Tuning Out

When Pope Francis recently confessed to a reporter that he stopped watching television 25 years ago, it reminded me that several of my friends had gone TV-free as well. I recollect them sharing the news with great braggadocio. One would have thought they were declaring their exit from a domestic terrorist cell. My oh-so-media-savvy buddies had quit TV? It seemed totally improbable.

And so it was. It turns out that most Americans who boast about “cutting the cord” are not dumping their TV sets at the curb. What they’re doing, like my pals, is canceling their cable — or satellite — TV contracts. Not such a major move, but a nice cost savings. You can still watch lots of TV programming these days on your computer or TV by subscribing to an online streaming service. Netflix is currently the most popular of those.

There is, however, a tiny subset of the population that has adopted a true zero-tolerance policy when it comes to television. Who are these people? According to Marina Krcmar, a Wake Forest University professor who wrote the book Living Without the Screen, the TV averse fall into three categories. The first group, which includes religious conservatives, simply detests the content, thinking it too sexual or violent. The second group believes that TV viewing disrupts family life. And the third, which tends to harbor a free-flowing countercultural bias, rejects outright the very notion of a TV industry. “They don’t like Hollywood, they don’t like being treated as consumers,” Krcmar told me.

Not surprisingly, intellectual elites got a head start on that trend. Listen to what was said about TV by none other than Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who wrote the best-selling book The Last Lecture. In 2007 following his terminal cancer diagnosis, he called out TV as the enemy of productivity. “If you really want to have time back in your life,” he told an audience at the University of Virginia, “unplug [your TV] and put it in a closet and put a blanket over it.”

If you really want to have time back in your life, unplug your TV and put it in a closet and put a blanket over it."—Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch

Being ill, as Pausch was at the time, invariably helps set life in perspective. My friend Laura Schiff, a former journalist who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008, appreciates that point all too well. “Television always felt like a waste of time,” she told me the other day. When her old TV failed, she opted not to replace it. “No regrets. Without TV, I get a much deeper understanding of the world and what’s going on around me.” The amazing irony: Schiff’s late father, Arthur Schiff, was the genius behind such memorable TV marketing catchphrases as “Act now and you’ll also receive …” and “But wait, there’s more!”

For some Americans, there is no “more.” There is already way too, too much — too much onscreen sex, too much stupid programming, too many commercials for products no one needs (the Snuggie, anyone?). Most of all — and indisputably — “TV robs us of our time, our most precious asset,” as author Joshua Fields Millburn said in his acclaimed memoir, Everything That Remains.

Few will be shocked, then, to learn that even Krcmar, the Wake Forest communications professor, has given up on TV. No more cable. Occasionally she and her husband will watch something via Netflix.

People who have sworn off television “are highly contemptuous of the programs,” Krcmar told me. “They think of themselves as unique and iconoclastic.” She stresses that she’s not gone quite that far. Yet.

A few nights ago, coincidentally, an iconoclast who knows I’m an unregenerate watcher of TV, sent a text message that more or less sums up where we’re headed in the 21st century. “TV?” he wrote to me, mockingly. “So 2014.”