Bob Shell: The Opiate of The Masses

Nude german model lying on bed looking at television in Hamburg
Photo: Tony Ward, Copyright 2022

Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2022


The Opiate of The Masses


Karl Marx wrote that religion is the opiate of the masses. He may have been right in the late 1800s when he wrote that. I submit that if Marx were writing today, he would bestow that honor on television. This ‘Plastic, Fantastic, Lover,’ as Jefferson Airplane dubbed it takes up far too much of many people’s lives today. Especially, here in prison. I know many men who have their TV sets turned on 24/7. The only time their eyes aren’t glued to the ‘boob tube’ is when they’re asleep, and they don’t even turn it off then, letting it subliminally creep into their dreams.

They’re as addicted to television as much as the junkie is to his heroin. When there’s a power outage, they’re lost, don’t know what to do with themselves. Read a book? Perish the thought! I think society is in serious trouble when large masses of people have never read a whole book.

Admittedly, there is some educational content on television, particularly on PBS, but it has very limited viewership compared to mindless spectacles like televised sports. My most intelligent friends never watch those programs. Many people only watch the Superbowl for the halftime show and the new ads. It’s pretty sad when the ads are more interesting than the program.
I simply can’t watch TV sitcoms, situational comedies, because of the fake laugh tracks. I know when to laugh without being cued by computer generated laughter. To me it’s an irritating distraction even if the program is actually funny, as a few, a very few, have been. M.A.S.H. and Seinfeld come to mind as actually funny.

And I’ll admit to making the trek to my cousin’s place once a week in the 1960s, because he had a color TV, to watch Star Trek, perhaps the most influential program ever on television.

Another irritating distraction is pop up ads for future programs that intrude into the screen on the lower left or right, sometimes the whole bottom of the screen. I don’t want this distraction when I’m trying to watch a program.

My recently departed (he got out and went home, very much alive!) cellmate had a TV and I tried to watch some movies with him. I say ‘tried’ because the ceaseless interruptions for idiotic commercials just frustrated me. If the TV had been mine, it might have ended up in pieces on the floor. They’d cut away at the peak of a very dramatic scene to tell us about pizza, sub sandwiches, car insurance, or some grand new medicine to cure a condition you never heard of, but are now sure you must have.

If you do endure the mind-numbing barrage of endlessly repeating commercial to watch a movie and want to see the credits, you’re out of luck. They scroll by too fast for any human to read. Come on folks, those people worked hard to make that film! They deserve credits you can read. The only channel we get here that runs the credits at normal speed is PosiTV. I congratulate them for this. That they do this shows the other channels could do it if they wanted to, or if their viewers demanded it.

I admit that I worked in television in the 1970s, at an ABC affiliate and a PBS affiliate. I was following in my father’s footsteps. He spent his working life, when he came home after WW II, first in radio before there was television, and then as a television news reporter until he retired.
Why I left television is a subject for another time.

Back in the 1970s when I was working in television, there was an FCC chairman with the memorable name of Newton Minnow. He called commercial television then ‘a vast wasteland,’ and there were only three commercial networks then, ABC, CBS, and NBC. Today there seem to be too many to count. In a song from the ’60s called ‘Back in ’64’ The Rutles sang of a time in the future when old people would be surprised at ‘how many channels you can change on TV.’ Those times have come. As a friend once said when clicking around, ‘Two hundred friggin’ channels and nothing to watch!”

For those who may not know, the FCC, Federal Communications Commission, is the federal body that regulates broadcast television, and exists today to fine TV networks large amounts of money for such horrible crimes as showing Janet Jackson’s nipple. Your tax dollars at work! Since it has no authority over cable networks, and most people today get their TV via cable, its continued authority over broadcast television seems pointless to me.

Anyway, I suggest it’s time for a grassroots effort to make television responsible to the viewer, not the advertiser. I’d start with an effort to limit commercials to five minutes an hour (everyone needs a bathroom break!), then proceed with an effort to eliminate screen clutter like pop ups.
Television could be an asset, not an opiate.

About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here:

Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Here’s the link: 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *