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TV Is Not Dead: 3 Ways Television Makes the World a Better Place

More people than ever before are tuning in, all around the world. And we are all the better for it.

We keep hearing that TV is dead. That the Internets, mobile devices and new fandangled e-readers are changing the way everyone watches the tube, and that fewer people are tuning in. It’s just not true.Over 90% of the TV watched in 2010 will still be via “traditional broadcast,” and last year, Americans watched more TV than ever before in history (four hours and 41 minutes per person  per day).

Love it or hate it, TV is still the most influential cultural force. Intellectuals, progressives and the upper middle class like to pretend they don’t tune in. Or that if they do, that a kind of class segregation exists on the box which keeps them uncontaminated: that the PLUs (people like us) watch high brow, award-winning dramas like Mad Men orSix Feet Under , and that they mostly rent their favorite shows on DVD, so what they’re doing doesn’t count as TV. There’s the idea that the riff raff watches soaps, reality TV and those obnoxious contest shows like American Idol , but that progressives’ supposed TV abstinence works like a kind of anti-bacterial cultural soap that lets them keep their hands clean. But that’s just nonsense. And if I had a dollar for every female smarty pants friend, for example, who has confided after a few glasses of wine that she occasionally enjoys the “guilty pleasure” of Gossip Girl orSo You Think You Can Dance …well, I’d have a bigger TV set among other things.

We also keep hearing that TV is evil. It’s not just that it’s mind-rotting crap, but that it’sa gateway drug to full-out self- and social destruction. That it’s the reason for obesity, corruption, laziness, social stereotyping and violence and a whole host of other bads. A recent fatwa in Indiadeclares TV “nearly impossible to use…without a sin,” and a top Saudi cleric declared it was permissible to kill TV executives for spreading sedition and immorality. And it’s not just abroad, of course. American progressives talk about the idiot box or quote Marshall McLuhan, but it amounts to the same thing: that most social problems can be blamed, one way or another, on the box.

TV hating may seem simple and satisfying, a way to wash our hands of responsibility for things like low literacy rates, laziness, or lack-luster economic performance, but it’s too simplistic. I hear the nation’s obesity rate being blamed on the tube, for example, as if people’s own will power doesn’t factor in. Is it really Hollywood’s fault when someone becomes a couch potato?

Short-circuiting the boob tube wouldn’t solve all the world’s problems. It’s strange to be a TV defender in this environment where prejudice against it is more rampant than gingerism, one of the only remaining socially acceptable hates. And while, if we’re talking about doing social good, it would of course be better to volunteer in a soup kitchen or teach a kid to read, TV can actually be a catalyst of social good.

When CNN or BBC reaches into countries where previously only state-controlled information was available, or when Jamie Oliver teaches the obese and take-out-dependent how to cook, that’s one thing. But it’s fair to say that some comedies, dramas and soaps can bust prejudices better than any type of earnest educational campaign, they can raise awareness and create discussion about hard-hitting social issues better than most other attempts, and they even actually improve people’s lives here and in developing countries. Why? Because they’re entertaining. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine popular.

1. Prejudice-busting

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