In the black abyss there appeared a single Eye that slowly grew, until it filled nearly all the mirror. So terrible was it that Frodo stood rooted, unable to cry out or withdraw his gaze. The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing. (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Ballantine Books, 1965, p. 471).
Waking in a hotel room a few weeks ago, I noticed a faintly glowing red light staring at me from the television in the room. With admitted hyperbole, I thought of the lidless Eye of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. Television may not yet be like a lidless eye; we can, of course, still turn it off. But its increasing ubiquity (grocery store lines, back seats of minivans, gasoline pumps, ad infinitum) make the seemingly facetious analogy at least a little unsettling.
Add to this the vacuity of so much of television programming. When Frodo first sees the eye in the Mirror of Galadriel, it is described as “a window into nothing.” Roger Scruton has similarly expressed: “There is no weapon in the armoury of nothingness more lethal than TV.”
Self-aware readers will recognize the phrase in Tolkien’s description “unable to . . . withdraw his gaze.” Those who’ve tried to converse with someone in a home or restaurant where a television is playing will surely see the force of the comparison.
Even if one grants the ubiquity, vacuity and sheer drawing power of television, that person may still ask if it is fair to describe it as a malign influence. When it comes to family life, however, there’s a case to be made even on this point.
the lack of moral oversight of many youth by their parents has left a void of moral guidance that is filled, distressingly, by electronic media.
Even the existence of television in homes may create problems for family life. Demographer Phillip Longman has recently written about the case of Brazil:
In Brazil, the government never promoted family planning and yet its birthrate went down even more than inIndia.Brazilhad slipped into subreplacement fertility by 2005 and the most recent estimate puts the TFR [Total Fertility Rate] at 1.71 in 2011. Curiously, birthrates declined in one province after another, coincidental with the introduction of television, exposure to which demographers believe is a major, if imperfectly understood force in driving down family formation in the developing world. Once stereotyped as a nation of youthful exuberance, Brazil has seen its population of children drop by more than 2 million in the last 10 years without any government coercion whatsoever, though the effects of soap operas are deeply implicated.
Obviously, all the blame for disintegrating family life cannot be pinned on one source. But as F. Burton Howard said some years ago, it is probably time to be realistic about television. (F. Burton Howard, You Can Go Home Again, Bookcraft, 1992, p. 95; see also here).
We could begin by turning away from the absorbing gaze of the “receiving apparatus.”