Charter Communications is currently running a public relations campaign that extols the virtues of watching television. Central to the PR campaign is a sixty-second television commercial that features a number of people, from varied demographic backgrounds, who wax poetic about how television has changed their lives for the better. The creepy, Orwellian commercial even employs the services of a young child. One woman, while speaking in a trance-like state, claims that if we do not watch more television, “…that means there will be more TV for me!”
According to recent Nielsen surveys, more Americans watch more television than in the history of the celebrated sixty-five year old medium. Americans watch on average more than four hours of television per day. The increase in platform delivery partly explains why we watch more television than our parents and grandparents. We catch our favorite shows online using multiple device options. The popularity of reality television shows also explains why we continue to keep our eyes glued to the small screen. We can thank OJ Simpson and the millions of viewers who followed his exploits, to the explosion in the number of reality TV shows.
If Americans watch more television than ever, then why does Charter Communications have to invest in a public Relations campaign that attempts to persuade people to watch even more television? It is not as if people storm bookstores in search of alternative forms of entertainment. We do not eschew television for the big screen; movie theaters report stagnant traffic in an era when Nielsen ratings soar to record heights. iPods, Blackberries, and Playstations barely put a dent into the time we devote to watching American Idol. The question persists: why does a prominent cable company push us to watch more television?
Two reasons immediately come to mind, and both reasons underscore the gravity of the American condition. First, television remains the best way for policy shapers and opinion molders to convey their slanted version of news events. The professional wrestling like rancor that defines CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News continues to draw ratings that surpass conventional news programs. People form their worldviews based on the bombastic hot air of cable “news anchors” that sprinkle fact on a heaping pile of hyperbole. Television news also shapes worldviews by omitting relevant parts of news stories, or omitting entire stories that are germane to forming an opinion. In addition, the messages promoted by our favorite television show characters strongly influences where we stand on social and political issues.
The second reason why Charter Communications embarked on an aggressive PR campaign centers on the distraction strategy. With an economy continuing to teeter on the brink of collapse, with violence surging in the streets of Cairo, and with an agitated unrest at home, the United States government prays that its citizenry becomes too distracted to notice the turmoil that surrounds them. Are you concerned by the Federal Reserve System’s manipulation of the money supply? Never mind, because your neighbor wants to know what happened on last night’s Jersey Girls episode. Do the whispers about FEMA camps disturb you? Never mind, because your local news affiliate runs stories about the latest American Idol phenomenon. Has the rise in gasoline prices alarmed you? Forget about learning the nuances of energy policy, because your best friend wants to discuss why a professional baseball player deserves a ten year, $300 million dollar contract.
The most significant changes in America have occurred during times when Americans have been the most distracted. Television’s advent heightened the distraction factor, and cable programming has increased our distraction at a dizzying rate. We live in a time when we can ill-afford more distractions. We need to watch less television. We need to pay more attention to what unfolds around us than to what transpires in fantasyland. Great changes tremble under our feet: the formation of a North American union, a unified world currency, a move to eliminate cash. Most of us would choose to fight in order to preserve American autonomy, but the fight eludes us when the insanity played out on television screens distracts us from what really matters.
Charter Communications may be the front organization for the pro television campaign, but the underwriter of this Orwellian nightmare has been the United States federal government.