Skip to main content

McAdams On: The Definition of TV

TV used to mean two things: moving pictures with sound, and the box where they appeared. The box usually sat in the living room covered with family pictures. When someone said they would spend the evening watching TV, it meant they weren’t going anywhere.

People who appeared on TV shows really were stars. There were three networks. If you appeared on TV, everyone saw you. Now there are 300 networks and people appear on TV because they are from New Jersey, are a housewife, have a litter of kids or they are fat. Most of the people who now appear on TV do so because 300 times 24 times seven equals a lot.

I know several people who have appeared on TV. I once appeared on TV for studying in the University of Nebraska library during a home Husker game. There were perhaps only 25 or so networks at the time. I was acquitted, but had to leave the state.

TV was not something you could carry in your pocket or pull up in a browser. You couldn’t just watch whatever you wanted whenever you wanted to watch it. You had “appointment viewing.” The phrase now sits in the Smithsonian beside crocheted doilies.

Buying a TV used to be a bit simpler as well. You had X square feet in the living room and M dollars in your pocket. X plus the best-looking picture you could get for M equaled your new TV, which you continued to use for 25 years. This formula also resides on the doily shelf.

Now, if you are a consumer electronics lobbyist with a salary that makes journalists cry, or you live at home with your gainfully employed parents, you probably have all kinds of “TV.” You may get TV on your iPhone, though an iPhone is not a TV. It’s an iPhone. Same goes for iPods, iPads and the rest of the iSmack to come. You may get TV on your Blackberry, notebook, netbook, PC or cell phone. It might be on the back of a JetBlue seat, in a metro bus or the top of a gas pump.

It’s as if Dr. Seuss hijacked the meaning of “TV,” or it broke through the laws of physics. There is no physical definition of TV any longer. There are only TV “platforms.” But you don’t tell your friends you’re going to watch a platform. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’m going to watch my iPhone,” though frankly, millions do just that. The alternative is direct interaction with other carbon-based life forms. This is not done. That’s why we invented TV in the first place.

Now it’s run away and joined the circus. The two-letter term that’s come to stand for “television” is defined only by context. Lexical evolution holds that frequency of word use predicts their rate of change. Like, whatever. Anyway, the more we use a word, the less likely it is to evolve. So we’ll probably continue using “TV” for anything that displays full-motion video with sound, including the flexible, paper-thin, organic-light-emitting diode newspapers around the corner.

We really will have TV Everywhere, and probably a resulting cottage industry. TV-free zones. We’ll be paying to hang out in places where TV is prohibited. Sound crazy? Consider bottled water.