Updated: 04/26/2012

Film, Radio and TV - 31 

The Social Impact of  television


The Social Impact

of Television

Part II


>>In the next four modules we'll examine the social impact of television from the standpoint of seven major criticisms.*

Although there are almost as many gripes about TV as there are viewers, it would be difficult to find a complaint that didn't fall into one of these seven areas.

When we get through presenting all seven criticisms we'll look at some of the positive effects of television.

The critics of TV say that television:

Debases the arts and audience tastes
Undermines moral standards
Encourages escapism
Engages in economic exploitation
Exhibits a liberal bias
Sets up false images of reality|
Distorts reality through omission

1. Television debases the arts and audience tastes. To debase something is to water it down, or undermine it.

This criticism, which some see as a bit "hi-brow," is more relevant to U.S. network programming (that tries to appeal to the LCD (lowest common dominator) than to all of television. 

>>The United States leads the world in entertainment programming -- but not in film and TV programming that many feel is more socially desirable and beneficial.

Compared to the United States, many countries feature more current events programming, documentaries, in-depth news, "good" music, and meaningful dramatic productions. Since there are no alternative TV stations in many of these countries, people watch this programming and, as a result, develop a greater understanding of world events and a greater appreciation for the arts.

Having lived in one of these countries for a number of years, I can attest to these effects. It was not unusual, for example, to find a farmer or fisherman with less than a high school education who knows more about what's going on in the world than most Americans -- or even enjoys classical music.

At the same time, when any one person or group decides what is censored stories "good" and "bad" for everyone else, we enter a dangerous area.

To Censor or Not to Censor

>>The survival of a democracy rests on a free flow of information and an informed electorate.

Someone or some agency "dictating" what you should or not see or know about is the approach dictators use to control their people.  In fact, when dictators take over a country a free press is the first thing to go.

Who would you trust to decide what you should and should not know about -- what you should and should not be able to see on television or read in a newspaper?

For example, even though the Philippines was considered a democracy, President Marcos was able to retain popular support for 20 years -- largely though his control of the media and his suspension of his country's constitution.

During this time, the controlled media tended to paint Marcos and his regime in glowing terms. Things that would hurt his image -- and there were many -- went largely unreported. When simple bribes didn't work, news people who didn't go along "disappeared," or were found floating in rivers.

Decades after Marcos' death he's still regarded as a "saint" in the minds of some Filipinos. You can read more about this – here, The Philippines finally regained its democratic foundation, although it required a revolution.

>>Although we like to think that there is no political or religious repression in the United States, even in the brief history of the media we've covered so far, we can see that there has been. During the Nixon era, students were jailed for marching against the Vietnam war (although unlike in some countries they were soon released).

" It's generally assumed that the public has a right to protect its own safety, but not the political or religious interests of any one group at the expense of others. "

Using this as a guideline the public has a right to suppress or censor violence and sex in the media. Many studies show a link between – media violence and anti-social behavior. (The – research on sex is not as clear.)

But there is a problem.  Media violence and sex are clearly linked to ratings, and ratings are clearly linked to corporate profits. And, as we saw in the ongoing cigarette-cancer debate that lasted for decades, it can be a long time before public pressure prevails.

In the violence-sex issue then there is the matter of decides what is too violent or too sexy? What is and isn't acceptable has changed dramatically over the years. In the early days of U.S. broadcasting the words "virgin," "pregnant," and even "stomach" were not seen as suitable for general audiences to hear; and, as we've noted, even an on-screen kiss was once seen as being indecent.

Not only is what's acceptable and not acceptable moving targets in the United States (they keep changing with the times), but as we've seen with the various motion picture codes, they vary with observers.

Although what is and what isn't detrimental to public's general welfare is often hotly debated, when we get to what's "moral" and "immoral" is based on belief, and here things get even more complicated.  This brings us to the next criticism.

2. Undermines Moral Standards This area of criticism garners undermines moral standardsthe most complaints from viewers. Although there are many moral issues related to media content, sex and violence create the greatest stir. (As we noted earlier, attitudes toward this issue tend to be related to education and other demographic characteristics.)

Chief among the moral concerns, of course, are casual sex (sex outside of marriage or without a loving commitment) and gratuitous violence (unnecessary and graphic violence added to programming for the sake of gaining ratings).


Depiction of Casual Sex

>>This is probably the most volatile of the media issues -- especially in certain areas of the country. But, research on the subject appears to be at odds with prevailing public opinion.

In the minds of many, not only is casual sex a sin, but it leads to casual sexlife-threatening disease and unwanted pregnancies.

Even though some influential U.S. religious and government groups have opposed sex education, the two-decade decline in the rate of unwanted pregnancies in the United States appears to be primarily due to sex education. (We might include here the "sex education" information that has been included in the storylines of TV programming.)

>>There is no doubt that the depictions of casual sex (hooking up, "friends with benefits," etc.) have been increasing to the point that they have become  "normal" on TV and in film. 

This has prompted some conservative families to ban most TV from their homes, or to subscribe only to "family" cable channels and satellite services.

" Interestingly, some of these "family oriented" programs in the U.S. -- the 1959 "Bonanza" series, for example -- have been banned in some countries because of their violent content. 

But these same countries feature sexual content that would never be allowed on U.S. television. Clearly, as any 'world traveler' knows, cultures differ widely on these issues.

>>Among young people in the United States sexual diseases lead all other types of disease. However, when television programs tried to deal with the elements of "safe sex," there has been immediate opposition in the U.S. from some conservative groups.

At the same time, industrialized countries where sex education information has traditionally been available (including on TV) tend to have much lower rates of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.

Thus, what is and what is not "moral" and acceptable changes with audiences, times, and geography.


TV Violence

TV Violence>>Those who criticize television for showing gratuitous violence cite the fact that by the time they are 18, U.S. children typically see more than  20,000 murders on TV.

Most of these murders appear to be without consequence and most are represented as the "solution" to a problem.

 >>"Real life," violence and murder normally have profound and lingering effects on both the people involved and on their friends and families. This painful reality is normally glossed over or ignored in film and TV drama.

It's significant that even 80% of Hollywood executives (who have vested interests in maintaining profit-related violence in on TV) feel there's a link between TV violence and real-life violence in society.paranoid viewer

>>Studies show that heavy viewers of TV violence tend to be more "paranoid" about the level of violence around them. They also tend to be more suspicious of people, in general, and more inclined to view their surroundings as "unsafe."

In this regard it's time for another "reality check."

>>We've noted that violence in films and TV, although related to ratings and profits, causes harm to individuals and society. If you did not read it earlier, this is covered in some detail in and article on – Film and TV Violence.


Freedom vs. Government Control

>>For decades some viewers in the United States have made demands on government officials to do something about violence and sex on television.

Fines are levied against TV stations that broadcast sex-related words or depictions of sex seen as objectionable, but violence tends to be more acceptable -- at least to American audiences.

In late 2004, the FOX network, considered the most conservative and widely viewed for cable news, faced the largest fines ever levied by the Federal Communications Commission up to that point for sexually indecent programming. Note below that in 2010 the FOX network is responsible for more complaints about program "indecency" as filed with the FCC than any of the other networks.

Percent of Program Indecency
Complaints to FCC by Network

FOX 48.0
CBS 18.6
ABC 18.4
NBC 14.5

(Source: Hollywood Reporter, 2010.)

Clearly, there is a frequently a conflict between profits and what many people see as traditional values -- with profits typically winning the contest. Other opinions on this topic can be found in this – Business, Sex, and Morality Forum posting.

The issue was to a degree put under the control of parents in a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The Act requires U.S. television sets with screens 33 centimeters (13 inches) or larger to be equipped with features to block the display of television programming based upon its rating.

The V-Chip

>>The "V-chip" ("V" for violence) circuitry (originally developed in Canada) allows parents to block programming they feel is unsuitable for their children.

However, since this option requires time and effort to program, and since many children watch TV alone, the V-chip has, to date, had a limited effect on viewing patterns.

In one study only 27% of all parents could figure out how to program the V-chip (it's a multi-step process), and many parents who might otherwise have used the V-Chip were frustrated by an inability to get it to work properly. 

" Initially, $550 million was spent trying to educate parents on the use of the  V-chip, but follow-up studies showed that parents in general were no more aware of the technology or the ways in which it can be put to use now than they were before the funds were spent. "

>>Here are the content ratings that V-chips should recognize:

V-Chip Ratings


  No violence or sex. All children can watch


  For children 7 and older.


  General audiences.  No sex, violence or inappropriate language.


  Parental guidance suggested.


  Some violence and sex.  Suggested for those over age 14.


  For mature audiences.  May contain graphic violence or sexual situations.

Other Moral Issues

>>In the minds of some people, economic exploitation and escapism are also major moral issues, but we'll cover these under separate topics in the next module.

The last of the moral issues to be cited here are the above-the-law behaviors exhibited by many TV and film police officers, detectives, and heroes.

Although it may be much simpler to have a hero "do what's necessary" to bring "the bad guys" to justice, trampling over the laws of society in the process communicates the idea that if you are right -- or at least if you think you are -- you can then simply ignore laws.

As many court cases have revealed after all the facts were in, people who were originally thought to be the criminals, ended up being innocent. In fact, more than 120 people on death row in the United States -- sometimes for decades -- have later been proven innocent.

Plus, it's difficult to find someone who will not try to justify his or her behavior in some way -- no matter what they do.

For example, defrauding a company can be justified because "they are ripping off people and they deserve it." Hurting someone can be justified because he or she "had it coming." Even murdering someone has been justified because "she is bad," or because "he was messing with me."

However, in order to enjoy the level of social order that we do, we must all abide by the laws we've established. Thus, programs that send the message that it's okay to ignore the law to achieve "what's right," create major problems.

*Although the roots of these criticisms are unknown, some apparently originated in the writings of Dr. Sydney W. Head, who until his death in 1991, was one of the most prolific and respected writers in the field of broadcasting.

>>In the next module we'll look at more of issues related to the social impact of television.

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