It was the Olympics that changed everything. Until the Olympics my daughter had limited exposure to normal television. She saw it now and then, of course, at friends houses, on in one of the many places in which television has intruded — restaurants, taxi cabs, elevators, bank branches, airports, airplanes.
But television of the old fashioned variety — the kind that you watched with a remote in hand, changing channels, seeing commercials — was something she rarely encountered. Until the Olympics.We were at my mother’s place when they were on. Almost every night we all gathered to watch the first half an hour or so of programing,
My daughter was interested in the “high jump board,” as she called it, gymnastics, beach Volleyball, the “high pole jump,” and the very fast races. But what most held her attention were the commercials.
Which brings me to Netflix.
We don’t own a television. Neither my wife or I owned one when we met. Which is not to say Evangeline is constantly engaged with nature and doing science projects. Quite the opposite. She craves movies and television shows, and she sees many of them. She watches on a laptop. For movies, it is I-tunes. For everything else, Netflix. Watching the Olympics made me aware of all strangeness of such habits.
Herewith: The 5 Ways That Netflix Distorts the Media Universe for My Daughter
1. The Oliver Twist Problem
Back when I was a television addict (of the old, primitive cable variety), a great deal of the pleasure had to do with the sense of event that went along with my favorite shows — Mork and Mindy, Happy Days, Lavern and Shirley, Midnight Blue, Fantasy Island, Ugly George, etc. Directly connected to the sense of event was a sense of scarcity. But the Netflix generation is both deprived of scarcity and conversely, afflicted by a limitless supply. There is always more, and again.
2. The Groundhog Day Problem
“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” wrote Heraclitus. But my daughter often streams the same exact show twice or three times in a row. I have nothing against repetition in childhood viewing habits. I saw the Bad News Bears (the original) ten times in the movie theater. The Bad News Bears: Breaking Training I saw eleven times. Star Wars clocked out at seven. If she wants to watch a particular Johnny Test or Finneas and Ferb over and over it is OK with me, as long as it is during “movie time.” But I do find it weird how easily the whole is fragmented into parts that go beyond a five year’s old’s attention span. When I saw those movies, I saw the whole movie.
Being able to skip ahead, or to pool in one spot, seeing it over and over, creates a distorted sense of control. It’s not that she expects everything she experiences in life to be replayable. But the way you can move around within a continuous stream of images so easily, toggling back five minutes or one minute to repeat a section over and over seems profoundly new. Of course you could do that with a record, a tape, and VHS. You could scratch that repetition itch with the old technology. But it wasn’t so integral to the experience of the thing itself. I don’t think there is anything unusual in the desire, just the ease with which the desire is fulfilled.
3. Access Denied
Yahoo once polled its users, during its halcyon days, regarding their feelings about the Internet. They discovered many people didn’t grasp that there was a difference between Yahoo and the Internet. I worry that my daughter thinks the universe of movies and TV shows is the Netflix universe, supplemented, on special occasions, by its classier, more expensive cousin, Itunes. I suppose this isn’t any different that my having viewed network television, and then primitive cable, as the world. You work with what is available. But what was available then was so explicitly limited I also knew that out there, somewhere, should I one day care enough and have enough freedom to look for it, there was other stuff.
But now it’s an on demand universe. The very word in connection with childhood, “Demand,” is unsettling, unattractive. Kids have needs, wants, wishes. We accept that. Demands. Harder to accept.
Which brings me to the question: Do I want my kid, five years old, to be finding “other stuff?” What would that be?
In our case it turned out to be Network Television and its glossy commercials.
The best thing about Netflix is that you can watch shows without commercials. This is not to say I am never interested in the commercials on television — on premium programming such as the Superbowl, The Olympics, and so forth, there commercials represent the highest production values and most seductive pitches money can buy; they are a spectator sport in themselves.
But during the Olympics I began to wonder if using Netflix to keep ads out of my daughter’s head was, perhaps, the equivalent of coating her in Purell every morning and night: it might be depriving her of developing the necessary antibodies. Do I keep her away from commercials because they are grossly manipulative and urge you towards a dissatisfaction that only a product can assuage? Or do I let her soak it all in because that is what kids do anyway, there is no stopping the culture we live in from being the culture we live in? Could it be that the more she is acclimated the better?
This line of thinking turns media habits into an environmental health issue. In both cases the detrimental effects are not immediately visible, but can be long lasting. And in both cases there are some parents who say, in essence, “the crap I grew up eating and breathing didn’t kill me so what is the big deal if a lead paint chip is lying around?” I am one of the parents who feel that toxicity is a bad thing on the face of it. ANd I am also someone who spent hours, as a kid, in a deep trance like state of television watching. I would crawl into this mode, the TV watching mode, with what I now recognize as the intense need of a drug user. For this kind of user — the kind I was — the show is almost secondary to the intense feeling of passivity that follow from turning on the television. I survived, but want my kid to either be spared. And if it’s not reasonable to deprove her of what I wanted so much, then I want to deprive her of the life cues that are built into all commercials, the nes that say you are lacking and will be completed by this one thing.
5. Are Commercials Toxic?
It was the promotional spots for other NBC fare — and I don’t mean the Animal sitcom they foisted on everyone the last night —that were most often prompted me to lift my hand to literally shield her face. Scary faces with fangs, or guns blazing in all directions, or sexually provocative material, it all flashed by. She was at times a bit frightened, as with the ugly vampire face with its fangs — “Daddy, what was that?” — but mostly fascinated. It’s a very tricky thing, advertising on television–you have to appeal to the adult inside the kids and the kids inside the adult. Most profitably, you appeal to the kid in order to manipulate the adult.
The commercials that had the most striking effect on my daughter’s attitude were the BMW ads. The first time she saw one of those spots, which cast the car as a kind if smoke wreathed chariot, part car and part magic carpet, she said, with Pavlovian timing that would have made a creative director somewhere blush with pleasure: “Daddy, let’s get that car.”
A few days later, driving out to the country, a car passed us on the left. It was just a regular car, not a BMW. But it was going fast. It had momentum and speed. It suggested — as things with momentum and speed often do — another life. From directly behind me came her voice. “Daddy,” she said in a confiding whisper, “I think that was the ultimate driving machine.”
At which point, I thanked my lucky stars for Netflix.
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