In this project, I hope to explain the social, mental, and personal effects that take place when an individual stops taking in televised media in a society that occupies much or most of its free time doing exactly the opposite. The consequences were interesting, and the observations I was able to make have led me to form a specific media theory of my own, based in part on the media selection theory, though it extends more to the internal processes we undergo when we are simultaneously presented with more than one media source.
The nature of this experiment was simple: Stop watching televised media (and movies) for two weeks, record what happens through a video diary, and then use the observations and information gained to synthesize some insightful conclusions.
Putting this into practice was actually quite a bit harder than expected. The situation in my apartment is such that there is always someone home who is watching the television, and in my room, there’s usually an anime playing on my roommate’s computer screen. I decided that would give the experiment some flavor and would make it a challenge, so I began anyway.
The observations I made can be grouped into three categories. These are, first, the social impacts of televised media or its absence, second, addiction to and freedom from televised media, and third, the near-omnipresence of televised media.
I would first like to cover the social impacts of televised media, especially considering the way it extensively influences our daily behaviors.
When trying to avoid television consumption, I found very early on that it was helpful to me to just stay out of the house. There was no place in my apartment that I could be entirely out of range of television programming, unless I wanted to impose fairly grievously upon my roommates. This led to me getting out of the house and finding activities around the BYU-Idaho campus that occupied my time. I did most of my homework in the various places the campus provides for that purpose. Unfortunately, I also nearly stopped talking with the people I lived with, since they were always watching television and I was not.
The next observation is related. To compensate for the inability to take in the same entertainment medium as my roommates, I started taking every opportunity I could to talk to them personally, face to face, about their day or their homework or their girlfriend or their family, or any other personally defining aspect of their life they could currently be experiencing. I was able to get to know the people who surround me much better than I otherwise would have if we were simply watching the same TV show at the same time.
Often, we use the television to intentionally soften or dull a social setting. When we want to avoid sharp social interaction, such as real human conversation about things that matter to us, it is not uncommon for us to turn on the TV and talk idly about a show with whoever is present. I personally found a relief from this to be refreshing. At first my roommates were taken slightly off-guard by conversing on pieces of their life, but they adapted to it, and sometimes the TV would just stay off while we talked.
An unexpected observation I was able to make was that not consuming televised media did not ostracize me in any way from any group of people. Certainly, there were some jokes made about my experiment, but at no point did I feel like I was no longer part of a group with the others present in my apartment. This may have been unique to my case. In some settings, it is true that taking in the same forms of media as others do is necessary to really gain a sense of belonging in a group, and to receive acceptance from the group itself.
In my case, however, the avoidance of televised media in a dwelling in which all present are constantly consuming it actually forced me out of my comfort zone, and helped me form a closer relationship with many other groups of people, because while I would otherwise have been at home watching TV, I was out ballroom dancing in the Hinckley Building, or drinking Máte with hispanic students, or playing a board game with my home-evening group, or having a deeper-than-usual conversation with my girlfriend.
The act of dating becomes much more effective, and also imaginative, when movies are out of the question for date ideas. Without the ability to watch movies, dating starts to introduce the concept of actually going out when I and my date are “going out.” In just a week we went latin dancing, found three restaurants we like in town, and, admittedly, played a lot of air hockey and ping-pong. Little of this would have happened if we had even had the option of watching a movie. The advantages mentioned previously, specifically of getting to know the people around you, apply here as well. Sometimes a good date can be as simple as playing a game, and then sitting on the couch and talking about each other’s lives (past, present, and future). Constant TV or the plot of a movie don’t allow for that level of human interaction.
Social observations would indicate, then, that choosing other options over the entertainment values of the televised media grants to an individual consumer a certain increased level of freedom.
It would make sense, then, that I next cover the topic of addiction to and freedom from the televised media.
There are many reasons for which a media consumer will choose to watch TV. Some choose it to be informed through the news, or to learn about the world around them through documentaries. Some watch it out of habit; it’s been around their whole lives. Others choose to watch it to feel something, be it happiness, humor, joy, fear, sadness, or grief. This can be used appropriately, but problems begins to arise when we use this capacity for televised entertainment media to fill emotional needs in our lives. The entertainment can’t fill the emotional need; it can only dull the senses to it for a while.
This is how addiction to anything starts. We use any substance or form of distraction or entertainment to fill an emotional absence in our lives. We equate this to being easier than actually finding a working solution to our problems.
With televised media, it is no different. Eventually, we reach a point in which it is physically difficult to look away from the television, because it’s what fills our niche emotional need. I would hazard a guess that most people, be they adults, teenagers, or children, are addicted to their favorite television programs, and their list of favorites may be alarmingly long.
One observation I made was that after a short time (a few days) of abstaining from television, I began to feel like I was hitting a mental wall. The TV in the living room seemed like a magnet for my eyes. Every time I walked out to get food or on my way out the door, whatever was on the TV felt like the most interesting thing in the room.
I took some countermeasures to deal with this, mostly by leaving the apartment and putting myself in places where the TV was less accessible. Soon after (within a couple more days) the mental wall began to break down, and even the desire to watch anything televised started to evaporate.
A short time after, I began to notice the mental freedom I was enjoying by not needing to know what was happening on the television screen. I could focus on my work more readily, and found that I had more mental room to ponder and think.
This lucidity achieved by eliminating a great distraction of TV let to another observation: we don’t notice our addiction to TV because it is almost everywhere and our connection to it is fluid and convenient.
Therefore, I will cover next what I observed concerning the near-omnipresence of the television.
There are few public places where the television can really fully be escaped from. In the Manwaring Center and in many main buildings on campus, there a screens set up to broadcast certain school-related messages; there are students watching TV shows or other programming on their laptops or other devices; and in private residences, there is a relatively high chance that, unless the occasion specifically does not call for it, the TV will be on.
Two nights, by necessity, I found myself stuck at home with no convenient way to avoid being where the televised media was being transmitted. I decided to make an experiment of the situation, and brought in two other mediums for my attention: music and the Internet.
I wanted to see if I could plausibly completely “drown out,” or make ineffective, the television as a medium simply by introducing two other media for my consumption. I discovered that this was not possible, at least not completely. The TV could be drowned out partially, and partially ignored, but some messages would always make it through, no matter how much I focused on the other two media.
This, along with my other experiences, has led me to the formation of a media theory. The Inevitable/Selective Media Processing Theory can be briefly described in four pieces:
If the consumer is within range of the medium, the medium is being digested, no matter the interest level of the consumer.
The medium can be digested to different degrees, depending on the interest level of the consumer.
A consumer can digest more than one medium at a time, with the priorities determined by the Media Selection Theory (whatever is most important and worth the effort to us will probably take priority, though actual importance seems to play a lesser role to effort required)
The consumer actively or passively chooses which medium takes the mental foreground. (In my case, I could choose to put music in the foreground by raising the volume in my headphones, or I could put the Internet in the foreground by angling myself away from the TV screen)
This kind of theory is the reason that LDS missionaries ask if the TV can be turned off before a lesson, and is the reason that some teachers often prohibit cell-phone use in their classes. These people want the groups they are communicating with to give them their full attention, rather than one piece of it, possibly getting a lower priority and therefore smaller piece than the TV or other entertainment. Their message requires high investment of attention, with a high-return of information, and so it can’t be fully digested by a consumer (such as a student) if the consumer is giving only partial attention to it.
If anything was demonstrated by this experiment, it was the power of the television as a medium of communication. Whether viewed as a social shaper, a potential addiction, or an ever-present media force, the messages we receive through the TV will always take their effect on us, whether we realize it or not.
So what do you think? Does your TV consumption shape you? How?