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It cuddles up next to us on the family room sofa. It's our know-it-all dinner companion, dominating table conversation and even suggesting the menu. It climbs into bed with us, interrupting our most intimate and loving moments. It's our children's favorite playmate. It provides solutions to our problems and even tells us what bathroom products to use, from deodorant and toothpaste to toilet tissue and hemorrhoid medication. Although "it" sounds very much like a family membersometimes loved, sometimes annoyingit is, in fact, just a box full of circuits and wires. "It" is television.
In the past four decades, television has become a part of the American family in ways even the most beloved family pet has been unable to achieve over thousands of years. More American households have TVs than have indoor plumbing. It demands more of our attention and, in many cases, influences our behavior more profoundly than any other member of the family unit. We have accepted it into our homes, learned to speak its jargon, and often mimicked its culture.
Unfortunately, we've also turned over many of our roles as fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers to what has become the most powerful technology humankind has ever known.
Like a favorite aunt or uncle, we hang on its every word. We live by its moral code and delight in its ability to entertain us. But what price do we pay by giving this mediuma medium whose primary purpose is commercesuch anesteemed place in our families?
Many scholars have decried television's specific influencesthe effects of its violence on children, its increasing sexuality, and its consumerist bent. As early as 1970, famed anthropologist Margaret Mead, for example, predicted that TV would become a second parent to many children.
She was right. Television is, by far, America's favorite babysitter and companion. If both parents work, statistics show a child probably will spend more time in front of the television than with mom and dad combined. Studies suggest that children ages two to five spend an average of twenty-five to thirty-two hours per week in front of the tube. And this daily pattern of television viewingwhich can quickly develop into television addictionoften lasts a lifetime. That means today's average child will eventually spend about ten years of his or her life watching TV!
Godfrey Ellis, a respected researcher on television and the family, labeled television a "significant other" even before the phrase came into vogue. Other researchers identify TV as a teacher or a house guest. Each of these experts anthropomorphizes television, giving it human characteristics ... and for good reason. These researchers understand that TV is as influential in society as any human being.
Yet, most studies have failed to examine how television actually becomes a part of the family. Unfortunately, the majority of investigations treat television as an isolated phenomenon and ignore the impact of this medium on family processes and responsibilities.
For all of humankind's history, the family has been the primary tool to ensure the survival and success of the species. Families nurtured, taught, and protected their members. They served as standard-bearers for the greater society, and family members played specific roles designed to accomplish the natural goals of the family unit. Although imperfect, such a system allowed humankind to survive and thrive in a hostile environment. It provided the basic foundation and building blocks for the progress and prosperity we now enjoy.
Despite this tremendous responsibility, the role of the family has never been cast in stone. The ways in which family members interact and support one another constantly are evolving. Throughout history, the responsibilities of individual family members have changed and, in some cases, have been taken over by other societal elements and technologies. Communities, churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions, for example, have, at different stages in history, been dynamic forces in the lives of family members. They have assumed the roles of teacher, nurturer, moral guide, and more.
The advent of the printing press and a steadily climbing literacy rate allowed individuals to seek out the knowledge of others without filtering it through the family. Each new, more efficient mode of transportation reduced the family's long-term impact on individuals. The wagon, the train, the automobile, and the airplane have all allowed individuals to experience the influences of different societies. They also have separated many people from family and community traditions, values, and advice about life decisions.
But no other technology has succeeded in changing our family roles with the power and speed of television. Past technological breakthroughs usually have focused on the utilitarian aspects of life. Although the motivation behind such discoveries may have ultimately been money or power, new technologies usually fulfilled a specific need. They reduced manual labor, increased productivity, or took over dull and repetitive chores. They were designed to reduce the work involved in day-to-day living.
Broadcast media took an entirely different approach. Radio and television tapped into a need most of us didn't know we hadthe need for entertainment. But more importantly, at least from a business perspective, the purpose of broadcasting was to market products and services to a wider audienceultimately an audience so large and so eager, even the most ardent capitalist could scarcely imagine it at the time. Marketing wasn't a new concept, but never before had a single marketing tool been so effective, so pervasive.
Broadcast media's truly unique role can be found in its ability to capture consumers' attention. Radio and TV were the first technologies truly attuned to the buyers' desires. More than any previous media, broadcast technologies can embed sales pitches into other messagesoften to the point that consumers fail to recognize they're being targeted as a buyer.
Not designed to augment or reduce labor, TV simply occupies those times between work and sleep ... and does so in a way no technology has ever achieved. Ironically, early critics of television cited its ability to simply consume time as a reason for predicting its quick demise. "The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn't time for it," claimed an editorial in the March 21, 1939, edition of the New York Times.
Rather than simply occupying some of the relatively few slack periods in most people's lives, however, TV quickly gobbled up enormous blocks of time previously spent on other activities. For most people, television viewing takes up more time than all other activities except sleep and work.
Television isn't inherently bad. In fact, television, at its best, can be a force for good. TV has the power to teach, to inform, and to inspire, and many programs have demonstrated the positive side of TV's potential.
Making a value judgment on an inanimate technologywhether it's good or badis a waste of time. Rather, as consumers, we must determine what role TV plays in our lives and whether that role is worthwhile. Ultimately, the responsibility for television's effects on society are as much in the hands of the consumers as the producers.
Although the dangers of television appear to have blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers began running up the warning flags more than forty years ago. By the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed clear that America as a nation and a culture had become addicted to the tube. While the average American household in 1950 viewed about four and one-half hours of television per day, only 9 percent of homes had TVs. By 1970, the amount of time spent on television had increased to almost six hours per day ... but 95 percent of households had at least one TV. A 1979 study by respected media scholar Edward Medrick noted that when families members are home, the TV is usually on. He described television as America's "number one obsession."
Researchers study television for two basic reasons: to understand its effects on viewers, and to calculate its efficacy in attracting viewers and selling products. For those investigating television's societal effects, TV's power can be disturbing. And for those studying television's marketing potential, its allure is enticing beyond imagination.
Past research has focused primarily on television's effects on children or as a sociological phenomenon in which large segments of society are studied as a whole. These studies revealed the increasingly destructive nature of television, but failed to examine this technology in the most common context. Researchers have, too often, overlooked television's biggest competitor, the family. They have failed to investigate thoroughly how TV can affect, subvert, or usurp this most basic societal component.
Families are made up of individuals who, in the past, have performed specific roles that prepared children to contribute to society. The family unit also supported adult members as they coped with daily life.
In most families, formal and informal roles are assigned that meet the family's practical, social, and emotional needs. Some members act as family managers, guiding the household toward common goals and ensuring day-to-day responsibilities are met. Others are cultural narrators, relaying valuable information that maintains the continuity of the family and society at large. Parents, spouses, and older siblings may act as gender mentors and sexual advisors, helping all members understand and cope with their sexual urges and the possible roles they may occupy in the greater community. One or more members may serve as hero figures, defining integrity and upholding key values. Some family members are arbitrators, determined to keep the peace and assist in problem-solving. And finally, many members may be friends, providing comfort and companionship.
These roles are not always easily recognizable, but can be identified with careful research. They are key indicators of how well a family functions. I will attempt to more fully define these roles and illustrate how television has assumed many responsibilities historically held by individual family members.
In 1983, researcher Edward Palmer asked several children to draw pictures of their families. Perhaps the most accurate response came from a little girl whose rendering depicted a family grouped around a very prominent television set. This simple drawing illustrates a basic trend: that television has become the centerpiece of the family unit; that today's family is organized around a single, incredibly powerful technology. Is television truly a member of the family? For better or for worse it can be argued that TV is not only a part of the family, but has become its dominant member.
It seems clear that television has assumed the responsibilities we once held as family members. Sometimes we may even feel that we're no longer needed. But as parents, as husbands and wives, as grandparents and children, we must ask ourselves, "Do we want to give up our family responsibilities to TV, and is television really doing a better job than we could?"
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