By John W. Kennedy
Dec. 9, 2012
The deteriorating medium continues to influence Americans’ worldview
In the lifetimes of most American adults, television has acted as a collective shaper of behavior. For many of us, television has been a consensus force more influential than government or even the church. With tens of millions of people across the country watching the same shows, TV has done everything from spearhead hairstyle and clothing changes to introduce catchphrases into the language.
But, as never before, television’s penetration is on the wane. The Nielsen Company reports that 97.1 percent of U.S. households have television, down from 98.9 percent last year, marking the first measurable drop ever.
While Americans still spend more time with television than any other medium, viewership is declining. Pay-TV subscribers through cable, phone company and satellite providers dropped a collective 418,000 in the second quarter of this year. DirecTV, the largest satellite provider, lost U.S. customers for the first time in its history, while a record number of clients canceled Time Warner Cable, the second-biggest cable company.
Peg Achterman, 52, assistant professor of communications at Northwest University (Assemblies of God) in Kirkland, Wash., says virtually none of her students watch live television anymore. If they do view programs on TV at all, they nearly always are on a time-delayed basis, usually with a digital video recorder that allows for the skipping of commercials.
“College students are watching less TV,” says William D. Romanowski, 58, author of Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture and newly released Reforming Hollywood. “They are much more selective.”
“We’ve got a lot of people, especially young people, not only giving up cable connections, but giving up televisions entirely,” says Robert J. Thompson, 53, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.
While young people forgo watching a TV set, some do see programming via other screens, such as a laptop computer or cell phone. They are spurning pay TV and instead using Internet video or streaming from sources such as Netflix, Hulu or YouTube.
“Television viewing is much more complex than when there were only three channels,” Romanowski says.
Achterman says about the only shows young people watch live are reality or competition programs such as American Idol or The Bachelorette, events in which they need to know who has been eliminated in order to be conversant with friends. Yet when teens and young adults watch these shows, they generally don’t pay attention to commercials because they are busy multitasking — texting, talking on a phone, or looking at a computer.
Many young people don’t want television at all.
“There is a revolution going on in viewing habits,” Achterman says. “Because they rely on commercials for their economic base, network and cable shows have good reason to be worried.”
Achterman says she knows several people even in their early 30s who only own a television to watch DVDs.
“The implications are important for the industry and the culture,” says Thompson, who notes that half of his students don’t possess a television where they live.
While the future of television may not appear so rosy, the fact remains that, by age 16, the typical American has been perched in front of a TV screen for more than 12,000 hours. Television continues to be the dominant medium in the United States. According to new research by Knowledge Networks, adults watch an average of 5.2 hours of television a day — more time than they spend with newspapers, radio, magazines, the Internet and mobile combined.
Soon after mass marketing of TV sets began 60 years ago, various preachers railed against the danger of the new invention, warning families not to allow it to detract from Bible study, prayer or worship service attendance.
Television has the potential to take people away from more meaningful pursuits that contribute to God’s kingdom, Romanowski says. One in three adults today admits spending too much time watching television, according to a recent Gallup survey.
“In life we get a lot from personal relationships, from community involvement, from work, from church, from serving others, from reading, from television viewing,” Romanowski says. “But the easiest one of these is to sit down in front of the television with the remote and go through the channels. It takes more effort to be involved in other kinds of activities, even though those activities can bring positive emotional experiences and relationship building that enriches life.
“I hope people don’t get locked into thinking they can’t do other things because their favorite program or sporting event is on television.”
“TV is so easy to consume, people tend to watch it at the expense of community service, engaging with others or anything else,” Thompson says. “If you work eight hours a day, sleep seven and watch TV for five, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for other activities.”
Ironically, with technology available now, Thompson says many viewers never have to sit through anything they don’t want to watch. That means less exposure to ideas that may stretch their imaginations and intellect.
“We only go to things we already like and are comfortable with,” Thompson says. “We have more choices than ever before, but a lot of people are watching a less diverse set of programs.”
Television also has great sway in influencing people who have no firsthand knowledge about certain cultures or lifestyles. Thus, those who repeatedly watch Jersey Shore may believe stereotypes that young Italian-Americans are all boorish, sex-crazed drunks.
“The show depicts humans ignoring human rules of civilization and living according to their lusts,” Thompson says.
“One of the things about television is we see the same images and scenes that represent certain ideals, values and assumptions about life over and over again,” Romanowski says.
While TV as a time waster remains a threat today, a larger danger lurks. Unlike today, most shows in the 1950s were inane, or at least innocuous.
For the Christian, the repeated exposure to standards that are contrary to Scripture can override what is heard in one hour on Sunday morning. Thus many Christians have helped make the show Two and a Half Men — with its primary theme of hedonistic living — a top-rated comedy the past nine years.
“What you find reprehensible initially, if you’re exposed to it long enough, you become comfortable with it and eventually come to embrace it,” says Melissa Henson, 38, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council (PTC). “Even for Christians, there is a risk we may watch programming we know in our heart of hearts isn’t appropriate, but we dismiss it and say, ‘I’m an adult; I can handle it.’ But it is easy for us to slide imperceptibly into moral relativism.”
Henson says scripted sexuality, swearing and nudity are at record highs on network television.
Romanowski says that a MarketCast study found religious and nonreligious people are indistinguishable when it comes to what they choose on TV.
“Despite fears and warnings about the potential dangers of the entertainment media, most people believe they are personally immune,” Romanowski writes in Eyes Wide Open. He notes that depictions of sexual intimacy on many TV shows are based on the value of self-gratification and devoid of emotional, ethical and spiritual considerations.
But Thompson cautions against the theory that viewers emulate what they see on TV. He says baby boomers wouldn’t have grown up as the most divorced generation if they had followed the family-values programming of Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy — in which censors wouldn’t even allow the word pregnant to be uttered. He also thinks some viewers tend to tune in to fare such as Jersey Shore to feel superior to the depicted characters.
All media observers agree younger viewers are the most impressionable.
“For adolescents, television should be one activity among many that includes reading, family time, social activities and sports,” Romanowski says. He recommends people watch a specific program and then turn off the set afterward, rather than continue mindlessly flipping through channels.
Thompson says most of television is geared to adults, so parents must be vigilant.
“If you have little kids in the house, you should treat television like the gun case or Internet connection,” Thompson says. “I would no more give an 8-year-old free access to the cable box than I would give an 8-year-old access to the car keys.”
Thompson notes that television today, like much of great literature — including the Bible — contains elements of violence and sexuality that act as a deterrent to improper behavior. But he says what is missing today is the genre of well-written series appropriate for the whole family, such as The Waltons in the 1970s, The Cosby Show in the 1980s, and 7th Heaven in the 1990s.
Henson says even 15 years ago networks offered many family-friendly programs, including Boy Meets World, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, Touched by an Angel and Step by Step. Networks nearly completely abandoned the notion of family programming around a decade ago.
“Networks claim they are giving audiences what they want, but that is nonsense,” Henson says.
Routinely, network comedy series now have a plethora of raunchy jokes about body parts and functions. Dramas, likewise, have sexualized scenes and graphic violence. Regular viewers are desensitized to vulgar sex references on 2 Broke Girls, bloody cadavers on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, sexual looseness on The Bachelor, or naked flesh on Big Brother.
A recent review of the PTC’s weekly “family guide” found 38 shows rated as unsuitable for children because of potential gratuitous sex, explicit dialogue, violent content or obscene language. No primetime network series received a PTC family-friendly seal of approval for “promoting responsible themes and traditional values.”
Even the programs considered least objectionable by the PTC don’t necessarily send a positive message, Romanowski says. Programs such as American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance ultimately are about seeking fame and riches, he says. They send the message that consumerism is salvation.
“It’s all about self-interest, power and material acquisition, which runs against the grain of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” Romanowski says.
While Christians undoubtedly can find certain TV shows pleasurable, ministry-minded activities might be a better use of time.
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel. He severed his satellite service in July and has survived.
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