Monday, April 11, 2011

Don’t lose sight of purpose TV programming really serves

Previously published in Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 1/16/2006

Few things raise more of a ruckus than a disruption in television. Recently the Valley has struggled because one local cable company couldn’t negotiate the rights to carry an ABC affiliate resulting in missed football playoff games. A local station manager decided to exercise his discretion to not show a bad television series, “The Book of Daniel,” prompting a protest of e-mails, postings, and letters to the editor.

Television is a ubiquitous part of our daily culture. Common sense holds there to be strong media effects on the wider culture. Usually those effects are “bad.” We blame the media, especially television, for all kinds of things: increases in premarital sex, abortion, violence, obesity, “liberalism,” ADHD, the list could go on.

Rarer is to suggest positive things in our culture aided or caused by television. I don’t know if it still true, but the “Keep America Beautiful” ads, especially the one with the American Indian crying at the end of the commercial, was the most successful ad campaign of all, and unquestionably changed American’s views on and habits related to littering.

Despite conventional wisdom that television affects our behavior, the careful, precise measurement of those hypothesized effects are harder to establish. It is important to keep in mind when “thinking” about television that television exists for no other reason than to sell us things. The informational and entertainment values of television pale in comparison to its raison d’être, to sell stuff, which means to influence our behavior.

Some of us think we are pretty savvy. When the commercials come on, we switch over to another program. I like to head to C-SPAN and then back to “my story” in a few minutes. Ha! I have evaded the slickly produced message aimed at emptying my wallet. Of course, the show I am watching is nothing but an advertisement for clothing, cars, gadgets, décor, hair styles and more. I recall reading some years ago about how the sale of grandfather clocks went up when the TV Huxtables had one in their living room.

We can deceive ourselves into believing that we can flip the switch when the commercials come on, but the entire production is an advertisement. With everything on DVDs now, the shows themselves are advertisements for their own “treasuries.”

When we tune in to television, we are making the television industry money. The more who watch, the more ad rates rise. According to Nielsen, the average American watches more than 4.5 hours of TV daily, an all-time high. And the amount of time watching TV has continued to rise, never once in 56 years sliding back.

Crime dramas are quite common right now. Studies show people who watch more television and crime dramas in particular are more likely to overestimate the amount of crime in society. What is the result of a healthy fear of crime? Walling oneself up in their home; instead of attending a play downtown (too dangerous), people stay home and watch TV! I wonder how many dramatized murders there are on TV in a 24-hour period?

Despite the many watchdog groups, more and more of our time is taken up with watching sex and violence on TV. And the amount of televised violence and sex is up, up, up. Yet, violent crime, teen pregnancies, and abortions are down, down, down (in real life). The television industry and the watchdogs share, it seems, a symbiotic relationship.

Bad shows protested by the watchdogs generate “buzz” that leads to larger audiences and thus higher payoffs for the industry. At the same time, those shows provide fund-raising opportunities for the watchdogs. The activist groups, especially the ones stressing decency and morality, continue their campaigns despite little evidence that they have any lasting effect. Nevertheless, I’ll bet their coffers continue to swell.

Friends of mine about 10 years ago had their TV stolen in a burglary. Unlike most of us who would have run right out and bought another one, they didn’t. They felt withdrawal symptoms, but after a couple of days, discovered something. First, they actually talked to each other through the evening. They discovered that they had plenty of time for homework and doing chores around the house. They found ample time to do things they actually enjoyed more than watching the “junk” on TV.

Pick your favorite five TV shows, outside of news/weather. Watch ONLY those shows for the next two weeks. Turn off the noisy appliance in between. Send letters to the editor about your experience.

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