Depressed enough to watch TV?

Joan Smith
Saturday 01 May 1999 23:02

With monotonous regularity, letters drop through my letterbox warning me that I may soon face prosecution and a heavy fine. To avoid this fate, I am urged to write a cheque for almost pounds 100. Because I don't respond to this bullying, I am occasionally visited by men who have been sent to question me in person.

The offence I am correctly accused of committing is failing to buy a television licence. The reason - I don't have a TV - is pretty obvious. But I don't see why I should justify myself to the TV Licensing Authority. Its form letters used to ask me to complete a sentence, as though I was entering a competition to win a car: "I do not need a TV licence because..."; these days, there is just a request to respond by phone, "so we can check our records".

This is a shame because some new research suggests a much more ingenious explanation. I don't have a licence, it turns out, because I am not depressed enough to watch television. The five-year study, entitled "TV Living", discovered that people watch lots of television when they are having a bad time and cut down when their lives improve. It describes the viewing habits of a teacher who got divorced, lost her job and had a breakdown; during this awful period, she started watching programmes like Blind Date and Beadle's About.

This would make me feel even worse, but it doesn't seem to work like that for regular viewers. "It is as if TV is a stress reliever, a comforter and a friend," said one of the study's authors, David Gauntlett of Leeds University. He added that when viewers "regain their security or happiness, television becomes less important". I should say here that it's entirely coincidental that I got rid of mine when I became single again, giving it to a friend when my ex-husband refused to take it on the somewhat peculiar ground that "there might be an emergency". What he had in mind, apparently, was a general election, although I subsequently managed to survive the entire 1997 campaign without one. But it's clear that the absence of a set in my house puzzles even people who know me reasonably well. Don't I feel out of touch, they ask. It's true that I have never seen Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Brookside or any programme featuring Chris Evans. But I read four or five British newspapers a day, as well as dipping into French and Italian ones. I also listen to several hours of Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, including its excellent overnight news reports.

I have only a vague notion about most TV personalities, although I am not as innocent as a friend of mine who shocked colleagues on Monday by asking "Who is Jill Dando?". But I am grateful that not watching the box provides some small degree of insulation against the cult of celebrity.

It is a measure of the medium's self-importance, and our habit of unthinking genuflection towards it, that the notion of a Serb connection in her murder has been taken so seriously. Too seriously, according to Italy's La Repubblica, which observed that in this case the thriller, pulp, horror and espionage genres had been whipped up into "a cocktail bizarre even for England, which is the home of Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple".

This is the voice of sane reflection, infrequently heard either on British television or when people come to write about it. The mistake they make is in thinking that, because TV is ubiquitous, it is also important. What I conclude from the new study is the opposite, that it acts like a drug, dulling reactions rather than sharpening them. Of course I know this is unfair to programme-makers who try to raise standards, producing news reports or documentaries which stir people into action rather than keeping them in a state of harmless distraction.

But they are in the minority. If TV reports from Kosovo were disturbing viewers en masse, prompting them to bombard the British government with demands to allow thousands of refugees into this country instead of the pitiful number it has accepted so far, I would think differently. But I suspect many viewers simply feel numbed, like the woman who e-mailed BBC Online after Jill Dando's murder, saying she thought she had become desensitised to the violence in the world - "until today".

We are in the middle of the most serious international crisis I can remember, with refugees barely surviving in primitive conditions in Albania and Serb civilians being bombed almost nightly. With all due respect to Ms Dando's friends and family, these events should exercise us more than the death of a television presenter.

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