particularly productive. Just because bad TV doesn't happen to be your thing, you don't get to be self-righteous and lord it over people.

I recently watched a Jim Gaffigan special on TV (slumped over, occasionally tossing popcorn into my slack jaw) where he put it more succinctly using a fast food metaphor:
"I'm tired of people acting like they're better than McDonald's. Maybe you never set foot in McDonald's, but you have your own McDonald's. Maybe instead of buying a Big Mac, you read Us Weekly. Hey, that's still McDonald's. It’s just served up a little different. Maybe your McDonald's is telling yourself that a Starbucks Frappuccino is not a milkshake. Or maybe you watch Glee. It’s all McDonald's."
If I talk to someone long enough, I can usually discover affection for some sort of, shall we say, societally disdained entertainment. The same person who sneers at romantic comedy movies may love mass-market sci-fi books; the same person who dismisses sci-fi as weird nerd stuff may binge reality shows. If you hit on the topic of their favorite trashy form of entertainment, fans usually have one of two reactions:

Impassioned defense. 

"Mysteries build analytical thinking skills." "Science fiction speculates about complex moral quandaries that may become all too real." "At core, romance novels are really about human beings and emotions." "Fifty Shades of Grey is really about empowering women to own their sexuality." "Hoarders is a fascinating anthropological study." "Downton Abbey is good."

There is some truth in these arguments, but I feel it's disingenuous to gloss over the shittier parts of your chosen entertainment. I don't think you should have to pretend that everything you like is improving. Embrace the badness; embrace the goodness; live and let live when it comes to other folks' fandoms. If you can justify your own entertainment, is it really such a stretch to justify someone else's?


"Yeah, I know, it's awful. I really shouldn't read/watch/play such garbage."

It is harder to defend your trash to someone who is deeply ashamed of enjoying their trash. To the ashamed person, I say, be proud of your trash! No need for apologies, shame, or guilt.

I'm so over guilt, as a thing. If your behavior is different from your values, then you either need to change your behavior or change your values. If you really feel terrible about watching a bad show (or whatever it is you're ashamed to do or to like), if it's gotten to the point where it just feels like a waste of time and brainspace to you and you don't even enjoy it anymore, then cut it loose. But if you do like it, if it brings you joy, even in a way you can't understand or explain, then it's the guilt that needs to go.

Of course, there are people who honestly don't have any guilty pleasures. These are people who don't know what you mean when you say, "It's not good, but it's great," or "It's terrible, but I love it." People who literally, actually like things in proportion with how good they are. There is just no talking with these people.

"But watching TV makes you more subject to advertisers' whims!"

I get why older frugal/anti-consumer/pro-simplicity literature might warn against TV for this reason. Up to about five years ago, watching TV necessarily meant sitting through ads. But nowadays, nearly every show that's ever been made is available on video or some sort of streaming service. I don't remember the last time I saw a commercial.

"But if you stop watching TV, a vast vista of productive time would open up before you!"

Would it, though? When I watch TV, I'm usually doing something else simultaneously, or I'm relaxing. If I weren't watching TV, I'd be listening to music, reading a book, listening to a podcast--some other form of passive entertainment. There may a come a day in my frugal journey when I realize that the concept of "downtime" is a bill of goods sold to you by the couch manufacturers and every moment of every day can be capitalized upon for productive self-improvement, but today is not that day. 

I'm actually more sympathetic to this argument when it's made about idle Internet surfing--Facebooking, Redditing, Pinteresting, Dogstering, Juggalobooking, etc.--because I personally feel unfulfilled when I spend an hour on those activities. If you feel the same way about TV, like it was just some nothing that passed in front of your face and didn't add to your life in any way, by all means, stop watching TV. I'm not here to say you should watch TV if you don't, or if you don't like it. But if the shows you watch add pleasure and joy to your life, make you think, make you feel, make you squee, make you pump your fist in the air and go "YEAH Daenerys!"--then what's the harm? Television is one of the biggest bang-for-your-buck entertainment forms out there, so it can definitely have a place in a frugal, minimalist lifestyle. It's time to stop feeling or making others feel guilty about watching TV.

Five Frugal Ways to Watch TV

  1. Instead of subscribing to expensive cable or satellite TV, subscribe to a low-cost streaming service, or buy only episodes and seasons of shows you know you like.
  2. Use the same strategies above to avoid watching commercials. Pay for commercial-free streaming services, or watch DVDs. You don't need to own DVDs to watch them--you can rent them or borrow them from the library. Some libraries have their own free streaming service.
  3. Instead of going to the movies, watch the newest releases a few months later on the small screen. Make your own popcorn.
  4. Instead of going out to an expensive restaurant, trick your friends into staying in with a home-cooked meal by enticing them over to a viewing party of the latest episode of your favorite must-see series. 
  5. Put on a dumb or previously-watched-but-loved TV episode while doing a frugal but boring task, such as reconciling your accounts, clipping coupons, darning your socks, earning pennies per hour on Mechanical Turk, actually working out with those kettlebells you bought to replace your gym membership, or upcycling an old pair of shutters into a unique farmstead-inspired bookshelf.


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