The past half-century has been the age of electronic mass media. TV has reshaped society in every corner of the world. Now an explosion of new media devices is joining the TV set: DVDs, computers, game boxes, smartphones and more. A growing body of evidence suggests that this media proliferation has countless ill effects.
The US led the world into the TV age, and the implications can be seen most directly in the US’ long love affair with what US writer Harlan Ellison memorably called “the glass teat.” In 1950, fewer than 8 percent of US households owned a TV; by 1960, 90 percent had one. That level of penetration took decades longer to achieve elsewhere, and the poorest countries are still not there.
True to form, Americans became the greatest TV watchers, which is probably still true today, even though the data are somewhat sketchy and incomplete. The best evidence suggests that Americans watch more than five hours per day of TV on average — a staggering amount, given that several hours more are spent in front of other video-streaming devices. Other countries log far fewer viewing hours. In Scandinavia, for example, time spent watching TV is roughly half the US average.
The consequences for US society are profound, troubling and a warning to the world — though it probably comes far too late to be heeded. First, heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than they do.
Moreover, heavy TV viewing has contributed to social fragmentation. Time that used to be spent together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen. Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam, the leading expert on the US’ declining sense of community, has found that TV viewing is the central explanation of the decline of “social capital,” the trust that binds communities together. Americans simply trust each other less than they did a generation ago. Of course, many other factors are at work, but TV-driven social atomization should not be understated.
Certainly, heavy TV viewing is bad for one’s physical and mental health. Americans lead the world in obesity, with roughly two-thirds of the US population now overweight. Again, many factors underlie this, including a diet of cheap, unhealthy fried foods, but the sedentary time spent in front of the TV is an important influence as well.
At the same time, what happens mentally is as important as what happens physically. TV and related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate and political propaganda in society.
The US’ TV ownership is almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money through relentless advertising. Effective advertising campaigns, appealing to unconscious urges — typically related to food, sex and status — create cravings for products and purchases that have little real value for consumers or society.
The same, of course, has happened to politics. US politicians are now brand names, packaged like breakfast cereal. Anybody — and any idea — can be sold with a bright ribbon and a catchy jingle.
All roads to power in the US lead through TV, and all access to TV depends on big money. This simple logic has put US politics in the hands of the rich as never before.