TELEVISION has become very much a part of life for most people today. In the U.S. some consider it the most important item in the home. In China it has replaced bicycles and sewing machines as the latest status symbol. In Britain more and more people are seeking medical treatment for stomach ailments, backaches and poor leg circulation due to long hours spent sitting in front of the “telly.
Worldwide, there are 465 million television sets in useone for every 10 people on earthand some sets are turned on as many as six and a half hours a day. This proliferation of TV has become the focal point of a great deal of research and study.
Power of the Visual Medium
“Television has a transforming power at least equal to that of the printing press and possibly as great as that of the alphabet itself, claims communications professor Neil Postman in an interview published in U.S. News & World Report. This is really not surprising because, basically, television is a visual medium. But, unlike the printed page, its motion, sound and often colorful pictures give the viewer a you-are-there feeling. In this way, it engages the viewer’s full attention body, mind and emotion. This, in turn, lowers or even overpowers the viewer’s critical and analytical faculties, making whatever appears on the TV screen seem quite believable and acceptable.
Advertisers apparently are well aware of this unique power of television. Each year they spend billions of dollars on TV commercials with one objectiveto move the viewers to buy their products. Typically, such commercials as those for designer jeans say nothing about the quality or cost of the product, but capitalize on the power of the “image they present to the prospective buyers, who are willing to pay two or three times the usual price for what they see advertised on TV.
Another characteristic of television is its ability to reach a vast audience around the world more or less simultaneously. For instance, it was reported that 600 million TV viewers worldwide saw man first set foot on the moon at the moment it happened, and some 1,000 million people watched the events of the 20th Olympic Games on TV as they took place.
Since the TV networks are constantly striving to attract larger and larger audiences with programs that appeal to them, they, in essence, become arbiters of public taste and attitudes. By their programming, the networks dictate what the viewers see and when they see it. They also determine what are the socially or politically important issues to be discussed or debated. It must be remembered, however, that in deciding what to put on the air, the determining factor usually is not the public’s interests or welfare but its buying power.
TV’s Effects on Children
Most researchers and people in the television industry agree that children are particularly vulnerable and susceptible to what they see on TV. One underlying cause for this is the amount of time and attention children give to television. Professor Postman, quoted earlier, explains it in this way: “TV is a medium that becomes intelligible to children beginning at about the age of 36 months. From this very early age on, television continuously exerts influence.
How does this ‘continuous influence’ affect children? “I can spot the heavy TV viewers right away, observes a kindergarten teacher of 20 years. “They are usually the children whose play is copied from TV superheroesthe ones you see standing on top of the tables with towels or aprons tied around their necks as capes like Batman has. They do a lot of aimless running around, punching and shouting. The heavy viewers are often the ones who can’t sit still and listen to a story without squirming and interrupting incessantly. But if I put on a film they will sit motionless and stare at it.
The “stare is clearly a carry-over from television viewing, and it creates another problem for childrenpoor reading ability. In reading, the eyes must move across the printed page line by line while the brain deciphers the meaning of what is read. “What is not generally realized, observes Dr. Edgar Gording, director of the Gording Institute of Developmental Vision, “is that habitual television viewing trains eyes not to move. (Evidence is also accumulating to show that children’s comprehension, imagination, range of conversation and use of words are affected by excessive TV viewing as well.)
Here is another serious consequence of television viewing by children. The ugly skeletons hidden in the closet of the adult worldadultery, divorce, homosexuality, incest, corruption, brutality, violence, and so forthare fully exposed to children through television. The result? The disappearance of childhood innocence.
What About the Adults?
For most people who own a set, TV viewing is relaxing, convenient and seemingly harmless. However, since the mid-1970’s, a great deal has been said and published about the harmful effects of TV, especially of its violence. Though some measures have been taken by the networks to cut the amount of violence in TV programs, the TV tube was turning from blood-red to blue. “You push down violence and up pops exploitative sex, says a media analyst. Even a member of a network’s censor board admits: “With the mix of programming today, sexuality has taken the place of violence.
The networks, however, defend their position by saying that “the viewers speak with forked tongue because surveys consistently show that programs riddled with flirtatious behavior and verbal innuendos, such as are presented in many of the situation comedies and variety shows, are among the most popular. They claim that they are merely giving the public what it wants.
Not only is the quality of TV entertainment often questionable but the limitations of the medium also make it an inefficient source of news and information. Why? Because not only does television dictate at what time you get your nightly news but you may have to watch the entire newscast to get a particular report, such as the weather. Books, magazines and newspapers, on the other hand, can be picked up and read at any time, and you can scan, skip, pick and choose as you please.