Television

VII. SOCIAL AND CULTURAL EFFECTS

The debate about the power of TV to influence people’s behaviour and beliefs has been going on ever since the medium became widely popular in the West in the 1950s. There are three main strands of concern: the impact of TV on social behaviour, particularly crimes of violence; its effects on the political process; and whether it causes a deterioration in cultural standards.

A. Impact on Social Behaviour

A great deal of research has been carried out on the extent to which TV influences social behavior. The main concerns have been about whether TV makes people lazier and less varied in their social habits, and in particular whether it causes more violence in society. The research shares the problem of much social science, when faced with controversy: it is difficult to provide definite proof of cause and effect. Arguably, to show programmes to children in a laboratory and then test whether they become more aggressive only illustrates how children behave in a laboratory, rather than in the home or the playground. Even where violent behavior clearly does occur in response to a violent programme, there is still the question of how to separate the TV cause from other causes, such as family upbringing, neighbourhood life, and so on. Many have been willing to accept the difficulties of such proof, on the grounds that authority figures might use evidence of links between TV violence and real violence as a justification for controlling what is shown, and, in a broader sense, for social control. Others have argued that, given the very large amount of violence on TV (a consequence of the fact that most narratives are based around conflict that is often resolved by violence), and given the sheer amount of time that many people watch it, it is difficult to believe that these images could have no effect. Some think that TV encourages the view that the world is a more violent place than it really is. Argument has also centred on appropriate broadcast times for programmes that are primarily aimed at adult audiences. In Britain a “watershed” time of 9 p.m. acts as a guide to broadcasters, based on the assumption that children are no longer watching TV by then. With access within households to video recording of programmes, this guideline has less relevance than in pre-video years.

B. Impact on Politics

The impact of TV on political processes has also been the focus of intense and unresolved debate. TV organizations are keen to present themselves as independent public watchdogs, working to ensure that abuses of power do not go unchecked. Although TV advocates often claim to present a “window on the world”—a picture of reality—which gives average citizens unprecedented access to the world outside their community, TV can only present a tiny selection of what happens in the world. Techniques of presentation and editing, necessary to communicate accessibly to the audience, can simplify and distort complex problems. Critics claim that TV is very poor at explaining difficult but important situations, such as the causes of a war. Given that TV is many people’s main source of information about many of the most important public events and social issues, this is a significant limitation.

In addition, as TV is primarily used as a source of entertainment, some say that this encourages people to be less interested in knowledge and understanding, and more concerned with diversion. News and current affairs programmes often use dramatic individual stories, rather than reporting unfolding social trends, in order to win viewers from other channels.

The effects of TV coverage on the election process have been the subject of particular concern. Looking and sounding good on TV, it could be argued, is more important than moral character and skilful leadership. Politicians are reduced to trying to encapsulate their agenda into sound bites, to fit the limited times that news organizations allot to each item on bulletins.

C. Cultural Values

Many argue that TV, at its best, has been remarkable for its innovation, providing new forms of popular entertainment, which speak to people across class, ethnic, and gender divisions. Concern about the impact of TV on cultural values draws upon a long tradition of anxiety about mass culture. The most prestigious forms of culture tend to be viewed as the creation of a talented individual (for example, Shakespeare’s plays, Beethoven’s symphonies) but TV programmes, like other forms of popular culture, are made by many people. Cultural value is also considered by some critics in the United Kingdom to be incompatible with a commercial system of production. Other commentators note the importance of TV in the worldwide spread of Western culture and commercial values. This has had the effect of producing a global culture that in fact follows Western (mainly American) trends and norms.

More specifically, TV is often thought of as a particularly passive form of leisure, perhaps because it provides a form of relaxation within the home. Phrases such as “zombies” and “couch potatoes” are often used of TV viewers, even by themselves. However, recent research has tended to the view that audiences for TV programmes are active interpreters of meaning, engaged in discussion and gossip about favourite characters, storylines, and presenters. Whether this activity represents a critical engagement with the world or a trivializing distraction remains an issue for debate. However, the very intensity of discussion about TV, and the amount of space given over to it in other media such as newspapers, indicates its central role in modern social and cultural life.