Report from the wasteland

March 03, 1992

The American Psychological Association recently discovered what many have long recognized: Television does not accurately portray the real world. The medium remains the "vast wasteland" critics dubbed it back in the 1950s.

The APA report, "Big World, Small Screen," reiterates much that was already known about the viewing audience. The average child watches television three hours a day and will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 violent crimes on television by adolescence. Low-income people watch television the most. People with less education watch more than the highly educated; blacks watch more than whites, boys watch more than girls, women watch more than men and the elderly watch more than any other age group.

What they watch, the researchers noted, is carefully crafted not to reflect their life experiences but rather to mesh with the sensibilities of a relatively small slice of affluent young adults who have enough money to buy sponsors' products. "So long as the primary goal of programming is to lure audiences to advertisements, the needs of many demographic and ethnic minorities will not be met," the report concluded.

The authors urged the Federal Communications Commission to return to the principle behind the 1934 Federal Communications Act requiring broadcasters to "serve the public interest, convenience and necessity" to keep their licenses.

Most of what passes for entertainment on television these days is boring, tendentious or inane. It also can be vicious in its stereotyping of women and racial and ethnic minorities. The APA lays these sins mainly to television's feverish chase for advertising dollars. But publicly funded educational television often seems subject to the same pitfalls.

If television is so bad, why do so many people watch it? Does this stem from a general loss of community, in which solitary viewing has replaced participation in the web of social and familial relationships that used to anchor individuals against a changing, impersonal world? If so, the fact that the "boob tube" has become for millions an electronic substitute for a satisfying social existence is a sad commentary on life in contemporary America.

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