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By Ammon Pate

Have you ever thought about how much television you watch? Have you ever considered how much television can affect your mind and even your body? The answer to both questions may be more than you think.

The following statistics are very important as they illustrate the level of involvement that we all have with television.

In 1990 the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that 99.5 percent of homes in the U.S. that have electricity, also have television sets. Virtually every person in the U.S. has access to television. More importantly though, this statistic shows that the powerful and the few people that control what is on television, have access to the minds of everyone in this country. According to the A.C. Nielsen Company, 95 percent of the U.S. population watches some amount of television every day. Nearly every person in the United States gets a daily dose of television, which shows how much of a habit the medium has become for the citizens of this country. The A.C. Nielsen Company also reports that the average American home has a television on for nearly eight hours a day. The average American adult watches nearly five hours of television per day. The average child between the age of two and five watches about three and one half hours per day. And the average adult over 55 watches for almost six hours a day.

You may be thinking "But I’m not the average American!", which is more than likely a true statement. But when you really think about how much television you watch, the hours really add up.

By the time you get home from a rough day at the local college, you are both physically and mentally exhausted. What better way to relax than to sprawl out on the crusty green couch and watch hoochies ‘dis’ each other on Rikki Lake? Next comes the oh so humble Oprah, then the early news, a couple hours of sitcoms and maybe an hour long drama. In between refrigerator breaks you realize that you just wasted several hours of your life on "Married with Children" or "Melrose Place". But now the ten o’clock news is on and you need to see the weather for tomorrow. After the news you quickly grab some Cheetos and chocolate milk as you scamper up the stairs to your room. You make it just in time to see Kathy Lee plug her Christmas Special on David Letterman.

Obviously this is a big exaggeration for most of us, but the fact still remains that we spend a large amount of our lives sitting in front of a television screen. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the main activity of life for Americans, aside from work or sleep, has become television (Boswell, Hatch, Mander 438).

The convenience of television probably has a lot to do with why we watch so much of it. How much easier is it to quietly sit and watch television than to read a book or newspaper? Television requires virtually no thinking, watching television is a passive activity. While watching television we are shown images accompanied by sounds and dialogue, this leaves no need for us to use any imagination or reasoning.

In order to understand how and why television affects us, it is important to have a basic understanding of how a television set works. Philo Farnsworth was a farmer who also had a great understanding of electronics. One day after plowing his field in Iowa, he noticed the neat lines he had cut through his field. He then realized that magnetic fields could direct a beam of electrons across an image, one line at a time, and the resulting signals, fired at an electron-sensitive screen, would mesh so fast that the human eye would perceive a continuous picture (Rogers 49). To be more exact, the images we see on the television screen are flashing at a rate of 30 times per second. Cathode-ray guns in the back of the television create the beam of electrons that is fired at phosphors inside the television screen. These guns are powered by 25,000 volts in color television sets. When the cathode rays hit the phosphors in the screen, they glow red, green, and blue and a moving picture is shown on the screen. This is the same way that flourescent light is produced, television light is flourescent light.

Dr. John Ott, founder of the Environmental Health and Light Research Institute, did many studies on the effects of flourescent light on lab mice (Mander 174). In an experiment involving 300 cancer-sensitive mice, Ott found the following rates of survival for mice exposed to different forms of light. Mice exposed only to ordinary daylight had a 97% rate of survival, exposure to all flourescents showed a 88% survivorship, and exposure to pink flourescent light yielded a 61% rate of survival. Also under pink flourescent light, many mice developed tumors and died, others tails withered and fell off. Mice were kept under dark blue flourescent light and the cholesterol levels of the mice rose sharply. Interestingly, male mice became obese and females did not.

John Ott also experimented with other animals. Red light was found to weaken and rupture the heart cells of chick embryos. Other light changes caused aggressiveness, hyperactive behavior, aimlessness and disorientation, as well as changes in sexual patterns among mice, rats and other animals (Mander 175).

The types and amounts of light that we ingest have great effects on our bodies. For millions of years natural light was the only type of light that we were exposed to. Our bodies evolved to use natural light for our benefit. Only very recently have our primary sources of light become artificial. It would be very illogical to assume that this change has not had a significant effect on us. Compare the light we absorb to the food that we eat. Imagine that you stopped eating all fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and meats. In place of these foods you began eating only pasta, sugary cereals, and candy. Both of these groups are still food but they are of totally different varieties. You could survive on either group, but not without your health being affected. Over time, if you ate only food in the latter group, you would develop deficiencies in certain nutrients and protein. It is almost the same with light, the change from natural to almost entirely artificial light can and will affect you over a period of time.

Author and expert on the effects television has on us, Jerry Mander kept a record of more than two thousand phrases that people he talked with used to describe their television viewing experiences. Some of the most common descriptions were; "I feel hypnotized when I watch television," "I feel like it’s brainwashing me," "My kids look like zombies when they are watching," "If a television is on, I just can’t keep my eyes off it," "television is making people stupid,"

These descriptions are not all that inaccurate, in fact some are quite accurate. The flashing of the television screen at 30 times per second does in fact have a hypnotizing effect on viewers according to some leading psychologists with backgrounds in hypnotism. The environment that watching television creates, dark room, eyes still, sedentary body, flickering light, sound contained to a narrow range, is conducive to a trans.

The longer a person watches television, the more likely they are to be put into a trans-like state and the more likely that their minds will slip into alpha mode. Alpha is the term used by scientist who study brainwave activity for a noncognitive, passive, receptive mode. While in alpha the mind is open for information to be placed into it.

One of the reasons that the mind slips into alpha mode while watching television is due to the lack of eye movement while watching television. Because most television screens are relatively small, very little eye movement is required to absorb all of the images on the screen. There is a direct correlation between eye movement and thought stimulation.

While one’s mind is in alpha mode, it is being taken advantage of by advertisers who are using the mind’s receptive mode to instill a desire for their product in the viewer.

The only reason that television programs exist is to sell them to advertisers who want to show their advertisements to the mass of people watching television. The average American sees approximately 21,000 commercials per year. That’s 21,000 carefully planned and thought out messages repeating their message to you, buy something now!

According to Advertising Age, about 75 percent of commercial network television time is payed for by the 100 largest corporations in the United States. There are presently about 450,000 corporations in this country, yet only the 100 largest decide what you and I see on television every day. The way that corporations exercise control over the content of television is very subtle. When a television producer is deciding what shows to produce and present to an audience and to sponsors, he must make certain that the programming does not have anything that would go against the interests of the corporate sponsor. The result is programs, including news shows, that are censored for anything contradictory to the best interests of the sponsors. The goal and purpose of television is to deliver you to a sponsor.

It would not make sense for a corporation like General Electric (which owns NBC) to allow news to be presented that would jeopardize business in any way. During the Persian Gulf War, the news media was presenting very pro-war stories and points of view. A great deal of attention was given to our superior war technology and to our military strategies. Incidentally, General Electric manufactured many of the planes and weapons used in the Gulf War, it makes sense that a positive spin would be put on the war.

At the same time the news was thrilling us with live video of our missiles hitting their targets perfectly, there were anti-war protests going on. The evening news gave very little attention to opponents of the war and the U.S. involvement in the Gulf. Everyone seemed to be surprised when public opinion polls showed that there was such great support for the war. How could anyone have any other opinion? We were constantly reminded that we were doing a good deed and some were convinced that our government had no ulterior motives.

In the Persian Gulf, there was a news blackout during the invasion of Iraq. Also, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney devised a policy of holding battlefield correspondents under surveillance, restricting their access to combatants and censoring their reports. This policy continued long after there was any question of operational security, and its clear goal was to shape American political opinion about the war (Military Censorship 1).

Of course all the news we see is not manipulated by networks and corporate sponsors. With certain stories you must look elsewhere to hear both sides of the story. Print media and radio news usually have differing viewpoints and both are easily accessible. Television is a much easier way to get news, and as a result we often get controlled and censored reports.

This is not totally limited to network television, corporations also give grants to public television. During the Reagan administration, there were cutbacks in federal aid for public television. As a result, big companies stepped in and provided money for the programming. The commercials for sponsors between shows are getting longer as the donations get bigger. Masterpiece Theatre is now known as Mobil Masterpiece Theatre. There may not be much for sponsors to disagree with on Nature or Nova, but there are plenty of news programs and political talk shows on public television that may be influenced by sponsors.

Have you ever noticed how children watch television? They way they watch their favorite shows surprised me when I started paying attention to how they watch. I expected to see excited kids talking with each other as Spiderman catches the bad guys after school. I expected at least some reaction to what was going on in their favorite show. Instead I was surprised to see that the kids seemed to be totally absorbed by the show and entirely oblivious to anything else going on around them. If you watch closely, you may begin to notice that children imitate their favorite television characters. I can remember wanting to be just like He-Man, I tried to walk and talk like him and I often role played scenes from the television show with my friends. This occurrence is not limited to young children. How many 14 year-olds have you wanted to knock out because they would not stop trying to laugh and talk like Beavis and Butthead?

Humans learn by imitation, it is the most fundamental way of gaining knowledge. Babies learn to speak, walk, eat and everything else by imitating parents and others. This continues into adulthood. Whenever we are being taught something, we are shown how it is done and then we imitate what we just saw. It is against all logic to say that we don’t imitate to a certain degree, the images we see on television. We are constantly shown the latest clothing styles, the latest, most popular music, the coolest lingo to use and many other things by the media. A surprising amount of young people and adults imitate what they see on television.

Are the images we see on television every day teaching us anything positive? Would you want your children to emulate the stereotypical characters they see on the evening sitcoms? How selective are young children about what and who they imitate?

Children’s television keeps growing and growing, and as networks and sponsors see this trend continuing, they are targeting children more specifically (Mifflin 1). We already know how much television can impact children because of the amount of imitation kids participate in but what about the effects of advertising? Networks and sponsors are eager to give children what they want in television because by showing children’s shows they can concentrate their advertisements on the young viewers. It is not difficult to realize some of the effects advertisements have on kids. "I want that!" is often blurted out by young children after a commercial for a new toy. Action figures based on popular kids shows are doubly desirable for children. Toy companies certainly know what children want, or do they tell children what to want? In either case, you can see junior yanking on Mother’s tired arm and pointing to the newest X-Men action figure in your local toy store.

There are plenty of very good shows on television, but how many times have you watched Nova this month? Educational programs for children are not necessarily on because they are getting good ratings, they are mandated by the government and the FCC.

It would be a good thing if everyone used television more for education and information and less for entertainment and amusement. Not that there is anything wrong with entertainment but television is more than that.

The very act of watching television greatly and adversely affects the mind. Since television images move more quickly than a viewer can react, one has to chase afer them with the mind. This leaves no way of breaking the contact and therefore bo way to comment upon the information as it passes in (Mander 197). So you meet the television on it’s own terms, you cannot control the speed at which you receive the images and consequently this inhibits thinking, reasoning, and analyzing. The opposite is true of reading, you read at your own pace, you may reread and contemplate what you have read. By watching television, you are engaging a machine that does all the necessary visualization, dialogue, and mood for you. This leaves no room for your own interpretation of the events taking place on the screen, all the work is done for you. All you need to do is sit back and absorb the light. While reading you must do all of the visualization and imagination yourself. Reading involves much more eye movement and thus more brain activity than watching television. It is virtually impossible for the mind to be in the alpha mode while reading.

American television has a great effect on the people that watch it. I can not help but wonder if television is a reflection of us or if we are a reflection of television. If television has such a big effect on us then how does it affect the millions of foreign peoples that watch American television every day? In many foreign governments, leaders are trying to limit the amount of American television that is made available to their citizens. In China they are trying to outlaw satellite dishes that are picking up American shows. The leaders are attempting to halt the ‘spiritual pollution’ that American television brings. The amount of satellite dishes in China has actually gone up since the crackdown. In many European countries the governments are limiting the amount of American television that is shown on local television stations. But in Iran the government is hesitant to end access to American television because of the fear theat citizens would be very angered that they could not watch "Dallas". Our television programs are imposing western values on entirely different cultures that may find our culture offensive or disrespectful. That could be one of the reasons that Middle Eastern nations have a generally negative view of Americans. Our television satellite broadcasts also send a false message about the American way of life. To a family in South America watching reruns of Beverly Hills 90210, that is the lifestyle that Americans have. In many countries it is accepted that in America everyone has a swimming pool, wears expensive clothes, and drives luxurious cars, and we are known to be fairly promiscuous. Of course these are huge misconceptions, but to those who don’t know otherwise, they are fact. America’s most potent export is, was and always will be its popular culture (MTV Rules 1). Since people tend to emulate what they see on television, our beaming of American television programs to other countries could eventually lead to a sort of monoculture in the world.

To me there seems to be a great number of reasons not to watch any television, but it seems to have become such a part of our culture that it is most likely here to stay. I feel that it would be very beneficial to significantly reduce the amount of television we watch and to be selective when we do watch. How much time does a busy college student have to waste anyway? There are plenty of other things to do with your time, it just takes more effort. We should be in the habit of asking ourselves if there is anything better that we could be doing before we grab the remote.

 

Works Cited

Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television New York: Quill, 1978

Rogers, Adam. Television. Newsweek Extra winter 1997-98 p. 49