August 19, 2013

Going on a Media Diet

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

For the last six months I have been undertaking an informal experiment: I have no television reception at home.

This is all the more unusual considering I am a sociologist who studies media and popular culture, and much of my writing focuses on media. Friends and family have been confused; “I figured you could write your cable bill off of your income taxes,” said one surprised friend.  (For the record, I never have used cable as a tax write-off, but I guess I could.) Even the lure of a potential tax write-off has not made me want to pay for TV any more.

A little background: six months ago I moved to one of Los Angeles’ many canyon roads, where I have mountains on either side blocking over-the-air reception, so I can’t get reception through an antenna. I had downsized my cable package a few years earlier to local only after realizing that I rarely watched the hundreds of channels I was paying for. My cable company regularly raised prices while moving channels to more expensive packages, so I resented their business practices too, making me feel all the better for switching to a seldom-advertised local only package that cost about a third as much as what I had been paying.

I watched the local stations most frequently, with a few exceptions.  When I watched cable Tvchannels I tended to do so just to pass the time, and could get sucked into watching “reality” shows even though I might not particularly care for any of the cast members. I might tune into a cable news argument and feel my blood pressure rising along with the conflict. Or I’d channel surf just to see what was on and find that an hour had gone by with nothing to show for it.

Moving seemed like the perfect opportunity to see if I could live without television. I had to cancel my cable anyway, and so I just didn’t re-order it for the new address.

Internet access allows me to watch a surprising amount of programming, so I haven’t missed everything. I sometimes stream video onto my television for that familiar feeling of sitting on the couch watching TV. But not having television reception has taught me a lot about how it once shaped my daily life.

Even basic awareness of the TV schedule might shape my daily plans and could influence whether I’d go out for an evening (if I like Thursday night’s shows but not Friday’s, why not just make plans for Friday and stay home Thursday?).  If there were two shows on that I watched on one day, I might watch another in between. Yes, I could record programs, but being aware of the schedule was just one more thing cluttering my mind.

If a tragedy, disaster, or scandal happened I watched cable news coverage for far longer periods of time than I would stream video online. I noticed that it felt more emotionally draining to watch a tragedy unfolding—and admittedly more dramatic if it was happening live—than it is to read about it.

I am not alone in going TV reception-free. The New York Times reported that television ownership has dropped slightly, and that more Americans are also giving up their cable in favor of online programming.

Television is just one of the many forms of media that can shape our daily lives; think about how smart phones and social media might impact how you spend your time and the role it plays in your relationships. You also might find that some forms of media shape some kinds of relationships—like your relationships with peers—but hardly influence how you interact with your family at all. You might regularly communicate with friends on Twitter, but your Grandma wants you to call her on the phone.

The roles media play in your life aren’t necessarily negative, as is so often the focus of critics and some research. For instance, I have found other ways to spend time unproductively since channel surfing isn’t an option. I sometimes can’t join in conversations about shows I haven’t seen with friends and casual acquaintances; having these shared experiences can be an important means of feeling a sense of connection with a wide array of people who are not part of our inner social circles.

How do various forms of media shape your interactions with others? Your daily life? You don’t have to disconnect your internet or cancel your cable to better understand the social roles of media.

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Comments

We gave up TV decades ago. I understand the social implications all too well, but it gets better over time. You eventually get drawn toward conversations about doing things rather than watching things: exercise, travel, food, reading books and other interests and activities. Before long, you find yourself actually doing them more often and no longer have the vague sense that life is somehow passing you by.

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