The war in Afghanistan isn’t going well. The economic recovery isn’t producing many new jobs. The banks that pushed the nation to the brink of a 1930s-style Depression with their reckless ways—having sucked up billions of taxpayer dollars in rescue money—are resuming those reckless ways. There isn’t enough swine flu vaccine to go around.
And now for some bad news:
Nielsen, the company that clocks television viewing in this country, has found that children between the ages of two and five are watching an average of 25 hours of television each week.
That’s three-and-a-half hours a day, Sundays included.
If you don’t find that disturbing, please go back to your Twittering Facebook or whatever it is that you use to keep track of the latest Hollywood marital crisis. Sorry to have bothered you.
From its very inception—and I was there, so I know—television has been hailed as a great educational medium, an unparalleled teacher. And so it is.
It teaches you to watch television.
That’s it, the whole thing. Content is secondary.
It turns viewers, and particularly young viewers, into bovine creatures who sit slack-jawed before a TV set, waiting to be entertained, amused or sold something. Mainly sold something.
I don’t envy the task of primary school teachers. By the time they get the kids in kindergarten, the little urchins have watched almost 4,000 hours of television. Into these damaged brains the teachers are expected to implant a love of reading, science, and math.
The fact that they succeed as often as they do is a testament to their skill and a commitment to their profession that borders on the heroic.
Because the TV-watching doesn’t stop after the kids get to school. If anything it increases and is augmented by video games, computers, magic telephones etc. It’s not a flood of distractions, it’s a tsunami.
I know what you’re going to say: I’ve heard it before. I’m exaggerating the toxic nature of television. After all, much of what those two-to-five-year-olds are watching is “educational television.” It teaches kids the alphabet and things like that.
Right. I forgot about “educational television,” the biggest oxymoron this side of “military intelligence.” It doesn’t take 4,000 hours to teach kids the alphabet.
Were you paying attention when I told you that content is secondary? Attention span going the way of your short-term memory, is it? Content, with one exception, is virtually irrelevant to television’s impact—and that exception is advertising. Television, after it gets kids hooked, teaches them that life is all about having things, buying things. It trains children to be consumers and a good job it does.
Thus we live in a society where the needs of workers always take second place to the desires of consumers, which is the way corporate America likes it. We buy, therefore we are.
So ingrained is this attitude in our society that commercials, once thought to be an irritating necessity we put up with to get “free” content, have achieved parity with programming in our viewing habits.
A recent phenomenon in the television industry has been the growth of DVR recordings. An increasing number of people, something like a third of viewers, have taken to recording shows they would like to see and watching them later, at their convenience.
Many in the industry thought this would be the death of television, because viewers could fast-forward through the ads, thus taking advertising dollars from the networks.
It hasn’t happened. DVR recording has not only increased television watching overall, almost half of the viewers sit through the commercials during playback.
In other words, people—half of them, anyway—don’t make any distinction between the show and the commercial messages that support it. It’s all television to them.
The New York Times asked a senior executive at a media-buying firm in New York why this was the case. He expressed no surprise. "Television has always been like that," he said.
“It’s still a passive activity.”
So is death.
Columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. Distributed by Minuteman Media.