Thursday, August 14, 2008

More On Television and Propaganda

OTM readers checked in with some very thoughtful responses to yesterday's When Societies Watch Too Much Television. I recommend reading each comment, as each takes a different point of view on issues which I consider of the greatest long-term import. My comments follow.

First up, Michael S.:

I hate to use the phrases 'immune to violence' or 'numbed down to violence' and I offer this explanation: consider having popcorn and caffinated soda at the movies; The soda and popcorn go to work and get you artificially high while you're watching stuff that should get you artificially depressed.

In my case, it took me a long time to separate "feeling good" from "violence" but, having done that, life has become so much more joyful as the caffinated and carb induced highs no longer model violence in my mind and I say "model" since few Americans really have first hand experience with violence. That's why movies are pieces of propaganda since they implant artificial realities.

Moreover, video games are probably crack since they "reward players" who become violent; perhaps, later in life, this sort of propaganda justifies our paychecks even when we're cruel.
Hence, the "numbing down" phrase is almost skewed since individuals are brainwashed into believe that money (reward) is the main object and violence is appropriate dance to get it.

Arthur V. made some cogent comments on the myth of "rugged individualism":

I particularly enjoyed today's blog post. It touches on an area of particular interest to me which I may have mentioned to you before, the whole "rugged individualist" myth. It's my belief that - deliberately or inadvertently - it is a form of control, since it seems to suggest that "real men don't form unions" because if you're really a success you should be able to do it on your own, just like the men who won the West with nothing more than their strength and determination and a little help from Messrs. Colt and Winchester. People working together can effect genuine political change, so it's better to keep them apart. And even better if you can make them think it's their idea to stay apart.

My son, who watches almost no television (though he does see movies), feels a story can't be good unless it has a "bad guy." But then, he's 10. Isn't it a bit absurd that films and television aimed squarely at adults - 24 comes to mind - still subscribe to this puerile approach to storytelling? What's perhaps even more absurd is that audiences seem to lap it up. It all comes from the same mythos - a simplified version of real life in which a single man can overcome seemingly overwhelming odds and prevail against evil, generally personified as a "bad guy."

Presumably such mindless pap is appealing because it distracts us from the reality of a vague yet palpable feeling that things are not going well, and they are getting worse rather than better. Why worry about that when you can just kick some bad guy @$$ and fix everything? John H. provided an insightful rebuttal to the entry, titled "Television isn't evil, the audience is":
Your last article on Television was so off base I feel compelled to respond, especially since I work in TV, and proudly sell the oft-demonized 'advertising,' usually to small, local businesses competing with large multinational conglomerates.

First off, TV is nothing but a medium, it is inherently amoral. As a unidirectional medium, it has inherent advantages and disadvantages. However, while the content is delivered one way, the determination of what that content will be is also unidirectional---in the exact opposite direction.
While 'new media' often speak of monopolies in the 'old media,' there is actually only one true monopoly in the TV business-the ratings agency Nielsen Media Research.

Most Americans are at least vaguely familiar with Nielsen. What most don't understand is that all advertising rates are set based strictly on the size of the audience within a few key demographics, which are based almost exclusively on age.

The two key viewing demographics are adults aged 18-49 and adults aged 25-54.
So, for a television network to make money from advertisers (TV is after all, free to the end user, at least the major broadcast networks), they must attempt to garner the largest share of audience based WHOLLY on age.

Put another way, TV is the most democratic medium there is, the majority is completely in control of the content that they will receive. The content that they request IS extremely troubling to most minority groups: political, racial, sexual, financial (above average wealth), educated people, and any social subset that isn't large enough to move the dial.

In fact, PBS and community television are heavily subsidized for precisely this reason: their audiences are small enough that they need not only semi-annual fundraisers, but also government funding to put out a product for such a small base of viewers.

If I may suggest, we don't like the content of TV because it reflects back who we are as a people--the content is delivered that we the people demand.

If you'd like more diversity of voice and opinion on TV, it would be necessary to break up the only true media monopoly, Nielsen. Competition for how audiences are measured would provide a host of other demographics for advertisers to study: Sex, education, political preference, ethnicity, geographical location, etc.

If I may leave you with a few more points, I'd like to point out that you run your site much like a TV network. 'Comments' on individual posts are conspicuously absent from your site, and while you accept reader feedback, you ultimately run the show by filtering what comes back at your readers. This is healthy and proper, and more and more necessary as you serve larger and larger audiences. I hope your readership grows one hundred fold, but if it did, you'd have a hard time even filtering through "Reader Essays" and the like, and I suspect you'd struggle with maintaining two-way communication, as many super-successful blogs do.

My suggestions are not a panacea nor will they solve many of the very real problems of TV, but you've confused the symptom with the disease.

FWIW, I count myself among one of the elites not served by the medium I represent, but I am also deeply suspicious of deciding what the masses need, as opposed to what they want, for entertainment.

Also, I really only watch comedies as I think most TV dramas are disgusting, and as a young teen, my mother would let me watch movies with sex in them, but not violence. After all, people have sex every day, but I rarely encounter a shooting in my day-to-day life.

Anne S. provided this excellent overview of issues my entry barely touched:
Children, TV and the Lone Ranger.

The effect of viewing TV, short or long term, on children has been much debated. On the one hand, temporary effects for specific behaviors have been noted (see also Charles' post), on the other, some studies - these are of course harder to publish - find no, or minuscule, effects. The main difficulties of such studies are: What does one measure, and what do the measurements mean? How to ascribe cause to long-term (noted?) effects?

Sociologists and the like have pointed out it is a bit of a vain exercise. To consider only violence: A violent society, use of physical, verbal, sexual, psychological, violence either to shock, attract notice, or presented as a method to triumph, a way of getting ahead, conquering and rising, or even as as way to whip up hate (recruits in armies, all the glorification, etc. ) spawns violent fiction, media, discourse. The society is mirrored by the TV, and the TV presents a summarized, stereotyped vision of society - it tells people what the world is (or should be), and so it is impossible to sort out the 'effect of television' as it is but one specific strand.

Cultural studies people often argued that the line between fiction/drama/wish-fulfillment/exaggeration/fantasy, etc. and 'reality' (whatever that might be as humans act on, and in, a symbolic construction of the world) have shifted.

In the 'past', people stayed anchored in their daily lives, used common sense, and were more constrained by normative rules. They did not emulate, or use as models, or directly 'copy' actions and events in, for example the Bible, in novels, Shakespeare, 30s movies, Westerns, or science fiction, just to provide a mix. The separation between pretense, acting, alternative worlds, and non-productive activity (such as games) and tasks in the real world was more clearly set, if only by group organization and the timing of events.

For example, all sitting together in front of the a stage is not the same thing as being able to turn on a TV whenever one wishes. In short, these arguments are tied to the rise of leisure time and the passive spectator, economic surplus, the individualization of society, and so on. (All this of course applies to the 'West.')

Publicists, advertisers, opinion manipulators, and those who study them such as social psychologists have invoked the growing use of media, particularly in this case, TV, as a means of influence, that passed gradually from taking over part of what newspapers and radio did (news, music, etc.) and presenting to larger audience previous real-life shows - the stand up comedian - to become a primary tool of propaganda, indoctrination and marketing. A tool not only to sell soap, but to influence world views (e.g. politics) and behavior (e.g. not joining a union).

Within this view, school-age children are a primary target, as they are the potential future innovators, rebels, and leaders. They are also, of course, big spenders: 25% or more for them or decided by them in an average EU budget. (The number is rough.) Some in this tradition add that models in real life are lacking and children turn to the TV to discover not just what is cool but how to behave and what to believe.

A few papers by cognitive psychologists have made a link between ADHD and early TV viewing. (emphasis added: CHS) Form, not content; the arguments have to do with visual input and the growing brain. The present, overly prudent, counsel is that children under 36 months should not watch displays on TV type screens at all. These studies may suffer from the snarl of the X factor. Correlations between child TV viewing habits (time spent and choice) and soci0-economic level are staggeringly strong. More poor, more TV; it is impossible to partial out the different effects.

The most down-to-earth arguments... Time sitting mesmerized on a sofa eating crisps and drinking pop (obesity) is time subtracted from other pursuits. And average viewing time amounts to a full time job, in hours! Lost to working, producing, interacting with others, moving, playing, building, running around, creating, growing, learning, acquiring skills. It is a badly hidden secret that educational level, all over the West, has sunk, for primary school children, by about a year since 1970 or so.

So, to the wider economic and cultural implications. The TV provides a free babysitter, while both parents must work. Even paid babysitters (creches, etc.) use it to have a break - they are underpaid and deserve that little slice of freedom. Children are put into deep freeze until they can become productive workers in the present scheme of things. Fantasies of the Lone Ranger, condemned at every turn by the people who have authority over them, will have to do. Lastly, as TV is on the whole considered 'bad for children' why does it continue to be used more and more?

Alan D. offered this cogent observation:

One thing I'd add, there is the even more subtle effect in that TV simply changes what we think about how to communicate with others in mundane everyday life.
For instance, my ex girlfriend and I started watching Sopranos a few years back, and w/in weeks everything was f' this and f' that.

Or note how people commmunicate w/ others in situation comedies, every second line is a zinger, an insult, a one upper or a put downer. You rarely see any healthy communication such as praise, support, gratitude or the like.

When you go out in the world you can easily identify the people who get their cues from this kind of TV behaviour. Thank you, readers, for such insightful comments. Here are my brief comments.

1. The physiological effects/brain chemistry of consuming sugar and passively watching TV are not yet fully known--but what we do know is entirely negative. As I mentioned yesterday, reading a book or listening to a story is quantitatively different from watching a visual inactment on a screen--especially when it triggers our "looky-lou" reaction via mayhem and sex.

2. Anne S. raises some very serious points about our society's deployment of TV as babysitter and chief "socializing tool". Watching "Sesame Street" is an entirely different experience than watching Saturday cartoons or other commercial broadcasts for the simple reason that the overwhelming meta-message of commercial broadcast is that one's worth and identity are entirely dependent on what we buy and consume.

3. She also raises a subtle issue of authenticity. Due to its visual power and ubiquity (do kids spend 8 hours a day reading? No.) TV has the ability to substitute simulacrums of experience for actual experience. As I wrote in my my new book, Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis: Actual living-in-the-world is replaced with highly stimulating, highly emotional simulations which, once planted and nurtured by repetition, are then 'experienced' as authentic.

Put another way: what do young female tweens learn watching Hannah Montana, whose expression toggles back and forth between only two emotions: cheery happiness (at someone's success) and sadness (at a misunderstanding, etc.) There is no resentment, anger, puzzlement, empathy, greed, ennui, depression, etc. The entire range of female emotions have been reduced to two "allowed/approved" emotions. Anything else is either inauthentic or disapproved.
Yes, there are ads on the Web and in print, and they communicate the same consumer value system: but their influence on young minds is nowhere equal to TV.

4. John H. brings up a key issue: viewer choice. But the problem is "choice" in the media and marketing is circular: you only get to pick from a pre-selected list. Take a focus group and ask them to pick their "dream car" or "dream house." Unsurprisingly, they pick what they already know, a model or type which they have been told via endless adverts and meta-messages is wonderful.

You will not get many consumers saying their dream car is the "1-Liter" small car which gets 200 miles to the gallon because they've never seen it or heard of it. And so the consumers "choose" what was already chosen for them. That's circular.

There is much more to say on this critical issue, but we'll stop here for today.

Thank you, Steve M. ($20), for your much-appreciated donation to this site-- and for your encouraging (and witty) comments. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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