Is Television Making Us Stupid?
By Ron Kaufman /

"I wasn't worried about freedom. I was worried about people being turned into morons by TV." -- Ray Bradbury in 2001 talking about his book Fahrenheit 451

Is television actually making us stupid? After all, this is a device nicknamed "the boob tube" and "the idiot box." Television was once famously called the "vast wasteland," a moniker that has stuck since it was spoken. Can we look to television to show us the status of society? Does TV reflect the nation's intellectual capacity and contribute to its decline at the same time?

In his 1995 book Abandoned In The Wasteland, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow (the originator of the "vast wasteland" quote in 1961) lamented how Americans have passively let television take over their homes and become the centerpiece of children's lives:

"In the 1930s and 1940s, television's creators expressed their hope that the new medium would be the greatest instrument of enlightenment ever invented, a blessing to future generations. They were wrong. . . . No other major democratic nation in the world has so willingly turned its children over to mercenary strangers this way. No other democratic nation has so willingly converted its children into markets for commercial gain and ignored their moral, intellectual, and social development."

Minow's bitterness stems from the realization that television does nothing to serve the public interest or the greater good of our nation. Instead, TV is simply a video advertising display that panders to the lowest common standard in a effort to sell products for private commercial gain. Producers at TV networks are interested in making money, not upholding moral values or curing social injustices. Television treats its viewers as receptacles for commercial and consumer messages to increase the profits of the corporations involved.

For example, decades of sedentary TV watching have turned citizens of the United States into the fattest people on planet earth. The obesity epidemic in America is quickly reaching scary dimensions as this graphic from MSN Health & Fitness shows. In most states, between 25% and 30% of the population is not just overweight, but statistically obese:

One clear contributor to Americans' expanding guts is the overabundance of advertising on TV for crappy food. Research published in the June 2007 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine shows that young children are exposed to "a substantial amount of food advertising through TV" and around 80% of it is composed of unhealthy sweets, snacks, cereal, beverages and fast food. The study, titled Exposure to Food Advertising on Television Among US Children, breaks down the advertising like this:

The researchers concluded that children's exposure to massive amounts of food advertising on TV "raises concerns, especially when combined with the potentially increased effectiveness of food product ads and the proliferation of cable TV. These most recent trends are not to be taken lightly given the recently released national estimates on the prevalence of obesity that show overweight among children aged 2 through 5 years to have increased."

A capitalist economy such as the United States preaches the dogma of continuous economic expansion. As such, American consumers must increase their purchases of new products constantly. Food manufacturers have discovered that the more people eat, the more money they make. American adults and children expand their waistlines while food manufacturers plump up their profits. What TV advertising panders is not the nutritious healthy food people should be eating, but the junky unnecessary food. For example, this informational brochure (pdf format) from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (website) shows food people should and shouldn't be eating. Notice that it is the fattening, unhealthy, artery-clogging food that is advertised on television. Have you ever seen a commercial for broccoli or wild salmon?

The effect of TV advertising on eating habits is just one example of the influence "the idiot box" has on people's lives. Minow is correct when he asserts that television has taken over American home life as depicted in this insightful cover of The New Yorker magazine from Thanksgiving 2006:

The nation has sacrificed its humanity in devotion to the glowing phosphors of television. The TV screen now takes center stage in our lives and minds. Pioneering Canadian media researcher Marshall McLuhan noticed that even though the technology of moving pictures traveling invisibly across the airwaves was impressive, both the form and function of television created some distressing social impacts. Though what appears on TV may seem real, the televised image is not entirely truthful.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media, McLuhan explained described how television works to distort reality:

"The mode of the TV image has nothing in common with film or photo . . . With TV, the viewer is the screen. He is bombarded with light impulses that James Joyce called the 'Charge of the Light Brigade' that imbues his 'soulskin with subconscious inklings.'

"In the TV image we have the supremacy of the blurred outline, itself the maximal incentive to growth and new 'closure' or completion, especially for a consumer culture long related to the sharp visual values that had become separated from the other senses . . . The aggressive lunge of artistic strategy for the remaking of Western man has, via TV, become a vulgar sprawl and an overwhelming splurge in American life."

Television distorts reality and changes meanings. Because we instinctively believe the images on TV (see the essay Video Memory Implantation), our minds are increasingly influenced with each passing moment. McLuhan understood that the TV screen is influential and dangerous. Television purports to deliver the world to your living room, but the world it produces is far from truthful. As in the quote above, McLuhan notes that TV produces a "blurred outline" that will result in "a vulgar sprawl."

As McLuhan famously commented, "the medium is the message." When McLuhan noted that "with TV, the viewer is the screen," he is noting that TV has a direct connection with the individual viewer. The medium of television, because of its form, is not able to successfully describe community issues. Television speaks to the individual and its programming and advertising reflects this perception. The message of television is one that stresses individuality and personal consumption over the commonwealth or universal values.

On TV, simplicity is more effective than complexity. In advertising, appealing to emotion is better than reciting information. Television combines simple messages with primal emotions and promotes three mechanisms:

Entitlement of Consumption

Acceptance of Stupidity

Individual Superiority

Citizens of the United States (and other countries) who religiously pray to "the boob tube" have internalized these three values as proselytized through their TV screens. Logic and rationality are thrown away and instead the commandments of television are revered.



I. Entitlement of Consumption

The license plate of this Porsche Cayenne SUV says it all.
This car costs about $50,000, has a 340hp V8 engine
and gets 15 MPG (city/hwy combined).

Television fosters an overall belief that the purchase of a product is the ultimate path to happiness. Additionally, consumption of goods and services is not only important for individual fulfillment, but is also a guaranteed right of society. All men and women are entitled to continue to purchase products as needed without restraint.

The Entitlement of Consumption means that "you deserve" to spend money. Television teaches that everyone consumes. Individual needs and happiness are the only criteria. A product's impact on community or the environment are externalities and pale in comparison to convenience and entertainment value.

The photo to the right is a perfect example. This vehicle declares social status and nothing more. In reality, nobody needs a $50,000 station wagon with the power of a racecar and lousy gas mileage. Take the Porsche name off this car and few would buy it. Obviously from the license plate, the owners of this car feel they deserve to show off their affluence and level of societal advancement.

In an August 2007 editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani correctly characterized consumerism as portrayed on TV:

"A famous William Blake engraving shows a boy who has just begun to climb a long ladder extended to the moon. "I Want! I Want!" he says.

"Consumerism cultivates a similar form of desire - the desire to consume more and more goods and services, with the hope that someday we'll reach ultimate satisfaction.

"We never will, of course. We will always remain wanting, because what we want in the end - what consumers are implicitly taught to want - is not things, but social distinction. A Jaguar is as much a class symbol as it is a car. Same for an Ivy League education, or the taste for European art flicks, or a knowledge of fine wines, or . . . the game has no end."

The idea that we are defined by our consumer purchases is what economist Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption. The acquisition of material objects equals social power and respectability. As Veblen writes in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, "conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure."

Of course, lack of financial resources should also not establish any hindrance to consumption. Television watchers believe in spending money and not saving. This is a contributing factor as to why the personal household savings rate in the United States has been steadily falling since around 1993. From early 2005, personal savings in the U.S. dipped negative which is the first time this has happened since The Great Depression era. As can be seen in the graphic below, U.S. citizens now have the lowest personal savings rate in history.

click for the full report
from the The Grandfather Economic Report series

Television watchers love to spend and spend and spend. This does make some sense. According to Nielsen Media Research, the total average time per household spent watching TV in 2005-06 was around eight hours. Consider that, on average, 15 minutes of commercial 'content' runs for every hour of TV programming. That means the typical TV household gets about two hours of commercials pumped into it each every day.

People watch two hours of highly produced media pleading to buy buy buy. It should come as no surprise that television-induced spending is a powerful force. Debt is a preferable option rather than a hesitation in consumption. Long-range planning is anathema in an arena filled with sound-bite shotgun blasts of TV advertising. After all, you deserve a [place product here]. So go buy it now!

As McLuhan noted, "TV makes for myopia."

The manifestation of the Entitlement of Consumption is people who spend and spend without regard to practical matters. Many times, TV-induced conspicuous consumption will result in buying unaffordable things and piling on obscene amounts of debt. On television, desires become needs - patience and rationality should be simply discarded.

Television, however, will never make the slightest mention that continued consumer spending is bad. Given that TV endlessly promotes buying things you don't need with money you don't have, to promote less spending would not make any sense. Advertising is simply too big a money maker. During the 2007 SuperBowl football game, an ad cost $85,000 per second. So TV viewers are sold the idea that Budweiser Beer won't make you fat, that a home equity loan is 'free' money, and that McDonalds is nutritious food. The dumb part is that people believe it.



II. Individual Superiority

More than anything, television focuses on the individual. Partly this is due to the heavy influence of advertising which focuses on personal consumption choices. What do your shoes say about "you as an individual"? However, TV adds to its milieu of advertising an added dimension of personal superiority.

This focus on individual superiority is rapidly becoming one of the most commonly used advertising techniques in the industry. For example, TimeWarner rapidly embraced the idea by anointing TIME Magazine's Person Of The Year 2006 is YOU. The magazine explains its choice this way:

"Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I'm not going to watch Lost tonight. I'm going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I'm going to mash up 50 Cent's vocals with Queen's instrumentals? I'm going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?

"The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you."

This is a pure pro-consumerist message. TimeWarner is celebrating those who continue to watch TV and spend money. The magazine is correct in pointing out that modern media is becoming obsessed with the focus on the individual. Just look at the names in the modern media world: YOU-tube, I-pod, MY-space. The web page for Apple's iPod MP3 player (link) contains a few small paragraphs of text and the word "you" 30 times. This is no accident. Apple Inc. understands that in order to sell more product, it must emphasize how much the iPod contributes to "your" individual self-worth. Apple is selling a lifestyle, not just a music player.

The two ads below from two phone companies also emphasize the individual:

What is being created is an atmosphere where the needs and desires of the individual are most important. This is not a new advertising mechanism. Television ads for Burger King started the trend many years ago:

However, the difference is that while Burger King focused on personal choice, today's advertising focuses on personal superiority. As the AT&T ads say it's "your world." The relationship between the TV screen and the viewer is one-to-one. When watching, the watcher can feel as if they are the direct focus of the advertising/news show host/program on the screen. Advertisers and TV producers count on this direct connect to establish loyalty to their brand, network or program time slot. This connection also fulfils an inherent need for understanding and acceptance. Today, the overabundance of messages proclaiming the importance of individual needs, desires and choices has lead to the TV viewer not only feeling important - but feeling like the most important person on the planet.

Television, in essence, says to the viewer: "You are the most important person in the world." For example, the ad campaign for the TiVo television recording device is "My TiVo gets me" as if this piece of technology organically responds to the viewer. The concept that technology can respond to individual's personal needs is an integral part of the modern media experience. Television's focus on the individual is transforming the media landscape from a neighborhood of togetherness into a community of individual desires. These individual desires hold an esteemed position above everyone else and they deserve to be catered to and admired.

Promoting the idea of superiority looks quite natural on TV. During the campaign for U.S. President, the Republican candidates striving for their political party's nomination had a televised debate in June 2007 on TimeWarner's CNN network. Nine of the 10 candidates agreed that the United States was a morally superior country and had the right, from God, to drop nuclear weapons on the people living in Iran.

Duncan Hunter (California) said, "The United States reserves the right to preempt . . . I would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons." Rudy Giuliani (New York) continued the philosophy by stating, "American ideals, they come from God. And I think it's our moral obligation to find the right way to share that with the rest of the world."

These comments are not about politics as much as they are about promoting individual superiority. There is a quirk in the way television portrays the concept of superiority. Patriotism to one's country is natural and citizens of every nation have a love for their homeland. However, the belief that a country's superiority extends to igniting nuclear bombs over innocent people should be shocking. Yet, nearly all the candidates of a major American political party agreed that using nuclear weapons was a perfectly fine option (only Ron Paul (Texas) proclaimed that it was immoral and anti-Christian to drop nuclear weapons on a country that is not a threat).

The separation television creates between the image on the screen and real life allows objectively insane concepts to become perfectly justifiable. Without any immediate historical context to muddle the message, TV becomes perfectly compliant to any ideas that are promoted along with the notion of superiority.

The simplicity of individual superiority is compelling to the creators of TV. When presenting concepts on television, only simple frames of reference will work. "Bomb Iran to protect America" and "Wendy's Hamburgers - Always Fresh, Never Frozen" are messages that are quick and easy to understand. Messages must never sound evasive, wishy-washy or too intelligent. Just as marketers know that luxury items must always be expensive, creators of television know that good TV is always empty-headed.



III. Acceptance of Stupidity

Nobody was buying books from Tom Wayne, owner of Prospero's Books in Kansas City, Missouri, so he started burning them to raise awareness. He told the Associated Press he wants people to watch less TV and read more books. (May 2007)

A poll performed by the Associated Press in August 2007 reported that one-quarter of all Americans have not read a book in the past year. In fact, the book industry indicated a flat sales record that is expected to continue indefinitely. Though the poll did not indict television as a specific factor, it is obvious that the presence of TV and other media have replaced the written word as the sole form of information.

As Marshall McLuhan noted in Understanding Media, the presence of television should have a direct effect on the decline of literacy. He noted that especially with children, TV teaches to prefer visual and auditory stimuli to that of the written word. "Pervaded by the mosaic TV image," wrote McLuhan, "the TV child encounters the world in a spirit antithetic to literacy."

Since the invention of the printing press in Germany by Johann Gutenberg in 1440, reading has been the most important form of personal enlightenment for the masses. Now, TV is trying to destroy the notion that only those who read are truly educated. Visual and auditory stimuli now dominate the contemporary landscape. And with this change, comes the inevitable decline of complicated explanations and understandings.

In the book Technopoly, educator Neil Postman noted how television is winning the contest against books. "When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision," explains Postman. "On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment and discipline. On the other, there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response."

Television reduces everything to the simplest common denominator. What has evolved is a media environment that is continually being pushed toward the ignorant, silly and idiotic.

"You can't swing a smart fifth-grader without hitting a stupid person on TV," writes Chicago Sun-Times TV critic Doug Elfman. "A lot of reality shows, commercials and sitcoms wouldn't even exist if it weren't for the simpleton lives of the Paris Hilton and other celebridopes. The TV star who bastardizes the English language the most is George W. Bush. But at least he can mangle a complete sentence. On The Simple Life, Paris rarely even thinks of a word to say. She just stands there! That show should be called 'See Paris Grin! Grin, Paris, Grin!'"

Another example Elfman gives of stupid TV people are the inhabitants on the NBC game show Deal Or No Deal. This show epitomizes the near complete mindlessness of TV programming. In this "game," the contestant chooses to open a briefcase . . . and . . . that's it. Opening a box for money. This show features no questions, no pantomimes and no knowledge of product pricing. A house pet could play, and win, at Deal Or No Deal. Here's a clip . . .


Just watching that clip will sink your IQ a few points. People who watch this show should file a class-action lawsuit against NBC to get that half-hour of their life back. The show is obviously about getting easy money to go out and buy things. One could also argue it is an example of television's ability to foster a brief escape from everyday life. Really, however, Deal Or No Deal is about fostering an acceptance of stupidity.

Even the so-called "news" stations delve into the inane. On June 28, 2007, CNN (Cable News Network) scheduled their feature talk show host Larry King to interview documentary film-maker Michael Moore to discuss his views on the state of health care in the United States. Instead, the Moore interview was canceled so the network could air an exclusive interview with party-girl socialite Paris Hilton after her release from prison on charges of violating her probation for drunk and reckless driving. This is an except from the actual aired interview . . .

KING: What did you eat?
HILTON: The food was horrible.
KING: Horrible?
HILTON: Well, it's jail food. It's not supposed to be good.
KING: What is jail food? OK. Lunch!
HILTON: Lunch is basically a bologna sandwich which is they just give a bologna which -- they call it mystery meat. It's really scary. And two pieces of bread and some mayonnaise. With orange juice.
KING: Would they shove it under the door?
HILTON: There was like a little ...
KING: Pellet hole?
HILTON: Yeah. Kind of a whole they would put it through.
KING: What did you eat for dinner?
HILTON: Dinner was usually the same. It was hot at least.
KING: Hot ...
HILTON: The only hot meal that was again, this mystery kind of -- they call it jail slop, so it wasn't that tasty.

To say Paris Hilton is a moron is redundant. However, CNN put this mindless drivel over its airwaves for a reason. What television exalts is wealth and stupidity and not work and intelligence. Don't think, just go out and spend.

In 2006, Mike Judge created a movie called Idiocracy which envisions the United States 500 years in the future. Ubiquitous television and a continuous dumbing down of the population lead to a society of infantile minds. Judge imagines an America with fat, self-absorbed, dimwits surrounded by relentless and continuous advertising. Not surprisingly, News Corp. (owner of the film's production company 20th Century Fox Pictures) crushed the movie's release with no promotion and only a few theaters in the country allowed to show it.

In Idiocracy, the TV screens are huge and covered in continuous advertising. The most popular program is about a guy getting his balls smashed.

The Secretary of Education in Idiocracy's future American White House. In the background, you can see a Pepsi ad.

The sad truth is that Idiocracy is not about a projected future America. The movie is allegory about society today.

Fortunately, critical thought has not entirely seeped away into the fog of history. People still debate, discuss, read, analyze and experiment. Modern society is not crumbling - but gaping cracks are beginning to show. Like a maligned court jester, television is a hapless contributor in the country's slow painful conversion into a nation of morons. This descent can only be slowed by first pulling the plug out of the wall one set at a time.


© 2007 by Ron Kaufman

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Is Television Making Us Stupid?