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Does TV Help Make Americans Passive and Accepting of Authority?

Evidence suggests that the mere act of watching television may have a pacifying effect.
 
 
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Historically, television viewing has been used by various authorities to quiet potentially disruptive people—from kids to psychiatric inpatients to prison inmates. In 1992, Newsweek (“ Hooking Up at the Big House”) reported, “Faced with severe overcrowding and limited budgets for rehabilitation and counseling, more and more prison officials are using TV to keep inmates quiet.” Joe Corpier, a convicted murderer, was quoted, “If there’s a good movie, it’s usually pretty quiet through the whole institution.” Both public and private-enterprise prisons have recognized that providing inmates with cable television can be a more economical method to keep them quiet and subdued than it would be to hire more guards.

Just as I have not emptied my refrigerator of beer, I have not gotten rid of my television, but I recognize the effects of beer and TV. During some dismal periods of my life, TV has been my “drug of choice,” and I’ve watched thousands of hours of TV sports and escapist crap. When I don’t need to take the edge off, I have watched Bill Moyers, Frontline and other “good television.” But I don’t kid myself—the research show that the more TV of any kind we watch, the more passive most of us become.

American TV Viewing

Sociologist Robert Putnam in  Bowling Alone (2000) reported that in 1950, about 10 percent of American homes had television sets, but this had grown to more than 99 percent. Putnam also reported that the number of TVs in the average U.S. household had grown to 2.24 sets, with 66 percent of households having three or more sets; the TV set is turned on in the average U.S. home for seven hours a day; two-thirds of Americans regularly watch TV during dinner; and about 40 percent of Americans’ leisure time is spent on television. And Putnam also reported that spouses spend three to four times more time watching television together than they do talking to each other.

In 2009, the  Nielsen Company reported that U.S. TV viewing was at an all-time high, the average American viewing television 151 hours per month if one includes the following “three screens”: a television set, a laptop/personal computer and a cell phone. This increase, according to Nielson, is part of a long-term trend attributable to not only greater availability of screens, increased variety of different viewing methods, more digital recorders, DVR, and TiVo devices but also a tanking economy creating the need for low-cost diversions. And in 2011, the  New York Times reported, “Americans watched more television than ever in 2010, according to the Nielsen Company. Total viewing of broadcast networks and basic cable channels rose about 1 percent for the year, to an average of 34 hours per person per week.”

In February 2012, the  New York Times reported that young people were watching slightly less television in 2011 than the record highs in 2010. In 2011, as compared to 2010, those 25-34 and 12-17 years of age were watching nine minutes less a day, and 18-24 year olds were watching television six fewer minutes a day. Those 35 and older are spending slightly more time watching TV. However, there is some controversy about trends here, as the New York Times also reported: “According to data for the first nine months of 2011, children spent as much time in front of the television set as they did in 2010, and in some cases spent more. But the proportion of live viewing is shrinking while time-shifted viewing is expanding.”

Online television viewing is increasingly significant, especially so for young people. In one  marketing survey of 1,000 Americans reported in 2010, 64% of said they watched at least some TV online. Among those younger than 25 in this survey, 83% watched at least some of their TV online, with 23% of this younger group watching “most” of their TV online, and 6% watching “all” of their TV online.

 
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