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Imagine a world where on the 8th of June 1972 the television and newspapers hadn’t covered Kim Phúc running terrified and naked after the latest Napalm Attack. Would the horrors of the Vietnam war have been ended much later?
Picture the people escaping the prison known as the USSR in 1991. Television coverage informed populations around the world, including governments and the military. The coverage of the Berlin wall, and its symbolism as an oppressive tool to keep its people in, was seen worldwide.
If more television coverage of the Baltic Way Protests from 1986 had got out, and the world had realised what was going on, would the USSR have fallen sooner? Or would the coverage have alerted Soviet leaders to take more drastic and oppressive action? Either way, few can doubt that television coverage informs populations and that information can change minds, and thus, the course of history.
Oppressive and corrupt regimes across the globe seek to control what television footage is shown on the airwaves. If television coverage had no effect, why would they want to control it? The first law of the corrupt applies: where there is no scrutiny there can be no corruption. Where there is no coverage, there can be no adverse publicity.
There is an old adage about the difference between PR (public relations) and journalism. PR is placed favourable exposure, and journalism is unwanted negative exposure. That is, PR is propaganda, and journalism is exposé. PR is lies, and journalism is truth – or as close as we can get to truth.
That begs the question: is all that appears on television the truth. Far from it. Some organisations pay huge amounts of money to expensive lawyers in attempt to have their propaganda presented on TV and the truth actively suppressed. Despite those efforts, the truth almost always comes out. Lies, misrepresentation and suppression only delay the emergence of the truth.
Does television create social change or merely document it? Does television drive the public agenda, or respond to it?
Those may be the wrong questions, because they assume ‘television’ is one entity. It is far from that. Some television programmes simply reflect society as it is. Others seek to make changes.
There was national coverage in the press of the first gay kiss on UK television in 1989, some 22 years after decriminalisation of homosexuality. In that case TV programmes lagged behind both political and social reality. It was another 15 years until the Civil Partnership Bill was passed in 2004. Now, there are television programmes that treat same sex relationships as any other, with no fuss.
Other issues have been led and changed by television coverage. The awareness of the homelessness crisis was raised by the 1966 television play Cathy Come Home. However, even its irector, Ken Loach said that it did little more than enable homeless fathers to stay with their wives and children in hostels, which had hitherto been banned. It was over a decade later that some reforms were made in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977.
Recent homelessness figures for the UK 2019 are: 219,000 homeless households. In 2019, there were 3,682 people homeless and sleeping rough, of whom 788 died (21% per year fatality rate). That is 15 people homeless dying on the streets every week. Television has covered homelessness for over 55 years and yet the problem is still there. If television does have an impact, it seems to be selective.
How much television do people watch? On average around 3.5 hours a day. With people spending that much time in front of a TV, can anyone doubt that the biggest effect of TV is entertainment?
Educational programmes have huge value, too, as will be attested by many graduates of the Open University. Television has helped many people to master one or more languages. Some report having learned a language just from watching television. It seems the visual context and a regular format allows them to figure out what the words mean, and repeated exposure to the words consolidates understanding.
News programmes keep the population informed of some of what is going on in their society. While keeping people informed is useful, television can cause problems. Some people compare themselves to the beautiful and successful celebrities they see on television and feel socially, aesthetically and financially inadequate. While others report feeling socially validated by watching others being humiliated on ‘reality TV’. Their thinking seems to go like this: ‘Wow, did you see that? I have nothing to worry about compared to them.”’
Does television persuade people to change their behaviour? Those who spend vast amounts of money on advertising seem to think so. Here, one thing is certain: if television advertising didn’t work, it would cease to exist. Television does influence buying behaviour.
Does television influence voting behaviour, too? Again, we need only look to the time, effort and money political parties world-wide put in to television advertising to know that it works.
Are people choosing what to watch based on how it makes them feel, on how they want to feel. If so, what they choose to watch seems to give them what they wanted.
Television can provide companionship for the isolated or lonely, who can form affinity with characters from various programmes, and doing so can reduce feelings of loneliness. In that regard television has a positive effect. However, it could be that being able to depend on television to have social interest, may demotivate some people from going out and forming real relationships.
There is also the possibility that seeing incredibly beautiful people on television has made more of the population discontent with those people who could have been their partners. Around 42% of US adults do not live with a spouse or partner.
Similar indications of the effect of being exposed to beautiful people comes from this figure: 20% of US people over 25 have never married. From 1960 to 2011 to percentage of US adults who are married dropped from 72% to 51%. That drop coincides with the increase on television availability and choice of programming. Is television reducing the need for close relationships? Is that also causing the diminished sense of community that has been widely reported.
Some researchers have found that less happy people spend 30% more time watching television. That could mask a mixed effect. For some less happy people, television may be providing an ameliorative effect on their unhappiness. For others, the unhappiness may be causal: not doing anything constructive with their lives makes them unhappy.
Can children’s behaviour be impacted by watching television. Yes, it seems so. Those who are exposed to negative role models exhibit behaviour that is more problematic that those exposed to positive role models. Is that true for adults too? Are adults exposed to role models of integrity more likely to behave as good citizens, while those exposed to negative role models less likely to do so? The recent television coverage of anti-vaccination by some politicians seems to indicate so. In countries where politicians are united on the benefits, of vaccination, the percentage of the population being vaccinated is highest.
Has the ready availability of television, and its ability to provide entertainment without physical movement been responsible for the massive increase in obesity and diabetes?
What does all that tell us? That we can be sure of the effects of television for a limited number of its activities. But for wider more complex activities, it is very difficult to pin-point direct cause and effect. The problem we have is in isolating variables sufficiently to know whether television is causal or consequential, a mediated variable, or a mediating variable.
The entanglement of the vast number of variables at play makes understanding the impact on society fraught with problems. Perhaps we need a television series to get to the bottom of that problem.
As with many tools, the effect of television seems to be more determined by the user than by the tool.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the leadership coaching practice PsyPerform and is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.