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Marshall Fine Headshot

Tuning Out

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Please stop forcing me to watch TV.

And I don't say that just because I happen to be a TV critic.

I do watch TV for a living - at least part of the time. I spend between two and three days - eight-hour work days - in front of the tube, watching the endless tapes and DVDs sent by the countless networks from the known cable universe (which seems to be expanding daily). And that's not to mention the evening hours spent watching the shows I actually am interested in.

I've learned to value my hours away from the tube. Increasingly, however, it's becoming harder and harder to obtain them because the world at large seems to be conspiring against me. Let me offer an example.

I drive my car to the quick oil-change franchise in my town - where a large television has been mounted over the cashier's counter. Everyone waiting for their car to be serviced can watch - nay, must watch - the Fox News Channel (which always seems to be playing) while drinking the complimentary coffee.

Then I drive to my local mega-bank branch, where a TV plays behind the massive Plexiglas barrier that runs from countertop to ceiling (installed after a hold-up there a few years ago). The TV offers the "Today" show most mornings, FNC at other times. The show doesn't really matter because the customers can't actually hear the television through the Plexiglas. That pleasure belongs to the tellers, who unfortunately face away from the TV screen (but presumably can hear it just fine). One has to assume the employees are discouraged from watching TV while they work.

When I come into Manhattan to work, I ride an elevator from the lobby to the floor where my office is. The elevator contains a small TV screen, which plays headline news, displays temperatures and stock prices and offers the occasional commercial (silent, thankfully). In one of the midtown hotels where I occasionally go to interview celebrities, one wall of the elevator features a television, playing a "Tom & Jerry" cartoon. At the entrance to the subway outside, a billboard features a screen playing a movie trailer. Times Square has turned into a "Blade Runner"-ish assault of giant video screens so you never have to worry about resting your eyes on a non-moving image.

At the airport, on my way out of town recently, ubiquitous TV sets played nonstop CNN - not just for those sitting next to the numerous TVs but for everyone in the boarding lounge, with the newscasters' voices fed through a public-address system. Even if you didn't want to watch, you still had to listen. It made Muzak seem benign by comparison. Then I got on the airplane, which offered an in-flight movie (for which I declined headphones; I'm also a movie critic). When the movie was over, the movie screens proceeded to play episodes of TV shows. I've also flown on Jet Blue, which offers 36 channels of satellite TV, whether you want it or not.

Why do merchants and retailers and banks and airlines and everyone else feel the compulsion to provide full-service onsite televised distractions for anyone and everyone? To me, it's like walking into a room outfitted with a mass-hypnosis device. Turn it on and pacify the populace who stray into its glare, indoctrinating them with a particularly sculpted version of the truth, depending on whose facet is being chiseled.

Boredom obviously is the enemy in this country and distraction - TV or otherwise - is the cure. America has a spiraling case of ADD as a society; it's a willfully self-induced condition best exemplified by the 2004 election (although the 2006 results were more encouraging). Television isn't the sole cause or the lone culprit - but that doesn't mean it's not culpable.

When someone is arrested, they're told they have the right to remain silent. How about rallying for a right to retain silence?

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