do people watch what they watch on TV?
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
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
“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?
same reason we eat what we eat,” Syracuse University communications
professor Robert J. Thompson told Today’s Pentecostal
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.
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.”
hears self-identified Christian students in his classroom proclaiming
they have no qualms about watching programs laced with sex, violence
and foul language.
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.
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.
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
THIS IS REALITY?
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,”
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
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
“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
few viewers show such scrutiny in their television content choices.
A lack of discipline often starts at an early age.
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.
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.”
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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