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Television’s “Good News”

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There is a posting in Tuesday's Canada.com entertainment section concerning a recent University of Maryland study on television. Commenting on how the study asserts that television makes viewers unhappy, Alex Strachan writes:

The study's conclusion is that TV has addictive qualities, and that viewers addicted to TV share behavioral traits with those who are prone to substance abuse, "since addictive activities produce momentary please but long-term misery and regret. People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged, with TV becoming an opiate."

The point Strachan misses is that the purpose of television is to make us unhappy and then to provide solutions to our discomforts through advertising. As former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson pointed out nearly 40 years ago, the viewer is not the consumer of television, he is the product, offered to advertisers at a cost per thousand. (see his book, How To Talk Back to Your Television Set).

Without the bad news of "news", the end-of-the-world melodramas of "dramas" or the embarrassment provoking unlikelihoods of "comedies," advertisers would not have the properly conditioned audience to pitch their products to.

That is why Marshall McLuhan, also almost 40 years ago, called advertising television's "good news" or "gospel."

So Strachan's concern over which came first, the unhappy viewer or the television is misplaced. Sure unhappy people may naturally gravitate toward television, but why they do so has less to do with chickens and eggs and more to do with the underlying purpose of television broadcasters.

And as for the University of Maryland's study, as I haven't read it yet, I won't comment except to note Charles Schultz's take on the impact of television on children:

Charlie Brown: Do you think television is harmful to children?
Linus: I don't know. I've never had one fall on me.

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