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Why do people watch what they watch on TV?

By John W. Kennedy

Even though her mother didn’t allow her to see it at home, as an eighth grader Kyrna Bates began watching Friends at a classmate’s house during its first season. For eight years she watched every episode — more than once. She identified with the female leads and found the characters funny.

Part of the attraction to shows such as Friends is the camaraderie people sense with their peers who know the same plotlines.

“When I went to school on Friday morning I’d always chat with my girlfriends about the episode the night before,” Bates says. “If I had missed it I felt left out of the loop.”

But a 10-episode content analysis conducted in a college communications class revolutionized her thinking.

“It had made an impact on me that I didn’t realize,” says Bates, who now works at an advertising agency in Des Moines, Iowa. “I counted the number of sexual references and innuendos and I was astonished. When I was still young I’d become calloused to those words, those thoughts and those actions.”

Although Bates, now 23, became a Christian in high school, she says her college education opened her eyes to the destruction that shows had upon her.

“For a very long time I never saw anything wrong with what I was choosing to watch,” she says. “I viewed it purely as entertainment and didn’t think it would have an effect on me, certainly not a lasting one.”

The only program Bates views these days is Trading Spaces on The Learning Channel in which two sets of neighbors redecorate a room in each other’s home.

Unlike Bates, few people stopped watching Friends during its decade-long run on NBC. The show finished in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings every year, and attracted a whopping 52.5 million viewers for its final episode. When the series ended, many who grew up with the show experienced withdrawal, as if a loved one had died.


For most Americans, watching television is as much a part of life as breathing. According to Nielsen Media Research, 98.2 percent of American households have a TV set. A record 76.4 percent have more than one set, with 42 percent owning three sets or more.

In addition to chatting with classmates about the latest episode of Friends Americans gather for Survivor parties and run office pools to see who will be eliminated from American Idol. Why do we watch what we watch?

“It’s the same reason we eat what we eat,” Syracuse University communications professor Robert J. Thompson told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. “Sometimes we’re in the mood for fine French cuisine; other times it’s a Big Mac and super-size fries.”

In his research as director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, Thompson has determined that people who complain the most about television subject matter also are its largest consumers.

“There are things we think are right and should be on TV,” says Thompson, 44. “Then there’s the stuff we actually watch.”

Most people find that watching a show or two after work is a pleasant way to unwind. But professor Stephen Winzenburg, who teaches that course Bates took at Grand View College in Des Moines, says it has become a default activity for a lot of people who spend the majority of their leisure time in front of a set.

“Many people live pretty boring and lonely lives,” says Winzenburg, 49. “They’re looking for something to keep them occupied, to give them a feeling of fulfillment and community.”

Repeatedly Winzenburg hears self-identified Christian students in his classroom proclaiming they have no qualms about watching programs laced with sex, violence and foul language.

“They don’t think of television as being something moral or immoral,” says Winzenburg, a Baptist. “They just think of it as an appliance that has no positive or negative effect on them. But Christians need to realize that content can dramatically impact our worldview and spirituality.”


Not that long ago, television viewing tended to be a family activity around the home’s one set in the living room, with choices pretty much limited to what ABC, CBS and NBC put on the air. But now the average home receives 100 channels — and the list is growing by a dozen annually. And there are 2.67 sets per household.

Today, it’s common for Dad to be watching a sporting event on a giant screen in the den, Mom to be watching a movie on a portable set in the kitchen and the kids eyeing music videos in their bedrooms (where 56 percent of children have their own TV).

Now rather than just looking for individual shows as in the past, people often tune to a niche network that addresses their needs. There are channels devoted exclusively to food, country music, golf, animals, game shows, cartoons and soap operas, to name a few. Men gravitate to ESPN and Spike; women to Lifetime, Women’s Entertainment and Oxygen; children to Disney, Nickelodeon and Noggin.

This “branding” effect has resulted in household viewing reaching an all-time high of 7 hours, 58 minutes per day. According to Nielsen, women spend just more than 5 hours in front of a TV screen each day, men 4 1/2 hours, and teens and children slightly more than 3 hours. The average American will spend the equivalent of 70 full days sitting in front of the tube just this year.

The only demographic to decline in the past year is the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male, according to Nielsen data. That’s because more young men are turning to surfing the Internet and playing video games.

With TV consumption increasingly fragmented and isolated, TV historian Tim Brooks says that in some cases programs have replaced friendships and relationships, which people think they are too busy to maintain. “Many people consider the characters even on scripted shows to be friends of theirs on some level,” says Brooks, author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, now in its eighth edition.

The diverse range of channels available has resulted in the absence of traditional families on the tube. If families are depicted at all they primarily are dysfunctional, ranging from the Osbournes on MTV to the Sopranos on HBO. The watchdog group Parents Television Council last year labeled CSI, television’s highest-rated drama, as the least family-friendly show because episodes delve into topics such as snuff films, incest, cannibalism and sodomy.

Indeed, the subtle message of highly rated sitcoms such as Friends and Will & Grace is that behavior opposed to biblical teaching, namely premarital sex or homosexuality, seems normal.

Winzenburg contends that television, especially MTV, guides young people in how to dress, talk and act. Winzenburg notes that his ninth-grade daughter recently found herself bewildered as to why most of her classmates suddenly began playing Texas hold ’em poker during study hall. The questionably moral activity — gambling — had received the imprimatur of celebrities such as Ben Affleck, Mimi Rogers and Jack Black on World Poker Tour, the highest-rated program in the Travel Channel’s 17-year history.


Networks have turned to celebrity gambling and other “reality” programs largely because the just-completed television season had no new hit sitcoms or dramas, categories that have dominated television for the past half century. So the networks are ordering more of what worked before: NBC will have a fourth Law and Order series this fall; CBS will have a third CSI series.

Clearly the hottest trend is reality. American Idol, Survivor: All-Stars and The Apprentice all finished in the top eight Nielsen ratings in the 2003-04 season, each averaging more than 20 million viewers per episode. Thompson says the highest-rated ones are dramatically compelling, with a payoff at the end of each episode.

But the reality label is a misnomer, because contestants know they are on camera. “Having a guy in a bachelor pad dating 25 women isn’t reality,” Thompson says.

While reality show elements are contrived, it’s still real people in essence writing their own dialogue. Part of the draw is the understanding that these aren’t highly paid actors. Most people identify with everyday people plucked out of obscurity who find themselves suddenly as trainees under Donald Trump or singing to cheers before a national television audience.

There is a potential danger in caring more about or getting more excited to see a contestant on a reality show rather than someone in our own family, Winzenburg says. The pleasure of this escapist factor is that we only see one dimension of such people; we don’t have to live with them.

Yet Thompson and Winzenburg are encouraged that American Idol has been responsible for families sitting down and watching television together again. And Winzenburg notes that numerous contestants got their start singing in churches, and some still do.

Brooks contends the reality craze began in 1999 with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Reality shows do seem to be the offspring of the plethora of quiz shows in the late 1950s. Producers back then learned the secrets of pre-testing contestants, determining the most appealing to audiences and manipulating the outcome — until the scandalous revelation that the most likeable had been given the answers beforehand.

Brooks, who is executive vice president of research at Lifetime Television, told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel that whatever genre dominates television — such as Westerns in the late 1950s or comedies in the early 1970s — tends to last five to eight years. He believes reality shows have another three years or so to keep reinventing themselves before the latest trend is over.

Thompson traces the reality show back a decade to MTV’s The Real World, which captures the hedonistic lives of seven 20-somethings rooming together. He believes the genre is here to stay because the programs are inexpensive to make and can evolve with changing tastes.

Lately the craze has expanded to Americans getting makeovers of not only their homes and jobs, but also their bodies. Some critics think The Swan on Fox has crossed the line of indecency.

The show purports “to take average women and transform them into extraordinary women.” Such “fulfillment” doesn’t happen by educational or spiritual means. Rather it’s via facelifts, liposuction, nose jobs and a dozen other surgical procedures.

Two contestants face off weekly in a beauty contest, with the winners competing in a final pageant later. Judges sometimes suggest the weekly “loser” might have won if she had undergone even more cosmetic surgery to fix presumed defects.

Thompson calls the show evil. “That degree of narcissism raises serious ethical and moral issues,” he says, commenting that the overhauls make some women look more like drag queens than beauty queens.

“It says something about how shallow our society has become if we’re transfixed on this show,” Winzenburg says. “TV’s obsession with transforming the outward appearance of a person is the opposite of what spirituality is about.”


For Christians, too often there is a failure to realize that where we stop the remote for casual visual absorption does influence us. In the privacy of their own bedroom, many Christians stop to gaze voyeuristically at the seductive allure of Temptation Island or Forever Eden.

“From a Christian perspective, sometimes people vicariously live through other peoples’ lives,” Winzenburg says. “By seeing what goes on in a sinful world, we can be shocked and titillated by it, but still think we’re not participating.”

“We often watch the kinds of things that don’t reflect who we are, who we believe in or even what we think is good because we’re watching on a visceral level,” Thompson says. “We sometimes act in a way that has nothing to do with our ethics, value system or even our rational interests.”

Winzenburg says just as people must exercise self-control in eating to prevent bodily harm, they also must avoid inappropriate TV programs that are spiritually and morally unhealthy.

Another danger, according to Winzenburg, is when people find an evening alone at home with the TV more enjoyable than fellowshiping with friends or corporate worship.

“If we choose to skip church so we can stay home and be titillated by a grisly crime drama, it’s a poor choice,” he says.

Clay Henley, a stockbroker from Evanston, Ill., spends most of his free time in non-tube activities, such as working in his yard or playing board games with his 10-year-old son Kevin. Although he has a television set, the box has a drape in front of it. Watching a program is rare.

“I used television to deaden my life for a long time,” Henley says. “It was a way to kill time. It served as a distraction if I didn’t have a date.”

Henley came to the realization that television proved to be a great time waster.

“It was an unconscious addiction,” says Henley, 62. “It wasn’t like a drinking binge, because there’s not immediate negative feedback.”

Winzenburg contends few viewers show such scrutiny in their television content choices. A lack of discipline often starts at an early age.

“Most parents, unfortunately, have no problem with using television as a cheap baby sitter,” Winzenburg says. “But young children shouldn’t watch TV unattended. And parents shouldn’t let up on the rules just because the kids are older.”

Thompson has a simple solution that is more effective than the V-chip or FCC regulations.

“If you’ve got kids under the age of 16, get rid of all the TVs except for the one in the living room,” Thompson advises. “Then when you watch, it’s done in a public atmosphere and everyone in the house — including parents — is accountable for what is watched.”

John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. Except for researching this article, he doesn’t watch much television other than Gunsmoke reruns and Jeopardy.

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