The Depression will not be televised!


by Rich Broderick, 3/19/08 • Watching TV can be a disorienting experience.

And I don’t just mean the kind of disorientation that can set in as a result of rapid channel surfing from Wolf Blitzer barking on the Situation Room to the bickering lowlifes on Judge Judy to a podcast from Indonesia on Current TV to a pair of brittle-looking shills on a shopping channel hawking costume jewelry that even your fat aunt Minnie would shy away from wearing and back to Wolf again.

I mean the generalized disorientation that can come from viewing a medium so thoroughly dissociated from that more-or-less shared space we tend to call “reality,” by which I certainly do not mean the giddily unreal “reality” of “reality TV.” You know, this reality – the three-dimensional construct where you wake up with a headache, pay bills, drink bad coffee at work in order to stave off boredom-induced comas, and so on.

By comparison, the imagery projected by TV resembles the free-association, stream of consciousness characteristic of a hypnagogic state just between waking and dreaming. It’s like stepping into the mind of someone on the verge of sleep, if that mind were completely possessed by the internal logic of consumer culture.

Witness the schizophrenic disconnect between the exceedingly bad economic reports turning up on news shows – careening stock market, plummeting housing values, $110 a barrel crude and the dollar in freefall – with the apparently carefree world inhabited by the folks populating commercials for cars, credit cards, cosmetics, and – yes – mortgage and finance companies that appear at regular intervals during those very same news shows. Listen to the news dispatches with half an ear, and it is clear that the United States faces the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – indeed, may be on the brink of another Great Depression. Watch the commercials (or, for that matter, the entertainment programming), and you’d think the biggest problem we faced was whether to pay for that Gucci bag with Visa or Mastercard.

This is not, I think, simply the escapism movies and radio offered people during the Depression. Watching a Busby Berkeley musical might make you forget for a couple of hours the soup lines and shuttered factories outside, but nobody in 1933 was busy pretending that a Depression wasn’t underway. Furthermore, there was no confusion about what in fact constituted reality – Busby Berkeley or the shuttered factories. Pretty much everybody knew.

The difference today is that American TV is a medium hellbent on denying reality. Or, perhaps, on insisting that the artificial imagery it presents to viewers is reality and that it’s the unpleasant stuff going on out in the streets that isn’t really real. Unlike radio in the 1930s, whose sit coms, soap operas, mysteries, westerns, and even science fiction dramas required active imaginative participation from their audiences, or even movies, whose passive participation might take up at most four or six hours of someone’s time in a week, 24/7 TV weaves a narcotized cocoon in which a very high percentage of Americans spend almost every hour of every day in which they are not sleeping or working.

Walk through any American neighborhood of a typical evening, and you will see the glow of one, two, sometimes multiple TV screens in the windows of virtually every house. When some future race gets around to writing the epitaph of this civilization (presuming there will be a future race), it could very well read “They were the people who watched TV.”

Which leads me to wonder. What if, as almost happened, television networks already existed prior to the Great Depression (TV was invented in the late 1920s, and RCA was planning to launch a network when the project was interrupted by the country’s financial collapse)? Would TV have even acknowledged it? Judging by what’s on the air today, I’d say, no. It wouldn’t have. And if we do, indeed, find ourselves in the midst of another Depression, I doubt seriously it will fully acknowledge its reality, either.

I don’t mean this to be a general screed against TV. TV itself is neither good nor bad. But since the end of World War II, and at an accelerating pace the past 15 years, we as a country have been attempting to operate the world’s biggest, most complex economy almost entirely on debt. In this inevitably doomed, nationwide Ponzi scheme, television, which in America relies almost completely on consumer spending for its profit-margins, has quite naturally done nothing but encourage us to spend more of what we don’t have, borrow more, charge more, “pay down” debt by going even deeper into hock.

Nothing is more disconcerting – or more predictable – than witnessing the transition from some somber news report about home foreclosures to a commercial for Countrywide, one of the principal villains in the housing bubble, hawking no-fee, “low interest” consolidation loans to help “reduce” your monthly payments. If you’ve dug yourself into a hole, television counsels, the best course of action is to keep digging. No wonder we elected George W Bush President – twice. He’s the perfect avatar for these times!

The other day, my next door neighbor, the head custodian at a local church whose congregation consists of blue-collar and lower-middle-class families, told me that he does not know a single family there that isn’t at least $50,000 in debt, and that does not include their home mortgages. This was in the midst of a conversation in which he revealed that his own family had just been forced to take out an $80,000 “consolidation” loan to “pay down” debt from credit cards and some recent remodeling of their exceedingly modest bungalow – a house that, like all houses in St. Paul, is rapidly hemorrhaging value.

Fifty thousand dollars may not sound like much, but to him and his friends at church, it might as well be $50 million for all any of them can hope to dig themselves out of debt. Meanwhile, all television has to offer is a bigger shovel. Available at the Menards or Tru-Value hardware store nearest you.

Will that be Visa or Mastercard?