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Warning: Television May Be Good For You

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

For almost as long as commercial television has existed, its critics, perhaps themselves eager for air time, have lambasted the medium as cultural corrosion.  Yet a growing body of research points to an alternative view:  Television, that bastion of free-market vulgarity, may be good for you.

The litany of offenses attributable to TV, less affectionately known as the “boob tube” and the “idiot box,” is familiar.  Television undermines our intelligence, bombards us with useless information, bores us, fosters social anomie, promotes crass consumption, and makes us servants of outside forces of centralized control.  Back in 1949, just a few years after the debut of network TV, the New York Times opined:  “When it offers a daily diet of Western pictures and vaudeville by the hour, television often seems destined to entertain the child into a state of mental paralysis.”  Prominent television critic John Crosby observed in 1958, “If television gets any blander, TV coverage is going to revert to that of radio days.”

By the dawn of the Sixties, this view had become all but official, at least among the New York cognescenti.  For a brief, shining moment during the Fifties, we were told (and to an extent, still are), America enjoyed a Golden Age of television, epitomized by minimal-action stage dramas and documentaries narrated by Edward R. Murrow.  But mired in philistinism and a desire for the almighty buck, network executives, increasingly of a Los Angeles state of mind, reverted back to form.  The quiz show scandals of the late Fifties were merely the most outward signs of a larger problem.  And with nine out of 10 households now owning at least one TV set, the problem only was going to get worse.    

The industry fired back.  “Can we legislate taste?,” asked ABC’s Leonard Goldenson.  “Can we make it a criminal offense to be mediocre?  Shall we set up a commissar of culture?”  NBC’s Robert Sarnoff issued his own rebuke, calling critics “dilettantes who bemoan the deterioration of TV since the early days.”   

The anti-television forces came into their own during the Camelot years thanks to their newfound fearless leader, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow.  A trained lawyer and self-described defender of the public interest, Minow provided the defining moment on May 9, 1961 in a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters.  Initially, he conceded, “When television is good, nothing – not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better.”  Then he dropped the other shoe:

But when television is bad, nothing is worse.  I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you – and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off.  I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

There it was, a tag line for eternity:  “a vast wasteland.”  Minow proceeded to clarify:

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons.

Sound familiar?  Needless to say, thousands of variations on these words have been spoken and written over the decades since.  Benjamin Barber, in his celebrated 1995 tome, Jihad vs. McWorld, bemoaned the accessibility of American programming to international audiences.  Television, especially MTV, was McWorld’s “noisy soul,” he argued, proffering “shopping alternatives” instead of “real variety.”  In the process, the networks unwittingly were inviting reaction, particularly of the Islamic variety.  Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in his own heralded book, Bowling Alone (2000), after analyzing National Opinion Research Center data for 1974-94, concluded, tentatively, that watching TV undermines neighborliness.  After controlling for factors such as education, age and income, he found a negative correlation between television viewing and participation in social activities.   

To a new breed of critic on the Left, most notably Mark Crispin Miller, Todd Gitlin and the late Neil Postman, TV, driven by the need for profit, is transforming us into morally numb puppets of powerful exogenous forces beyond even the imagination of Aldous Huxley or George Orwell.  This state of affairs, argues Miller, a professor of media studies at NYU, is due to “the inordinate influences of commercial logic.”  

Sometimes frustration over commercial logic yields to cathartic wish-fulfillment.  In his early-Nineties song, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On),” Bruce Springsteen sung:  “So I bought a .44 magnum it was solid steel cast/And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast/’Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet/And they busted me for the disturbin’ the almighty peace.”  Don’t try this at home.    

Moralists on the traditionalist Right have developed their own story line.  Ever and always, they champ at the bit to denounce – and censor – a large portion of TV content, also known as “trash” and “filth.”  I hesitate to identify these misguided souls mainly because several of them write for this distinguished webzine.

As for Newton Minow, he’s still at it.  In an article for a 2003 anthology, Kid Stuff:  Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children (Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti, eds., Johns Hopkins, 2003), he and his daughter, Nell, also a lawyer, called for a “balancing” of freedom of speech with the imperative to protect children.  Their language suggests they would render the former subordinate.  “If we accept the notion that the First Amendment prohibits us from trying to protect our children from the mass media,” they write, “we have committed the perverse error of divorcing our commitment to free speech – the gift by which the Founding Fathers intended us to deliberate on the public interest – from our commitment to the public interest itself.”  Take a guess as to who they want defining “the public interest.”   

These guardians of taste and hygiene ought to be paying more attention to a growing cadre of skeptical researchers.  Two of them are Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business.  In a recent paper appearing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Gentzkow and Shapiro combed through responses of nearly 350,000 U.S. elementary and secondary education students surveyed in the famed Coleman Report of the mid-60s.  Even after adjusting for income, parents’ education and other characteristics, they found test scores were higher among students living in areas with maximum exposure to television programming.  While the availability of television shouldn’t be confused with the act of watching it, remember that it is availability that riles the critics.   

In a separate study, Mr. Shapiro’s wife, Emily Oster, also of the University of Chicago, along with UCLA’s Robert Jensen, concluded this decade that the introduction of cable TV in rural villages in India has led to increased women’s independence.  That has meant, among other things, a drop in the number of situations in which women felt that wife-beating was acceptable.  Is this a bad thing?  Perhaps it would be to Muslim fundamentalists.          

Television, contrary to common shibboleth, also might be stimulating rather than dampening civic engagement.  In their recent paper, “The Effect of Late-Night TV Comedy Viewing on Adolescent Participation:  Political Efficacy as a Mediating Mechanism,” Lindsay Hoffman (University of Delaware) and Tiffany Thomson (Ohio State University) concluded that news satire programs such as “The Daily Show with John Stewart” raised political awareness among Midwest high school students.

Such research doesn’t impress opponents of TV, who have their own body of research on which to call.  But too often this research is conjecture dressed up as analysis, especially when it is sponsored by therapeutic associations (e.g., the American Academy of Pediatrics) or the U.S. government.  Beware especially the latter.  The FCC’s long-awaited report, “Violent Television Programming and Its Impact on Children,” released in April 2007, called for more stringent regulation of program content, even on cable and satellite TV, which are not subject to federal oversight.  Supporters saw the report as a green light.  Yet the language was hardly emphatic: 

Given the totality of the record before us, we agree with the view of the Surgeon General that:  “a diverse body of research provides strong evidence that exposure to violence in the media can increase children’s aggressive behavior in the short term.”  At the same time, we do recognize that “many questions remain regarding the short- and long-term effects of media violence, especially on violent behavior.”

In other words, the American people are supposed to cry “May Day” because of an FCC report whose defining statement consists of quotes from the Surgeon General and tentative phrases such as “can increase” and “many questions remain.”  And we’re all supposed to smile if the commission scrutinizes such menaces to our youth as Nickelodeon, Noggin and the Cartoon Network.   

Anti-TV activists say literally thousands of studies show a positive correlation between televised violence and aggressive real-world behavior.  But Jonathan Freedman (University of Toronto) and Karen Sternheimer (University of Southern California) each have argued, persuasively, that this research often contains an element of self-fulfilling prophecy – that is, of researchers prodding their subjects into giving the “right” answers.  Freedman early this decade published a full-length literature review, finding that far fewer than half of these studies had established any link between dramatized and actual aggression.  What’s more, many of those that did were methodologically unsound.        

What appears to drive the alarmists batty is a fear that TV triggers copycat behavior.  Thus, if a show depicts prostitution, police corruption or a heist, then audiences, fragile creatures that they are, somehow will mimic such behavior.  Watch enough episodes of “The Sopranos,” they imply, and mobsters one day will lord it over us.  By that logic, actors and actresses in such programs would pose the highest felony risks of anyone.  Funny, but I haven’t noticed James Gandolfini in the news as a crime suspect.     

As for children, yes, they are more susceptible than adults to copying others – every parent knows that.  But susceptible is a long way off from automatic, whether the content is on TV, song or novels.  With typical alarmist hand-wringing, TV-Free America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit campaign, notes that the average child will witness 8,000 murders on television before finishing elementary school and 200,000 acts of violence before turning 18.   But even assuming it is possible to arrive at a consensus as to what constitutes “violence” and its appropriate dramatic context, such turbo-charged panic-peddling defies reality.  The incidence of juvenile crime, as measured by arrests, for example, sharply declined over the decade starting in 1993.  Clearly, other factors far better explain a propensity for lawbreaking.      

Even if television isn’t overtly harmful, anti-TV activists retort, it diverts audiences, especially youths, from more beneficial activity.  But the evidence isn’t conclusive here either.  Take reading, which most people can agree is a prerequisite for a productive and well-rounded life.  Retail book chains such as Borders are thriving.  Prominent San Francisco author-publisher Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What Is the What) summarizes some positive indicators in the new (October) issue of Esquire:

The truth is that American publishers put out 411,000 individual titles last year, an all-time record, and netted $25 billion – hardly a sagging industry.  And those kids who have abandoned books for electronic media?  Since 2002, juvenile book sales have shown compound annual growth of 4.6 percent for hardcover books and 2.1 percent for paperbacks.  

Is it possible that sales are being driven in part by “Oprah’s Book Club?” 

Now it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that watching television, taken to an extreme, is harmful.  But that could be said of any activity taken to excess, from eating to exercise to driving.  By the logic of the anti-television brigades, we ought to demand that the government restrict those things, too.        

Television, like other mass media, has the capacity to shape a person’s attitudes and behavior.  But its effects vary greatly by viewer intelligence, personality, background and life experiences.  People ought to be trusted to make up their own minds.  As for children, parents rather than government should have veto power.  Adults already have their own means of resolving confusion:  the remote-control device.     

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