As with most bulk-billing clinics, there was an old TV in the waiting room. A lifestyle program blared at full volume, to drown out the wheezing pensioners and wailing toddlers. First, the panellists interviewed a washed-up pop star. Then, a demonstration of how to cook spaghetti in your microwave (hint: don’t). But it was the next segment that made an old bloke shuffle over and stab the off button.
Look. I can hardly throw stones at cheap daytime filler.
I spent the 1990s not in a haze of teenage drug experimentation, but in a Channel Ten-induced state of catatonia. School holidays were spent glued to The Sally Jessy Raphael Show, Donahue and Oprah. “You’re not respecting my authentic self,” I told my startled father – parroting an Oprah “life expert” – when he ordered me to switch off the damn television and get some exercise.
It’s one thing to defile the food of my ancestors. But when commercial TV proffers comically bad “self-care tips” – tone-deaf to its own viewers – it can no longer wonder why those viewers are disappearing.
Back in the waiting room, incredulity turned to anger as a guest on the show explained how to “beat work stress”. A former corporate executive, she’d become burned out after 20 years of highly-paid employment. So she took stock in the south of France, then reinvented herself as a “work-life balance consultant”.
When you become overwhelmed by meetings, she urged viewers, take 10 minutes to meditate. Brew a pot of peppermint tea. “Centre yourself” with a walk in the sun. Book a day spa treatment. Have the “courage” to ask for a raise. Above all, “learn” to leave the office by 6pm – and don’t answer if your boss calls at night. You know, just work less.
This was not well-received by the patients.
“Actually,” a 60-something woman snapped at the screen, “I need to work more.” A man in a chain store uniform suggested the advice-giver stick her tips (and her teapot) in an anatomically improbable place. Then the old guy got up and hit the power button, prompting sighs of relief.
Bizarre tips to please “him”, your family and you were once the preserve of women’s magazines. But it was Oprah who turned this into an art-form – and made television a major advice-dispensing medium. No matter the problem, from wrinkles to cancer, her guests had scientifically-unsound solutions at hand.
Her influence is evident in modern-day TED Talkers, with their easily digestible “life hacks”. All those internet listicles promising instant calm or happiness. And, of course, her daytime and cable TV disciples, suggesting pricey indulgences as a salve for career pressure.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a $300 day spa (if you have the time and money). As for peppermint tea and walks in the sun: I enjoy both, at every opportunity.
But do the networks actually know who watches their programs? Have they seen their own news bulletins?
The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. One in three ns now feels insecure in their employment. Many are working more for less, and wage growth is low. Full-time jobs are declining, with most new positions part-time, contract or casual. (Those workers, of course, get less sick leave, holiday pay or superannuation. Sometimes, they get none.) Penalty rates are being cut. So is welfare. We have a housing affordability crisis. And renting is a nightmare for many who can’t buy.
People experiencing such economic hardship are often found in bulk-billing clinics. Or other places where infotainment and lifestyle shows are foisted upon them.
Imagine their frustration when a white-pantsuited TV guest preaches that working less is a “learnable” choice. Problem solved!
Maybe this is an option for Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, or those in middle to upper management. But for the vast majority of ns (i.e. those who watch commercial TV), their lives do not resemble the high-powered high-jinx in Boston Legal. Or a parable from Lean In.
Unscheduled meditation breaks are a perk for a certain class of employee. (Try that at Bunnings, with a long queue of customers, and you’ll be leaning in all the way to Centrelink.)
I know childcare workers who’d love to take a stroll in the sun at will, shaking off the snotty toddlers clinging to their pants. Doing so, however, could attract the ire of parents. And possibly A Current Affair.
Under-resourced teachers do their best to help students learn. Suggesting they “learn” how to quit unpaid overtime (which these teachers do for fun, presumably) is insulting.
My friends in hospitality actually need a raise, but instead face a cut in Sunday penalty rates. They know damn well that working up the “courage” to ask for more money could see their casual shifts slashed. Perhaps down to nothing. And my pals who work as paramedics or railway repair casuals would be silly to ignore late-night calls from the boss. Last-minute jobs help pay their bills (while playing havoc with sleep and family life).
Just adopt TV Lady’s well-intentioned suggestions during a lunch break, I hear you say! That sounds great. In theory. But mandated rest breaks didn’t always occur in the fast food restaurant I worked in. Even now, many workers don’t get their full break entitlements.
After work? The weekend?
The Uber driver I met recently – working 70 hours a week to pay off his car, while supporting his sick partner and child – spends all his “leisure” hours cooking and washing clothes. He’s not alone.
I laughed like a drain when a social worker mate posted on Facebook: “Five Self-Care Strategies That Aren’t F—ing Mani-Pedis.” Her job is gruelling and underpaid. Fairer wages and better conditions would do much more to “beat work stress” than a face massage.
TV programs keep telling us the best way to improve our lot is to indulge in a buffet of lifestyle choices. (It’s no coincidence many are advertised during commercial breaks.)
But a bigger problem is that people in TV Land tend to universalise their experiences. These days, we don’t just expect our hosts to be competent or funny or interesting; we demand they act “relatable”. Which is why we get lots of stories about So-and-So’s “fight” to renew a lucrative, multi-year contract with a major broadcaster. For celebrity watchers, this can be a source of amusing gossip. For workers in insecure low-paying jobs, it’s irrelevant.
In their comfortable bubble, TV’s talking heads assume their own Inspiring Examples can be followed by all. Which simply helps shift the responsibility of work stress onto individuals with little bargaining power. Solutions such as collective action or policy change are left unexamined.
If commercial TV producers think stagnant wages, job insecurity and unaffordable homes are not mainstream issues, they’re wrong. Across Europe and the West, extreme right-wing parties are exploiting these problems to the full.
Viewers are content to watch rich people give each other appalling advice. (Thus explaining the global success of the Real Housewives franchise.) But when it’s directed at them, there’s a limit. And nobody needs another reason to switch off.
Unless you have an exclusively wealthy audience, you might want to cool it with the day spa recommendations.