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Consumers suffering from TV burnout

In 1984, New York University communications professor Neil Postman published an analytical lament in which he portrayed American television as a threat to the national health, something on the order of electronic cholesterol. He called his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. The Gallup Organization's new Mirror of America survey about TV suggests that we aren't as passively suicidal as Postman thought.

The poll, conducted among 1,241 Americans Aug. 16-19, found that for the first time in the history of such polling, a majority of us believe TV has been detrimental to society or at best a mixed blessing.

Not surprisingly, though, the Gallup Organization's latest findings are riddled with contradictions and ironies. For instance:

A stunning number of those polled _ nearly 70 percent _ said they would be better off or at least not adversely affected if TV disappeared from their lives. Yet the average American watches 4.1 hours a day, and hardly anybody who was polled professed willingness to give up TV.

Many people indicated that TV keeps them from other activities, such as reading, exercising and spending time with their families. Yet only 13 percent said they were addicted to the tube.

When the people polled were asked, "What's the worst thing about television?" the most common complaint (34 percent) was that there aren't enough informative or educational programs. Actually, there are more such programs than ever before, especially on public TV and cable options like the Discovery Channel; most of them go wanting for viewers.

No doubt such dichotomies reflect what social psychologists call "presentation-of-self biases": Respondents tend to describe their best intentions rather than their actions. Still, because many of Gallup's latest findings differ sharply from those of previous polls _ 42 percent expressed guilt about watching too much television, compared to 31 percent in the late 1970s _ they can't be brushed aside.

Something is afoot, and that something, the logical answer seems to be, is the maturing of the medium and our relationship to it.

Television has never been more pervasive _ all-pervasive, some would say _ than it is now, whether we're talking about the number of TV sets (98 percent of us have one, and the national average is 2.25 sets per household) or the number of viewing options (20-plus for the 62 percent who now have cable, half-a-dozen even for those who for one reason or another aren't "wired"). Perhaps because of this, the novelty, the miraculousness of TV is fading.

Consider the recently launched fall season that is bringing an unprecedented 35 new series to prime time alone. Most will flop and disappear quickly, but not necessarily because they're awful. They're just not very original.

The implication of all this is that we, the consumers of TV's mass culture, are experiencing mass burnout. We have been amused, if not to death, to ennui.

Small wonder, then, that what respondents to Gallup's poll claimed they appreciated most about television is its ability to keep them in touch with the world around them: 34 percent listed news as the best thing about TV, while another 13 percent cited educational or information programing in general.