The truth about telly

Critics of TV have focused on bad language, mindless violence and sex, and they have made these seem very significant and threatening to the social fabric. These people have looked at the content of certain TV programmes and blown it out of all proportion. The truth is that the content is relatively insignificant - that is not where the real impact of TV lies. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is in the insignificance of the content of TV programmes that the significance of TV lies.

There is a relentless flow of things on TV: there is a story about a drought in Africa with 1,000,000 on the verge of starvation, immediately followed by adverts for Italian spaghetti and the latest toothpaste, then it is back to the football highlights before your favourite soap opera starts, and you are just getting involved in all the intrigues when the adverts come on again and you decide to change channels to watch the movie.

What remains from all of this as something that could have a lasting impact or that could prompt some deeper interest? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Admittedly there are times when TV does manage to generate a response. Particularly disturbing images of emaciated children dying of hunger, flies crawling over their lips, can prompt people to make a donation. But the channel can't keep showing the same pictures for long. Soon there will be another disaster somewhere else and we will forget the starving children and we won't stop to think much about the causes of the disaster and what ought to be done in the future. After all, there is another movie later on and we don't want to miss it.

Without anyone intending this, TV silently conveys the message that nothing really matters in the world. Channels choose footage, stories and their variety of shows to increase their ratings. Viewers hop from channel to channel to maximise their pleasure. A perfect marriage of commerce and hedonism.

TV effectively trains people to leave the world exactly as it is. We have the brute facts (or some of them at least) about poverty, disasters and disease, but we have so little analysis, and we are left with the impression that that is just the way things are and that they couldn't be otherwise. Before we have time to think much or imagine how things might be different the match has started, it is our team and we have found something much more exciting to fill up our free time.

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