Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Impact of television
June 24, 2006

Television’s power can be harnessed for great good, as the New Yorker magazine notes in an article about a socially minded style of Mexican soap opera that has been working its magic for three decades. More than 100 countries now air versions of Miguel Sabido’s soaps, which manage to be entertaining while also acting as agents for social change.
The story lines are as intricate and dramatic as any soap, reflecting the drama in the lives of their real-world viewers: HIV, an abusive spouse, too many kids, a secret abortion, discrimination. The social messages are subtle, woven inobtrusively into a broader story. Still, the messages come across loud and clear, as evidenced by the things that happen after a particular show airs. Viewers not only like what they see in Sabido-style telenovelas, but take action based on watching them.
From the very earliest days in the mid-1970s, Sabido’s soaps have underscored the awesome reach and potential of television as an agent for change.
One of the early episodes in 1974 featured a story line about visiting the Mexico City headquarters of the government literacy program. The day after the show aired, an unprecedented stampede of 12,000 people showed up at those same headquarters to see for themselves. Almost a million people signed up for literacy classes as a result of the show.
A story line about the search for birth-control alternatives by a stressed-out mother of three led to a 23 per cent increase in sales of over-the-counter contraceptives in Mexico. In India, a village enthralled by the story line of a young girl’s fight to be educated went on to petition government for a day-care centre in their own community, so that young girls could attend school rather than be left at home to babysit younger siblings.
Without the power of television, how would such sea changes be accomplished?
The average Canadian devotes a month and a half to television in any given year. Our youngsters watch at least 13 hours of TV a week - almost a month’s worth over the course of a year. A typical senior spends almost five hours a day watching TV, the equivalent of two and a half months annually. More than a third of Canadian households have at least three televisions.
And when TV is good, it’s very good, as the Sabido experience makes clear. But what about when it’s bad? .
What about when it crashes and bashes around with barely a thought to whether it’s having any impact at all? What about round-the-clock exposure to sex, drugs, violence and inexcusable behaviour, often on hundreds of channels? Where will it end - and will we be happy with where it takes us?
The power of Sabido’s telenovelas to affect change underlines our failure in Canada and the U.S. to harness television for anything resembling public good. But it also serves as a grim reminder that television left to follow its own random course could be having an equally dramatic impact on viewers, and not necessarily for the good.
“All television is educational,” former U.S. Federal Communications commissioner Nicholas Johnson once said. “The question is, what does it teach?”
Consider, for instance, the U.S. finding that 15- to 26-year-olds drink more for every alcohol ad they see on TV or at the movies in a month. By the time a kid hits 14 in the U.S., they’ve seen the equivalent of eight hours of alcohol consumption play out on the screen. And if you’re feeling smug because you’re Canadian, keep in mind that almost 65 per cent of the TV we watch originates in the U.S.
New Zealand found a direct link between hours of TV watched as a child or teenager, and lower levels of formal education. Children who watched more than two hours a day were less likely to get a university degree as adults; adolescents who watched that much TV were more likely to drop out. A 2004 study published in Pediatrics, the magazine of the American Academy of Pediatricians, found that every hour of TV that preschoolers watched daily increased their chances of being diagnosed with attention deficit by 10 per cent.
And even when the content doesn’t harm us, just sitting still for all those hours of TV is a danger.
The British medical journal The Lancet reported in 2004 that higher rates of obesity and smoking had been found among those watching more than two hours of TV a day (Canadians on average watch three). Longer hours in front of the television ended up being at the root of almost a fifth of all problems among the 1,000 people studied related to overweight, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking and poor fitness levels.
Sabido’s dramas remind us that it doesn’t have to be that way. But until North American television fare gets the rethink that it so badly needs, that’s how it is.

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