People who work in the TV business--or write columns like this one--often suffer from a myopic view of the world, assuming everyone is gaga over "The Sopranos," cares desperately about agents Mulder and Scully getting together and spends long hours pondering why Felicity would hack off her hair.
Surrounded by, and occasionally guilty of, this television-centric mentality, I find it a welcome wake-up call to receive messages from readers saying they don't watch much TV and, for various reasons, can't entirely fathom why anyone else would bother.
Daniel Fink, 50, a West Los Angeles resident and medical director at a local hospital, doesn't subscribe to cable, barely uses his VCR and can't imagine where people find time for all the series he reads about in print.
"My condolences if you have to watch the shows that you write about," he noted in his initial message, which stemmed from curiosity about folks like him: a programmer's nightmare who turns on the TV for the Super Bowl, election returns or a natural disaster, and that's about it.
In a subsequent chat, Fink sounded appalled by Nielsen Media Research data that estimates TV use in the average home, including all family members, to exceed seven hours daily.
"I truly am puzzled as to why people watch this stuff," he said, suggesting that he is inspired by having better things to do, not politics.
Fink represents the kind of educated, upper-income viewer who makes advertisers (and therefore networks) salivate, in part because they are busier, more discriminating and harder to reach. According to a 1997 Los Angeles Times poll, college graduates were more likely to say they don't watch TV (11%) or tune in for only about an hour per day (23%) than the 5% and 13% in those categories, respectively, among people who didn't finish high school.
Admittedly, surveys based on self-reporting are always suspect. Many people are no doubt reluctant to acknowledge--indeed, might not even be conscious of--how many hours they spend sprawled across the couch watching some midseason NBA game or wondering how Katie Couric can be so perky at 7 a.m.
"If you actually put a meter on this guy, he'd probably be stunned by how much TV he watches," said Alan Wurtzel, NBC's president of research and media development. "People tend to underestimate how much they watch."
Still, Fink insists he uses the tube sparingly. He makes no time for series, doesn't care for broadcast news ("It's all superficial--sound bites and catchy pictures") and has reduced his viewing of sports, disenchanted by stories about spoiled athletes and their assorted misdemeanors.
"This is Los Angeles," he noted. "You work in your garden in December. You don't cocoon and watch football."
Sally Jo Hart doesn't watch much TV either, although in her case, the root of the matter is its content. A mother of five grown children who lives in Carlsbad, Hart, 60, enjoys watching sports but objects to "sexcoms," as she put it, and what she sees as an overly permissive environment in terms of sexuality, including commercials.
"At one time I 1/8thought 3/8, 'If you don't like it, just change the channel,' but there's so much out there, and if you tell kids not to watch, they're just going to find it," she said.
Hart was fed up enough to mail in an ad placed by the Parents Television Council, a group lobbying for reinstatement of a "family viewing hour." She doubts it will do much good, convinced that such complaints tend to fall on deaf ears.
"If you are against it, they think you're some religious zealot," she said.
Fink and Hart speak for segments of the population whose opinions are seldom given a forum in columns and magazines that breathlessly chronicle each trivial network pursuit. It would be interesting to hear, in fact, from more readers who find themselves viewing TV more selectively or not at all--and what motivated them to do so.
Getting the most out of television these days does require a bit of effort--educating oneself to locate the rare gems. Thanks to cable and new networks, there are more of these jewels available than before, but there are certainly more layers of detritus to sift through in order to find them.
Dismissing television out of hand, however, risks tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Granted, there must be a more enriching way to spend one's time than eating Doritos and watching "Judge Judy," but that doesn't mean reading Chaucer in a candle-lit cave is the only viable alternative.
Available as it is to just about everyone who isn't living in an Amish farming community, television is so ubiquitous that most of the time we take it for granted. Yet we are approaching another point in history when TV will demonstrate its unique power, serving as the mechanism providing instantaneous access to the world as 1999 changes to 2000--an event millions will choose to share from the hoped-for safety of their living rooms.