Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Behind the screens

leave a comment »

Edward Platt and Don Adams on Get Smart

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What was your favorite TV show as a kid?”

As I write this post, I’m huddled upstairs, engaging in an illicit activity that I’ve repeatedly denied to my daughter: I’m looking at a computer screen. When Beatrix was born, we didn’t have a lot of childrearing rules in mind, but we knew that we didn’t want her watching television or using digital devices until she was two years old, following the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Even now, it’s just about the only rule we try to follow, aside from a general effort to avoid giving her sugary snacks. This has degenerated into an ongoing confidence game in which we try to convince her that Ritz crackers are really cookies, and she’s going to be so mad when she finds out the truth.) In practice, of course, she sees screens all the time. There’s almost always a laptop open on the dining room table, and it’s rarely long before she’s demanding to look at pictures of herself, her grandparents—or pretty much anything, really. And while we try to enforce the rule as much as we can, it already feels like a losing battle that will become even more futile if, or when, a second kid comes along.

Obviously, there are sound reasons for wanting to limit my daughter’s screen time, but part of me also suspects that I’m simply uncomfortable with the differences between the way she’ll grow up and my own experience. I consumed a lot of television, every day, all the way from preschool to college, and although my viewing time has gone down dramatically in adulthood, it’s only because other screens have dominated my attention. And when I watched television, it was in ways to which Beatrix will never be able to relate. We had cable most of the time, but only one channel for kids, and I spent a lot of afternoons in any case staring at whatever grainy shows would come across the antenna in the back room of my mom’s office. I also watched a lot of random stuff on videotape—often on a vintage Betamax player—that we’d recorded at one time or another: television specials like The World of the Dark Crystal, hallucinatory animated features like Richard Williams’s Raggedy Ann and Andy, and that one episode of The Nature of Things about dinosaurs that I’ve tried in vain to find ever since. It was a mixed bag, but I watched it to pieces, mostly because it was all we had around.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

These days, the situation is radically different. There are countless cable channels devoted to children’s programming, killing off what remained of Saturday morning cartoons, and the funny thing is that it doesn’t really matter. Most kids watch most of their content online, which is why iPad is a stronger brand among American children than Disney, Nickelodeon, or McDonalds. (This isn’t restricted to children, either: a recent survey found that a majority of consumers report that they watch most of their online television shows on YouTube, which also implies that a lot of people aren’t sure what “television” means.) There’s more variety and access than ever before, and in theory, kids could be watching clips on demand from any show in the history of the medium. In practice, this doesn’t seem to be happening: one of the side effects of having a vast spectrum of entertainment options is that content can be tailored ever more precisely for particular audiences. Kids are watching shows that are directed squarely at them, often brilliantly, and because of—or despite—the range of choices at their disposal, they’re much less likely to end up watching something just because it happens to be on.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I don’t want to become unduly nostalgic about the junk I watched growing up because there wasn’t any alternative. Yet there’s also something to be said for the serendipity that a more limited slate of programming enforces. Among the first shows I ever remembering loving were the reruns that ran on Nick at Nite: Dick Van Dyke, Get Smart, Patty Duke, even Mr. Ed. They stuck with me to the point that years later, when I saw Blue Velvet, it was through the lens of The Donna Reed Show. And the only reason I saw them at all was because the channel stayed tuned to Nickelodeon and never left, after the evening programming began. These shows hadn’t been designed for me; they came from another era, with jokes that flew over my head, and in many cases, they were still on the air only because they could be cheaply packaged for syndication. (It’s also worth noting that black-and-white sitcoms still look gorgeous, while early shows shot on videotape, like All in the Family, are all but unwatchable on a visual level, so it’s unlikely I’d have been so taken by Nick at Nite if I’d been watching it a decade later.) But I’m glad I saw them. Beatrix won’t need to watch anything made before she was born, but I’d like to think she will, even if the rest of the world is busy moving beyond it.

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2014 at 9:52 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: