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A Modest Proposal: The Class Action Case Against Television

by Wade Rowland

First it was big tobacco. Now, some of the victors in those multi-billion dollar David-and-Goliath class-action suits have turned their guns on the fast food industry, charging that junk food is responsible for a public health disaster no less appalling than tobacco’s. They have snack food giants like Kraft and Frito Lay running scared, stoking up their PR machines. The basic defense being offered is very similar to the one put up by the tobacco industry, and it’s based on freedom of choice. It amounts to arguing that nobody holds a gun to your head to make you eat deep-fried onion rings or Big Macs—we all have the power to choose what we consume.

Of course for the poor, the low cost of fast food offered by the likes of McDonald’s and Taco Bell makes it hard to resist—it’s often that or nothing. But the free-to-choose argument is further undermined by recent news that researchers have solid evidence that the superabundance of fat and sugar in fast foods create a physiological dependence that increases with the amount consumed. In other words, fast foods can be addictive. Which means, not all of us have free choice about whether or not we consume them. Some of us are wired. Some of us do have a gun to our head. Just like big tobacco, the fast food industry is marketing an addictive product.

We can only wish the public health advocates good luck in their class-actions. But reading about the cases they’re putting together got me thinking about another public health issue that could use some of their giant-slaying acumen. It’s television. Maybe it’s time for some of the veterans of the tobacco and fast food wars consider turning their attention to the depredations of TV, and to obtaining redress for its billions of victims worldwide.

Consider this. People in the industrialized world spend an average of three hours a day watching television, fully half their leisure time and more than they spend on anything other than work and sleep. By age 75, most of us will have spent about nine years planted in front of the tube. (Americans spend about a hour a day more than that, for an impressive 12 years over a lifetime.)
You’d think we like it! But U.S. Gallup polls in 1992 and 1999 found that 40% of adults and 70% of teens think they spend too much time watching television. Other surveys have reported that one in ten adults describe themselves as television addicts.

Psychologists define substance dependence as a disorder marked by spending a great deal of time using the substance; using it more often than you intend to; frequently thinking about reducing use or making repeated unsuccessful efforts to do so; sacrificing important social, family, or work-related activities to use it; and reporting withdrawal symptoms when use is terminated.

According to Robert Kubel and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose research on TV junkies was published in Scientific American two years ago, this pretty much describes the syndrome reported by people who regularly watch more television than they’d like to—right down to, believe it or not, the pain of withdrawal.
It is not television per se that’s the culprit here, it’s commercial television—advertising-supported TV.

Television as a medium has no inherent addictive qualities. It is the way information is presented on commercial television that is the problem. The key to understanding why, is in the knowledge that commercially-funded TV exists to serve advertisers—it is the sponsors who pay the bills and fill the bank accounts of the commercial TV outlets and it is advertising revenue that sustains the interest of their corporate owners.

The real content of television is the advertisements, and programs are there to keep viewers around long enough to take in the ads. Money is spent on quality in television programming only to the degree that it brings a direct financial return in terms of increased viewership. If cheap, low-quality programs (like ‘reality’ shows) can be devised that draw large numbers of viewers to their sets to be exposed to commercials, then that is what will mainly be produced. It’s a simple fact of corporate economics.

TV programs also need to be commercial-friendly. Television executives do not want to annoy their customers—the advertisers—by placing their commercial messages in unfriendly visual, intellectual, or emotional environments, in contexts where viewers might find them annoying or insulting. Understandably, programs that create such hostile environments tend not to get produced. Who wants to see a Drano commercial after listening to “Nessun Dorma” or watching King Lear’s descent into hell? With American Idol or even Law and Order, the intrusion is much less disturbing.

The more the ads and the programs resemble one another in look and feel, the less intrusive the ads will seem to be. Crudely speaking, and with a nod to the odd exception to the rule, it’s possible to say that advertising production values and techniques tend to determine the look and feel of the programming that fills the spaces between ads, and that advertising tends to debase the quality of the programming around it.

Television advertisers long ago developed techniques for keeping the viewer glued to the screen—the burst of sound, the shocking or disturbing or sexy image, the quick cutting and frequent change of camera angle, the rapid zooms and pans and so on. We’ve become familiar with it all, but it would have seemed wild and crazy to television’s pioneers, back before advertisers had really gotten their hooks into the medium. Back then, you could film stage plays without adapting them for TV by kicking up the pacing, hiring ‘name’ actors, dumping the ‘boring’ bits and getting lots of close-ups.

Alright, you may be saying, so what? You can turn the thing off any time you want. But that may not be the case. It’s beginning to look like TV is addictive in just the way fast food is. It creates a dependence that is hard to shake.

What research has found is that the production techniques created for advertisers and borrowed by program producers provoke a physiological response in viewers akin to the orientation response first described by the Russian Ivan Pavlov in 1927. This is the ‘fight or flight’ response mechanism that prepares us to either flee or approach a strange object or creature. The body instantly quiets itself by slowing the heart rate and constricting blood circulation to key muscle groups while it focuses all its resources on the brain, so that it can gather more information.

Research at Stanford University in 1986 showed that the quick cuts, rapid camera movements and sudden noises of typical commercial television programming can induce this primal orientation response, greatly increasing the attentiveness of viewers. “It is the form… not the content of television that is unique” in this regard, the researchers concluded.

Other research has shown that TV watching results in a lower metabolic rate than other sedentary activities such as reading, writing, sewing, or playing board games. This helps to explain the ‘veg-out’ aspect of television viewing, confirmed by the research of Kubel and Csikszentmihalyi. As soon as viewers flick the set on, they feel more relaxed, physically. And of course their mind is diverted from whatever may have been nagging at them in the moments before sitting down to watch.

But as soon as the set is turned off, viewers tend to feel a rush of returning stress and unease, often accompanied by guilt. (This may be due in part to the fact that when the orientation response—activated almost continuously in TV viewing—is relaxed, the heart rate soars before settling back to normal values.)

Habit forming drugs work the same way, the two researchers point out. “A tranquilizer that leaves the body rapidly is much more likely to cause dependence than one that leaves the body slowly, precisely because the user is more aware that the drug’s effects are wearing off. Similarly, viewers’ vague learned sense that they will feel less relaxed if they stop viewing may be a significant factor in not turning the set off. Viewing begets more viewing.”

Hence the central irony of television viewing: people watch a lot more than they want to, even though they report that the more they watch, the less satisfying it is.

It seems to me that the evidence for psychological and physiological addiction to television is every bit as convincing as the evidence of fast food dependence. And the human damage caused is certainly of the same magnitude, even in purely physiological terms. After all, it is mainly TV that keeps so many of us from engaging in the kinds of physical activities that kept our grandparents fit. The Harvard School of Public Health reported two years ago that in men aged 40 to 75, the risk of type 2 diabetes is doubled even among average watchers. Along with lack of exercise, contributing factors noted were the poor eating habits and food choices promoted by TV advertising.

And then of course, there is the disastrous impact commercial television has had on our lives as citizens and participants in community life by its trivializing of politics and hogging of spare time, not to mention the solid evidence for a linkage between TV violence and violence in schools and on the streets.
With governments everywhere in the thrall of neo-Liberal ideology, we can no longer passively rely on state regulatory intervention on our behalf.

It’s time for consumer rights activists to get serious about bringing the corporate owners of commercial television to heel and forcing them to be more responsible to their viewers. The time has come for the class-action legal specialists to train their guns on the commercial TV networks. Nothing short of the fear of lawsuits will cause them to improve their product.

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