TV reaches new depths of vacuity

The broadcasting of a TV commercial aimed specifically at cats is not as new as it may seem. What made the Whiskas ad different was that its makers were admirably honest about their purposes and their methods.

A team of cat psychologists – don’t laugh, human psychology is so empty of worth that it might as well choose for its subject a gnat – studied feline interests and pastimes and produced a list of images and noises. These included birdsong, which cats are known to detest to the point of becoming murderous (many humans feel the same way about muzak but are denied by law the right to tease and torture the perpetrators before slowly putting them to death), gurgling water, which cats also dislike, being averse to washing by any means other than self-licking, and, for cats who watch so much TV they have forgotten what the real thing looks like, a cartoon image of a mouse.

Tests on a sample of some 600 cats from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, from scarred and neutered toms of no fixed abode to bejewelled Persians freshly sprung from a dowager’s lap, were subjected to prototype ads. When sufficient numbers shrieked, hissed, arched their backs, and fled from the room – all positive responses – the final version was ready for exposure to the cat-viewing universe. The result was that a blanket of benign apathy settled across the land, which is just as it should be, as that is what television is for.

What was praiseworthy in the exercise was that here was a team of TV producers openly admitting to devising stimuli specifically for a somnolent, solipsistic, dumb audience, which, though widely admired for its intelligence, low cunning and ability to climb trees but not to get down again, is for the most part inert, passive, and unresponsive.

Nothing new there, of course, it’s what television does best, but for some reason does not care to admit. For instance, amid all the furore about the demise of News at Ten and the fuss about who is to present BBC News, it was not once mentioned that the purpose of both these programmes is to provide visual and aural stimuli and to by-pass thought. Nor were we told the extent to which both produce responses in gerbils and hamsters.

Daytime television, particularly the offering featuring husband and wife team Richard Madely and Judy Finnigan, is devised and mounted with such skill that only the exceptionally percipient, among whom its audience numbers not a single example, realise that it is aimed at a goldfish. Vanessa is braver still, since it is tailored to excite a response among pink hippopotamuses, of which there are comparatively few. But if minority viewing is to carry any conviction at all, experiments such as Vanessa must be encouraged. The advent of digital TV, enabling hundreds of channels to broadcast all at once, will allow the BBC to resume its experiment with costume drama aimed at hibernating tortoises.

There is no shame attached to viewing. TV is one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. It is difficult to imagine that little more than 50 years ago, people with nothing to do, not a thought in their heads, and no inclination to get out of their armchairs were obliged to stare for hours on end at an empty space in the corner of their living rooms. Today, their descendants, proud inheritors of a consanguineous vacuity, find their lives immeasurably enriched by sounds and pictures designed to excite some kind of mental response, however small.

Limitless TV, however, is not good for you. The average individual can take only so much. There comes a point when the viewer turns against the cathode benefactor in the corner and yearns to go down to the pub, which is madness, as is emphasised in a new booklet, The NHS Home Healthcare Guide, developed and produced in association with the Health Education Authority and distributed to every household in the land.

There is a foreword by the Baroness Jay of Paddington, gamely striving for iconic status, whose picture has the reader quickly turning to page 49 for advice on vomiting, wind, and colic. Alcohol and smoking are held responsible for every ailment short of acne, and there is the usual stuff about eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, cutting down on salt, and using a waterproof sunscreen when swimming. Interestingly, TV is recommended as a cure for insomnia. “If you can’t sleep…watch TV for a while.”

There is, however, some new advice. We should all aim to build up to half an hour of moderate activity a day. “Choose an activity you enjoy – for example DIY…start off slowly and build up.” This is a wonderful idea. Begin by hammering a nail into a concrete wall for half an hour. On day two, saw through a two-by-two sheet of laminated chipboard in twenty minutes. Day three, assemble a flat-pack rocking chair until you are breathing more heavily than usual and the veins on your temples are standing out (it does not matter if you cannot complete this task). By week four, you will be sufficiently toned up to install and plumb in a vanitory unit in three minutes. It’s all, as they say in television circles, enough to make a cat laugh.

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