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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Television Changes Us

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

I'm not one of those people who allege that TV is evil. But that is not to say I'm blind to some of television's rather obvious and glaring faults. And perhaps one of the most serious is that television changes us, not so much our behavior - that question is still under discussion - but our expectations, the way we see the world around us and even ourselves.

It's been said and argued and documented before, and it's true. Television changes how we look at the world; perhaps it even changes the way we interact within the world. It changes how we see things, what we think is important, what we think is normal and abnormal, and even whether our own lives are important or valuable or fulfilling.

News coverage, itself a very laudable and normal function of television, has alone changed us a great deal. In the old days, we thought that if something was important, it was on TV. Nowadays, that's been transformed into the belief that what's on TV is therefore important - clearly not the same thing. But perhaps more dangerous than even that is the opposite side of that assumption - our belief that if something is not on TV, it's therefore not important.

Ask yourself a very simple, yet perhaps profoundly disturbing, question. Do you care about most of what passes for news these days?

Yes, I know. News is by definition what's unusual, what's new, what's surprising. That's why they call it news. And no, I'm not one of those people who argue for happy news, nor even perhaps for the news which only tells us what we want to hear. It's just that sometimes, I find myself responding to the latest big fire in Boston or recap of what the President did today with a massive, "Who cares?" I feel guilty about responding in such a way, but I do.

And I find myself asking whoever happens to be nearby, "Is that really important?"

TV is changing our perception of what's important in the world, but I'm not certain if that's a good thing or not.

TV subtly influences what we think about our society, our institutions, and even our fellow man. It affects how we see policemen and teachers and lawyers and homemakers, nearly every job there is. On television, the cops always catch the crook, usually in less than an hour. After we watch enough TV, we begin to question why our local policemen don't have nearly as good a record as Adam 12 or the guys on Dragnet or even NYPD Blue. Even so-called reality-based shows like "Cops" or "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol" portray police work as constantly exciting, dangerous, and satisfying. Those cops on TV never have to fill out any paperwork, and they never have a dull day. I know that the real world isn't like that.

Watch enough shows about teachers and you'll begin to think that teachers get involved in the personal lives of their students, just like all the TV teachers you see. Either that, or you'll think that most high schools are based either on zany fun or senseless violence. In actuality, it's neither. Continue watching, and you'll begin to think that all lawyers are crooks and that all homemakers lead boring and generally unfulfilled lives.

You'll begin to think that everybody but you is slim and attractive, with a full head of hair if you're a man or a perfect figure if you're a woman. You'll begin to think that what happens in Hollywood is noteworthy or valuable... or even interesting.

Even nice and wholesome programs tend to affect our perceptions of life as it should be (but isn't) and the type of people we can be (but aren't). The Cleaver clan never had family problems. Ozzie and Harriet never wondered whether Ricky was smoking dope, although the Taylors on "Home Improvement" did find a joint on one of their kids once - they took care of it in half an hour. Even Bart Simpson is basically good at heart and can always be taught a valuable lesson. The Huxtables are just so very perfect that they make any family seem dysfunctional by comparison.

On television, you never have to wait to see a doctor, and it takes only minutes for a repairman to show up at your door.

I'm not being sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek when I wonder sometimes if half of our unhappiness and discontent - as individuals and as a society - doesn't come from that ever-widening gap between the way things really are and how we see them portrayed each night on TV.

Rationally, it's easy to understand that television is an escape from reality; that there's no point or money or fun in showing the real world that nobody in their right mind actually thinks that all of this stuff is really real. But I'm not talking about rationality here.

I'm talking about the stories we tell ourselves, what we watch for entertainment or merely to pass the time, our steady diet of fantasy; sometimes good certainly, and sometimes bad, but all of it fantasy nonetheless.

It does seem odd that as we sit there in front of the tube, the ways we look at ourselves and others is slowly but inexorably being changed by the cathode rays emanating from the screen. If we do not at least recognize and confront the issue of TV's influence on us, it does not go away; it merely becomes subliminal - affecting us without our realization.

We may not ever become immune to the messages of television, nor would we want to, I think. But we do at least need to recognize them.