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Impact of television on american society

Impact of Television on American Society

The question of the impact of television on American society remains a burning one because of the effects that television has had, and still has, on that society. The effects can be seen in the behaviour of individuals, both young and old alike, who have been influenced by various images that they have seen on television and in the division that has arisen between families in their viewing habits. The impact of television can be seen by people’s everyday conversations that centre on the latest soap opera, sporting event or news item. Agenda setting is used by advertisers on television in an attempt to influence what Americans buy. The media can have an influence on people in relation to politics and the outcome of elections. People’s perceptions on what they should look like, what they should wear and who they are, are heavily influenced by the beautiful people that are seen on television each and every day. This can have an impact on people’s attitudes and could lead to racis!

t and sexist views.

‘The television violence issue has been and continues to be the subject of public concern.’ Violent images are a common sight on American television in films, dramas, cartoons and news programmes. There is a fear that these images can influence people, especially the younger generation, to imitate or copy violent acts. Researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara reported in February 1996 that children can ‘become more desensitised to the harmful consequences of violence.’ Although Seymour Feshbach argues that ‘hostile imagery decreased by exposure to a violent portrayal.’ Parents have been concerned about the material that their children are viewing and recent technology in the shape of the V-chip has made it possible to censor material that they deem to be unsuitable. As we enter the twenty-first century there are very few homes in America without a television set and in most homes you can find more than one set and it is not unusual to find a television in each room of the house. This has had an effect on the family in America in that at one time watching television was a social occasion for all the family to share whereas nowadays the family is split into their own various places inside the home watching their own choice of programmes. George Comstock argues that, ‘the medium (TV), then, in various ways has decreased intergenerational association and reinforced the tendency of age cohorts to spend much of their time while growing up among themselves.’ It could be argued that because children are spending less time with parents and grandparents in the home socially, then their understanding of the older generation may not be nurtured and there may be a lack of respect towards older people. At the same time the older generation may not be able to understand the social problems that face the younger generation and this could lead to a lack of understanding on their part towards younger people. The amount of violence on television and the reduction in families watching programmes together is having an impact on American society.

It could be argued that America television controls what people talk about socially. For those who do not own a television it must be a nightmare to attempt to engage in a conversation with the viewing masses. Social conversation on the whole can tend to evolve around the latest soap opera crisis, sporting event or world disaster. An example of this was in the 1980’s when America almost came to a stop in some circles as everyone waited to find out who shot J.R. Ewing in the soap opera Dallas. Streets can be left deserted when the Superbowl or World Series is being televised and the following day office, mall and street conversation is concerned with the teams performance. News bulletins can inform the nation about current events but the problem with the news networks is that ‘the media themselves decide what are newsworthy issues.’ It could be suggested that the American news media might be in a form of isolationism when it comes to world events, unless of course it is a ‘ro!

yal story’ when it will receive extensive coverage. Major events that make the news across the world, like natural disasters or accidents, can be either ignored or just given a passing mention. This inward looking philosophy by the media could have a detrimental effect on American society. America is such an influential country across the world and the American people need to be informed about what is happening elsewhere and need to be educated as to how their society can effect and have an impact on people in far off places.

It could be suggested that television is just a medium for business people to put forward their message in order to sell their goods. This allows the advertisers to set the agenda of what people should buy and can cause pressure inside families. Early on in the 1950’s and 60’s the advertisers were able to control the content of programmes and they used the medium of game shows and soap operas, (originally given the name soap opera due to the program being sponsored by a soap manufacturer) to help sell their products. Things have not changed much today, huge advertising follows all the major televised sporting events and sports stars and actors are paid huge amounts of money to promote products. One of the problems with the amount of advertising on television is that it has created a consumer society. This consumer society has had a knock-on effect in the homes of ordinary American families. Children and grown ups do not want to wear last seasons fashions or have out of date to!

ys, the television is continually showing the new version of this or the updated version of that. This leads to peer pressure in the schools, in neighbourhoods and in the workplace, which in turn leads to pressure on the people to purchase things that they do not really need or require. Although it could be argued that without the influence of the advertisers then there would be no television to view, as Tod Gitlin says, ‘the business of television would be business’ and ‘television is an advertising medium.’

Politicians have used the medium of television in order to promote themselves and to attempt to influence what political party to vote for. It could be argued that people are happy with the status quo and just accept what they hear and see from the medium of television and they either do not care or cannot be bothered to get involved in politics. Conrad Lodziak argues that ‘television viewing promotes political inactivity.’ This attitude could have a wide ranging impact on American society as it may give politicians more power and could lead to America no longer being a true democracy. In the Presidential election in 2000 the medium of television came under close scrutiny. This was due to the major networks first calling Gore as the winner in Florida, then saying it was too close to call, then calling Bush as the winner only to declare later that it was again too close too call. Arguments were put forward that due to Gore being called the winner in Florida, people on the west coast, where voting was still going on due to the difference in the time zones, decided not to vote as they felt, due to what they had seen and heard on television, that the winner of Florida would be the winner of the election. One result that may come from this fiasco is that people may decide not to listen to, and be influenced as much by, what they see and hear on television.

People’s perceptions on what they should look like, what they should wear and who they are, are heavily influenced by the beautiful people that are seen on television each and every day.

In the early years of television most women were seen to be very prim and proper. Recent research by Donna Sweeney and Stephen Wagner of Northern Illinois University and Howard Lavine of the State University of New York points out that, ‘TV ads has shifted from woman as homemaker or domestic attendant to woman as sex object.’ It could be argued that the image of beautiful people on television has had an adverse effect on women’s views on how they should look. Most women on television are thin and this could lead women to believe that they were overweight whilst men could fear going to the beach or to a pool because the do not possess a washboard stomach or have large muscles. It could be argued that the ones with the false bodies are those on television but due to the power of the medium most people believe that they fall short of what society expects a person to look like. This image that people have of what a person should look like has influenced the look of politicians !

in America. Nowadays politicians need to look smart, be well groomed and have a visual presence. This phenomenon was first highlighted in the televised presidential debates in 1960 when John F Kennedy looked like a film star and Richard Nixon, who refused to put on make up, looked ill and drawn. People who watched the debate thought that Kennedy won whilst those who listened to it on radio thought Nixon had won it. Neil Postman argues that ‘it would be implausible for the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, to be put forward as a presidential candidate.’ This brings up the question as to what is more important, the size or shape of a person or the ability of a person to perform a particular role? It could be suggested that whilst the medium of television is in the hands of the advertisers then the size and shape of a person will always be the most important. Another problem with the way people may perceive themselves from television is in stereotyping. A major victim of stereotyping is the African American. The successful African Americans we see on the small screen appear in programmes like The Cosby Show, they are middle class, affluent and appear to have grasped hold of the American Dream. It could be argued that the rest of the time African Americans are shown as the drug dealer or the pimp. When African Americans are shown on television in a negative way it reinforces the stereotyping and they are seen as a ‘menace and a source of social disorganisation.’ This sort of stereotyping can only enforce the view of the racists in American society that to be successful, and to be accepted, you have to be white.

The question of the impact of television on American society remains a burning one due to the effects that television has had and still has on society. The effects are seen in the influence that television has had on people’s behaviour, in the sanitising of violence whereby violent images have become the norm. The fact that people no longer view television together as a family has led to the generation gap becoming wider and a lessening of mutual understanding between age groups. People’s conversations and discourse can centre on the events happening in the latest soap opera, sporting event or news item. What clothes Americans are wearing, what their homes look like and who they are as individuals can be set by the advertisers via the medium of television. Television can have an influence on people in relation to politics and possibly on the outcome of elections and this influence could lead to America no longer being a democracy. People can be heavily influenced by the images of the beautiful people that they see on television each and every day and this can lead to people feeling inadequate and to them having a low self-esteem. A continuing of stereotyping on television will only contribute to the sexism and racism in American society.


London: Sage Publications, 1991

Gray, H Television and the American Dream

Gender, Race and Class in Media, ed. Dines, G & Humez J.M.

London: Sage Publications, 1995

Lodziak, C The Power of Television

London: Frances Pinter publishers, 1986

Mauk, D and Oakland, J American Civilization

London: Routledge, 1997

Postman, N Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Reading: Methuen, 1985

Taylor, E Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America

London: University of California Press Ltd, 1989

Source: Essay UK -

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