Flicking Channels


July 09, 2012 20:32 EDT

In a time when we are consuming more television than ever, its influence on societal and cultural growth is of the utmost importance. Television, especially the way it depicts our reality, needs to be debated.

It’s a posture that familiar to us all: lounging on the sofa, idly channel hopping from re-run to re-run. But what is reality and what is fiction? “Candid Camera”, broadcasted in 1984, could probably claim to be the first ever “reality” TV show. It was a sort of innocent celebration of embarrassment but nevertheless funny. Television had discovered the power of showing people as…people. No scripts. No lines. Since then we have witnessed this format being harvested, perhaps to a questionable degree. “Survivor” and “Big Brother”, among others, have turned television into an exercise in voyeurism. Hyper-reality is reality based on fiction, a fiction being played by non-actors. These non-actors have become role models and living examples of Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. There is no humiliation capable of stopping these people doing what they have dreamed of: being famous. Despite the dubious quality of these shows and the principles they attend to and project to society, they have huge ratings.

In most homes, whether rich or poor, you will find a TV set. It is a window to the globe and an inexpensive form of entertainment: news, soap operas, films, documentaries cartoons, reality TV shows, pornography, contests, you name it.

But although content may be far-reaching, it is not boundless. Paradox lies at the heart of television today. Nudity scenes are banned, or at the very least strictly controlled, because they could psychologically harm some viewers. Yet a man being killed with a shot to the head and bleeding all over the screen is somehow more acceptable – and less lurid. It is an obscure paradigm which ought to be debated more than it really is, especially given the prominence TV has in our lives. The bulky cathode ray tube has given way to the sleek flatscreen, laptop, iPad, and smartphone, and we are consuming more television than ever. Every idle moment can become a viewing slot. This exposure will, and does, have a real effect on our outlook. This is particularly true for children, who are finding their footing in the world. They look beyond parents and peers as role models to the rich, beautiful and powerful who dominate our screens with those enviable traits that we idolise.

Being weary of the potentially detrimental effect of this medium is important. Sidney Lumet’s “Network” had already portrayed an incisive critique of what television is. The question is how dependent on it we really are and to what extent it is a damaging and controlling influence. Content certainly needs regulation but by whom? And on behalf of whose interests?

Our channel choices have vastly increased and so it is no longer a few organisations that hold the monopoly on our screens – or the rules. We even have a baby channel.  Is it acceptable to have a 24 hour channel geared towards an audience whose members have barely mastered the art of lifting their own heads? Superfluous it clearly is – a sign of a saturated market. A darker example of questionable content is the NBC show “To Catch a Predator” which “exposes” paedophiles, conveniently both an ethical mission and one that provides vicarious viewing pleasure. The format is quite simple: a man talks to someone he believes to be an underage girl on the internet and, with the promise of a sexual encounter, they arrange to meet. In doing so, he unwittingly stumbles into a reality show and within a few minutes the hook-up is descended upon by a TV presenter, camera crew and the police, and it is all neatly broadcasted as a moral triumph.

The process of watching TV has also been criticised. To a certain extent, TV fulfils the need of posing questions, or some sort of emptiness. Because of this many claim that television has been numbing our senses. But this doesn’t take into account two important roles of television. It can keep lonely people company, and is not only a remedy for physical loneliness but also for those who seek comfort in characters and fantasy, or old people dying in their living rooms. It also has a socialising effect. The feared zombie-like effect of the “goggle box” forgets human beings’ gregariousness. The ubiquity of television has not isolated us, instead we have made it a part of our social lives. Watching TV is, for many of us, a bonding activity, as film nights, movie marathons or sharing a pint in front of the game with friends can testify to.

To put it simply, television entertains. It helps us to disconnect, fall asleep or simply laugh. Its goes beyond the mere goal of education.

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