What TV Does to You

While television viewing, especially by children, is a favorite bugaboo — it turns your mind to mush, it makes you violent, etc., etc., etc. — there’s a growing body of research suggesting that much of TV’s bad reputation is undeserved.

Especially when it comes to educational TV, this would seem to make sense, at least on one level. Just think all of the resources devoted to creating the TV programs that are delivered into your child’s home for a few pennies. All the writers, producers, actors, editors, etc., who create Sesame Street, for instance, work for thousands of collective man hours just so your little one can view an hour of coherent edutainment. Whereas when that little one tots off to nursery school, he’s competing with lots of other kids for very limited teacher time.

That said, in the wonderful new memoir The Crowd Sounds Happy, by Nicholas Dawidoff (disclosure: he’s a friend; but the book is still wonderful), there’s one of the most cogent arguments against TV viewing I’ve ever seen:

That last year in New Haven, I could go out to friends’ houses more or less when I wanted to and watch television as often as I liked, only to find that now I agreed with my mother about TV. I had begun not to like what happened to me when I watched.

Given the chance, I stared like a guppy, immobilized for hours in somebody’s den on an increasingly itchy wall-to-wall carpet, intent on things I didn’t even enjoy, passive and yet also anxious, too aware of how soon the hour would be up when the little world in front of me would evaporate and I’d have nothing left but an uneasy regret and another new show beginning that I couldn’t get up and walk away from.

It was so easy not to resist because television was doing all the work for me, making all the decisions. That was especially true, I noticed, when I watched baseball. The field became reduced to the fragment that fit on the screen, minimizing the game into a fraction of itself, implying that everything happening off-camera was irrelevant. The players were minimized as well, because they did not exist unless the ball came their way. Then the lens swooped into their faces and there was too much of them — which weirdly created distance.


Do the people who hate tv also hate "film"? I doubt it, and thats because they're idiots. You might as well be opposed to the idea of magazines. Find a more modern pretension.


David Foster Wallace - you might have seen his name in the news, he died recently - has an interesting essay on this topic, titled "E Unibus Pluram". You can read the full essay here: http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-5495526_ITM

Wallace is a writer, and he is particularly interested in the TV phenomenon for the way it relates to themes in fiction writing, but he also analyzes the type of culture which tends to come through the TV and comes to some interesting conclusions. I'm not done with the whole essay yet, but the part I've read leads me to think some here will find it useful.

Rachel Cohen

Most teachers don't have the creativity or intelligence that the creators of Disney channel or any other television programming. If they did, they wouldn't have majored in education. PBS programming is largely produced by people who can't cut it in the competitive world of "real TV."

TV is like any other form of entertainment--it's a side dish, a leisure past-time. It's not meant to be anyone's sole activity.

Grumpyoldlady is exactly right.

Kenan Marlin

I have had many "Kill your TV" friends. One of them always harped on the evils of commercials. It occurred to me one day that if an individual has that much difficulty resisting the pressure to by Charmin then perhaps they had bigger problems to worry about. This of course is no different. TV like candy or snack food or drugs affects people differently. Some can walk away from it and some can't. Many greatly benefit from the wealth of information offered on the TV, I included. I was always amazed when so few children at school knew certain things that seemed at the time like something we all should know. (Particularly animal behaviors, thanks Wild Kingdom.) What I later realized was that I was learning a huge inventory of info from TV. Clearly there are those amongst us that cannot control their minds to the same degree and fall prey to others. (drugs, cults, alien abductions, hypnotism, and TV are all part of this spectrum.)

Fortunately the evil little box come with an off button, so before you begin proceedings to regulate it do us all a favor and just use the button.

Thank you.



One thing these anti-TV people never seem to say is what level of attention constitutes "watching" television. Is a child "watching" television if the TV is on while the child plays a game, draws a picture etc. and pays intermittent attention to the set? Ditto for grownups. For me "watching" TV is what I do with my eyes and the other half of my mind while I have something else in my hands - ironing, sewing, knitting. If there's nothing on TV worth watching, I generally don't do those things - I gravitate back to the computer, or pick up a book, and my projects don't get done. People talk about "watching" TV as though it's synonymous with slack-jawed stupor when in reality it's more like what Marshall McLuhan called "audible wallpaper." Before we blindly accept anybody's comments on the deleterious effects of TV viewing, they need to specify what level of attention they're talking about.



Jack Kerouac, I think it was, made first mention of the blue screen (of death?). His epiphany --- that it can't be healthy for a society when the vast majority of people are parked in front of the tube, having the same thoughts (and thoughts of no consequence at that), day in and day out. (What is the cost to GDP of so much mental downtime?) Of course, the effect was even more pronounced in the '50s, with only 3 channels. But reflect on it. Most of the country simply turns on (and turns off) when prime time rolls around. ... If, like me, you wonder how, after 8 years of the most egregious mismanagement, the GOP has a shred of support left in this country, don't touch that dial! .... Aside from whatever "brainwashing" function is performed by media in unconscious service to social stability, TV's effect is to offer a comfy alternate reality, like heroine, to the one where faux conservatives trample the Constitution and spend the middle class into destitution. Unplug, tune out, drop in ... the televised will definitely not be revoluting.



I watch baseball (in season) and PBS. Love the baseball, arts, science of TV. I get news from the internet, NYT, WSJ and Washington Post. I've raised (successfully - 3 college grads and gainfully employed) boys and that's what we all watched as they grew up. If you watch junk....like politics, that's what you deserve.

and by

The real question is why is the Annenberg and NASA channel so terrible? It should be exactly everything that is good about TV educational, entertaining, exploration (Why do so many good things start with E)


I agree with Peke-CMS (#22) - both negative and positive sides. negative for the over use coarse language, violence which is terrible for little youngsters. however, i think television can give us hope. Some might respond to that as having no life, escaping from real life problems, rather than dealing with them and fix it, or try to make it better. But people need breaks, sometimes, one cant think under too much pressure, need to sit in the park and day dream all day, or watch happy ending movies/shows, comedies and get hope from it, something like, alcoholics anonymous. One can relate characters or situation in that TV show and adapt things from it.


I have to agree with the fact that television affects the minds of its viewers in a greatly negative way. Most television channels are not-news related, violent, and of true pervertedness. With this, there is no regulation whats so ever. Therefore children under 10 will be watching television for those over 20... This corrupts society's minds.

On the contrary, one can learn great information and entertainment from numerous news channels that are nutritive and informative.


Sesame Street is not a good show to watch if you want your kids to learn anything concrete. Its fast paced images and disconnected stories do nothing but confuse kids. Shows like Barney, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and Blues Clues are better - the entire show is based on one theme, the pace is methodical and repetition of routine is consistent.

Avoid Sesame Street.


Amen to #18. How can Jeopardy be bad for you? I will admit to having experienced "TV hypnosis" as described in the article, but generally I'm like Todd in #14--I put something on when I want to watch it (HOORAY FOR TIVO), and when it's over, I go do something else. Maybe it's like alcohol: some people can handle it without getting addicted, some people can't.


Yeah, baseball on television would be so much better if they just threw a camera in the upper deck and let everyone be in frame so that I didn't forget that they exist. Heaven forbid I might miss a right fielder standing around adjusting his jockstrap or something. Plus, this way instead of seeing what is going on I could use my imagination to decide what pitches the ant-sized pitcher is throwing, and when there are controversial umpire calls I don't exert any energy by jumping out of my chair yelling "HE WAS SAFE!"

To Davidoff: It kind of sounds like you were watching a celebreality marathon on VH1. Perhaps that was the problem.

Higher Horse

htb (#16) I'm sorry you shudder when you walk past a TV. It must be hell for you to live in this society. Your lifestyle is very limiting on who you can befriend or have a wonderful relationship with.

The Chairman of Mensa recently listed the top 10 "smartest" TV shows of all time, though you would probably write them off without a thought. Mensa folks in general love TV, and they can moderate their watching habits.

I'm sorry you will never experience the joys of Carl Sagan on Cosmos, the thrill of a Star Wars caliber special effects film in THX surround sound, or the challenge of testing your knowledge while watching Jeopardy.

You may read a lot, but the tv/video/film medium has so much to offer, and deserves its place in a fulfilled life.

Open your mind, try some balance in your entertainment, and see how your life improves. You're smart. I think you can handle it.

High Horse

#2, please don't think you've accomplished something just because you don't own a TV. If you choose to surf the web, watch The Daily Show and watch Family Guy on your computer, your decisions are at net worse than a person who watches similar hours of PBS and The Learning Channel every day.

There is very little difference between the computer screen and the TV screen. It's all about the content,


Dave (#15), I'm sorry that you live with those nasty blinking blaring boxes going all the time. As a non-television person, I find them unbelievably disruptive. Perhaps we could reach a compromise: you teach your son what a few hours of silence is like each day, and I'll suppress the shudder when I walk past those boxes.

I loathe television. Some aspects of some stories interest me, but overall I loathe the medium and would much prefer to see the short story written out. In the pre-Tivo era, the expectation that you would shape your real life around the broadcast schedule was also very irritating. I find the advertisements disruptive (and I know that they are effective, which further irritates me. I'll take my entertainment without someone trying to pry money out of my pocketbook, thank you).

I don't go to the movies either; my need for any sort of pre-programmed, non-interactive screen is limited to about one or two DVDs a year (most recently "The Princess Bride"), usually when I'm sick.

Having said that, I think I understand why I don't like it: my IQ is above 150. Television programs are written for an IQ of 90 (and an average working memory, for those what that means).

Television does not turn your brains into mush, but it is an excellent discriminator (particularly for men). The more television you watch, the lower your IQ. You can ask people how much television they watch, and pretty accurately classify their intellectual (but not social or moral) talents.

I would absolutely ban shows and videos directed at babies and toddlers (the research is clear: it's much worse than all of the alternatives), but if an adult wants to sit in front of a television, then it's no skin off my nose.



The people who get stuck in front of a TV like drooling idiots are the ones who never built up a tolerance to it. My son ignores TV because there's always one on everywhere in the house.

His friends, whose parents never let the watch TVs at all, cannot walk by a TV without stopping and staring at it like a deer in the headlights.

Think of the disservice those parents are doing to their children. Those kids will be forever ensnared in TV since they had no training on how to live with it.


My advice: Don't watch the news.

Htb...that conversation could have been about jam, and she was so not listening to you. She wanted to have a nice conversation about her show whether you participated or not. (I work with people like that.)


"Given the chance, I stared like a guppy, immobilized for hours in somebody's den on an increasingly itchy wall-to-wall carpet, intent on things I didn't even enjoy, passive and yet also anxious, too aware of how soon the hour would be up when the little world in front of me would evaporate and I'd have nothing left but an uneasy regret and another new show beginning that I couldn't get up and walk away from."

Cogent? This man apparently (1) watched shows he "didn't even enjoy", (2) sat on the floor while doing it, (3) has some sort of anxiety problem with switching contexts between fantasy and reality, and (4) lacks the discipline to budget a finite amount of time to entertainment. (I'm lazy myself, but I don't find it hard to turn off the television when a show is over, there's typically nothing else worth watching.)

Is this an argument that condemns television viewing in general, or just for those people who face an array of personal challenges amplified by this particular medium?

"The field became reduced to the fragment that fit on the screen, minimizing the game into a fraction of itself, implying that everything happening off-camera was irrelevant. The players were minimized as well, because they did not exist unless the ball came their way."

I like going to baseball games, but when I'm there I don't focus my attention on the right fielder while he's spitting, adjusting his cup, and waiting ten minutes for a ball to be hit in his direction. Granted, the choice for me to do so technically does exist. I still view live sports attendance as a form of entertainment on the same order of passivity as television.

Is the aggrandizement of "camera pointed away from fielder" equated with an ontological notion of nonexistence really necessary?



Jonathan #9 - TV requires no upfront investment if you have one.

And David #1, Vin Scully broadcasting paint drying is better than any TV.