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TV, the Tyrant – Travelogue-1

TV, the Tyrant

Three ways in which the TV affects you even if you switch if off

“They tell me that they have an ideal in their mind about what the normal person is,” psychiatrist Paul McHugh says in The Trap. “I don’t fit that model,” they tell him. “I want you to polish me down to fit.”

That model – Adam Curtis argues – is an ideal human that behaves in a completely rational and selfish way. A fuck-you-buddy champion. In an institutionalized enforcement of that ideal, according to the documentary, citizens are provided with a ready-made market-driven checklist of how they should behave. Individual situations do not matter. We must fit the model.

If the media are channels through which a society talks to itself, their role in the enforcement of this model is vital. The documentary provides a perspective in which the following question can be asked: Does a free market really supply media content that the consumers really want? Does it supply the content that is good for the society? Is it a matter of free choice at all?

Not really. There is no way you can talk back to your television. But even if you choose to switch it off, it will continue to shape your life:

Protestors burn TV

Protesters in India burn a TV set during a demonstration calling for stricter censorship. The Tribune India

1- It will shape your interaction with other people. This is not limited to simplistic concerns about whether violence in the media will make the consumers exhibit violent behavior, or whether kind of pornography you watch will determine what kind of a sexual partner you are. More importantly, it will provide the perspective in which you will see the others and others will see you – based on gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, body type, your fashion choices, and so on.

2- It will continue to inform or misinform other consumers about political matters. Their opinion will shape the warfare or welfare decisions that your government makes. That in turn will directly affect you.

3- It will continue to claim to represent public opinion but in doing so it will in fact itself be determining the public opinion. People consume the media for education and advice. It implies that their own information is admittedly not adequate enough. When they are told what ‘the public’ wants (often influenced by what the advertisers want), they want it too. The claims self-fulfill.

The TV, as a conventional media tool, thus tells you what we should ideally look like, and what you should ideally feel like. It also provides you with the categories in which to box you individuality and therefore becomes the primary source of your identity. It does so even if you have switched it off. “What happened,” then, “to our dream of freedom?” Where exactly is our “right to choose”?

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11 Comments

  1. ElzbthMllr 17:07, Jan 25th, 10

    I agree that the TV has been a conventional media tool, and up until recently it’s given society a very limited way to express individuality and “a right to choose.” But I think that as the internet usurps television in the 21st century (which we can see is happening in many facets, including the decline of cable television, the increase of digital media and newspaper moving to online formats) we may be at the forefront of a new opportunity to structure our own media systems around us. Of course, long-standing media institutions will not die out, but will evolved in a way to try to ensure their long-term viability, but I think that technology has given us a serious way to exercise control, everything from user-generated content, the abundance or blogs, or the ability to do video and song mashups, provide users with a way to assert their individuality. Admittedly many of the concerns you express about television could also exist with the internet, such as that it shapes your interaction with other people, that it will become the primary method of education for people, etc, but I think it’s worth nothing that there is something inherently more democratic (at least the possibility for it to be more democratic) exists with the internet versus television.

  2. Leslie 17:13, Jan 25th, 10

    I agree with your first comment, stating that TV shapes how you interact with others and how others interact with you. To move away from the example of news and specifically watching different societies on TV, the very programs and shows you choose to watch can shape your interaction with people you see day in and day out. While some people might enjoy watching reality TV shows, another group of people might find enjoyment in watching documentary-style programming found on The History Channel and The Discovery Channel. Such differences in TV interests can sometimes lead people to make assumptions about others, even shaping how you choose to interact with them, for better or worse.

  3. nadine 21:14, Jan 25th, 10

    Harris, you raise one of the great question of our MCC-program, it also goes into Gary Kamiya’s direction: Do we get the TV we want or the TV we need?

    Free market governed television does more and more provide light-minded media content, instead of offering critical (and sometimes disturbing) in dept-reporting. Advertisers argue that consumers prefer happy entertainment to depressive world news; this statement that is backed by television ratings. Therefore, we need public television or alternatively funded media programs to bring out news to the public too that is important but not easy to digest.

    On the other side, I read in your post that you believe that we don’t always get the television we want. What would television look like if we could choose its content- or talk back. Current TV is a very interesting project in this regard. http://current.com/

    Current TV is based on user-generated content. Viewers can put videos on the Internet, where other viewers vote on the postings and determine which ones will be broadcasted. The target audience are young adults.

    It would be interesting to get statistics on the most popular media content. I don’t get it on my television now, but when I first watched it five years ago, I was amazed by the amount of international topics covered. It showed a real interest in issues that weren’t addressed by conventional main-stream media, or at least not in that way. On the start page of the website, the focus is mainly on pop and entertainment. It is an interesting way of presenting news about politics, and making it accessible to young people.

    However, the user generated programs are very limited, and mostly bound to MTV-like video formats. User do bring in a wide arrange of topics and perspectives, but they are no substitute to professional journalists. As Kamiya outlines, our society needs investigative journalism, which is costly and time-intensive. Nevertheless, Current Tv is a great experiment. I think it is a fascinating model, that mainstream TV stations should follow more closely.

  4. HoniehBarak 00:33, Jan 26th, 10

    I agree with your comments, mainly because it sparked something I’ve been thinking about lately about the way the news media is being portrayed in the United States. By chance, the twitter revolution of Iran, gave insight to those who had never met an Iranian the true nature of the struggles within the nation. If it had not been for this new medium, the American media may have never reported on the story. A few years ago I was visiting family in Germany and I had noticed that the news coverage of the BBC and other networks was much more graphic in detail and honest, non bias in comparison to the American News Media. It made me think that there is a possible motive in the United States to brain wash its viewers. You can spot these differences between CNN and FOX News at times. Journalism may be suffering from a slow death, but the investigative new types of journalism such as twitter, blogging, and online newspapers brings a new worldly perspective to the news instead of the tunnel vision that is provided to us on television.

    Check out this news channel – similar to current – but all their content is made by their viewers, without any restrictions.

    http://www.linktv.org

    Thank you!

  5. Ryan 01:43, Jan 26th, 10

    You are right to a certain extent, however, like Elizabeth mentioned, the internet has almost usurped the television. And even if you do turn off your tv and everyone else did, we would still be influenced by the radio, film, magazines, and other forms of media.

    Nadine is also on point by saying that it statistics on audience and viewers help production revolve around certain research concerning age, demographics, race, and other information. Basically, viewers are influenced in my opinion by the weekly shows that they watch, the sports, or the news. In addition, you can watch movies on the television so your getting that additional medium integrated into television. Again, it all goes back to who’s influencing who and what people are watching.

    I do not agree that it makes us do anything. The choice is still ours. Like the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. But Harris, I wholeheartedly agree that the TV is one of the most influential and impacting mediums of media that’s out there. It really shapes people’s identities and mindsets.

    I am not a big fan of the news sometimes because it depresses me seeing all the horrible things that this world is going through and hearing some of the crazy and outrageous things that people do. Sometimes, it’s better to not know than to know – ignorance is bliss to a great extent.

    I do agree that if newspapers and journalism continue to suffer, so will the content and information that will be presented. We do need these types of people and reporters to sort through the entire mess and inform us on what it is that is important (sorry tongue-twister). Yet, I don’t think ‘throwing away your television’ like the Red Hot Chili Peppers said will solve the problem of freedom of choice.

  6. agmichaels 02:16, Jan 26th, 10

    Like Ryan pointed out, can’t your critique of television be leveled at all forms of media? And, in fact, most forms of human interaction? I know I spent my high school years trying to polish myself into the model of what all the other students would accept as ‘normal’ ;)

    The question becomes, can we escape these influences, or is it just a matter of making sure to put them in perspective?

  7. DanJee 17:50, Jan 26th, 10

    Yes, you are correct in that it is the TV networks that decide what to put on its network and what people will see. What ad will be shown and what types of content will be available. However, I very much agree to Nadine. As Nadine pointed out, TV is often recognized as a one-way medium, but it really is two-way system. TV networks try to show content that people will like, not force them to like something. By showing what people want, it will boost the ratings, which brings in more advertising, which brings in the money. TV is far from being not receptive to its audience. Because it cannot cater its content to specific audience like internet or even magazines can, it must be even more receptive to its audience, who are more likely to involve broad spectrum of people.

  8. juliette b 17:55, Jan 26th, 10

    I don’t know much on TV and the way it shapes me. Yet I think the more it goes the more I consider TV as a “window on the world” a kind of anthropologic tool.

    A week ago I was watching this show Jersey Shore This is a link
    on MTV. This reality TV shows people that are almost acting like animals and I watched it as something unbeleivable and certainly not as people I wanted to look like…

  9. Harris 19:56, Jan 26th, 10

    @Liz and Leslie – I originally planned to write a second post to this travelogue to look at how the emerging media deal with the concerns I raised. I couldn’t, but you guys pretty much summed it all up. Thank you!

    @agmichaels & Ryan – I’m sorry I couldn’t clearly imply that I talked about the TV only as an icon of all traditional one-way media. I did not mean to say these concerns are valid only for TV and not for, say cinema or newspaper.

  10. lindai 20:32, Jan 26th, 10

    from my personal experience as somebody who does not have a television at home and has not owned a television for years, i think of TV as just another media outlet among others, i just decided to deliberately cut it out. others might not read newspapers, magazines, or surf the web for news, but eventually everybody is exposed to what the media spreads. everybody is perceptive to some kind of media channel from which he/she can choose as what to believe or not, but it is probably not possible to be not at all influenced in some way unless you live a hermit’s life.

  11. Harris 20:33, Jan 26th, 10

    @Nadine – I came all the way from the other side of the globe only with this fundamental question. But having lived my journalism dream out all the way until I woke up, my concern is not only whether the TV can give the audience what they want, but also whether it can sustainably give them what they do not want :-) The Current TV model filters out the marginalized opinion, and therefore only reinforces existing opinions and stereotypes.

    @DanJee & Ryan: i) In the sense you talk about it, TV is not a two-way medium but a three-way one. The advertisers are the third and fundamentally important party, because they pay for the content the audience watches. I have been in the US for only four months, but how this third party affects the content is quite apparent if you compare what runs on the free channels with what runs on HBO.

    ii) Demographic research in this situation concerns what the audience will buy, if they follow the gender, age and ethnic (or ‘race’ as you say) roles they are expected to follow. What a housewife will get to watch in the morning will then depend on how she is expected to behave. Choices may vary within a spectrum, but the audience has no power to broaden that spectrum.

    iii) The TV does not ‘force’ us to make choices, but we do consume it to help us make more informed choices – about what we should buy to who we should vote for. So in the old adage, the audience is not a horse but a thirsty horse. Unlike horses, most of us have the ability to decide rationally if we should drink or not, but if we did ask for directions to water because we were thirsty, we will most likely drink it.

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