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Television – An Idiot Box?

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The advent of television was the dawn of a new and visually empowered information, education, and entertainment dissemination medium. TV revolutionized the perception of the world as it was able to provide better perspectives with more authenticity to people.

The argument that whether TV is an idiot box or not depends on various standpoints from where we see it. When put under only certain selective parameters, the otherwise subjective debate might lose weight, to lean on one side. The distinction on criterion, metrics, and scale is therefore required to actually judge.

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TV as NOT an Idiot Box

Before Television came into being, print and radio were the primary means of mass communication. Films were also gaining popularity. But TV brought the audio-visual experience to people’s homes and vicinity. TV in India was started as an experiment on 15th September 1959. Over time, its popularity has largely remained uncontested.

Television has enabled people from all spectrum to access information and entertainment with ease. Being equipped with the potential of moving images, TV carries credibility along with its content. TV as a medium is easier to digest as everything is served within the comfort of our two primary senses.

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Television has something to offer for everyone. The range of genres and programmes have no boundaries. TV caters to all sects, races, castes, religions, etc. From intellectuals to illiterates, the public looks up-to television for something or the other. TV offers audio-visual learning of different kinds. TV brings home live events of national, political, and religious importance. Entertainment, live shows, sporting events, cultural programmes, etc. can be received at home in real-time.

TV has enhanced the dimensions of our vision. What we could see from the lens, we cannot with our eyes. It has brought difficult-to-experience things closer to common lives. We can live the experiences of people on TV.

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Traditionally isolated women find solace in the feminine side of emotional television, mainly by the Soap Operas. Emancipated female characters empower women to be more aspirational.

TV is a potent medium for running some effective campaigns to sensitize people, spread awareness, and disseminate Public Service Announcements. The government also makes use of it to publicise policies and generate cognizance of pre-existing and new schemes for the good of people. Swachha Bharat Mission is a popular example.

Discovery Network, National Geographic, Animal Planet, History TV18, etc. satiate the curious, yearning to learn, and excited human mind with infotainment programmes.

Many Reality TV programmes or competitions let passionate people, whether dancers, singers, comedians, artists, cook, actors, etc. participate and showcase their talent to the world. Reality TV also allows audiences to participate in the decision-making process by letting them vote for their favourite participant.

Advertisements on television help people make informed choices. They get to identify brands and judge their brand value. TV channels like HomeShop18 and Naaptol, among other programmes (advertorials) on various channels, are devoted to home shopping, allowing people to watch demonstrations of products and buy them if they like.

Doordarshan’s free DTH (Direct to Home) service requires a minimal sum for installment and has a wide reach. It carries a sufficient number of channels and content for information, education, and entertainment at no cost. Channels like Swayam Prabha and Gyan Darshan are imparting education via TV. During the pandemic, Education Television has proved itself to be the only source of education for many.

TV still remains a prime source of entertainment for people who cannot afford tickets to the cinemas or live shows and sporting events. TV is a companion of family time. People watch TV while eating, doing leisure activities, and also while having family discussions.

On these arguments, TV cannot be deemed as an Idiot Box.

TV as an Idiot Box

TV is a shallow medium. It does not leave any significant scope for applying our brains to what we watch. Most of the TV viewing is predominantly passive consumption. The hypodermic needle theory of communication applies superlatively to the TV as a mode of mass communication. The production and consumption model of television content is such that it intends that media messages are injected directly into the brains of a laid-back audience.

Television is also a transient medium, i.e., whatever is being broadcasted lasts only for a short period. Biologically, humans can retain a visual impression for about 1/30 of a second and sound for 0.1 seconds. The broadcast on television does not stop but keeps moving. This bars us to revisit what is once gone or even think about it as the focus shifts to next. So, the prospect of applying brains consciously is an arduous function.

For people who actively consume television as a source of their primary information, it becomes their way of making sense of the world. Then, the simulacra (representation or simulation of reality) that TV creates, becomes reality for the viewers. Jean Baudrillard (French postmodern sociologist), who conceptualised simulacra and simulation, calls it hyperreality.

Cultivation Hypothesis theory states that the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality aligns with reality portrayed on television.

According to a research study done by Staffordshire University, UK, the impact of TV on kids is concerning and awful. As per the study, if kids watch TV for more than 15 minutes, their creativity, ability to think original and critique gets reduced.

TV watching, being a sedentary activity, yields obesity, language delays, and learning disabilities in children and is also associated with a greater risk of heart attack, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and death in adults.

TV still has the mass ability to set public discourse and lay narratives. This capability gives immense power to the people behind the screens (the content developers, producers, media persons, corporate owners, etc.) to shape public opinion for personal, political, and monetary gains. The political economy is something not known to the commons. Television is used exhaustively to promote commercial, social and political agendas.

TV lacks a proper structural immediate feedback mechanism. Social media has somewhat made the feedback possible, but its effective incorporation is still a question mark.

TV, being widely absorbed as it is, has the potential to standardize anything from culture to politics. Personalities on TV or the Silver Screen are believed to be naturally authentic and a voice of validation. TV has popularised customs and practices, standardised lifestyle, and nationalised culture. Some malpractices like Sexism, Casteism, and Patriarchy get subtly reinforced via the content on television. TV and TV characters casually promote stereotypes affecting self-esteem, body-positivity, gender norms, class division, etc.

Soap Operas set templates of rituals, celebrations, functions, even religions among other things. Homogenised content of this genre and its popularity have institutionalised stereotypes in society, families, and communities.

Present-day news programming on Indian television is dominated by entertaining sensationalism, heated non-sensical debates, exaggerated events, and whatnot, rather than factual and public interest news. This creates a politically divided, polarised, and/or politically ignorant society that causes a threat to democracy. The subliminal media texts embedded in the TV content can substantially shape, mould, and manipulate public opinion.

On these assertions, TV is synonymous with Idiot Box.

Gradually, with the internet and smartphones taking over, a shift towards personalised or private viewing is taking place. Netizens want an abundance of content that OTTs and Video-on-Demand platforms offer conveniently. Technological convergence has brought TV to the phones. Any live broadcast of any television channel can be accessed over the Internet. It’s not just phones that have become smart, Smart TVs too are joining the race. All of the online content can now be accessed on TV as well. TV’s relevance cannot fade away with time. The potential of the medium is being used by all kinds of small and big media players to deliver ideological and sociological content, which the public consumes to cater to their psychological, artistic, and dopamine needs and interests inter alia.

Largely, who watches what on the television decides whether it is an Idiot Box or not!


Image credits: Bigstockphoto

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