A new study from Nielsen Media Research simultaneously highlights some of this society’s most pressing and intractable problems—and some of our most striking opportunities.
As headlined by the Associated Press, the report indicates “TV’s Taking Over in U.S. Homes” and conveys the disturbing news that for the first time, the average American home now contains more television sets than people. The typical household accommodates only 2.55 people, but 2.73 televisions. An astonishing 50% of all homes boast three or more TV’s, and only 19% contain just one. In 1975, by contrast 57% of households owned only one television, and only 11% contained three or more.
Moreover, all these new television sets in bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, saunas and exercise rooms have led to a vast increase in the amount of television each individual regularly views. As recently as 1996, the average citizen watched 3 hours, 59 minutes a day – an already excessive number that increased to a staggering 4 hours, 35 minutes a day in 2005-2006. That represents an increase of some 10% -- or more than four additional hours per week – in just ten years. Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, expressed amazement at the new figures. “A lot of people thought that as we entered the 21st century, there was only so much TV that people could watch,” he told the New York Times. “And others have said that because of new media, the TV era was somehow over. But TV viewership numbers are going up….”
Those increases proved also most notable among the most vulnerable segments of the population. Teenagers spent 3% more time in the last year watching television while younger children (aged 2 to 11) increased their viewing by 4% -- including a 6% increase during late night. African American children (aged 2 to 11) increased their viewing by a full 10% in the last year, while Hispanic children in the same age group spent a staggering 14% more time with the tube.
These figures indicate far deeper problems than harmless time wasting. Numerous recent studies have demonstrated that out-of-control television viewing produces profoundly damaging results in children. Pediatrics magazine (published by the American Academy of Pediatrics) reported on a 2003 study indicating children who watch more than three hours of television a day are 50 per cent more likely to be obese than kids who watch fewer than two hours. These researchers concluded that “more than 60% of overweight incidents can be linked to excess TV viewing.” In April of 2004, a study by Children’s Hospital in Seattle indicated that each hour of television watched per day at ages 1-3 increases the risk of attention problems such as ADHD at age 7 by at least 10%. In other words, children who watch the typical diet of more than four hours per day face 40% more risk of these serious afflictions than the rare (but fortunate) children who watch no television at all.
For adults as well, the soaring levels of television viewing (which don’t even include hours spent on DVD’s, computers, video games and other diversions) cause obvious difficulties. Some of the families profiled by the Associated Press in their coverage of the new figures unwittingly illustrate the downside of television addiction. Rick Melen, a childless facilities manager in Somers, New York, owns three TV sets in the home he shares with his wife – not including a fourth set in the bathroom that broke down and hasn’t been replaced. “It’s really just a matter of where your living takes place, what rooms you spend your time in,” he told AP. The problem, of course, is that “living” in any meaningful sense doesn’t take place while you’re watching the tube. Television viewing degrades communication, creativity, attentiveness, engagement or other significant indicators that you are, in fact, fully alive.
This habitual passivity also interferes in an obvious way with familial relationships. David and Teresa Leon, of Schenectady, New York, proudly described the seven televisions that fulfill the needs of the two of them plus their 4-year-old twins, while they eagerly await the eighth screen they’ve already purchased but haven’t set up yet. “No one ever sits down for more than a few seconds in this house,” the mother explains. “This way you can watch TV while you’re moving from room to room.” In the process, you can also avoid any interaction with the other members of a video-addled family.
My wife, Dr. Diane Medved, conducts a clinical psychology practice in which she specializes in helping troubled couples avoid break-up (an appropriate follow-up to her best-selling book “The Case Against Divorce.”) Along with all other therapists with similar focus, she can attest that the major factor in failing marriages involves a lack of communication between husband and wife. Given the stressful demands of contemporary schedules, that’s a virtually inevitable problem: with 8 hours a day (or more) devoted to work, some 7 hours to sleep, and 4 hours, 35 minutes to TV watching, that leaves a mere 4 hours, 25 minutes during weekdays for everything else. When my wife counsels couples, she regularly advises one practical step to improve communication instantly: removing the television that usually infests the bedroom. In years of her practice, countless husbands and wives have thanked her for the recommendation and none have complained about giving up the chance to watch Letterman or Leno.
This approach – disconnecting TV sets, one at a time—could help American families deal with a host of serious problems. The sheer number of television screens in the typical home and the staggering amount of time devoted to the tube, offer clear-cut opportunities for saving money, enhancing communication, improving school performance, promoting exercise and avoiding obesity, and even for curbing global warming. If the average individual now watches 4 hours and 35 minutes per day (and some half of us watch more than that, of course), then a serious reduction in daily viewing still leaves plenty of time for your favorite programs, the news, talk shows, and more. Imagine a conscious effort to reduce daily viewing by an hour and 35 minutes: that change would nonetheless allow three hours a day (some 21 hours per week) for viewing the material you value most. At the same time, you’d gain a formidable 11 hours per week --- 45 hours per month! – to concentrate on endeavors more rewarding than savoring the latest episode of “Survivor” or “Desperate Housewives.”
One of the easiest means for achieving this improvement would be to reduce the number of television sets in the home. The extra sets that most Americans possess could make an appropriate gift for a deserving charity, or else bring some much-needed cash from e-bay. Today, more than 4% of all residential electric bills serve to power our TV sets, and that number is due to rise substantially with the growing popularity of larger, high definition, energy soaking television monitors (that consume more than twice the power of conventional sets). Instead of inflating electric bills by acquiring these impressive new machines and retaining separate sets for every bedroom – thereby encouraging the dispersion of the family to distinct corners of the house – why not locate the new gear in the living room and focus all viewing on the snazzy high tech, high def, big screen extravaganzas, while getting rid of the satellite tubes elsewhere? This arrangement makes it vastly more likely that members of the family will watch television together, focusing on programs they actually want to see rather than giving away hours of the day, years of life, to empty and arbitrarily chosen time-fillers. .
In addition to all the other gains, this self-imposed limitation of one-tube- per-household could produce a mammoth saving of energy, if replicated across the country; if you’re concerned about Global Warming, you don’t have to wait for Al Gore to show you how to make a difference. In the best tradition of American self reliance, cutting down the number of TV’s that currently clutter our homes can improve our personal lives while helping ot address a host of social and health problems. Best of all, we can redefine our homes from their status as captive territory “taken over” by television and see them once again as places where living – not just watching – regularly takes place.