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


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 likeMad MenorSix 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 likeAmerican 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” ofGossip GirlorSo 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. Arecent 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 thangingerism, 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-dependenthow 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

I remember one elementary school teacher who frequently showed us educational videos with Strong Social Messages (that appeared in bold type on the screen, in case we’d missed them) about how all people are equal, and racism is bad. I’ve always been very interested in social justice, but I remember writing notes to my friend Kim during each of those. But I caught almost every episode ofThe Cosby Showand loved it.

My grade 10 English teacher used the phrase “show don’t tell”about a thousand times (apparently repetition helps), and I wish she’d tell my grade 5 teacher and most politicians that. I mean, what’s better? Telling people not to be racist, or making Cliff and Claire Huxtable into characters no one can resist: funny, successful, smart and quirky? Nevermind the issues the show actually raised.

Then there’sGolden Girls. AsBroadsheetwrote, “The show was one of the most female-friendly and respectful looks at the experience of aging while female ever broadcast on national airwaves, simply by showing women -- living, talking, having sex, making friends, cracking wise, living full lives together with energy and engagement. And if you happen to catch one of the reruns that still air, chances are good you'll laugh your ass off.” I’d venture to say laughter and entertainment are more effective social change weapons than any form of direct messaging.

There are plenty of others:The O.C.earned respect for teens (gaining big prime-time adult audiences) by authentically and respectfully portraying theangstof teenage characters and juxtaposing it with the similar angsts being experienced by their parents. Teens…they’re just like us. Who knew? Sure,The O.C.featured anattempted murderin its second season finale (with the almost laugh-out-loud Imogen Heap “Hide & Seek” as the soundtrack, spoofed by Saturday Night Live a year later), fist fighting (usually on the beach), drug use (mostly the mixed up kids), and gasp, underage sex (let’s just say this show made it clear that abstinence-only education isn’t working) but without those, would the portrayal of the difficult and even admirable sides of teen life have any credibility? It’d just be another version ofSaved By the Bell.

There’s alsoTrue Blood. It’s an open secret that those vampires and monsters are really stand ins for today’sothers: minorities, gay people, even terrorists. In the show, vampires were just granted equal rights in the Constitution after centuries of legal persecution. The squeaky-clean lead female character, Sookie Stackhouse, falls for Bill, a 200-year-old vampire, because he’s more ethical, respectful and mature (though eventually more boring, I’m afraid) than any of the immature, violence-prone human males around. In the show, vampires are basically considered to be sub-human terrorists by the humans, but it’s clear after a couple of seasons that it’s human attitudes towards them, especially the evangelical Christians, that are prejudiced. And that vampires’ individual identities are as varied as humans’ are. The oldest vampire leader, Godric (Allan Hyde) lobbies for non-violence towards humans except in self-defense, then kills himself in despair at the end of the second season, after witnessing too many human-instigated atrocities.

InEllen’s fourth season, Ellen DeGeneres’ well-liked, book-store-owning character Ellen Morgan came out as a lesbian, shortly after Ellen DeGeneres herself came out publicly onOprah. Next to Oprah herself, Ellen is now the most-loved daytime talk show host, and also just took Paula Abdul’s judging spot on American Idol, the most-watched reality TV show. I bet more than one person has changed or at least softened their stance on gay marriage due to liking Ellen.

2. Thought-provoking and discussion-creating

While I am still anything but pro-polygamy, watchingBig Lovemade me rethink my own carte blanche judgment of those who practice it, and I’ve had many a conversation with friends about it. To start with, the characters have little in common with the only polygamists I’d read much about: the allegedly child-marrying/statutory-raping, misogynistic, thought-controlling ones inB.C.’s Bountiful community. In fact, inBig Love, the characters and their struggles are highly compelling. They’re characters trying to find happiness in a paradigm they were raised in. “The only people turned off byBig Love’s portrait of a polygamist marriage are those who haven’t tuned in,” writesJace Lacob. The “series’ taboo-shattering exploration of a family struggling to live by their morals in an imperfect world that both fears and hates them…the show offers one of the most intimate portrayals of marriage on television, and a gripping metaphor for the persecution of minority groups.”

To name a few more, there’sWeeds, which questions mainstream assumptions about suburbia and about the marijuana trade, and also asks questions about what it is to be a good parent. When Nancy Botwin’s (Mary-Louise Parker) husband dies, and she has to financially support her sons despite having no work experience, she starts selling marijuana (she’s against the harder stuff) to people she knows. There’sThe Wire, which raises questions about the drug war, the school system, the credibility of the media, violence, the legalization of drugs and about a zillion other things (and is now beingtaught in universities), andThe Simpsonswhich asks questions about and pokes fun at just about everything.

3. Behavior changing

It’s not just here at home.Millons of peopleon incomes of about $2 a day and who don’t even own refrigerators have TVs. And they’re not watching news, they’re watching soaps:The Bold and the Beautiful,The Young and the Restless,Desperate Housewives, and locally produced ones.

In a recent piece inForeign Policymagazine, writerCharles Kennyresearches many of the effects of TV on people in developing countries, particularly women. For example, when women in Brazil get access to TV (where they almost invariably watch soaps), that access has the same effect on birth rates as two more years of education. It’s not because of the direct messages during the commercial breaks (which don’t exist because contraceptive advertising is banned and there’s no government population-control policies), but because of the glamorized portrayal of female characters with few children. In rural India, TV has the same effect on birth rates as five more years of female education.

And TV it has a steroid-like effect on women’s rights. When one woman reached the final five this year inAfghan Star, likeAmerican Idol, the director suggested it would "do more for women's rights than all the millions of dollars we have spent on public service announcements for women's rights on TV." Kenny also looks at TV’s significant positive impact on drug use, teen pregnancy and government corruption.

I’m not saying TV’s effects are all good, either here or abroad: quite the opposite. If North Americans would substitute even one hour of their daily TV viewing to do something exercise-related, that would really improve things. Or spent that hour cooking healthy, local food rather than eating junk, or reading their kids a bedtime story rather than watching TV with them, or even just reading the news – that would be something to celebrate. But given that TV is so compelling, it’s probably what people will keep doing. And given that, and the good that actually does come from it, I’m just saying it might be time to give the box a little credit where credit is due.  

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