Television: America’s New Dictator? Essay, Research Paper
Television: America’s New Dictator? During the course of television’s history, this powerful medium has had remarkable influence on the social and moral values of Americans, altering the manner in which they think and live. In the words of Neil Postman, “Television has, by its power to control the time, attention, and cognitive habits of our youths, inevitably gained the power to control their minds and character” (Bill 59). It should first be made clear that television is a business whose focus is profit, not necessarily quality programming. Profit is based on advertising and advertising is based on viewership which is measured by ratings, like Nielsen. In the United States, television is the capitalist dream come true. Viewers think they are getting entertainment and news for free. They aren’t. All this free stuff has a price. In return for free versus fee TV, Americans expose themselves to slick, sophisticated scenarios devised solely to get them to spend. Television is nothing more or less than an advertising medium. It is perhaps the most effective one ever invented (Bill 39-40). According to a list found in a paper prepared for the 1982 conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, “enhancing buying behavior” is the second highest effect of television, exceeded only by “increasing world knowledge” (Bower 115). Because the television industry wants advertisers’ business, it runs programs that will lure viewers to the set. Unfortunately, the programs which intrigue the most viewers are often the most harmful. For instance, programs containing sexual scenes will attract viewers. It is a known fact throughout the advertising and film industries that sex sells, so these programs will prevail. In 1987 the Planned Parenthood Federation conducted a study to determine the amount of sexual material that was shown on television. The study concluded that, during prime afternoon and evening hours, 65,000 sexual references are broadcast per year. This means that the average American now sees nearly 14,000 instances of sexual material on television every year. (Lichter et al 26) The same study found that only one in every 85 of those sexual references involved sex education, birth control, abortion, or sexually transmitted diseases. “Ironically, television is now willing to integrate sex into every aspect of life except for marriage and children” (Lichter et al 47). Television has not always been this way, but it is scary to see its rapid liberal progression. For example, television and the movies used to give married couples separate beds. Sex, or even sexual innuendos were strictly avoided. In today’s society, almost anything goes: Twenty years ago sexual activity was rarely hinted at, much less headlined, and extramarital sex was often condemned. Today most forms of sexual behavior are either taken for granted or treated as legitimate choices of personal life-style. Extramarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, pornography, and prostitution have all lost their taboo status. Shows condemning adultery have been outnumbered by those that treat it as understandable, a fact of life, or something that doesn’t require comment. (Lichter et al 49; 34-5)The above in itself is quite disturbing, but there is more. sex on television very rarely has anything to do with love or commitment. “Sex is something you do to fulfill a basic urge. Like getting a drink when you’re thirsty. Love and lust are, on television, the same thing” (Bill 77). These morals which are portrayed on television shape the minds of young people across the country. “Through the years the possible effect of television on children has been the subject of more concern by parents, advocacy groups, and governments than any other aspect of the pervasive medium” (Bower 113). A song written by Cole Porter sums up television’s “progress” very well: In olden days a glimpse of stocking Was looked on as something shocking Now heaven knows Anything goes (Lichter et al 25) Another ingredient that is heavily added to television programs is violence. The National Coalition of Television Violence (NCTV) has revealed over 850 scientific studies and reports that show the harm of television and movie violence. When American physicians were interviewed, it was found that ninety-four percent think that we need to reduce TV violence. Of these same doctors, fifty-four percent indicate that television violence has caused some of their patients to have physical or behavioral problems. “Television is making us sick, literally and figuratively” (Bill 64). An example of this is in the case of a movie entitled “The Burning Bed.” In this film, a woman had been abused by her husband for thirteen years. She attempted to put an end to her horror by soaking the bed with gasoline and setting it on fire while her husband was sleeping. Soon after the film was broadcast, a man named Joseph Brandt set his wife on fire, stating that he had been inspired by the movie (Bill 64-5). An investigation was done over a three decade period of time by the authors of Watching America. The second decade of the study covered 1965 to 1975. During this time, their was a growth in crime both on TV and in the wider world. In the real world the rate for serious offenses increased to 25 for every 1000 citizens. This figure, according to FBI statistics was double what it had been before (Lichter et al 186). Television endorses violence. In a movie called Robin and the Seven Hoods, actor Sammy Davis is in the process of ripping a gambling hangout to shreds with a submachine gun when he sings this song:
I like the fun Of reaching for a gun And going, Bang! Bang! (White and Averson 321) Violence on television also affects the way we see the world. When compared to the station house, an evening of prime time will put the amount of police work to shame. “Undoubtedly one of the reasons that we think of our time as an age of violence is because of our vivid vicarious experience of destruction and brutality in the newsreels and feature films (Lichter et al 185; White and Averson 320). In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), watching any television affects how you interpret the world. After ten years of research, NIMH issued a report whose contents “destroyed the notion that television is merely innocuous entertainment” (Bill 68). The greatest threat that television holds for society is far greater than all of its violence and immorality. It is the way it sedates our minds, our bodies, our souls. It creates passivity. “Television has turned us into a nation of spectators. We no longer do things; we watch them. Neighbors no longer spend time draped over backyard fences talking to one another. If they want to listen to good conversation they watch a talk show” (Bill 73-4). We isolate ourselves from the rest of the world in order to catch our favorite programs. One of the most depressing considerations is that society has become full of boredom. “Never in the history of humankind have so many people had so much time and not had any idea what to do with it” (Bill 84). Television has more influence on American lives than movies, newspapers, magazines and even radio. When we want to be entertained, we go to the television. When we want to find out what has been going on in the world, we go the television. “It is enough to note that talking to real people has been passed up in favor of watching ‘Real People’” (Bill 16). Television captivates people’s lives. The following situation, presented in Stay Tuned, by J. Brent Bill, is not an exaggeration, though it may seem to be: While Pop stares through a football-induced coma, consuming countless colas and chomping chips, Junior is parked in front of his set, playing “NFL Football” on Intelivision [sic]. The football, the real one that is, not some electronically generated cipher on a screen, silently grows mold in the basement, while Dad grows fat and Sonny-boy grows blind from sitting too close to the set. (Bill 75) Television also has a direct effect on intelligence testing and reading skills. The amount of television a person watches has a direct effect on IQ and reading test scores. The more TV that a person watches, the lower the test scores become. In one town, students’ test scores tumbled abruptly after television became available to them. A good idea for parents is to regulate TV time for their children. Another of NIMH’s studies indicated that those students who had viewing limitations performed better in school and received higher IQ test scores than did those students whose parents allowed them to watch whatever and whenever they pleased (Bill 68). Television is not all bad. It can keep us informed and up to date on world events. According to Norman Vincent Peale, it can help lonely people feel less alone; TV characters can become like old friends (Bill 106). Another positive point about television is the way it can bring us together. “Used wisely, programs can open times for family discussion” (Bill 107). Television has the power to engross its viewers, but that is not all bad. TV could be something far more constructive than it is. However, there is not much any individual can do to change the television industry. So society needs to be able to tell the bad from the good. “Television, as far as the world is concerned, is here to stay. It is up to each of us, however, to decide how it is to be welcomed in our world – as guest or dictator” (Bill 1).
Bill, J. Brent. Stay Tuned. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1986. Bower, Robert T. The Changing Television Audience in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Lichter, S. Robert, Linda S. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. Watching America: What Television Tells Us About Our Lives. New York: PRENTICE HALL PRESS, 1991. Medved, Michael. Hollywood Vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992. White, David Manning, and Richard Averson, eds. Sight, Sound, and Society: Motion Pictures and Television in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.