Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Much Does TV Help Or Harm Our Way Of Life?

February 11, 2005

One of the complicated but important questions of the day is how and to what extent does television contribute to the upsurge of violence in our society.

Television is such a pervasive medium, constituting one-sixth of the environment lived in by most Americans. It is the single most experience we have in common.

How much does it help or harm our way of life? This question was addressed by social psychologist Gary Selnow, and a 30-year television insider, Richard Gilbert in their book, "Society's Impact on Television: How the Viewing Public Shapes Television Programming."

Selnow has done research on the values communicated during prime time TV shows. He and Gilbert followed up their research with interviews with the leading writers, programmers, network executives, standards editors, advertisers, government officials, and representatives from public interest groups.

They asked television insiders how the public shaped or influenced the content of television programs.

Their results are quite persuasive. Also the book shows how the industry interacts with the public. There is a two-way relationship between the producers of our most popular form of entertainment and the viewing public.

Prosocial values. From Selnow's research, we learn that prime time network programming contains values consistent with American culture. Good entertainment consists of story telling full of prosocial values such as tolerance, honesty, loving concern for others, justice and freedom.

The plots, characters and situations have heroes winning, villains losing, honesty celebrated and dishonesty condemned. Personal relationships are depicted as full of trust, caring and sharing.

The messages come across: goodness is better than badness; courage is better than cowardice; the strong should help the weak; laws should be obeyed; the powerful meet their match; and success is possible against long odds.

From the authors' interviews, we learn that writers and producers are people, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, voters and citizens. They talk to people, watch the news and participate in community life like the rest of us.

Most TV censorship is self-censorship by writers who are influenced by public forces exterior to the industry. The writers decide the values portrayed in the programs on TV, and these values mirror the awareness, lifestyles and belief's of the script writers.

Why the bad wrap? If TV is so value-oriented, where do the antisocial elements come in - the glut of violence, sex and bad language that offends the sensitivities of the viewing public?

The answer lies in this inescapable fact: Television is entertainment. Plots need a point and counterpoint. Popular story telling takes the side of the white hats against the dark hats, human goodness vs. demonic evil. Writers inject salty language, sexual tension, graphic violence and voyeurism for creating excitement and drama.

TV is escapist. It has the power to transport, delight and divert. Because of their entertaining power, the antisocial incidents rival the underlying moral content of the shows in their ability to impact the viewing public.

Not all writers and producers are typical of middle class America. Many are young, single and don’t have children. They may not be particularly religious or community-minded. They don’t worry about the impact of their edgy, morally fuzzy and anti-social messages on children or family life. Their self-censorship filter mirrors their lifestyles and beliefs.

The authors conclude that TV needs a program review and rating service that alerts viewers to the value content of shows and possible objectionable material within the show.

The rating should have symbols that are specific to the type of objectionable content. This would give parents guidance on suitable viewing for their children and satisfy the concerns of moral critics.

Why isn’t society getting better instead of worse? If television is constantly bombarding us with high-minded moral messages, why isn't society getting better and better?

The act of being entertained so extensively is a moral issue that negates the positive and uplifting messages in the program content.

In the midst of frequent viewing, the moral content of programs becomes trivial and mundane. Critic after critic describes the movies they are reviewing as "mindless fun." Mindless fun is something we already have an overabundant supply of in our society.

The problem with mindless fun is that it is mindless. TV grinds on - causing short attention spans, spiritual hollowness, consumerism and exaggerated concerns for self. It takes valuable attention that could be used in other constructive pursuits and diverts to an activity that is primarily escapist.

When family and religious values are strong and solid, children are relatively immune to the corrosive aspects of our popular entertainment.

Instead of letting TV and movies do their story telling for them, wise parents and strong cultures tell their own personal, family, religious and community stories. They can also use the uplifting and inspiring movies and documentaries on TV to reinforce noble ideals and compassionate humanity. Unfortunately, there are too few of these kinds of shows.

TV is not a good substitute parent, teacher or preacher. It is an overworked but influential amusement appliance. Despite television's underlying moral messages - either murky or occasionally edifying - the best viewing is limited viewing.