Jemima Lewis: I have given up watching television

I feel melancholy: both at the slow, lumbering demise of an old friend, and at my own treachery
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The Independent Online

'Tis the season to watch telly, and as usual I have been greedily perusing every newspaper's "definitive guide" to the best offerings on the box. But this year, something's not right: I am afflicted by a wistful, almost nostalgic, detachment. "Oooh look," I find myself thinking. "Pauline from EastEnders is going to die. I'd have liked to have seen that." But I won't because, quite by accident, I have given up television.

In this I am not alone. Television audiences are falling precipitously in Britain, especially among the young. A recent Ofcom survey found that the average 16-24-year-old watches seven hours less television per week than the older viewer: a statistic that says as much about the square eyes of the older generation as it does about our yoof.

This drift away from the sofa is, of course, partly the fault of new technology. Those same 16-24-year-olds spend an average of three hours a week surfing the net. They also make seven more mobile phone calls and send 42 more text messages every week. Even so, that leaves them with a good few hours to fill while the oldies are glued to Deal or No Deal. Clearly, the young are not just swapping old media for new: they are losing interest in television per se.

Normally I'd be delighted to find myself hanging with the kids on the crest of a trend. But instead I feel somewhat melancholy: both at the slow, lumbering demise of an old friend, and at my own treachery.

For as long as I can remember I have been a closet telly addict. Forbidden fruit is always the most delicious, and I grew up among the middle-class intelligentsia, for whom television was the root of all stupidity. Some of my friends were not allowed a telly in the house at all: their parents believed it would be good for their imaginations, and for family unity, to have to "make our own entertainment".

Though this policy may have failed in one respect (adultery and divorce proving at least as common as among the telly-watching masses), their children were indeed strikingly precocious. I came to dread visiting them, since it invariably meant being drafted into a comedy revue, or a madrigal-singing competition, or a treasure hunt with impenetrable clues designed to test your logic.

My own parents, thankfully, were considerably more low-brow, but they still regarded television as a family treat, to be doled out in minuscule portions. My father decided which programmes were allowed - namely, the Six O'Clock News, Benny Hill and anything starring Richard Briers. After intensive lobbying, my sister and I managed to get The Clangers added to the list, but still I hankered for more.

The only grown-up freedom I ever really envied was the freedom to watch telly. So as soon as I grew up, that's what I did. Throughout my 20s, while my flatmates were out clubbing and picking up men, I was on the sofa with Friends. Instead of a love life, I had Ally McBeal.

By day I was an ambitious young newspaper hack; by night a caricature of torpor, wreathed in coils of marijuana smoke, slack-jawed in front of the Hollyoaks omnibus. My friends tsked disapprovingly from time to time, but I never felt I was wasting my time, or rotting my brain. On the contrary: this was the life I had always dreamed of!

So where did it all go wrong? How did I become the kind of person who misses an entire series of The X Factor? Who would rather walk off her Christmas lunch than flump contentedly in front of Monsters, Inc?

The problem is not quality: in the age of Peep Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Doctor Who and The Thick of It, the most exacting viewer can find something to love - if she knows where to look. I have the most basic digital TV package, but even that gives me access to hundreds of channels, playing non-stop reruns of America's Next Top Model and other trashy treats.

But that is precisely the problem. As every economist knows, a commodity that is available in abundance inevitably becomes less desirable to the consumer. The dawn of the digital and pay-per-view age means that I can satisfy my hunger for American rom-coms at any time of day or night, and as a consequence, my hunger has simply disappeared.

Giving up television hasn't changed my life. I haven't taken up abseiling or novel-writing to fill my spare time. Instead I pet the cat, rearrange cupboards, talk to my husband and - part of another trend, this - listen to the radio. The wonderful thing about radio is that (for the time being) there are only four or five stations worth listening to, and there's always a danger that they'll be playing something you hate. In other words, it's like television used to be.

When I switch on Radio 4, I get that old frisson of excitement: will it be The Archers (rejoice!) or Loose Ends (despair). I end up listening to programmes on personal finance or Uzbek foreign policy because there's nothing else on. I like it, because otherwise I'd have to lump it. No choice at all: that's what I call entertainment.

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