Television’s Impact on Society
The following is my first research paper at Berea College. The prompt was to think critically about a modern day technology and research/discuss its impact on society.
by: Carole D. Hicks
In the fifty years since television became commonplace for western civilization, this one piece of technology has had incredible impact on society and basically revolutionized the way people see themselves and the world around them. The debate as to whether the impact is positive or negative has been taking place since the inception of the TV in the late 1940’s. Television’s potential to connect, educate and inform the public is often overshadowed by the lack of individual responsibility in using this modern-day miracle, therefore causing its impact on society to be viewed as negative.
According to a 1948 article from TIME magazine, the future of television was very bright and created quite a stir across the United States. (The Infant Grows Up) “Television’s future is as expansive as the human mind can comprehend,” said Jack R. Poppele, president of Television Broadcasters Association (par.2). He further predicted that television “holds the key to enlightenment which may unlock the door to world understanding” (par. 2). However, from the very beginning, television met mixed reviews. In another TIME article, Boston University President Dr. Daniel L. Marsh predicted “if the [television] craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to have a nation of morons.” (Morons & Happy Families)
It did not take long for the television industry to branch out and take full advantage of this technology’s potential. With the advancement in programming and increased financial support, the world and its marketplaces were brought into the living rooms of viewers. With this, society became exposed to commercial marketing, situation comedies and drama, sporting events, music and theatre, game and talk shows and world news. In short, people were (and are) connected to a world beyond their immediate community. Therefore, television has been a catalyst in creating the global society experienced today.
Television provides viewers access to arts, music, religion, new technology and information. Such technology is a venue for inspiration and enrichment and it also allows the viewer to become engaged in issues that have personal and societal implications. Viewers have been able to witness everything from presidential debates to man walking on the moon to wars being fought right in front of them. They have discovered ways to renovate their homes, look like a runway model and give their hearts to Jesus all in one afternoon. The potential for individual and societal transformation is incredible as a big chunk of life is captivated by the TV.
In fact, one fundamental impact that television has had on society is how people spend time. Research by Dr. Norman Herr with California State University, Northridge, indicates that according to surveys by the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day or 28 hours/week, or two months of nonstop TV-watching per year (Norman Herr). That amounts to approximately nine years of watching television in a 65-year life. In a personal interview, 75-year-old Lucille Lofty recalled that her family’s lifestyle radically changed after purchasing their first TV set in 1952. “Our family, especially my daddy, became consumed with the TV as soon as we bought it,” she said, explaining that it took the place of conversation, reading and many other interests that they shared as a family (Lofty). The newness of television technology never really wore off as she tells how her father, (for the rest of his life) turned on the TV as soon as he got up in the morning, kept it on all day and made sure he could see it from where he ate at the kitchen table (Lofty).
In the early years of TV-viewing, programming was extremely limited and for quite some time there were only four hours of air-time each day (The Infant Grows Up). In contrast, viewers today have access to hundreds of channels and 24-hours of TV-viewing time, thus particularly impacting the consumption of time in relation to family life. For instance, families used to gather around the kitchen table to share a meal. As television became more significant in the home, this gathering began to take place around the “tube” with the meal served on the lap of the viewer. While fifty years ago, families saved money to buy just one television set for the home, in most homes today there are at least three TVs, and many have sets in every room in the house (Norman Herr, par. 2). This could be an asset in that individuals have access to programming that suits personal interests, but it greatly limits the ability of parents to monitor program content and also separates families rather than bringing them together (an ironic contrast to the idea that television connects society otherwise).
As early as 1948, the “tube” was given almost human status as a substitute caretaker for children. One Manhattan mother said, “The television set is the best nurse in the world,” (Infant Grows Up, par. 38). The significance of this role given to television lends to the criticism and potentially negative impact TV has had on society. One of the most prevalent criticisms of television is that it exposes and even anesthetizes viewers to violence, sexually graphic exploitations and distortions of reality. From “Facts for Families,” a publication distributed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children (and adults) watch TV in a relaxed, sometimes hypnotic state, making them more like sponges soaking up the content rather than intelligent, critical-thinkers. Many viewers, especially children, have a difficult time distinguishing between reality and fiction. Because television represents an authoritative source, what is viewed is often considered normal and greatly influences the ideals, attitudes and behaviors of children and adolescents. (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) Such influences include exposure to the use of drugs and alcohol, violence, the notoriety and lifestyles of pop culture icons and the high-powered marketing of toys, fast-food and junk foods. Therefore if time is merely spent consuming the program without an opportunity for discussion or interpretation, the child, adolescent and even some adults may be subjected to live out the moronic state that Marsh warned of in 1950.
While television enlightens viewers to the plight of starving children in third world countries, it is also credited for impacting the advancing obesity rates in children in western society. According to Herr’s research, a 1995 survey released by the National Health and Nutrition Examination indicated that the use of television is directly linked to the ever-increasing number of overweight children in the United States. (Norman Herr, par. 10) In consideration of the television marketing ploys and the excessive hours children and adults spend in front of the “tube,” television has direct and indirect impact on society’s future quality of life and the rising health care costs that are attributed to the treatment of chronic diseases related to obesity today (Services). However, television also offers many programs based on nutrition, exercise and the prevention of chronic disease thereby supporting the idea that it is the viewer’s responsibility to choose appropriate programming for children and adults.
Edward R. Murrow, renowned journalist and television pioneer, once said of television, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is nothing but wires and lights in a box.” (Murrow) Given the fact that more than nine years of the average person’s life is spent with the TV, his insightful comment acknowledges the overwhelming potential for television technology to positively impact society if appropriately used. At the same time, in light of how people have become consumed by and completely subjected to the influence of television, Marsh’s predictions give greater persuasion to the conclusion that television has had adverse affects on society.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families. 21 March 2001. 21 March 2008.
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Consumer Price Index Calculator. 2008. 16 March 2008 <http://woodrow.mpls.frb.fed.us/research/data/us/calc/>.
Lofty, Lucille. Interview. Carole Hicks. 17 March 2008.
“Morons & Happy Families.” TIME 19 June 1950: 1.
Murrow, Edward R. “American Masters.” 15 Oct 1958. pbs.org. 17 March 2008 <hppt://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/education/lesson39_organizer1.html>.
Norman Herr, PH D. “Television and Health.” 2007. The Sourcebook for Teaching Science. 16 March 2008 <http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html>.
Services, Missouri Dept. of Health and Senior. “Obesity Burden.” 2005. Missouri Dept. of Health and Senior Services. 21 March 2008 <http://www.dhss.mo.gov/obesity/obesityburden.html>.
“The Infant Grows Up.” 24 May 1948. TIME.com. 9 March 2008 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,794400,00.html>.