Most of us would be concerned if we discovered that our partners, children, friends or neighbours had joined a religious cult. Concern would rapidly change to alarm if we found out that it was a cult which claimed hours of their time every day and dictated much of what they thought about the world. In the aftermath of violent tragedies at Jonestown, Waco and in the Tokyo underground, involving the People's Temple Sect, the Branch Davidians and Aum Shinriko, we have grown suspicious of people who set themselves up as gurus and demand slavish discipleship from their followers. Most people are wary of accepting doctrines whose bottom line, however cleverly disguised, is to bring the individual under the control of some unscrupulous charlatan claiming some sort of hotline to God. There have surely been enough stories of people being cheated and abused by religious cranks, devious impostors and charismatic con-artists to warn all but the most credulous of the perils of joining a cult.
And yet despite all our scepticism and suspicion, everyone reading this essay will know someone who belongs to the world's largest, newest and most powerful cult. Sixty years ago it did not exist; today it has millions of devoted followers. Most readers of the Contemporary Review will themselves be unwitting members who, over the last twenty four hours, will have spent two or three hours engaged in the cult's central rite. Hidden by its very ordinariness, the altar and icon of this new religion is present in billions of homes worldwide. It is such an accepted part of the domestic landscape that we scarcely notice it. Despite its apparent invisibility, though, it exerts a potent influence on our lives.
I am, of course, referring not to any exotic syncretism or outlandish faith but to television. If we had to sum up the spiritual zeitgeist of the late twentieth century, it might be said that ours is an age not of churchgoers, not of atheists, not of Buddhists or Muslims, but of TV watchers. We worship at the television altar for hours each day. Whole families gather round it in rapt devotion, allowing its schedules to alter the rhythms of their lives. As those responsible for maintaining power supplies well know, plotting a nation's viewing habits is vital in anticipating surges in the demand for electricity. Peaks can be predicted with near certainty after the most popular programmes, when more power is needed for the pumps which provide water when millions of toilets flush, or when the grid is taxed by the virtually simultaneous switching on of millions of electric kettles up and down the land.
But it is not just in terms of affecting when we eat, sleep and excrete that the cult of TV exerts its influence. These are just some of the more easily measured signs of its power. The sheer amount of time which it consumes is awesome when we start to add it up. Indeed it is strange that in this age of ecological consciousness, so mindful of the squandering of non-renewable resources, more attention is not given to the way in which we sacrifice whole acres of time, the most precious, least renewable resource we have, in front of the TV set. Our hours and minutes are felled by the flickering screen as surely as the trees in the rainforests are felled by chain-saws. Whereas some cults demand a toll of human or animal sacrifice, the cult of the telefaithful demands its dues of devotion in regular offerings of time. Apart from working and sleeping, many people now spend more time watching TV than doing anything else. It has been estimated that in the course of an average lifetime we may spend as much as eight years watching television. Many families spend more time in the company of TV characters than they do talking to each other. Most of us will end up spending more time watching TV commercials than an undergraduate spends in classes during a four-year university course. Given that millions of children watch at least twenty-four hours …