According to Russell Neuman (1982), ninety-eight percent of American homes had a television in the early 1980s. The television set was on an average of 7 hours a day, and the average adult spent four hours watching television (Neuman, 1982). Image the impact of television on the average household during the 1980s. Now, imagine the impact today when the average household has a television in every room (Lule, 2016). Not only that, but we can take television with us today by watching it on our tablets and iPads or on our smartphones. We are never very far away from a television set or a device that will permit us to watch television (Lule, 2016). The impact is potentially enormous and quite significant.
It is difficult to believe that something as ubiquitous as television would not have any impact on the culture and on the audience’s behavior patterns. The amount of time the set is on and the amount of time we actually spend paying attention to its content has to have some effect on our understanding of the world around us, however unreal the content may be. Like it or not, television is a huge part of an American’s life, and it is not just a reflection of our culture and society (Stripe, 2010). Television and its content helps shape who we are, how we interact with other people and how we see ourselves (Stripe, 2010). The thesis argued here is: Television has a direct impact on American culture. The image that best exemplifies this thesis is the picture of the cast of “Modern Family.”
Support for Thesis
“Modern Family” was not the first program to integrate a gay couple into the content and scenario of the program, however, it was one of the programs that helped American culture accept the role of a gay family into mainstream living. Without question, American society has been moving toward acceptance of gay couples as society’s attitudes toward the gay community changed toward acceptance. However, it was television programs like “Modern Family” and the constant presentation of gay rights in the news that stimulated a lot of the change in society’s attitudes toward the LGBT community (Stripe, 2010). Television’s influence led the way for the changing cultural environment and what was considered normal.
“Television is more than something we watch alone in our living rooms or discuss online and around the watercooler at work the next day,” (Stripe, 2010). A Nielsen study found that as many as seventy percent of the people who watch a television show interact with other people during the program and at commercial breaks (Gaskell, 2013). This interaction has become even more important as reality television has become more important as program content. Jim Taylor (2009) argues that reality television is not reality at all; rather it constructs an alternative universe that is rather far removed from the reality that most Americans live (Taylor, 2009). Within this alternative space, the audience is taught to lie, deceive, cheat, and covet what others have. In fact, reality television has helped to speed up the decline in American values by encouraging cheating in school, cheating at sports and set corporate greed up as something desirable (Stripe, 2010).
Various segments of society have been quite vocal for years about their concern over the amount of violence in television content. The industry has usually passed such concerns off as overreactions to some incident that happened to resemble some television content or they argue they are not responsible for the ravings and behavior of some lunatic. However, more research in recent years has suggested that violent content on television and in the movies, which end up being shown on television, may actually desensitize viewers to the harmful effects of violence, and that some viewers may actually be led to believe that such behavior is an acceptable reaction to the situation. This may, in fact, cause such people to react violently in stressful situations (Stripe, 2010). It is interesting to note that when we consider incidents such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Virginia Tech and the mass killings that took place at these places, the focus has always been on the possession of guns. Perhaps we should start being concerned about the possibility that exposure to violence over and over on television may have caused some people to view it as an acceptable way of solving their problems or of getting even for something.
Finally, television, especially, cable and satellite television have generated a plethora of cooking channels and shows that have captured the imagination of television viewers. Curiously, the demands of work and the need for screen time with all of our electronic devices have caused a decline in the number of households that cook on a regular basis (Stripe, 2010). While television has raised the level of the culture’s acceptance of good food, it has also taught us that this good food is found out at restaurants, not so much in the family kitchen. It takes too long to prepare for the average household meal.
These examples are but a few of the many ways in which television has affected American culture. Perhaps the most disturbing impact has come at the expense of the family and the time that family members spend together. As noted earlier, most households have a television in every room that counts. And, the proliferation of channels and networks has created such diverse content that it is highly unlikely that the average household can find a single program that would satisfy all family members (Stripe, 2010). Consequently, family members are spending less and less time together, which further reduces their interaction with each other.
Opposition to Thesis
The most articulate opposition to the thesis that television has a direct effect on American culture is the argument that television content simply mirrors the culture rather than changing it. Critics argue that television does not invent new content ideas that become incorporated into the culture as viewers adopt them. Rather, television gets its content directly from the culture and thus culture change was already underway. Television had little, if any, effect on the transforming of American culture. It only used what was already there.
Some critics also suggest that television viewers are more interested in the characters of a program than they are the cultural setting and environment of the program. Several studies have suggested that television programs develop groups of viewers who spend time talking about the characters and what they think will happen next in the program. For example, the program “Lost” that aired on ABC had such a following. Enthusiast of this program would spend hours talking in groups and online about what happened and what was going to happen next (Stipes, 2010). Rather than being impacted culturally by the program, the critics argue that viewers were caught up in identification with the characters and what they were doing on the program.
Finally, critics argue that the strength of television is its speed in covering current events and incorporating those into television programming. Television is concerning with getting information to viewers as quickly as possible, not with trying to bend and shape culture to suit the television industry. Any cultural impact that television has occurs because the content picked up on the culture to begin with, and all the program does is magnify that bit of culture.
Television does affect American culture. The effect may not be on a grand scale and it may be incremental in its impact, but there is little doubt that television helps to shape American culture. David Katzman (1998) argues that television creates illusions, and that in mirroring American life and culture, television deceives us into believing that we are viewing life through a looking glass when we watch television. Until recently, much of television content presented an America that as homogeneous, slow to change, white-centered and middle class, which was a distortion of American life, culture and society (Katzman, 1998). But just maybe that was how we wanted to see ourselves, even though we knew it was not consistent with the American life we lived.
- Gaskell, A. (2013). How Social Media Affects Our TV Viewing Habits. Technorati, Jan. 2.Retrieved from: http://technorati.com/social-media/article/how-social-media-affects-our-tv/
- Katzman, D. M. (1998). Television and American Culture. American Studies, 39: 2 (Summer). Retrieved from: https://hiyrbaks.ku.edu/index.php/amerstud/articles/viewFile/270612665
- Lule, J. (2016). Chapter 9: The Relationship Between Television and Culture. Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communications, v. 1.0. Flat World Education, Inc. Retrieved from: http://www.catalog.flatworldknoelrfhr.com/bookhub/reader/3833?e=lulemedia_1.0-ch09_s02.
- Neuman, R. (1982). Television and American Culture: The Mass Medium and the Pluralist Audience. Public Opinion Quarterly, 46: 471-487. Retrieved from: http://www.wrneuman.com/works/1982_pluralaudience.pdf
- Stripe, B. (2010). 10 Ways TV Has Changed American Culture. HowStuffWorks.com, Feb. 19.Retrieved from: http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/tv-and-culture/10-ways-tv-changed-american-culture.htm
- Taylor, J. (2009). Popular Culture: TV – and America – On the Couch. Psychology Today,Aug. 3. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200908/popular-culture-tv-and-america-the-couch