TV watching used to be so easy, a matter of sitting and vegetating, and ventilating the mind of all conscious thought. With the addition of a remote control, you didn't even have to move from your chair to change channels. It was like being in a cool sauna. You could tune out by tuning in.
But that was before the relatively recent unholy alliance between the television set and an even more intrusive appliance, the telephone. Now a viewer is summoned every few minutes to get up, put down one's bag of Cheez Doodles or can of Pringle's, and make a telephone call. Call and pledge money for this, call and order a set of these, call and vote on that. It's all so very insistent -- not just the usual "Next time you're in the supermarket, pick up a bag of kumquats" sort of thing.
Of course, television has always been the great importuner and has always flashed telephone numbers in the viewer's face: Call now, act now, get to that telephone right this minute, and order the Ginsu knives, the indestructible artificial fingernails, the exercise machine or the collected hits of that famous star you never heard of -- maybe some wan German blowing into a potato whistle. All part of the warped woof of television land.
In recent times, however, the ranks of the solicitors have been swelling. You can barely turn on the TV without getting pitched and prodded toward the phone. It's lucky that Touch-Tone phones came along, or we would all have dialer's cramp.
Naturally we expect public TV stations to put the bite on us two or three times a year, as they did recently, and goad us to the phones so we can make a pledge. And every time they do it, they tell us these gaping interruptions in programming are necessary so that we can be brought uninterrupted television programs. Teleportuning of this kind now seems a fact of life, and in some unspeakably perverse way, we might even miss it if it stopped. After all, you just can't have too many tote bags with TV station logos on them.
So we can, or at any rate must, endure commercials for noncommercial TV. That's one thing. But it's another when, as during the same March weekend, pay TV networks like Home Box Office and Cinemax also take to the airlanes with pitches to phone phone phone and buy buy buy. Buy what? Buy HBO and Cinemax, of course. And if you already do pay for them, you have to sit through the insufferable spiels by the jolly jump-ups anyway. There they are with their banks of phones and their 800 number just waiting for you to call. Just daring you to call. Taunting, teasing, begging you to call. Impugning your manhood, womanhood or sense of citizenship should you not call.
If you could call and actually get the jolly jump-ups on the phone, it might be worth the effort. Then you could give them a piece of your mind, since they already have a piece of your wallet. The idea behind these sales drives is for cable systems to make the pay channels available to all their subscribers, unscrambled, once or twice a year for general ware-sampling. The problem is, the people who are already paying customers have to sit through the pitches as well.
The other side of this coin is that if you ever do call your cable system to complain about its lousy service, you learn that it has only one telephone line and Rosie the Receptionist is always on it.
During the most recent fund-raising blitz, I wanted to get away from television and its diabolical partner in solicitation, the telephone. So I got in the car and turned on the radio. On came WGMS and its "radiothon," a phone-in auction to benefit the National Symphony. Listeners are asked to call in and bid on merchandise with proceeds ($200,000 this year) going to the orchestra. Driving along and listening to this, and wishing nothing but prosperity and success for the National Symphony, I suddenly realized what a great advantage it is not to have a cellular phone in the car. It's a last line of defense against the pitchers and the pleaders.
Day after day, night after night, the television watcher sees a perennial parade of telephone numbers and is urged to call them all, often to register an opinion. "Entertainment Tonight" ran a viewer preference phone-in poll last week on the Academy Awards.
MTV had an even more urgent plea, however. The music video cable network asked its viewers to phone in via a 900 number (50 cents a call) and vote on whether Michael Nesmith should tour with the Monkees this summer. What an opportunity for a citizen to be heard! Thomas Paine would swell with pride! Or just swell. Such are the benefits of living in a democracy. We must remember: They don't have 900 numbers in Moscow. I'm sure the Russians are lucky if they can get a dial tone.
Or maybe they are lucky if they can't get a dial tone.
On and on they go, the pleas for viewers to hit those phones and, incidentally, dictate yet more numbers to the person on the other hand -- those door-opening Visa and MasterCard account numbers, of course. Maybe it's wonderful in a way. You can sit in your living room with nothing but a telephone and a television set and buy yourself videotapes, imitation Giorgio perfume, insurance, plates that commemorate old movies, and that indispensable necessity, that miracle of modern technology, that heaven-sent spinal boon, the adjustable bed.
As far as inventions go, and they usually go too far, it has always seemed to me that the telephone is a far more obnoxious instrument than the television set. TV gets all the criticism and blame for social ills, yet I have never known a television set to turn itself on and interrupt the tranquility of a living room. A telephone can ring at any moment and impose itself brutally on one's consciousness.
Data-gathering firms have developed a machine that records not only what is being watched on a television set, for the purpose of ratings tabulation, but also who is watching it in the room, what their ages are, perhaps what their blood types and IQs are, and then tracks their mind-sets to see if they buy products based on what commercials they have seen. Big Brother himself could not have come up with a more insidious gizmo, and it's the combination of television and telephone functions that's scary.
Surely the next step is the television set that does indeed turn itself on when it is determined by ominous forces that you and I should be watching this or that commercial. Perhaps there'll even be television sets with bells that ring to warn of an incoming message. Obviously if this hasn't already been thought of, it will be. Communications technology presses on, and all hope of communicating grows dimmer. Or at least, all hope of escaping being communicated to grows dimmer.
There is one time, incidentally, when those friendly folks at your local TV station do not want you to call. That is when you see something on their channel that offends, outrages or sickens you. When prime time comes, and the TV audience reaches its largest point of the day, many a TV station switchboard shuts down. You may call all you want, but the most you are likely to get is a recording telling you, in so many words, to stuff it.