Has Television Changed You?
A “WINDOW on the world.” That is how television has been described. In the book Tube of Plenty—The Evolution of American Television, author Erik Barnouw notes that by the early 1960’s, “for most people [television] had become their window on the world. The view it offered seemed to be the world. They trusted its validity and completeness.”
However, a mere window cannot select the view it presents you; it cannot determine the lighting or the angle of view; nor can it abruptly change the view just to hold your interest. TV can. Such factors dramatically shape your feelings and conclusions about what you are looking at, yet they are controlled by the people who produce TV shows. Even the most unbiased of newscasts and documentaries are subject to such manipulation, however unintentional it may be.a
A Master Seducer
Most often, though, the people who control television are trying outright to influence viewers. In advertising, for instance, they have virtually free rein to use every seductive gimmick at their disposal to lure you into the mood to buy. Color. Music. Beautiful people. Eroticism. Gorgeous locales. Their repertoire is vast, and they use it masterfully.
A former advertising executive wrote of his 15 years in the field: “I learned that it is possible to speak through media [such as TV] directly into people’s heads and then, like some otherworldly magician, leave images inside that can cause people to do what they might otherwise never have thought to do.”
That television has such formidable power over people was already evident in the 1950’s. A lipstick company that was making $50,000 a year began to advertise on U.S. television. In two years, sales skyrocketed to $4,500,000 a year! A bank was suddenly avalanched with $15,000,000 in deposits after it advertised its services on a TV program popular with women.
Today, the average American watches over 32,000 commercials every year. The ads play seductively on the emotions. As Mark Crispin Miller wrote in Boxed In—The Culture of TV: “It is true that we are manipulated by what we watch. The commercials that pervade daily life influence us incessantly.” This manipulation, he adds, “is dangerous precisely because it is often hard to discern, and so it will not fail until we learn how to perceive it.”
But television sells more than lipstick, political viewpoints, and culture. It also sells morals—or the lack of them.
TV and Morals
Few people would be surprised to learn that sexual behavior is depicted more and more frequently on American TV. A study published in 1989 in Journalism Quarterly found that in 66 hours of prime-time network TV, there were in all 722 instances of sexual behavior, whether implied, referred to verbally, or actually depicted. Examples ranged from erotic touching to intercourse, masturbation, homosexuality, and incest. The average was 10.94 instances every hour!
The United States is hardly unique in this matter. French TV movies depict explicit sexual sadism. Striptease acts appear on Italian TV. Late-night Spanish TV features violent and erotic films. The list goes on and on.
Violence is another type of TV immorality. In the United States, a TV critic for Time magazine recently praised the “grisly good humor” in a batch of horror programs. The series featured scenes of decapitation, mutilation, impalement, and demonic possession. Of course, much TV violence is less gruesome—and more easily taken for granted. When Western television was demonstrated recently in a remote village in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, one bewildered old man could only ask: “Why are whites always stabbing, shooting and punching one another?”
The answer, of course, is that television producers and sponsors want to give viewers what viewers want to see. Violence draws viewers. Sex does too. So TV serves up ample portions of both of them—but not too much too soon, or the viewers will be repelled. As Donna McCrohan put it in Prime Time, Our Time: “Most top shows go as far as they can with language, sex, violence, or subject matter; then, having gone to the edge, they take the edge off. Subsequently, the public is ready for a new edge.”
For example, the subject of homosexuality was once considered beyond “the edge” of good taste for television. But once viewers got used to it, they were ready to accept more. A French journalist asserted: “No producer would ever dare present homosexuality as a deviation today . . . Rather it is society and its intolerance that are odd.” On American cable television, a ‘gay soap opera’ premiered in 11 cities in 1990. The program featured scenes of males in bed together. The show’s producer told Newsweek magazine that such scenes were designed by gays to “desensitize the audience so that people will realize we’re like everybody else.”
Fantasy Versus Reality
The authors of the study reported in Journalism Quarterly noted that since TV almost never shows the consequences of illicit sex, its “constant barrage of titillating sexual imagery” amounts to a disinformation campaign. They cited another study concluding that TV soap operas purvey this message above all: Sex is for unmarried partners, and no one gets a disease from it.
Is this the world as you know it? Premarital sex without teenage pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases? Homosexuality and bisexuality without the fear of contracting AIDS? Violence and mayhem that leave heroes victorious and villains humiliated—but both often strangely unbruised? TV creates a world wherein actions are blissfully free of consequences. The laws of conscience, of morality, and of self-control are replaced by the law of instant gratification.
Clearly, television is not a “window on the world”—at least not on the real world. In fact, a recent book about television is called The Unreality Industry. Its authors claim that TV has “become one of the most powerful forces in our lives. The consequence is that TV not only defines what is reality, but much more importantly and disturbingly, TV obliterates the very distinction, the very line, between reality and unreality.”
These words may sound alarmist to those who think they are impervious to television’s influence. ‘I don’t believe everything I see,’ argue some. Granted, we may tend to distrust TV. But experts warn that this knee-jerk brand of skepticism may not protect us from the subtle ways TV plays on our emotions. As one writer put it: “One of TV’s best tricks is to never let on just how much it affects our psychic mechanisms.”
A Machine of Influence
According to the 1990 Britannica Book of the Year, Americans watch, on an average, seven hours and two minutes of television every day. A more conservative estimate puts the figure at about two hours a day, but that would still amount to seven years of television in a lifetime! How could such massive doses of TV fail to have an effect on people?
It hardly seems surprising when we read of people having trouble distinguishing between TV and reality. A study published in the British journal Media, Culture and Society found that TV does indeed induce some people to establish “an alternative vision of the real world,” lulling them into thinking that their wishes about reality constitute reality itself. Other studies, such as those compiled by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, seem to support these findings.
With TV influencing popular notions of reality, how could it fail to influence people’s very lives and actions? As Donna McCrohan writes in Prime Time, Our Time: “When a top-rated TV show breaks taboos or language barriers, we feel a greater freedom to break them ourselves. Likewise, we are influenced when . . . promiscuity is the norm, or a macho character refers to his use of condoms. In each instance, TV acts—on a delayed-action basis—as the mirror of who we can be convinced that we are, and therefore by and large become.”
Certainly, the rise of the TV age has seen a corresponding rise in immorality and violence. Coincidence? Hardly so. One study showed that the rate of crime and violence in three countries increased only after TV was introduced into each of these countries. Where TV was introduced earlier, the crime rate rose earlier.
Surprisingly, TV does not even rate as the relaxing pastime that so many seem to think it is. Studies carried out on 1,200 subjects over a 13-year period found that of all pastimes, television-watching was the least likely to relax people. Rather, it tended to leave viewers passive yet tense and unable to concentrate. Long viewing periods in particular left people in worse moods than when they began watching. Reading, by contrast, left people more relaxed, in better moods, and better able to concentrate!
But no matter how constructive reading a good book may be, TV, that nimble thief of time, may easily push books out of the picture. When television was first introduced in New York City, the public libraries soon reported a drop in book circulation. Of course, this hardly means that mankind is about to give up reading. Yet, it has been said that people today read with less patience, that their attention soon flags if they are not bombarded with flashy visual images. Statistics and studies may not substantiate such vague misgivings. Still, what do we lose in terms of personal depth and discipline if we depend on constant pampering by a steady flow of TV entertainment that has been designed, moment by fleeting moment, to hold even the shortest attention span?
Children of the Box
It is with children, though, that the subject of television becomes truly urgent. By and large, whatever TV may do to adults, it can surely do to children—only more so. After all, children are more likely to believe in the fantasy worlds they see on TV. The German newspaper Rheinischer Merkur/Christ und Welt cited a recent study that found that children are often “unable to distinguish real life from what they see on the screen. They transfer what they see in the unreal world into the real world.”
Well over 3,000 scientific studies during decades of research have backed up the conclusion that violent television has negative effects on children and teenagers. Such reputable organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the American Medical Association all agree that television violence causes aggressive and antisocial behavior in children.
Studies have turned up other disturbing results. For instance, childhood obesity has been linked to excessive TV viewing. Apparently there are two reasons. (1) Passive hours in front of the box replace active hours of play. (2) TV commercials do a handy job of selling kids on fatty junk foods that have little nutritional value. Other research has suggested that children who watch excessive amounts of TV do poorly in school. While the conclusion is more controversial, Time magazine recently reported that many psychiatrists and teachers blame TV for a broad decline in children’s reading skills and school performance.
Again, time is a critical factor. By the time the average American child graduates from high school, he has spent 17,000 hours in front of the TV compared to 11,000 hours in school. For many children, TV constitutes their main spare-time activity if not their main activity. The book The National PTA Talks to Parents: How to Get the Best Education for Your Child notes that half of all fifth-graders (ten-year-olds) spend four minutes a day reading at home, but 130 minutes watching TV.
In the final analysis, there are probably very few who would argue seriously that TV does not present very real dangers both to children and to adults. But what does that mean? Should parents ban TV-watching in the home? Should people in general protect themselves from its influence by throwing it out or stowing it in the attic?
a See “Can You Really Believe the News?” in the August 22, 1990, issue of Awake!
[Blurb on page 7]
“Why are whites always stabbing, shooting and punching one another?”
[Picture on page 9]
Turn off TV, turn on books