The Opportunity Cost of Television

Television is awesome.  Compared to fifty years ago, there is such a diversity of programming that there is literally something on TV to appeal to just about everyone at almost every hour of the day.  Not only does it serve as the perfect “idiot box,” the place to tune out the mind after a busy day at the office, but the programming has gotten more clever, with shows that engage the mind, challenging it with mysteries to solve and complex story lines that leave us wondering “how’s it going to end?”

The world of reality television has also grown exponentially.  Like a peephole into the lives of complete strangers, reality TV gives us the cathartic effect of watching the drama that others are facing in their own lives (like watching just how desperate “Housewives” really are.)

But reality TV also teaches us about passion for work, while watching how vehemently Gordon Ramsay vexes over the quality of a risotto, or watching Dog the Bounty Hunter infuse love into his job, tracking down wayward delinquents.  Reality television takes us to vicarious emotional highs as a former nobody becomes the next big music sensation on American Idol, America’s Got Talent, or The X Factor.  Sometimes we get to see a dowdy housewife or a cellphone salesman become a huge star literally overnight.

The problem with television is no longer how bad it is, but how good it has become.  So good, in fact, that the average American now watches about 30 hours of TV each week for a grand total of 250 billion hours each year in the U.S.  The important question to ask is not how good television is, but is it better than the other things we could be doing with this time?

Take my friend Joe for example.  Joe does not watch television.  Not because he doesn’t like television, he does.  Joe doesn’t watch television because he likes it too much.  He describes himself as being “like an addict who doesn’t want drugs in his house.”  He doesn’t want to have the temptation, so there is no TV at Joe’s house.

Joe is always asking me for samples of spa music that I get through my work in the spa industry.  He comes home from work, puts on some soothing music and works on his house by the beach, which he designed and decorated himself.  Sometimes he reads a book.  Often he has friends over, grilling on the deck, or playing board games inside.  (By the way, Joe also invented a board game, it’s called “Quick Chess” and it’s the best gift for an adolescent who might want to learn the game of chess!)

Reading, relaxing, working on a home, listening to music, visiting with friends: Joe has a great life.  But who has time to do all of this when the Bachelor is down to his last few roses and the latest train wreck is about to begin on the next episode of The Jersey Shore?

Television watching is a habit.  And the cost of that habit is the time it robs from other aspects of our lives.  What else could you do with 3-4 hours a night?  Could you write a book?  Start a blog?  Learn a language or a musical instrument?  Find peace through a meditation practice or yoga?  Lose 30 pounds?  What would your relationships be like if you tuned into them like you do to the television?

Television is getting better and better.  We no longer have to flip through channels of drivel in an unfulfilled quest for entertainment.  We can choose the shows we want, watch them when we want, and fast forward through the commercials.  But before you run to the boob tube you have to ask, what else is there?   Opportunity cost is the cost of your next best alternative.  An alternative that is lost as soon as you turn on the TV.  Try tuning in to something different, and let me know what you think.


by Jeremy McCarthy  (@jeremymcc)


8 Responses to The Opportunity Cost of Television

  1. Marie-Josee Shaar March 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more, Jeremy. I share that message with my audiences too. (And got quite a few unsubscribe from my newsletter the last time I shared that message – hope you get different results!)

    The unfortunate part though is that many feel TV is their best option – everything else seems like too much effort in comparison. After a long day running to catch one’s breath, and not having developed other hobbies as a result for many years, people feel daunted at the idea of doing something else. Alas!

    I’d love to hear more about how your friend Joe finally decided he had had enough – and what he did to facilitate the transition. I’m sure most would be very reluctant to just call their cable provider and pull the plug – so where to begin? I’d love to find effective ways to help people do that.

    A while back I experimented with “the morning test” – see the next morning what you did last night and what you feel still adds value to your life. Presumably, a get together with friends or developing a skill should be on the high end of the scale, and TV on the lower end. But that was too intellectual of an appeal, and when it comes to making the decision in the moment, trying to think about how you’ll feel tomorrow morning isn’t compelling enough. So I’m looking for something more immediate and emotional. (Appealing to the elephant, rather than the rider…)


  2. Lucy Hone March 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    Thank you both for getting me thinking. Like you say MJ, easy to recommend not flicking on the TV, another thing to change the habit. We only have a TV in one room and have, over the last few years, cultivated a snuggly atmosphere in our main family room conducive to reading. It works better in winter, when there’s only cold and black out there, than summer when there are too many other distractions keeping the kids outside. Of course for my kids (almost 14, 12 and 10) the computer is a greater magnet than the TV – they only watch a couple of shows a week on TV which they Mysky and when they’re done they’d rather be on Youtube. We have “no electronics” days sometimes in winter – particularly on Sundays – which they all moan about for the first half hour and then end up saying “that was a great day, I love these days”. Like all behaviour change, positive default mechanisms seems to be the key: remove temptation and our resolve for better habits remains strong. My husband and I have always had certain appointment viewing shows we’ve shared together for years (make that decades!) and we’re passing that on to the kids. All five of us snuggled up on the couch for a good movie/Glee on Friday night/X Factor borders on a sacred experience in our house – overlapping limbs, shared laughter/tears. My perspective is clearly to focus on what we can do as parents to teach our children to use the TV for appointment viewing relaxation and to build other experiences into their lives that they learn to love sufficiently to put before TV – reading, puzzles (addictive), cooking, “happy hour” family time, Scrabble, poker, all outdoor activities. TV isn’t the enemy, like you say, just the amount of time it can suck up.

  3. Charlie Wills March 9, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Good Job,

    A buddy of mine helped get the recall of Baby Einstein, as he proved its detrimental effect on kids brains..Disney has spent big bucks trying to destroy his life since that…

    TV shuts down the healhy nervous system, atrophies the creativity center, stops melatonin production at night, stops HGH production as well, increases Insuln and Inflamation..

    Over 20 years ago the removal of the Box started all over the world, just as stem cell research started in the 1960’s it takes about 20-30 years to get out to the Joe’s of the world,,,,I guess the Preventive Spa is stll 10 years away for most companies,,,although yesterday we did get endorsed by Miss Universe here in Cancun for the Preventive Spa, so there you go…not everybody is Sleeping….

  4. Lisa Sansom March 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    We don’t have a TV in our house – this confuses babysitters, who actually have to interact with our kids when we are out.

    For my husband, he can easily get sucked into TV and I see this when we visit his parents, who do have a TV. He knows that he is prone to this “junk flow”, and so decided to use his willpower only once (not to get the TV). Now it’s just not an option.

    The other part is – i don’t know when we would actually watch TV! We do so much else – reading, creating, getting outside, sports, cultural activities, etc – that we don’t have time to watch TV. Evenings are full, weekends are full – we do a lot of other things.

    Makes for a very easy answer to all those telemarketers trying to sell us cable packages: “We don’t have a TV.” Absolute silence. Their scripts have no answer for that. One of them actually said to me, “Really? What do you DO with your time?” Amazing.

    Our one concern is that our kids may, eventually, fall out of cultural alignment with their TV-watching peers, but right now, it’s just not an issue. We’ll see how it goes as we enter the teen years – but my oldest just turned 10 so I hope we have a little while yet…

  5. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) March 9, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    Thanks everyone for the interesting comments. As for how my friend Joe did it, I’ll have to ask him a little more about the “history” behind it but I can tell you that he is similar to me in the sense that he has a very high strength of self-regulation and a very strong future time perspective. So he appreciates and enjoys putting effort towards things that he believes will make his life better in the long run.

    Lisa, you bring up a really good point about the babysitter. We have only just begun to get into the babysitting realm and we have noticed that the TV is on when the babysitter is there so that is another good reason not to have one.

    I should make a disclaimer that I am not against TV outright. You can’t be productive 24 hours a day and so plopping in front of the TV to disengage for an hour or two can be a good way to rest your mind and body from other pursuits. The key is to recognize when the TV is pulling you in for more than that and drawing you away from other opportunities. it’s all about balance!

    But like Joe, sometimes it is better to recognize when balance is difficult to achieve and you are better off going cold turkey.

  6. Charlie Wills March 10, 2012 at 12:06 pm #


    “You can’t be productive 24 hours a day and so plopping in front of the TV to disengage for an hour or two can be a good way to rest your mind and body from other pursuits.”

    That my friend is the Big Illusion,,,DANGER that is so permissive (When a cell or host is defined as permissive in virology, it refers to the fact that the virus is able to circumvent host defenses and is able to replicate}
    Kids watching TV atropies the brain, a radio enhances the brain, why do we wish to kill the young brain by shutting down the healhy nervous system and simulating the Fight and Flight?
    Plus between 2 and 6 they down load it in the subconsious as REAL…That is REAL Spokey.

    Adults over exposure to that TV light especially at Night cause all kinds of Dis-Ease,,cancers included…Oh I only smoke a little each day sounds like what? Like I only smoke crack twice a day not all day,,,,

    Okay World Cup, Super Bowl Sunday or Dad’s on TV tonight,,that I give us all,,,but that Illusion is just that….Time to Wake up if you can folks, it’s not easy but it needs to be done if not for you’re sake the family..

    Jeremy you are in a Great Position to help so, so, Many….I honor that in the Highest Order!!!
    You’re there for a Great Reason!!!!

  7. George P.H. March 16, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

    T.V. and film are both art forms. But when watching T.V. becomes a habit, bad things start to happen. To be honest, I stopped watching T.V. around the time I was 17, and I don’t see myself going back. I can’t believe the average American spends 30 hours a week looking into that box! Crazy.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. Conner Middelmann-Whitney December 28, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article and great comments.

    We don’t have a TV, but we do watch carefully selected movies or episodes of TV shows with our kids (10, 10 and 15) that we buy on iTunes. (We watch them on a laptop or iPad — which forces us to scooch together on the sofa so we can see!)

    Our oldest son does love the internet, though, and I agree with the person who commented that online video games/YouTube etc are “The New TV” for the younger generation. It’s utterly addictive and probably has all the same negative effects on the brain & nervous system as TV does… We try to impose all sorts of boundaries (he has to use the laptop in communal areas, time limits, etc), but it’s so hard to “police” these…

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