When Did Our Parents Go from Hating the “Idiot Box” to Being Addicted to It?

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When Did Our Parents Go from Hating the “Idiot Box” to Being Addicted to It?

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

O

ur first family television was a prized possession, the kind of thing you would hire someone like Tiger Shroff to protect. It was placed in the centre of our living room, on display from all corners of the house. My sister and I may have been too young to remember the exact day, but I’m sure whenever it arrived, my parents were relieved that they finally knew which direction to face all the furniture should face.

Soon after, most of our free time as a family was spent staring directly at this purchase. We’d watch wholesome family entertainment — the same 10 movies that Star Movies and HBO had on, the thousands of English sitcoms that had just made their way to the subcontinent, the billions of Hindi dramas and their billion seasons — pretty much whatever the winner of the Battle of Remote decided we would watch on the day.

It was probably going really well until about a decade later, when my parents first discovered that they might have made a huge mistake. It was the early noughties — evidenced by the thousands of music videos streaming on MTV — and their children had moved on from private family TV time to waking up at 5:00 am to watch whole seasons of Full House. My sister and I had moved on to communicating solely via ad-jingles and planning our days around the various TV schedules we’d marked out in the morning paper. Seeing as we were pretty young, and there wasn’t much business to attend to, it was easy to sometimes spend entire days lounging on sofas, in postures that would shock the thousands of budding yoga teachers today.

This information wasn’t lost on our school administrations, which sent home individual pamphlets explaining that letting children watch television without moderation would most definitely turn them into Chandler-from-F.R.I.E.N.D.S-quoting-Zombies. Parent-teacher meetings were called to decide how much time was appropriate for us to be watching TV. At these meetings, one of the most glorious inventions of the previous century would be labelled “the idiot box”.

Exam time meant cable was cut off, and getting up in the middle of the night to watch TV was the most rebellious act a teenager could pull off.

This fear, however, escalated to the point where television became the number one enemy for getting homework done, overtaking other evils like “magazines” and “landlines”. Exam time meant cable was cut off, and getting up in the middle of the night to watch TV was the most rebellious act a teenager could pull off. 

Unfortunately for our parents, as this panic was unfurling, the world’s tech Gods got into a meeting room and decided, “deffo need more screens up in this B”, and decided to give us all personalised televisions that we could hold in our hands. Our generation moved on from watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S on Zee Cafe to F.R.I.E.N.D.S on Netflix, faster than the mutual-fund disclaimer guy, grabbing any screen we could get our hands on, and shocking our bodies into more convoluted positions.

There was a glimmer of success for our parents in all of this. While they couldn’t control the amount of time their now-adult kids spent in front of screens, they did succeed in getting a giant chunk of us to stop wasting time on the “idiot box”. More younger people than ever are moving to online streaming sites. Once JioTV officially launches, it’s estimated to bring another 215 million of us online. 

Meanwhile, it’s especially ironic that the biggest adopters of the television today are not students, but the same parents who hated it. The generation that warned us extensively about the idiot box damaging our brains and turning us into violent criminals, now spend the most amount of time in front of their former arch-nemeses. 

The generation that warned us extensively about the idiot box damaging our brains, now spend the most amount of time in front of their former arch-nemeses.

Back at home, my own parents adopted the television as their own child. From 8:00 am to 11:00 pm, there’s a constant hum of static in the background, punctuated by a laughter track every 10 minutes. It doesn’t really matter what’s on, it could be a child reality show, or Tata Sky shop, the television is always on, the volume is always turned up to a hundred, and even the neighbours know what we’re watching. 

According to this BARC study, almost all houses in India still have their television sets, but nearly 40 per cent of Indians who watch TV together are between the ages 40 and 60. This trend is apparent over the world — retired Americans watch double the television that the younger generation does. Even this study from Finland, of all places, says the elderly spend more time in front of the television. 

You can see it for yourself: glance into any house in the city (without being too creepy about it) and the first thing you’ll notice is the oldest person in the house seated firmly in front of a screen staring directly into the screen.

Somehow over the years, the TV went from the malignant “idiot box” to benign quality family entertainment again. It makes sense that we don’t all watch Netflix together — no matter how old you are or how cool your relationship is with the family, it only takes a few seconds of a sex scene online before someone leaves the room sweating. TV is so much safer, and no one has to decide what to watch. I can imagine it already. A parent-teacher meeting held not too far in the future where parents are agonising over how to get their kids off their idiot phones and back in front of the TV again.

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