I may sound like a dinosaur, but when I was a kid and wanted to watch a particular television show, I had to wait until it actually aired. This torturous interval could last hours, even days, and I had no control over the situation—I was at the mercy of a cruel and inflexible broadcast schedule.
This was surely a help to my parents as they struggled to keep me from watching too much TV, although it was far from perfect. When I was about four, I would often wake up before the cartoons started and happily watch the only thing I could find—televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, which amuses my steadfastly secular parents to this day.
As I got older, I would still sometimes just watch whatever was on the tube, but just as often I would read a book, play with my Lego sets or call up a friend to hang out. Sometimes I would hop on my bike and go get some of that elusive “fresh air” my mother was always talking up—even though the air in the house tasted fine to me.
Now, of course, TV is different. My wife and I consume our television shows exclusively through streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and, if there is absolutely no other source for a particular program, the dismal hellscape of Hulu. I’m perfectly happy under this new regime, but I wonder about its effect on our two-year-old daughter.
I welcome some aspects of on-demand television into her life, but others make me uneasy.
I’m certainly pleased, for instance, that she won’t find herself drawn to the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries for want of quality programming to watch (Shaun the Sheep will always triumph over televangelism; my faith is unshakeable). She also has access to a vast array of TV shows, movies, and music which—if properly curated by her parents—could teach her far more about history, culture and the diversity of human experience than broadcast television ever could have done when I was her age.
But the idea that a desired show might not “be on right now” will always be a foreign concept to my daughter. “Of course it’s on right now,” I imagine her saying. “It’s ALWAYS on.”
The idea of getting rid of the TV altogether is sometimes appealing, but, really, it’s a preposterous fantasy. We all want to limit our kids’ screen time, but sometimes we also need them to sit still for a while, whether it’s to brush their teeth, clip their toenails or just let Mom and Dad catch their breath. Also, the new season of Game of Thrones has started, so, yeah, the TV is staying put.
So, we’ll have to set her TV limits without tools like that ironclad broadcast schedule and I’m bracing for a years-long fight. What if my daughter develops into a shrewder negotiator than me? What if she sees me sneak a second helping of ice cream and perceives how little willpower I actually have?
I don’t have an answer yet. But lately I’ve begun to look at that box the way Professor X looks at Magneto in the X-Men films: Are we friends? Are we enemies? I can’t tell. But if we end up on opposite sides in the inevitable conflict, will I have the strength to destroy you before you destroy me?