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We are Manipulated by TV,
Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure
Open the Box
(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 talk."
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 supposedly having.
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 and programmers.
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.