According to Nielsen statistics, the average American will watch nine years of television over the course of 65 years of their lives. And even if you don't consciously spend a lot of time watching, a considerable part of your cultural intelligence is likely made up of references from the tube. So what changes in your life when you grow up without TV?
I should clarify: in my home growing up, we had a TV. In fact, we had several. But access to them was restricted: We could watch the news, and I have vague memories of the occasional children's television program from when I was very young. But throughout most of my childhood, the only television show we watched in our house was a variety show called Hey Hey It's Saturday on Saturday night (it featured a puppet emu), and the Sunday morning music video countdown. To this day, I can do Madonna's entire "Vogue" dance, and feel an irrational affection for emus (which in real life are spectacularly unfriendly bastards). But beyond that? When it comes to TV memories, catchphrases or tropes, I'm largely at sea.
Things changed, gradually: by the last year of high school, I was able to develop a quiet weekly The OC-watching habit, and by 22, I'd become a Law & Order: SVU person ( Ba-bum .) But TV-watching was still tightly controlled in my family's home — so much so that I knew something terrible had happened when I woke up on September 11 2001, because all the televisions in our house were on.
So what was it like to be the only kid on the playground who couldn't act out episodes of Pokemon? Read on and find out (or nod in recognition if you, too, were told that "idiot boxes" would "rot your brain").
1. You Usually Had No Idea What Other Kids Were Talking About
Do you have any idea how utterly peculiar it is to be a child at an all-girls Australian school and not have the faintest idea about Home & Away or Neighbours, or know what an "Idol" was? I don't recall feeling particularly adrift, probably because I was so used to it; whenever anybody started talking about TV, I just drifted away. Which, as you may imagine, was not a massive help for my social awkwardness.
2. You Never Sing Along To Catchy Commercial Jingles
Australian commercials in the '90s and 2000s were heavily weird — there's a famous one where a dog says "Bugger" — but, like most commercials around the world, they relied on often-ridiculous jingles. I had no idea what these were. When kids started yelling, say, "FOUR EIGHT ONE DOUBLE ONE DOUBLE ONE!," I must have looked like they just started talking to me in Esperanto.
3. Any Opportunity To Watch TV Was Sacred
Television was for nights my parents were out, Saturday mornings if we weren't playing sports (it was Australia, everybody played sports), and any sneaky time we had. I gobbled it up. My introduction to it was haphazard and emotional; I could never figure out commercial breaks, and after seeing one episode of Seventh Heaven, I was so utterly drama'd out I didn't touch the remote for about a month.
4. You've Been Known To Secretly Binge On Bizarre Shows
Because of the bizarre vagaries of Australian cable television, the things that became appealing in my rare bouts of access to the Dreaded Idiot Box were very old school. And I mean very old school. The Golden Girls marathons were a particular favorite, as was the '70s British sitcom Are You Being Served. The most modern thing I ever saw was Patrick Stewart's Star Trek: The Next Generation. I also snuck episodes of a translated '80s French kid's show called The Twins Of Destiny (they were not twins; one was a blonde Caucasian child and the other was Chinese), and a Scottish claymation series about monster servants.
Unsurprisingly, I have the most puzzling set of cultural referents of anybody I know — except for my brother, who sneaked Cartoon Network and binged on early anime. Which brings me to my next point.
5. You Got Into Childhood Cartoons 10 Years Too Late
We were allowed to watch Scooby Doo in high school. If you think I opted out of that particular experience, you are extremely wrong. I still have very fond memories of their bizarre Christmas specials and wanting to be Velma when I grew up. (Second choice: Penny from Inspector Gadget.) And I don't mean the modern Scooby Doo, with Scrappy the useless puppy and actual clean animation; I mean the old-school '70s stuff, where all the villains wore bell-bottoms and the backgrounds were so bad, I could have drawn them myself. It was still utterly delightful.
6. You Became Obsessed With Any Show You Were Allowed To Watch
At some point, after my brother and I had shown that our brains hadn't clearly rotted in our youth, my parents evidently decided that "gentle" fare was OK — so we were allowed pre-watershed stuff featuring child characters, like The Nanny and Home Improvement. The consequence was small-scale obsession. I have probably seen every episode of The Nanny ever made, and when Home Improvement ended, I had a genuine existential crisis. My current obsessions are Antiques Roadshow and old-fashioned cooking shows, both of which are designed for retirees who didn't grow up with television. Which, essentially, is what I am.
7. 20 Years Later, You're Still Culturally Alienated
I have never seen an episode of Seinfeld, The X-Files, Dawson's Creek, Buffy, Will & Grace, Frasier, Friends or basically any culturally relevant thing from television in the '90s and 2000s. Not one. I've seen a few Simpsons episodes here and there, including the episode featuring the resplendent quote "Everything's coming up Milhouse!," but aside from that, I'm out. My nostalgia's all wrong, I can't quote a damn thing, and I'm excluded from a large part of the cultural memory of my generation. It's not a morally superior condition; rather, it makes me feel a bit like a rare bird nobody's discovered yet.
8. You Probably Still Don't Own Or Use A TV
Television-watching is a habit of attention. My husband's family will frequently sit and eat dinner in front of the news or a sitcom and I'll get itchy and lose concentration. I prefer going out to watch films instead of watching them at home, and the only reason we own a television, frankly, is to play Skyrim. I have no plans to have kids, but if I did, I probably wouldn't give them much TV, either. Just enough to understand conversations in the playground. Hey, one culturally removed social leper in the family's enough.