Recently, I spent a large portion of a day with an acquaintance who left his television on all of the time, tuned almost exclusively to a cable news channel. This channel often seemed to grab his attention, even in the midst of conversation with me.
I don’t watch cable news at all, so I watched it for a while along with him, and I couldn’t help but notice a few things.
First of all, a lot of the stories seemed the same. They either reported on a very current disaster or on an off-the-cuff comment someone had made recently or on the passing of a media celebrity. These same types of stories cycled over and over and over. Often, the same story was repeated again and again. I understand the value in doing this so that a viewer who is freshly tuning in can catch the latest batch of stories, but if you watch for more than a few minutes, it ends up being a repeating cycle of the same stuff most of the time.
At the same time, the perspectives were all the same. The particular network I was watching did offer token viewpoints from another perspective, but one particular perspective was given heavy credence in almost every single discussion panel, often to the point of not even allowing another set of ideas to be expressed or else portraying a “stunted” version of those ideas. Rather than informing, the point seemed to be to reinforce the idea that the side promoted as dominant was “right” and other viewpoints were “wrong.” I didn’t understand how you could become well-informed about anything from watching it, though you could become versed in a particular perspective.
More than anything, I walked away from it feeling like I got nothing whatsoever out of it. I wasn’t told about anything that could improve my life. I wasn’t informed on current events other than one side of it. There was no depth offered on any issue. On the one “opinion” program I watched, the entire point seemed to be to make certain people and ideas seem like fools without explaining why any other viewpoint was right.
It was all just… valueless. I wasn’t improved or didn’t learn anything or didn’t think or didn’t even feel anything from watching it. I spent several hours in that room with that television on and walked out having not learned anything other than a vague viewpoint on a few stories and a sense of being emotionally drained.
Looking back, what I see is a lot of cost and not a lot of benefit. Let’s walk through some of those costs.
The Costs of Media Consumption
Before I get into this, let me be clear exactly what I’m talking about.
Whenever you watch television or watch a movie or read a book or a magazine or listen to the radio or visit a website or check out social media, you’re consuming media of some kind. You’re seeing a display of text and pictures and sound and video created for you by someone else.
Whenever you do that, there’s a cost, even if you don’t immediately see it. That cost shows up in a variety of ways.
First of all, media itself is often expensive. People pay for cable subscriptions, books, magazines, an internet connection, a cell phone data plan, and so on. They also have to have equipment to view the media on – tablets, computers, cell phones, televisions, and so on. Beyond that, there’s also the cost of the electricity to run most of those devices.
Even if you go elsewhere to watch a movie or a television show, there’s still cost involved much of the time – buying a ticket, for example, or buying snacks at the bar or paying for coffee at the coffee shop.
Those costs add up. The average American spends about $103 per month on cable television and about $47 per month on a cable bill. The average American also spends about $20 a year on magazine subscriptions and about $6 on newspaper subscriptions. The average American cell phone bill is about $71 a month, with a notable portion of that going to data. We’re not even getting into the cost of subscription services like Netflix or Hulu, movie tickets, or the surprisingly large energy cost of running all of this stuff. You’re talking thousands of dollars a year in media spending per person.
That money could have been used elsewhere to pay off debt, save for retirement, build an emergency fund, or pay for other life experiences. The amount of money that an average family spends on media in a year adds up well into the thousands; that’s a very nice annual vacation or a lot of getaway weekends, for example.
Not only is there a financial cost, media consumption comes with an opportunity cost, too. The time invested in media is tremendous. The average American watches television for 4.3 hours a day. The average American’s internet time is almost the same. In total, the average American spends more than eight hours a day consuming media.
That’s a lot of time, no matter how you slice it. I’m absolutely in favor of some media consumption – it can be very good for the mind, body, and soul – but more than a third of an average American’s life is spent consuming media. If you strip away just two or three hours a day from media consumption, you have tons and tons of time for other things in your life.
Not only is there an opportunity cost in terms of using your time for other things, there’s also an opportunity cost within media choices itself. If you spend two hours watching something that isn’t very good, that’s two hours you could have spent watching something much better or reading a book or, well, anything else.
Another problem is that most media comes from a relatively small handful of sources which present only the ideas they want to present and make a lot of money from repeating the same stuff. That’s why cable news channels often seem to endlessly repeat the same stories and same types of stories from the same perspective and with more or less the same style, with little variation. That’s why so many television shows are repeated endlessly in syndication and reruns. That’s why so many movies seem so similar, why there are so many sequels, why there are so many of the same types of movies, and so on. It’s easier for them to just sell the same type of story over and over again.
There’s nothing wrong with rewatching or rereading some of your favorite things on occasion, but every time you repeat something, there’s a little less value involved. You know the plot. You know that particular perspective. Find new plots and new perspectives.
Fourth, most media is laden with advertisements, both around and within the content. There are tons of print ads all over magazines and billboards and commercials between television shows, during ad breaks, and before movies. All of those ads serve to encourage your desire to buy something, which means that you’re encouraged to spend even more of your money on something that you don’t need or didn’t even want before you saw it. Even beyond that, there are often ads right within the programming – “news” that’s merely more than a press release for a new product, for example, or an obvious use of a “great” product within a show that makes you more aware of that product.
A final thing to consider is that most media has almost no positive impact in terms of improving your life. Sure, a comedy can lift your mood when you’re down, but a lot of media has no positive impact on your mood and a fair amount of it actually makes you needlessly sad or, even worse, needlessly angry. Much of it doesn’t leave you with a new perspective on the world or new ideas to think about or tools with which to improve your life or anything like that. Even “informative” shows are just a bundle of factoids that don’t increase your understanding of anything in any real way, or else presents useless information as though it were urgent and important.
Let me make it clear: I am not saying that people should throw away their televisions and delete their internet service. What I am saying is that if you’re making such a huge investment of time and money in your life, you deserve to be getting the most value from it that you can.
Strategies for Reducing Media Costs and Maximizing the Value of Your Media Dollars and Time
What follows are seven great strategies for reducing the actual financial cost of your media use while also increasing the value of what you get out of it.
Do more, consume less Almost all media becomes more valuable when you combine it with your own set of rich life experiences. The more people you meet, the more places you go, the more conversations you have, the more environments you experience, the more foods you taste, the better media becomes because it can directly reference all of those experiences that you have.
So step away from the media and do things. Find a group on Meetup doing something interesting or something you never thought you’d do and go “meet up” with them. Go on a hike in the woods. Volunteer at your local food pantry or soup kitchen or Habitat for Humanity group. Make a cool meal, something outside of your norm, and eat it with some friends. Have a dinner party. Play an abstract board game, like chess or go. Wander through your town and watch people go about their business. The more you discover in other aspects of life, the less you feel the need to use media for entertainment and the richer the media you do choose to consume becomes.
Consume less “urgent” media and more “important” media A lot of media is sold as being “urgent.” Cable news is loaded with “urgent” things – the headlines, in other words. Celebrity news is always “urgent.” The latest TV show or the latest movie is always “urgent.”
But urgent often doesn’t mean good.
I would far rather spend an hour watching a television show from five years ago that’s critically acclaimed and that people are still talking about than watch a forgettable hour of cable news or the latest episode of a mediocre show. Give me an hour of The West Wing over any current drama or Arrested Development over any current comedy. Good stuff lasts and it’s talked about forever.
I would far rather spend an hour reading a book on a topic, particularly an award-winning book or a book from a respected author, than watching an hour of cable news. The book took a lot of time to prepare, with a lot of research involved, and is likely to dig deep into an issue, challenge my thinking, and present different perspectives. The news on television won’t do that at all. I’d far rather read a long piece on a self-improvement topic that will positively impact my life than five pieces of headline news that have no impact on my life and will be immediately forgotten. I’ll let the filter of time inform me and stick to long-form journalism that reports in detail on a story with lots of sources than a quickly-written response that’s likely half-wrong anyway.
In other words, my media diet these days is mostly books, long-form journalism that took time to research and write, and well-regarded movies and television shows (I’ll usually binge-watch the shows). I watch almost no current news and only a bit of sports (I find baseball weirdly comforting and it raises my spirits, so I watch or listen to that sometimes). I’ve seen about two movies made in the last year and maybe one season of a television series, but I did watch some older stuff.
Those things make me think. They usually have a powerful impact on my mood. They leave me actually understanding an idea or event a little better rather than just repeating facts. In short, they have a valuable impact on my life, something I can’t say about most “urgent” media.
(You’ll notice that I differentiate between media sources using the groupings of “important” and “urgent.” This is borrowed from Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, who uses the same “important” versus “urgent” comparison to decide how a person should spend their time and energy. I’m basically just applying that idea to the media I consume.)
Use the library to get free books, movies, magazines, and audiobooks The library is my primary source for “important” rather than “urgent” media. A local library can provide you with endless books to read, movies to watch, magazines to read, and audiobooks to listen to. With such an abundance of options, I’m able to filter through them however I’d like. The best part? All of it is free.
I challenge you to stop at your local library sometime soon, see what they have to offer, sign up for a card, and take a book and/or a well-regarded movie home with you. Make time for those things by choosing to read instead of watching Sportscenter or watch that movie instead of watching a new episode of a mediocre sitcom. See if you’re not glad that you did so afterward.
Install a roof or wall antenna for free television Watching television is a perfectly fine recreation in moderation, there’s value in having local television for things like local weather updates, EBS notices, and other things. Of course, you can get all of these things for free with over-the-air signals using a roof antenna or a wall antenna that plugs either directly into your television or into a converter box which then attaches to your television.
An over-the-air antenna can pick up anywhere from ten to forty channels almost anywhere in the United States, though the channel count is lower in rural areas and you’ll probably need a roof antenna. The channels have a surprising amount of variety – we get a children’s channel (from PBS), an all-news channel, a channel that’s primarily documentaries, all of the broadcast networks (PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox), an all-weather channel, and a few other odds and ends. It’s all free – no subscription, no additional cost. All that’s needed is an over-the-air antenna.
Explore other hobbies away from a screen or a page This kind of goes hand in hand with the “do more, consume less” suggestion above, but it addresses a more specific point. Many people – myself included – have at least one major hobby that’s centered around media consumption, something that they enjoy doing that fulfills their time. If you can simply find another hobby that is not related to media consumption, then you’re naturally reducing your time consuming media because you have a little less free time for it.
Pick up a hobby. Learn to knit or crochet. Make a goal of walking the trails at every state park in your state. Learn to play the guitar. Start a vegetable garden in the back. Learn how to carve chess pieces out of wood and finish them. Learn how to make jewelry. Learn how to play the harmonica. Teach yourself how to sketch well. Learn how to brew your own beer. Write a novel. I can list inexpensive hobbies all day long.
Choose one that sounds fun. Dig into it. Even better, if you can find a Meetup group that’s into the same hobby, you can quickly make it social.
Turn off your phone and put it away for large portions of the day Smartphones are wonderful devices that are insanely useful, but they also make media consumption a constant thing in some people’s lives. Not only does all of that data really add up, most of the media consumed on smartphones is pretty empty because of the brevity of it, bringing little lasting value to the table.
A better approach is to turn off your smartphone sometimes, put it aside, and focus on something else. Spend time with your children. Go on a hike. Read a book. Cook a meal. Do it without your smartphone on so that you’re drawn more into the moment and can focus on it and appreciate it.
Take “breaks” from specific media sources – television, internet, video games, etc. Can you spend a weekend without watching television? Can you spend a week without video games? What would those things even be like? Are you reliant on those things, and if so, is that healthy?
Taking a break from a media source can show you a lot about how you live your life. You can begin to see how routine-oriented that your television watching or your video gaming really is and you can also begin to evaluate whether it’s really bringing value into your life.
Take a weeklong break from television. Take a break from social media or from a particular celebrity gossip site or from cable news or from news in general. See what you notice about yourself, how you spend your time, whether you’re drawn to that media source. Find other things to do.
When something starts to fall in importance to you, unsubscribe from it. If you follow these practices for a while, you’ll start to naturally notice that you miss some things and you’re completely happy without other things. It’s completely fine to bring back things that you miss, but when you realize that your life is just fine without something that was previously gobbling up your money and your time and your attention and your mindspace, you’re better off without it. You’ll find that just cutting that subscription saves you money and gives you one less thing intruding into your life, and that the average quality of things in your life has gone up. That’s a benefit all across the board.
Good luck in wherever your media adventures take you.