According to the New York Times using data from Nielsen Research, the average American watches an average of five hours of television every day. (that’s 34 hours a week) Now that’s the average American. Obviously, most American watch far more. Can you blame them? There’s plenty to see. There are literally hundreds of networks at one’s fingertips, truly a flavor for every taste. The television is so much a part of modern life that most people turn it on the moment they enter their homes. The television is our friend. Or is it?

I haven’t actively watched television in over fifteen years. Years ago while on a trip to Paris, I discovered an amazing channel called ARTE, a combination of PBS, Discovery, A&E, Bravo, and something I’d never seen before. ARTE had plenty of sophisticated fare, but the channel also offered a wide variety of populist, lowbrow entertainment as well. Documentaries, opera concerts and profiles of jazz musicians merrily mixed with shows about hookers, hooligans and hell raisers. It was this strange yet successful blend of the high and the low that made ARTE so compelling. And there were no commercials!

Having discovered ARTE, I stopped watching television completely once I returned to the States. There was no need to watch anymore. ARTE was the shining example of what the medium was supposed to be and anything less was unwatchable. Now, the only time I watch television is when I’m traveling and trapped in some motel. And then I watch with the rabid fascination of a research scientist or archeologist. Because I see television as a picture perfect cultural barometer, a mechanism with which to determine where our civilization stands in the grand scheme of things. Now, having recently returned from a short vacation (and television binge), I’ve concluded that modern civilization is up to its eyebrows in bullshit.

In all fairness, not all television is crap. But for the most part, it tends to be trite, flat and predictable. Dramas always feature the holy trinity… the doctor, the lawyer or the cop… as if to remind viewers of the most important members of society.  Situation comedies repeat the same situations ad nauseum, with the same tired, refried jokes to boot. Talk shows feature narcissistic, airhead celebrities with nothing of importance to say. And commercials endlessly remind us that mindless consumption is both nirvana as well as the answer to life’s challenges.  Though cartoons are relegated to saturday morning, it could easily be argued that everything on television is a cartoon.

My recent binge revealed that television remains as trite, flat and predictable as ever. In fact, it’s actually gotten worse. Perhaps the best example of this sad fact is the so-called “reality show”, a paradoxical misnomer to be sure. Because these shows are anything but real. Reality “stars” pout, preen and prance for the cameras, proudly flaunting their affluence and vanity like peacocks on a mission. They already know they’re divine; they want you to know it too. Thanks to reality programming, lucky viewers vicariously live lives of which dreams are made.

Reality programming is far more than just a powerful term, it’s also a powerful tool. Television has always served a purpose beyond mere entertainment. That box has always been about programming. Make no mistake; there’s nothing on television that’s not meant to be there. Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jersey Shore, Basketball Wives, and other such shows are specifically designed to program a particular reality along with certain ideas and values. Wealth brings happiness, ignorance is bliss, implants are important, etc. The “reality” promoted by such shows represents the reality to which we’re all supposed to aspire.

Clearly, we’re being programmed for stupidity.