Updated: Sep 8, 2021
In chapter six of Neil Postman's book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he poses the questions, “What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce?” (Postman, 1985). Postman went on, in hopes of reducing confusion, to explain the difference between technology and medium. Explaining how the technology is the physically source from which the knowledge is delivered, while the medium is how the knowledge is presented, the format. In looking at each of these questions individually a deeper understanding of “what is television?” can be obtained.
What is television? The Oxford Dictionary defines television as, “a device that receives television signals and reproduces them on a screen.” By this account television is the technology and not the medium. However, a second definition, also provided by The Oxford Dictionary state a television is “a system for transmitting visual images and sound that are reproduced on screens, chiefly used to broadcast programs for entertainment, information, and education.” This then takes it from the technology to the medium from broadcast. Television is clearly both technology and medium. The remaining three questions require looking at television as the medium presented by the technology to gain a greater appreciation of the responses.
"What type of conversations does television permit?" Understand ‘conversation’ to mean “oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas” as defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary. Television takes the exchange one step forward in granting the oral exchange visual images. The type of conversations allowed on television are limited only by the programmers needs to fill time and what the Federal Communications Commission deems fit to air.
No subjects are left off the table, topics include politics, religion, sexuality, finance, relationships, and so much more, covering both truth and fictional stories. Regardless of the content, the main purpose of these conversations, the purpose of television, is for entertainment purposes of the viewers.
"Television encourages what intellectual tendencies?" Television captivates the viewer through visual imagery, emotionally moves the viewer by the sounds and stimulates the viewer momentarily by the content of the context. Commercials are approximately 30 seconds, most programs are 30 minutes long, and there is generally only 8 minutes between every commercial break on network programming. This provides the brain with a constant flow of new and exciting information keeping interest levels high and a sensory need to continue to watch necessary.
Television takes away the need to have to think about any one subject for too long because it is giving new information to process regularly. This constant bombardment of stimuli makes preceding information in a sense less relevant than the information that follows. Television removes the desire to pursue further information, through the entertainment provided intellectual tendencies fall void.
The culture produced through television in America has changed in accordance to what was viewed on mainstream broadcasting at the time. In the 50’s everyone was struggling to keep their homes as clean as June Cleaver’s, their marriages as passionate as Ricky and Lucy’s, and their kids as clean cut as Dobie Gillis and friends. In the 70’s there was a shift making divorce more acceptable by showing a single parent in One Day at a Time, or the blended family of the Brady Bunch. We saw more racial diversity with Good Times, Welcome Back Kotter, What’s Happening, and The Jefferson’s. Then Jefferson's pushed the boundaries of the time with an interracial couple and Mr. Drummond, in Different Strokes,, did what was almost unthinkable at the time by adopting Willis and Arnold.
The Dukes of Hazzard made it more acceptable for women to wear more revealing clothing and to still be seen as the girl next door rather than the town floozy as Daisy and Deputy Enos courted and were eventually married. In the 90’s the gang from 90210 made teenage sex, drinking, and drug use more prevalent and though not acceptable to do, it became acceptable to discuss in public and with your parents openly. Six best friends from New York left no topic untouched as is openly discussed casual sex, relationships, politics, career jumping, college skipping, the LGBTQ community, and many others. There was a big shift in the 80’s and 90’s to shows that made you “feel good” and were more lighthearted.
There were still plenty of shows focused on families but there was more diversity on what the word family meant. The trend of acceptance and exposure of current and relevant topics has continued through recent years. Television should be seen as the business of entertainment (Postman, 1985) which can come in the form of sitcoms, reality programs, the news, religious or educational programing, informercials, and commercials. Television has been a driving force in curbing and shaping the acceptance of trends and ideas in the American society. Television has the power to create and change beliefs through repetition and subtly. The culture produced by television is a culture of whatever influence is desired by entertainment provided at that time. (Westengard & Barlow, 2017).
So, be careful what you watch and how you allow it to impact you. An idea can become a thought and thoughts lead us to actions. You may believe you are the one who controls your beliefs and feelings but it is entirely possible someone else snuck into the driver's seat when you weren't looking.
Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary. (2018).
Postman, N. (2005). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show
Business. Penguin Books.
Stevenson, A. (2011). Oxford dictionary of English. (3rd ed. / edited by Angus Stevenson.).
Oxford University Press.
Westengard, L., & Barlow, A. (2017). The 25 Sitcoms That Changed Television: Turning Points in American Culture. Praeger.