We are Manipulated by TV,
Or Do We "Creatively Fit TV Into Our Lives"?
Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure
Comedia Publishing Group, London , England, 1986, 178 pages, $12.50.
Open the Box
Comedia Publishing Group, London, England, 1986, 121 pages, $10.95.
(Both books are available in Canada from DEC Book Distribution,
229 College St., Toronto, Ont. M5T 1R4; tel. (416) 597-0328).
Reviewed by Susan Maclean
I'll admit right from the start that I'm anti-TV. I very seldom
watch it - probably one or two hours a week - and my husband scarcely
watches more than that. Instead, we spend our precious evenings
reading, enjoying our children, playing with our pets, working in
the yard, talking, attending social functions and meetings, planning
other leisure activities and, when deadline pressures get too strong,
working. Frankly, I think these and other activities are much more
"worthwhile" than television.
Now, having read these two books, I feel downright abnormal. According
to these books, TV is as vital and central a part of family life
as was the family hearth or dining table.
Open The Box is a relatively light look at British TV. It seems
disjointed, but then it refers to a lot of other works, 43 of which
are listed in the bibliography.
Family Television is heavier reading. It's basically a research
document, reporting on a 1985 survey of 18 families in London's
east end. The book is given an enthusiastic blessing in the introduction
by noted media critic Stuart Hall, who recognized a research gap
being filled. Other research into TV viewing habits has studied
either how TV is used within different families or how TV material
is interpreted by its audience. Author and researcher David Morley
contends that melding the two approaches gives a much more accurate
and instructive picture. His research is aimed at learning how viewers
make sense of the materials they view and the social relations within
which viewing is conducted. He believes only within this double
framework can individual viewing choices and responses be understood.
Morley forthrightly admits the limits of his research. Although
he attempted to involve families in different social and cultural
contexts, the sampling of 18 families is dominated by those from
a working-class or middle-class background. He clearly hopes a larger
scale project will be prompted by his efforts.
There's considerable overlap between these two books.
Both discuss the uses of TV. These include viewing regular programming,
videotaping for later viewing, viewing rented and bought videotape,
calling up electronic pages of information and playing interactive
video games or displaying computerized data and making calculations.
Both point out TV can also be used as a focus for social interaction
and a context for social encounters between family members. It can
also be an entertainment for outside guests in the home. Morley
makes the point by quoting Californian James Lull, TV audience researcher,
as follows: "To turn on the set when guests arrive is to introduce
common ground. Strangers in the home may then indulge in television
That, by the way, baffles me. To turn on the set under such a circumstance
would, to me, signal a cold and ill-mannered reception. For me,
TV blocks meaningful discusson . But Morley's research indicates
that women use TV as a conversation backdrop that facilitates family
discussions -- particularly between mothers and daughters. Again,
not me. I'm drawn into watching TV. If it's on in the room I'm in,
my attention is diverted embarrassingly from any conversation I'm
Interestingly, TV is also described as a tool for bribing children
to behave well and as a weapon (figuratively I hope) between spouses.
Morley most thoroughly covers the difference in viewing habits
between the men and women in the sample. He wisely prefaces his
findings with the opinion that the gender differences are the result
of social roles rather than biological characteristics.
However, he has a quaint explanation why, strangely, none of the
women operated their family's video recorder themselves. "This
is simply an effect of their cultural formation as 'ignorant' and
'disinterested' in relation to machinery in general." Where
has this man been living?
Morley reports his findings confirm another TV researchers' theory
that men control the TV. He notes, for instance, that all the surveyed
men, and in their absence, their sons, have the remote control device
at hand. Hmmm. Interesting.
I don't think this book lives up to the Cultural Power aspect of
its title. It's somehow disappointing - maybe because I can barely
identify with his survey findings. Also, there's virtually nothing
about children's viewing habits. Nor is there sufficient discussion
on the effects of TV.
But it was useful to read that my restlessness with TV might be
that, as a woman, I feel too guilty to just sit and enjoy myself
in the midst of my (second) work environment. Or maybe I'm harbouring
male tendencies. Or perhaps I'm an immature TV watcher who hasn't
grown up out of the 1950s when viewers used to sit in absolute silence.
Open the Box is a more lively book. Its scope is broader. In fact,
it's so broad that the writing often seems disjointed and the topics
too lightly covered.
This book is described as "an introduction to some ways of
looking at television, rather than a final word on the subject."
It is in fact an exhaustive and occasionally murky analysis of the
current thoughts, opinions and strategies of TV critics, viewers
The book mentions many theories on the effects of TV - from providing
pertinent information to causing buck teeth! Author Root tries to
expose the myth of televison zombies glued to the set and shows
how much a part of family life the TV has become.
Root touches on the power of TV more than does Morley. She mentions
those who own, manage and produce televison as having considerable
power over those who try to fit their activities around a TV schedule.
Similarly, she describes those who interpret the news and other
information as wielding considerable influence. In the first chapter,
however, she seems to scoff at the criticisms of TV as being too
great an influence on our lives.
She contends that "rather than being endlessly structured
and manipulated by TV, we creatively fit it into our lives."
An illustration, a graph from the Central Electricity Generating
Board, suggests to me the opposite. It shows the massive demand
for electricity at the end of the Thorn Birds showing in January
1984. Millions of viewers turned on lights, made tea and used electrically-pumped
water to flush their toilets
Open the Box is not well written nor carefully edited. Punctuation
too often is missing. The book has many black and white pictures,
but most of those supposedly reproduced from a TV set are largely
unidentifiable. Further, the sans serif type, widely spaced words
and heavy leading between the lines make it hard to read. Because
of this, I found Open the Box the harder to read of these two books,
even though I was more interested in it.
Both books would be more interesting if based on Canadian research.
Susan Maclean is owner of the writing/editing firm Sumac Communication
and currently tries not to use TV for avoiding reality.
This article originally appeared in Sources, 10th Anniversary
issue, Summer 1987.
Goal for National Survival: 50% Canadian TV Content
Canadian Culture and the CBC
Broadcasting is Cultural National Defence
Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting
Index of Book
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