Not So Silent Epidemic

Television: America’s Sickest Addiction

David Stone
Television: America’s Sickest Addiction
CCO Public Domain / Pixabay

Are you addicted to television? How much of your life is consumed watching instead of doing?

According to a Nielsen Survey, half of us think we watch too much television, but it hasn’t lessened our viewing.

Are We Hooked On Our Televisions?

Rutgers University psychologist Robert Kubey has shown that heavy viewers — that would be most of us — meet standards for a clinical diagnosis of substance abuse, that substance being television.

When you read through the statistics, what you learn is staggering.

The only thing we do more, on average, is work, and the contest there may be closer than you think.

The dangers, individually and socially, are beyond measure. What does all this television watching cost us?

The right answer may be, "Plenty." 

And paid in a more powerful currency than dollars.

Kids Dream Away From TV

Sedentary, Passive, Indifferent

Doctors have long been concerned about how so much sedentary activity affects our health, especially given the obesity epidemic and its far-reaching consequences.

Child welfare specialists worry about how excessive violence influences kids. The average child will see 8,000 murders before finishing elementary school.

Will extreme exposure inure future generations to the suffering of others by framing violence as routine and inconsequential?

These two are among a myriad of concerns frequently debated, but there may be more insidious damage. 

The inescapable passivity of television watching may be wrecking our social fabric, nourishing a culture that no longer relates in traditional ways and one only as knowledgeable as television allows it to be.

(In the news: Digging Into Kids Minds to Grease the Addiction)

A burgeoning passive-resentful culture may be what we're seeing in the emergence of websites as substitute, digital societies.

Online, in places like Facebook and Twitter, we essentially do nothing about our grievances, but we will bitch about them until the cows come home.

Websites become one more diversion, a place for us to vent without consequence, to us or to those who've upset us.

Un-fun Fact

Here’s a frightening fact that tells us something about the influence of television watching.

Only about 1 in 6 Americans can name three of the seven Supreme Court Justices. But 4 in six can tell you the names of all Three Stooges. The last of the Three Stooges died nearly 40 years ago.

Can participatory democracy be sustained with a public so addicted to television that it's uninformed about the world being governed around it. 

Is Television An Alternative Lifestyle?

Or Just A Habit Of Passively Watching...?

While under half of all eligible voters participated in elections as recently as 1996, participation has since increased.

Even so, only 57% voted in a hotly contested 2012 presidential contest. 

The gap between those who, on average, find time to watch 5 hours of television every day and those who dedicate an hour or two to get out and vote every 4 years is 43%, at best, and it's culturally devastating.

These numbers tell us that no elected officials can accurately claim to have a public mandate about anything and that even the basis — active participation — for a democracy has eroded.

Half of us never take a position, and among those who do, surveys show, a large number are either badly informed or almost completely uninformed and mostly following the crowd.

People remain glued to the screen but routinely ignore the policies and debates that determine critical factors in American public life. 

So, what is television, anyway?

The answer isn't as obvious as you might think.

In general, we accept television as an entertainment medium, like books, movies and plays. It's there to keep us distracted from everyday events — amused, intrigued or stimulated in some other way.

But the truth is that, no matter what its origins, it’s primarily an advertising medium. Its main purpose is to deliver preferred viewers to commercials, not programs first.

Except in the case of PBS (just barely) and some paid cable channels, which take up only a small minority of the total audience, programs on networks are lures designed, not to entertain, but to deliver target audiences to a calibrated flow of advertising.

For content providers, the quality of what's produced is not nearly as important as the advertising revenue it generates. 

The result is formulaic, unadventurous programing that won't risk putting off advertisers with content that does not try to maximize marketing potential.

Each script must be written to allow regular commercial breaks that take up about 30% of the program time.

The gluttony of commercials has grown so that older shows, the perennial I Love Lucy reruns, for example, must have scenes cut to make room for more commercials.

It may be that commercials, all of them designed to be viral, are what viewers are really hooked on, like the sugar of consumerist culture.

The deep pockets of advertisers require producers to come up with programs of such low quality that viewers will not be bothered by frequent interruptions for glossy ads that may or may not relate to what they’ve been watching.

The programs must compliment the ads, and the reason is simple.

Ads pay all the bills, and over time, the agencies that place them have beaten back creative resistance.

The cumulative effect of all the ads is to create one big promotion for a lifestyle dependent on products to feel happy and treatments to address a growing array of new disabilities that only drug companies can cure.

On network TV, we're close to the point where almost anything can be defined as a symptom.

The Network Adventures of Nat King Cole

Advertising Rules

It wasn't always so.

In 1957, NBC aired a half-hour variety show hosted by African-American jazz great Nat King Cole.

NBC stuck with the show, even while no national sponsor could be found in a culture measurably more racist than today's. Quality mattered.

Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Belafonte, Peggy Lee and others performed on the Nat King Cole Show for scale to help out. But without a national sponsor, the show was doomed.

Race relations happened to be the controversy advertisers would not touch.

Madison Avenue's approach has evolved, but newness and controversy will still be avoided. American minds will not be stimulated because a stimulated mind is not good for advertisers.

Families Or Just Members Of The Viewing Audience

The Numbers On Television Addiction

But we're still watching.

That's the thing that puzzles. The American public voluntarily surrenders to television watching, much as we do our habit of eating junk food, and adults bring their children into the vast wasteland with them, just like they take them by the hand into McDonalds. 

Why?

One-third of all parents, according to federal surveys and other studies, say they don't think they spend enough time with their children.

For mothers, that's 13 1/2 hours per week, and although fathers have greatly increased the hours spent with their children, their share is only around 7 or 8 hours a week.

So, putting the numbers together and even (generously) assuming that all the parent time is individual, not group activity, parents spend less than 2/3 as much time with their children as they spend watching television, roughly 20 versus 34 hours per week.

Americans show their preference with their actions

The average home has more than two televisions, and about two-thirds have three or more. The average child watches 1,680 minutes per week.

How many minutes do parents spend having meaningful conversations with their children? 3 1/2.

In contrast, the average child watches 20,000 30-second commercials every year, the most dominant ones being about food and fast food restaurants.

When we put these ingredients together, results we get from the mix should not be a surprise.

Next Steps: Ending Our Addiction

And will we take them?

Much of the above concentrated on children and families and their habits for television watching.

That's where most of the damage is being done, but addiction extends through every age group and social strata.

There is even evidence that suggests television may fill in gaps of belonging for groups not fully integrated into mainstream society.

Older people watch more television in our youth-obsessed culture than younger, for example, and the demographic with the highest percentage of watching is African-Americans.

Advertising reflects this with its heavy focus on ailments associated with aging and ads depicting a thriving African-American middle class that doesn’t exist.

Television may be the place where everyone has a better chance to fit in, albeit a fictional one. In that light, it may even work as a cultural pacifier.

Articles in scholarly publications and daily newspapers lament our television watching addictions.

But demonstrating its pervasiveness in American society doesn't go far enough. Until we take a hard look at its toll, this addiction will be shrugged off as just the way things are.

Will we do what we've done with our addiction to junk food, even after learning of — and seeing in our bodies — the damage done by obesity? 

That is, in practice, we do very little, or will we snap off our televisions and the flood of advertising they deliver?

Unlike the dangers of tobacco which, once demonstrated, led to restrictions and higher taxes to discourage abuse, those of television are not as obvious as rooms stinking with smoke or as emotionally charged as the harm from secondhand smoke.

And since so many are addicted or nearly addicted, how do we marshal a majority in favor of change?

Although its dangers may be far greater, television addiction may be harder to defeat than that of tobacco, heroin or cocaine.

It’s not a minority thing.

Most people have some form of it, so much so that objective consideration on the dangers may not be possible.

We have a major societal challenge on our hands and no solutions, except voluntary actions, in sight.

 

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