Tocqueville And the Tube
From the April 18, 2011 issue of NR


Television makes us fat, lazy, inattentive, unsociable, mistrustful, materialistic — and unhappy about all of that. It cheapens political discourse, weakens family ties, prevents face-to-face socializing, and exposes kids to sex and inures them to violence. Yet Americans can’t get enough. In 1950, just 9 percent of U.S. households owned a television; by 1960 it was 90 percent, and by the year 2000 TVs were just about everywhere. Now the average U.S. household has more TVs than people. 

High-quality programs may enrich us, and moderate viewing is not so bad. We do not view moderately, though. According to the Nielsen Company, in 2009 the average American watched more TV per day (over five hours) than ever before. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably in better shape than most, since those who read seriously tend to watch less TV. But don’t get smug. As TV continues its inexorable merger with computers, the Internet, and mobile technology — when I write of TV, I mean not only the traditional boob tube but any way of transmitting video content from afar — even dedicated readers will contend with its siren song. 

The hunger for stimuli may result in our favoring visual media over print, and spectacle over depth. Print makes us translate words into mental imagery and sounds, which exercises our minds. Television is less taxing; it does all of the work for us. The late media theorist Neil Postman found in TV an inherent bias toward the shallow, and not just for sit-coms and the like. Eventually, programmers feel pressure to make even the news and other serious programming more entertaining, if only to compete with alternatives. When we are constantly bombarded with spectacular images, we find it harder than ever to face the weighty and comparatively dull issues of public life. Postman worried that our combined tendencies to take the path of least resistance and the path of greatest pleasure would mean a stampede from any kind of meaningful reading: “Television does not ban books, it simply displaces them.” 

Recent events reveal Postman’s prescience. Witness AOL’s initiative to transform CliffsNotes book summaries into short, humorous online videos for students who can’t be bothered even to try hard at cheating. Traditional CliffsNotes offer text-based shortcuts to imitate knowledge’s external indicators without the hard work or educational benefits of reading the material. The newly proposed AOL videos offer shortcuts for shortcuts. Having stripped classic literature of all essential nutrients, the videos would add a comedic candy coating: a spoonful of sugar to help the sugar go down. 

The same goes for public affairs. Because TV deals in images, “you cannot do political philosophy on television,” Postman argued. “Its form works against the content.” Postman and his fellow media guru Marshall McLuhan both insisted that “the medium is the message,” that it matters less what we watch than that we watch — watch rather than listen, read, or think in silence. Content is not irrelevant, of course: Watching violent programs in high doses correlates with reduced sociability and increased volatility, especially in youngsters. Watching crime shows and even news in high doses correlates with the excessive cynicism that the late media scholar George Gerbner called “mean-world syndrome,” which impedes social trust and public-spiritedness. And a number of economists have found that TV’s commercialism makes viewers more materialistic and less satisfied. All of those effects flow from television’s content. But to glimpse the small screen’s big picture we must see how the medium itself affects us. 

Writing in 1985, Postman worried about TV content’s ever-increasing speed and flux: more fleeting images and stimuli every year. That trend has continued. The average shot length of American movies stood at 27.9 seconds in 1953, just after TV began its ascent, fell to 7.3 seconds in 1986 as MTV gradually took hold, and was 2.5 seconds in 2007. TV programs have followed a similar path. Why? Visual and aural stimuli trigger what Pavlov called our “orienting response,” a reaction to novel events that can be seen even in infants and that probably carried evolutionary advantages. Fast TV cuts get our attention. But we quickly acquire stimulant tolerance. In order to hold our attention, programs and advertisements use ever faster cuts and brighter colors. Who among us, having once seen The Electric Company as a child, could go back to watching Mister Rogers?

Unfortunately, the pace race carries costs. Communications scholar Annie Lang argues that when visual edits and cuts come too quickly, we still pay attention but cease retaining information effectively. And by making real life seem dull by comparison, they may impair our ability to pay attention to it. 

Heavy TV viewing produces heavy TV viewers, not to mention ones who tend to be inattentive, lazy, gluttonous, and — no surprise after all of the preceding — unpopular. A 2010 study in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine finds that among toddlers, even when controlling for socio-economic status, “every additional hour of television exposure” corresponds to significant decreases in later “classroom engagement . . . math achievement . . . time spent doing weekend physical activity . . . and activities involving physical effort,” and significant increases in “victimization by classmates . . . consumption scores for soft drinks and snacks . . . and body mass index.” Among older children, heavy TV viewing correlates with inconsistent sleep patterns, a problem most intense among the high percentages of children with TVs in their bedrooms. (A multi-year report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the 71 percent of children 8–18 with TVs in their bedroom watch 56 percent more TV than those without them.) Adults who view heavily also experience problems with attention span, sleep patterns, and obesity. Researchers blame the obesity less on viewers’ physical inactivity than on the number of calories they consume with the tube on: Television induces a semi-hypnotic state in which we may eat without noticing quality or quantity.