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Comparing Virtues – Part 2: Watching TV

Last time in this modern debate of reading a book versus watching TV, we discussed some of the benefits and problems of reading books.

Now it is time to take the argument to the screen.

Photo: espensorvik via Flickr

Effortless Entertainment

More than anything, watching TV is effortless. Where computer games require interaction and movement (of your thumbs, at the very least), TV doesn’t even require you to stay awake.

You sit, you consume, and that’s it. Very relaxing after a long day! Or night. Or after you just woke up… An continuous and ever-represent source of entertainment.

The best thing: it’s inexhaustible. Whatever tickles your fancy, there is more. binging on series, shows, movie franchises… Over-indulgence was never easier!

Of course the endless stream of input does block your output. Multitasking is a fable, and there is no such thing as doing something while you’re watching TV in the background. And as long as your brain is in ‘input’ mode, consuming the images flashing across the screen, it can’t swtich to ‘output’ mode.

And that kills your productivity – in everything!

A Whole New World

All the same, watching TV is an alternative way to learn about the world and listen to stories. Movies and documentaries are no less than books in that respect. Adding audio and movement to the sensory range of images, some subjects or processes can even be explained more clearly in video than in a book. A picture is a thousand words, they say. That goes extra when that images moves.

How much benefit you take away from staring at a screen does depend on what you watch. Hour after hour of sitcom reruns and Marvel movies can be very entertaining and relaxing, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the educational value there is, at best, limited.

On the other hand, art is in the eye of the beholder. So is what we learn.

Cost of the Screen

TV can be incredibly cheap. Large TV-sets are expensive, but internet costs very little, Youtube is free, and streaming services like Netflix play even on the smartphone you already have anyway. Unless you insist on the newest iPhone, in which case that screen is going to be very expensive after all…

Watching TV can drain your time, but it doesn’t require an investment of time. TV shows and movies are available 24/7 on any device with an internet connection. The time of scheduling your agenda around your favourite show or movie in the cinema is long gone. Televisionised stories are now available around the clock, regardless of where you are and what your budget is.

Just like books, really.

Nothing New Under The Sun?

Movies began as an art form that could do what neither books nor photography could manage. Stories were written especially for the silver screen, but soon people realised that movies were a wonderful way to introduce people to classic novels, legends and fairy tales.

To this day, a great many movies and series are based on books. Haven’t read ‘Pride & Prejudice’? Pop in the DVD and see what you’ve been missing. Want to know what it was about Stephen King’s ‘IT’ that scared people so? Catch it on film. As with many films, you even get to choose between the classic adaptation and the remake.

But screen adaptations are always mere summaries of a book. Short stories may lend themselves to be scripted, but a 1200-page novel won’t even fit a 3×3-hour trilogy. Small wonder that what makes it to screen is rarely more than an eviscerated version of the original story.

Characters, subplots and sometimes the entire main theme are sacrificed for the sake of time. If you have seen Spielberg’s  Jurassic Park and then read the Michael Crichton novel it was based on, you may wonder if they really are the same story.

Nevertheless, a large number of books I read, I picked up because I had enjoyed the movie adaptation. In many cases the book contained depths the film hadn’t touched on, and in others the film version cut out all the dead meat that made the written story intolerable.

Pros & Cons

Stories on a screen are engaging and easy to consume. The stories may be thin and demand little of your concentation, but provided you select your shows and movies with care, they will encourage you to explore and learn as much as a good book does.

However, a poor choice of viewing material is an absolute deathtrap for your productivity and creativity – not to mention your time.

Concluding: Moral High Ground?

In terms of cost, books and TV/movies are similar. Both come in hand-held pocket format these days, and we’re spoilt for choice in both media. So those arguments are out the window.

Everything else comes down to the Moral High Ground Argument that TV is the pits and books are sacred. We are taught this from a young age:

“Don’t waste your time on TV, go read a book!”
“Books sharpen your mind!”

But some books are pure drivel, while some movies are gold. For me, certain TV series taught me more insights than 8 psycho-therapists could.

What’s more: with the increasing importance of screens and TV in modern society, there will soon be a generation that watches firsts and (maybe) reads later. The quality of screen productions is changing dramatically, too. The most insane ideas are put out there, but other productions are of immensely high quality and research that emulates life in the past, present and future. CGI has become nearly indistinguishable from reality – aiding our imagination instead of replacing it.

There is no One True Answer. Books no longer have the Moral High Ground over TV and movies.   

Now this choice is just about what YOU need. Want to unwind after a long day and mindlessly stare at something? Go watch TV. Found a compelling story in print? Go read. Found a compelling story on screen? Go watch it. Want some peace and quiet? Go read.

The important thing is that you listen and enjoy the stories. How you do that is entirely up to you.

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