Gotta give them something to do

It’s easy to decry TV, movies and sports as nothing more than a time suck, as a constant push toward looser morals and a consumer culture, but they also provide a benefit that’s not often discussed — that of giving people something acceptable to do with their time. Among other things, they redirect energy that would be spent on real life behaviors into vicarious behaviors, and in some ways, that’s a good thing in today’s world.

You look back through recent history, and you’ll see that as societies became more civilized, people distanced themselves from nature and segmented their existence not only in terms of time but also in terms of space. When economies were based solely (or mostly) on agriculture and crafts, people had plenty to do all day long. Life and work followed a natural cycle, and they intermingled. (You see some of that these days with telecommuting.) People had homes, and they had land, and they worked on that land and around their homes all day long. They put in long hours during the spring, summer and autumn, and relaxed during winter, at home with their families. Nowadays, very few people still live on that cycle. Most people have office jobs and live in apartment buildings, particularly in the larger cities where the costs of owning a home are prohibitive. When they get home at night, what’s there to do? Little, really. When you have an apartment, what are you going to do? Stare at the walls? Vacuum the floors? Re-organize your sock drawers? I suppose that’s how the need for mass entertainment developed, first with sports, then movies, then TV. When you have (roughly) five hours of free time per day, you’ve got to spend it somehow, so why not become a sports fan, or why not watch movies or TV?

As one follows the progress of their favorite sports team or TV show, they live in that world, through those characters or stars, and experience the highs and lows of that microcosm. Some would say that’s a form of population control, of dumbing down the population, of occupying their time with nonsense so they don’t wake up and start something. In some ways, it is, but it’s also needed. What would people do with the energy and time they spend on sports and TV if those outlets didn’t exist? Some would spend it in positive ways — with their families, on books, arts, hobbies, games, newspapers, trips and the like — and yet others (and this is a number that can’t be quantified) would spend it in negative ways — and the variety of those ways is something that would boggle the mind. For that group of people, the fact that they spend their time in front of the TV or in the stands, cheering for their sports teams, is undoubtedly a good thing.

So, beside the fact that there are very real benefits to TV networks and advertisers as more people tune in to see TV shows and sports matches, or to movie studios as more people go to see their latest creation, or to sports teams when fans fill their stadiums, there are arguable benefits to be gained for society in general as more people tune out the outside world and turn on their TVs. The issue is clearly more complicated than that, and I’m oversimplifying things, but I wanted to point out this particular aspect. It’s but one view among many that can be taken when you talk about this subject. The more I think of this, the more I realize its complexity can’t possibly be explained in a single post, so don’t expect an overarching conclusion here — just an observation.