TV and Me: Where Does Your Relationship Stand?

There's clearly a problem with television. I was getting my haircut the other day, making small talk with the nice girl who cuts my hair, when she asked me, "Do you watch TV?"What kind of question is that?, I thought. We're the TV generation. Studies show the number of hours we spend watching TV surpasses the total number of words we speak to one another in any given week -- twofold.Stodgy old publications, prone to raining on everyone's parade whatever the subject, such as "The Wall Street Journal" or "Time", like to publish numerous stories with headlines to this effect, tied to follow-up stories about the results of definitive standardized test that now prove the mental capacity of the TV-watching generation resembles, most closely, a scoop of lemon jello.Any publication worth its weight in hysterical overstatement has done a report on the effects of TV violence; the declining morals of TV characters and the people who love them; the lack of redeemable values of any kind on television; the fits of anxiety experienced by youngsters who have been forcefully pulled from in front of their televisions (often compared to the muscular jerks, dances, sweats and out-of-the-blue cackles of recovering heroin addicts and coke heads); and the rapidly declining attention span of addicted TV junkies which, these same articles snidely point out, is a sad water-from-a-stone-like depletion akin to sucking the last drops of diet soda from an already empty glass.Yet through all of this our generation watched. We watched it all, everything we could get our hands on, we watched. Maybe we were hooked. Maybe we did "need" it. Maybe we did "have" to have it. But I don't know anyone who didn't love every minute of it.Cliff Jernigan Ph.D., associate professor of communication at Wilkes University, said when it comes to kids and adolescents, the staggering numbers have stayed pretty constant over the last decade or so. "By the time (children) graduate high school, they've spent 15,000 hours watching television compared to 12,000 hours of classroom instruction," he said. In other words, growing up television was and still is a central and vital part of a child's life.And still, amid the smell of perms and hair dye, the question hung there, and I was quite sure I'd never in my life heard that interrogatory phrase before. Can you imagine, "Do you watch TV?" Ten years ago, that question would never have been asked and if it had been, the person it was directed to wouldn't have been expected to give a straight answer. But it hung there, unanswered still, and I began to wonder if I even knew the answer. Yes, I have the TV on quite a bit. I watch sports, news, sometimes I throw a movie on in the background while I do a crossword or play cards or something. But do I watch TV?As much as the question seemed almost absurdly inappropriate to ask someone of my generation it threw me off guard for two reasons. One, it actually "was" a good question. It was a question that hinted at something I, and apparently she, had unconsciously suspected. And the other reason I was at a loss was because of the answer I found myself forming. When my brain finally came back from a commercial break and I opened my mouth, to my surprise the words, "Not as much as I used to," came out. That was my answer, and if it shocked her, she showed no sign of it. But the question and my answer made me wonder if the relationship between TV and me was getting stale.Was it the violence? As the immortality of youth wore off, did the images of people dead and bleeding, people karate-kicked in the liver and women/men bullet-ridden, face-down on some city sidewalk, finally conjure up negative feelings instead of the old response, which was usually something like, "Wow, cool!"? Maybe it was the lack of values. Had I become someone pragmatic enough to realize the need for values in society and the inherent problems a lack thereof can create in adolescents who, if the studies are right, could grow up to become the kind of morally bankrupt adults who like to spit phlegm on sidewalks and put cigarettes out in drink glasses? Maybe I was just bored, tired of hearing the same laugh tracks played at the same time during the exact same unbelievable stories, starring similar looking people in roles that resembles those on the show before it. But there "are" shows that forgo the sex and violence, there "are" shows with moral values and there "are" still innovative, original shows on the air. The thing is, if these diverse programs have one trait in common, it's that I don't know anyone who watches any of them. On the mathematical side, Dr. Jernigan brought up the point that decreased television viewing often has something to do with the simple decrease in free time. As people become more professional and other commitments eat up their time, they become hard-pressed to find the time for marathon TV sessions. No Longer a Shared Experience All this is certainly true, but I think personally my problem with TV is something that has been overlooked or at least under-reported in the media. Like the regrettable decline of the family meal, the unfortunate demise of the neighborhood get-together and, worst of all, the fragmenting of professional boxing divisions into a half-dozen sanctioning bodies, television is not what it used to be, because it no longer unites us with shared experiences. Connections. Connections with other people are what we seek, however fragile or strained the ties may be. And growing up, television was one of the best ways to make those connections. Julia Berkery, professor of communication at Marywood University, said in recent years this interesting side effect has been lost. Modern television and television programs "are not intended to serve all people at once anymore," she said. These days the trend in television, like modern culture, is toward "fragmenting of lifestyles and the fragmenting of audiences." In its heyday, the power of TV raised the whole concept of water cooler talk to a new level. Everyone was running into school or into the office with questions like, "Did you see where Natalie almost 'did it?'" "Did you see last night when Fonzie broke out of Mork's freeze beam?" "Did you see Steve Austin throw that boulder at Sasquatch?" These questions were the first things out of our mouths in the morning and there was never a moment when you thought the person you were talking to might "not" know what it was you were talking about. Everyone a certain age watched what seemed like mostly the same shows, and it was rare to find someone who watched something different. Shows like "Happy Days", "The Brady Bunch", "Laverne and Shirley", "Welcome Back Kotter", "Three's Company", "Different Strokes", "Facts of Life", "Family Ties", "Mork and Mindy", "The Cosby Show", "The Love Boat", "Chips" "That's Incredible" and, yes, even "Little House on the Prairie", united our generation with experiences and memories we can still call on even today. At its best, Jernigan said, television helped give the nation a common focus or a common topic. "There was a time when television was more pervasive in that it commanded the nations attention," Jernigan noted. "It brought the Vietnam War and presidential assassinations into your home at night in a way that other media did not," he continued. While television can still summon this power when it comes to national disasters, when it comes to entertainment, television's potency seems to have lessened. My theory is that with a few exceptions (see below), a key reason is that television has become more personal and individual than communal. "From its beginnings and through some major events, including the walk on the moon that so many people watched, I would probably say through the mid 70s or late 70s, television had a homogeneity over American culture," Berkery said. However, that's no longer generally the case, she added. "No one particular program contributes to a sense of mass culture anymore." Everybody's Watching Something Different It started a few years ago. With so many choices between cable, pay-per-view, home video and finally network TV, everybody who was watching TV was watching something different. Crowds gathered in conversation about a TV show dwindled in number from a half-dozen people to two, sometimes three. Suddenly, the most important motivation to watch TV was gone. Missing a popular show no longer meant feeling out of the loop. No one even bothered trying to talk about a particular episode at work anymore -- no one was listening and no one cared. No one would dare bring up a show at a party, for fear of getting in return more blank stares than knowing glances. No one met a new person and automatically assumed they had at least TV experiences as common ground. For as wonderful as a conversation can be between people who have watched the same episode of "Sanford and Son", there is, on the other hand, nothing more boring and stilted than listening to someone explain the plot of a sitcom you don't know or care anything about. So, as Jernigan said, it's not that people are watching TV any less, it's that they don't watch the same things as often and therefore it doesn't seem to have quite the same hold over us. When most people only had four things to watch on TV at any given time -- NBC, CBS, ABC or PBS -- chances were the most popular shows were being watched by almost everyone. During the 1978-79 season, the Big Three had 91 percent of the viewing audience. A typical week this season the percentage of people watching ABC, CBS or NBC is about 47 or 48 percent. The FOX network -- the only network whose numbers have continued to rise not fall over the last few years -- pulls in another 15 percent. This brings up another good point. Berkery said another reason people are watching less of any one show on any one network is because there are simply more networks. "Even in the number of networks, there used to be the Big Three," she said, "and then there was Fox." This year even fledgling networks the WB and UPN have enough hours of programming to technically qualify for "network" status. Berkery said the result has been a "customization of content." TV no longer dishes out a pleasing product that everyone can enjoy, it now focuses in on smaller niche markets and demographic groups -- most often the coveted 18-49 market advertisers seek. And multi-TV households have fueled this trend because programmers know that a show doesn't have to interest everyone in the house anymore because these days there are enough TVs to go around. There are obvious advantages to this kind of individualized programming -- there are more choices, more variety and more shows tailored to eclectic tastes, but the disadvantage is that sitting in front of the TV now feels like the solitary endeavor it truly is. No longer do you know that at that instant everyone else you know is doing the exact same thing. Sure, they're still probably doing something similar, but in this case close doesn't seem to count. Tv Shows We Still ShareSome shows still have the ability to unite. They might not get the huge audiences of a few years ago, but at least they have devoted followings of fairly similar viewers. In other words, these shows may not provide a shared experience for all of America, but at least they provide a shared experience for certain large segments of the population."Seinfeld": In its eighth season, "Seinfeld" is one of the few shows in NBC's Must-See-TV line-up that really is a must-watch. It is one of the only shows left on TV that if you miss it, you might honestly feel a little embarrassed the next morning at school or work. Everyone will be talking about it so you better watch. "Sports": Sports still have a positive, uniting characteristic. On Mondays in the fall, the guys and some of the girls still get together to talk about the games. And we all remember things like Jeffrey Mayer's home-run making catch in last year's American League championship series. Everyone knows, Michael and Tiger and Junior, and everyone watches the Super Bowl (a prime example of how the power of shared experience will get people to watch anything)."ER": The live season premiere of "ER" was another good example of how shared experience motivates our viewing habits. I've never watched the show in my life, but when everyone was talking about it all that day, I had to watch. I simply didn't want to be left out, and I wanted to be able to join in the conversations about the show the next morning like everyone else. Others must have felt the same way because the ratings for the show were much higher than usual. Fans say this series has had a lot of must-see episodes and often on Friday mornings you do hear people talking about the previous night's "ER". "FOX Operas": First there was "Beverly Hills 90210", then there was "Melrose Place" and now there's "Party of Five", FOX consistently comes up with programs that unite a good portion of the younger crowd. While they may be shows of questionable quality, they do have a hold on the majority of people in the under-30 crowd. As people in their 20s sit and go over "Happy Days" reruns like they were sacred manuscripts, 10 years from now people might reminisce with as much reverence about Brandon, Brenda and the gang.

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