Why do people watch so much TV?

Honestly, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t own a TV. (With Mythbusters canceled, what’s the point anymore?)

Don’t get me wrong. I have watched (and even enjoyed) the occasional sitcom. I’ve even tried watching football. I like comedies. They’re funny. But after they end, I get that creeping feeling of emptiness inside, like when you’ve eaten a bowl of leftover Halloween candy instead of lunch. There is no “meat” to these programs–or vegan-friendly vegetable protein, if you prefer.

I do enjoy documentaries, though I often end up fast-forwarding through large chunks of them because they are full of filler shots of rotating galaxies or astronomers parking their telescopes or people… taalkiiing… sooo… sloooowwwwlllly… And sadly, if you’ve seen one documentary about ancient Egypt, you’ve seen them all.

Ultimately, time is a big factor: I am always running short. Once I’m done with the non-negotiables (like “take care of the kids” and “pay the bills,”) there’s only so much time left, and time spent watching TV is time not spent writing. Since becoming a competent writer is one of my personal goals, TV gets punted to the bottom of the list, slightly below doing the dishes.

Obviously not everyone writes, but I have a dozen other backup projects for when I’m not writing, everything from “read more books” to “volunteer” to “exercise.”

I think it is a common fallacy to default to assuming that other people are like oneself. I default to assuming that other people are time-crunched, running on 8 shots of espresso and trying to cram in a little time to read Tolstoy and get the tomatoes planted before they fall asleep. (And I’m not even one of those Type-A people.)

Obviously everyone isn’t like me. They come home from work, take care of their kids, make dinner, and flip on the TV.


An acquaintance recently made a sad but illuminating comment regarding their favorite TV shows, “I know they’re not real, but it feels like they are. It’s like they’re my friends.”

I think the simple answer is that we process the pictures on the TV as though they were real. TV people look like people and sound like people, so who cares if they don’t smell like people? Under normal (pre-TV) circumstances, if you hung out with some friendly, laughing people every day in your living room, they were your family. You liked them, they liked you, and you were happy together.

Today, in our atomized world of single parents, only children, spinsters and eternal bachelors, what families do we have? Sure, we see endless quantities of people on our way to work, but we barely speak, nod, or glance at each other, encapsulated within our own cars or occupied with checking Facebook on our cellphones while the train rumbles on.

As our connections to other people have withered away, we’ve replaced them with fake ones.

Google “America’s Favorite Family“:

OZZIE & HARRIET: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was the first and longest-running family situational comedy in television history. The Nelsons came to represent the idealized American family of the 1950s – where mom was a content homemaker, dad’s biggest decision was whether to give his sons the keys to the car, and the boys’ biggest problem was getting a date to the high school prom. …When it premiered, Ozzie & Harriet: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family was the highest-rated documentary in A&E’s history.

(According to Wikipedia, Ozzie and Harriet started on the radio back in the 30s, got a comedy show (still on radio) in 1944, and were on TV from 1952-1966.) It was, to some extent, about a real family–the actors in the show were an actual husband and wife + their kids, but the show itself was fictionalized.

It even makes sense to people to ask them, “Who is your favorite TV personality?“–to which the most common answer isn’t Adam Savage or James Hyneman, but Mark Harmon, who plays some made-up guy named Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

The rise of “reality TV” only makes the “people want to think of the TV people as real people they’re actually hanging out with” all the more palpable–and then there’s the incessant newsstand harping of celebrity gossip. The only thing I want out of a movie star (besides talent) is that I not recognize them; it appears that the only thing everyone else wants is that they do recognize them.

According to The Way of the Blockbuster: In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule:

in Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, the new book by Anita Elberse, Filene professor of business administration. Elberse (el-BER-see) spent 10 years interviewing and observing film, television, publishing, and sports executives to distill the most profitable strategy for these high-profile, unpredictable marketplaces. … The most profitable business strategy, she says, is not the “long tail,” but its converse: blockbusters like Star Wars, Avatar, Friends, the Harry Potter series, and sports superstars like Tom Brady.

Strategically, the blockbuster approach involves “making disproportionately big investments in a few products designed to appeal to mass audiences,” … “Production value” means star actors and special effects. … a studio can afford only a few “event movies” per year. But Horn’s big bets for Warner Brothers—the Harry Potter series, The Dark Knight, The Hangover and its sequel, Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, Sherlock Holmes—drew huge audiences. By 2011, Warner became the first movie studio to surpass $1 billion in domestic box-office receipts for 11 consecutive years. …

Jeff Zucker ’86 put a contrasting plan into place as CEO at NBC Universal. In 2007 he led a push to cut the television network’s programming costs: … Silverman began cutting back on expensive dramatic content, instead acquiring rights to more reasonably priced properties; eschewing star actors and prominent TV producers, who commanded hefty fees; and authorizing fewer costly pilots for new series. The result was that by 2010, NBC was no longer the top-rated TV network, but had fallen to fourth place behind ABC, CBS, and Fox, and “was farther behind on all the metrics that mattered,” writes Elberse, “including, by all accounts, the profit margins Zucker and Silverman had sought most.” Zucker was asked to leave his job in 2010. …

From a business perspective, “bankable” movies stars like Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, or George Clooney function in much the way Harry Potter and Superman do: providing a known, well-liked persona.

So people like seeing familiar faces in their movies (except Oprah Winfrey, who is apparently not a draw:

the 1998 film Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey, based on Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s eponymous 1987 novel and directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme … flopped resoundingly: produced for $80 million, it sold only $23 million in tickets.

Or maybe Beloved isn’t just the kind of feel-good action flick that drives movie audiences the way Batman is.)

But what about sports?

Here I am on even shakier ground than sitcoms. I can understand playing sports–they’re live action versions of video games, after all. You get to move around, exercise, have fun with your friends, and triumphantly beat them at something. (Or if you’re me, lose.) I can understand cheering for your kids and being proud of them as they get better and better at some athletic skill (or at least try hard at it.)

I don’t understand caring about strangers playing a game.

I have no friends on the Yankees or the Mets, the Phillies or the Marlins. I’ve never met a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Clemson Tigers, and I harbor no illusions that my children will ever play on such teams. I feel no loyalty to the athletes-drawn-from-all-over-the-country who play on my “hometown” team, and I consider athlete salaries vaguely obscene.

I find televised sports about as interesting as watching someone do math. If the point of the game is to win, then why not just watch a 5-minute summary at the end of the day of all the teams’ wins and losses?

But according to The Way of the Blockbuster:

Perhaps no entertainment realm takes greater care in building a brand name than professional sports: fan loyalty reliably builds repeat business. “The NFL is blockbuster content,” Elberse says. “It’s the most sought-after content we have in this country. Four of the five highest-rated television shows [in the United States] ever are Super Bowls. NFL fans spend an average of 9.5 hours per week on games and related content. That gives the league enormous power when it comes to negotiating contracts with television networks.”

Holy shit. No wonder Borders went under.

Elberse has studied American football and basketball and European soccer, and found that selling pro sports has much in common with selling movies, TV shows, or books. Look at the Real Madrid soccer club—the world’s richest, with annual revenues of $693 million and a valuation of $3.3 billion. Like Hollywood studios, Real Madrid attracts fan interest by engaging superstars—such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese forward the club acquired from Manchester United for a record $131.6 million in 2009. “We think of ourselves as content producers,” a Real Madrid executive told Elberse, “and we think of our product—the match—as a movie.” As she puts it: “It might not have Tom Cruise in it, but they do have Cristiano Ronaldo starring.

In America, sports stars are famous enough that even I know some of their names, like Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, and Michel Jackson Jordan.

I think the basic drive behind people’s love of TV sports is the same as their love of sitcoms (and dramas): they process it as real. And not just real, but as people they know: their family, their tribe. Those are their boys out there, battling for glory and victory against that other tribes’s boys. It’s vicarious warfare with psuedo armies, a domesticated expression of the tribal urge to slaughter your enemies, drive off their cattle and abduct their women. So what if the army isn’t “real,” if the heroes aren’t your brother or cousin but paid gladiators shipped in from thousands of miles away to perform for the masses? Your brain still interprets it as though it were; you still enjoy it.

Football is man-fiction.

14 thoughts on “Why do people watch so much TV?

  1. I like to watch TV a lot. It’s one of the things in life that consistently brings me joy. I think people like TV in all its varieties (drama, sports, sitcoms, reality, etc.) for the same reason they like to read books. People like to see/hear stories. It’s embedded in human psychology. In the olden days cavepeople gathered around the fire to listen to stories, and now we gather around TV to let it tell us stories. It’s universal that humans really like to know, “What happens next?”


  2. You’re missing an important aspect of mass media. It’s not just that Grey’s Anatomy gives women the fantasy that they are part of a clique of witty and sexy surgeons. And football is not only about making men feel that they are part of a strong tribe prevailing in combat.

    In both cases, the “mass” part of mass media is important. Watching something that is popular allows you to discuss it with other fans. That is, it allows you to have something to talk about with other real people. Lacking it, you have… what? The weather? Your plans for the summer? Kids, for those who have them. Pets for those who don’t.

    I guess that you don’t find either aspect of mass media entertainment compelling. But lots of normals do.


    • I know that men discuss sports and kids discuss cartoons/video games. I try to make sure my kids watch the same shows/games as their classmates so they can participate and play with them. I haven’t observed grown women (other than certain female relatives) doing this, though. Perhaps that’s my fault, though, for lacking the ability to converse back.

      Erm, we can all discuss anthropology and genetics, right?


      • My impression is at least some women do. I.e. in fandoms, I know they they do; this is only a smallish subset of all women though. More broadly, I don’t know. Not a broad.

        we can all discuss anthropology and genetics, right?

        Ha ha ha!


  3. I agree with Leonard, but vegging out in front of the boob tube is also relaxing. If not for the internet I couldn’t go without. (and still not as relaxing)


    • I think I find it hard to relax if I can’t self-justify that my “relaxation” is actually productive. Otherwise I start stressing out about the things I should be doing and so get more stressed instead of less.


      • Heh, Marx would deem that your feeling the need to be productive while relaxing is a symptom of how capitalism is oppressing the proletariat, i.e. internalizing the drive toward production. Not necessarily that you feel the need for industrial production, but that you feel the need to be useful. Different contexts, but same idea.

        It has always struck me as odd, with all these advances and built-up of wealth in our society, we still insist on more GDP, more jobs, more economic growth, more whatever … but not more leisure. Shouldn’t the goal be that we should all work less so we can enjoy more leisure? Or maybe I’m just a very lazy person.


      • Technically, most of my work falls into this weird zone between “work” and “leisure.” Certainly I don’t sit around thinking, “Oh man, if only I could be riveting things on an auto assembly line, I’d feel so fulfilled!”

        Marx spoke of the disassociation of the worker from the product of his labor–that the worker on the assembly line cannot, at the end of the day, point to a car and say, “I built that,” because he didn’t, he just riveted in a few bolts, thus removing from people’s lives the genuine satisfaction of having achieved something real.

        Today I am enjoying the produce from my garden, have decorated the play house I built for the kids, and will hopefully write something worth reading. I’ll probably also do some less enjoyable things like cook, clean, and do the laundry, but I am at least happy with the results.

        I certainly agree re: productivity vs. GDP. I think most people don’t want to seem lazy, and we are caught in this trap where everyone is working more hours just to get by (probably a side effect of the workforce nearly doubling in the past 50 years,) our expectations for standards of living have gone up a lot (houses have gotten a lot bigger over the past century,) etc. The guy who says, “hey, why don’t we all just cut back on hours, if the corporation really needs someone to work another 20 hours this week, they can just hire another guy part-time,” is likely to get replaced by someone willing to work 60 hours a week.


  4. We’ve seen a lot of good replies to this thread emphasizing the reasons why people choose to watch television within the normative framework that accepts the motivations TV-watching fulfills. Television offers, as others have pointed out, entertainment, ease, and vicarious living, which (like, say, Tolstoy) has positive and negative aspects.

    Let’s explore the question a little deeper, though. The only reason television is an option for fulfilling any of the desires people listed above is because aspects of non-vicarious living were (and are being) eliminated from the marketplace. By enclosing the commons, for example, banks and their pet royals force socializing to take place either in the home–difficult for those who can’t provision large properties–or in paid establishments. Ergo if you want to socialize, you can’t just go to the village green anymore, and look for someone willing to talk, and you also don’t have the benefit of a large multi-generational family home with pre-existing courtship and cooperation networks which you have inherited (and which, by Terran birthright, you deserve). Instead, you have to go somewhere. Work, school, a club, a mall, a bar, a yoga class–free socializing has been eliminated, which makes television the lowest-cost form of social satisfaction. In the absence of this normative framework, television becomes the sensible, efficient choice. It’s fake, but it is no less fake than a bunch of people in their mid-40s taking Thai cooking classes as an excuse to meet potential friends or spouses (or, in a lower income bracket, a bunch of people in their mid-30s drinking beer and watching the UFC).

    Television is like Microsoft: a monstrous perversion of technology that claims to be the free choice of free enterprise, but which owes its existence to a marketplace carefully honed over the centuries to make certain facets of human interaction increasingly impossible without its usage. In an actual free market–in which, say, government did not mandate community design–regular people could build Amish-like communities which fulfilled their social needs. Not in the sense of excluding technology (unless they so wished), but in the sense of providing free choice in safe, inherited, segregated means of courting, playing, and competing. A supportive community allows local instrumentalists or ballplayers the opportunity to not feel stupid and inadequate for doing their best as a member of the group. If people had the opportunity to build their own communities, then the barflies would, over the decades, lose their interest in television football and replace it with playing with their buddies.

    The abhorrently low quality of, say, television and Microsoft and the Department of Motor Vehicles is both by-product and deliberate result, for the acclimative provisioning of soylent, like visual Clooney or narrational McDonald’s, crafts expectations, desires, and, most importantly, a lack of ability to distinguish between normative availability and potential availability.

    The massive importance of property tax regimes is even more profound in this realm than that of forced association, for the inability of actually space owning outright prevents the forming of internally-socially-reliant communities. Over the long run, the internally-socially-reliant community–the community which can satisfy its basic social needs without resorting to, say, Hollywood–proves even more important than the community which is internally-food-reliant. The community which can provide for its own socializing is able to feed and reproduce and entertain itself, while the community that is not can buy food and entertainment and matchmaking services from outside, thereby walling itself in.

    Yes, television, movies, and professional sports are fantasy: a stunted vicarious expression of an unwitting prisoner’s genuine nascent interests. Yet these things only command power because the other options have been removed from the marketplace. The enjoyment we derive from them is mysteriously, sometimes indecipherably shallow–we know something is wrong, and we know it has to do with human contact, but we’re often not sure what realistic things would actually be better. This is the variant curse of the forlorn clubgoer or blogger: either you don’t know why life feels empty, and you believe it’s impossible to be otherwise, or, you do know why it feels empty, but the market forces are so solidly entrenched that there’s nothing you can do except stare down the void. All the croplands have been salted, all the skies burned, and all that remains to eat is soylent (“All restaurants are Taco Bell”). So yes, we go to the bar, we go to the blog, knowing that to establish a social club means punishing commercial property taxes, handicapped ramps, wiring codes, and other indicators of vampires committing gluttony on their dwindling human populations.


    • Smart analysis in your post, higharka. I agree with many of your points.

      I’m biased and dumber, but I think the value of TV is shortchanged. So I’d like to offer an additional perspective.

      With a rather dim view of humanity, I’ve learned that socialization (real or virtual) tends to aggravate. Thus even if market options were wider and freer, I doubt more socialization would make me happier.

      For example, I can go to a park and play pick-up basketball, as I used to do. But people are aggressive. Some might yell at me because I missed a shot. Some might want to beat me up because our tussles got too rough. Plus I could get injured. All those things have happened to me. Repeatedly.

      Enter the TV. Now I sit at home with Coors and kettle chips, and enjoy the upcoming NBA finals. Safety and comfort

      Another example. I can go to a party and try to socialize. e.g. embarrass myself by telling clumsy jokes that bomb (or worst, offend) or flirting with attractive women. Or I can stay home and watch a romantic comedy on Netflix that will deliver a similar experience without much downside. Yes, it’s not the same and a movie/ book is fake, but its benefit/cost ratio is superior.

      In other words, socialization could be high reward, but it’s high risk. You often don’t end up getting what you seek, and you can even get hurt physically or emotionally.

      On the other hand, one of the biggest virtues of watching TV or reading a novel is that the expected experience is *highly controlled.* People buy this product because they know exactly what they’re getting. Products remain successful only if they continue to satisfy the consumers’ expectations. I read a romance because I know I will get the requisite “happily ever after.” I watch James Bond because I know he will kick the ass of bad dudes and save the day.

      Thus, it’s not so much that superior real-life options have been forced out of by structural flaws in our society. It’s more that there are a lot of people who dislike socialization and have demanded fake experiences to bring pleasure to their lives.

      And finally, I lack the optimism that if we correct the mechanisms that reduce socialization, society will improve. If we’re all living in pods and hooked up to the Matrix, it’s a lot harder to have road rage and actually shoot people.


      • Thank you, Alex; good points. The nature of the supportive human community was meant to protect members from exactly the experiences you describe. By arranging for competition and courtship between its members (among other things), the healthy community could provide opportunities for you to compete fiercely in a game without permitting confrontation to cross into the dangerous realm; similarly, arranged courtship and group mores allowed people to court and jest without damaging themselves or the social fabric.

        Imagine if you could do all the things that you might want to do “outside,” but while knowing that your revered ancestors were preventing jerks from getting into fights with you, and would ensure that you found a suitable mate and career before it was “too late.” The medium of “television as storyteller” is still very fun, but the need to rely upon it as first-tier socialization is gone for most people.


  5. “Television is like Microsoft: a monstrous perversion of technology that claims to be the free choice of free enterprise, but which owes its existence to a marketplace carefully honed over the centuries to make certain facets of human interaction increasingly impossible without its usage.”

    What a great sentence.


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