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Why TV Stinks

The average American home has 2.93 television sets. That means there are more sets per home than there are people in this country.

According to Nielson, the average American also spends more than 35 hours per week watching television. Spending hours in front of a television set, for better or for worse, is as American as apple pie.

Dr. J. Talmadge Wright is a sociology professor at Loyola, who specializes in cultural theory and mass media and popular culture. He understands that because of the influence television has in American society, attaining the highest quality programs is important. Here, Wright explains the biggest threats to quality television today.

There are too many commercials.

Everyone knows the feeling of being completely immersed in a good television program, only to be disrupted by a commercial break. Since the first television advertisement aired in 1941, commercial advertisements have been as much a part of television as the shows themselves.

Wright believes that while commercials are necessary, too many of them are destructive.

“It creates a distancing from the narrative and from the emotional power of telling a story,” Wright said.

Wright also acknowledged that television series are becoming increasingly complex and elaborate (think Mad Men), which is a good thing for television. Too many commercial disruptions, however, make the complexities of programs even harder to follow and understand.

“With all those disruptions, why watch it?” Wright said. “You would be better off watching a movie or reading a novel, where you can get totally engrossed in the action without advertisements interfering.”

It’s a business.

Television has the power to both inform and entertain. TV executives however have one primary goal – making money. And in the world of tv, you make money by selling ads.

Wright says there is a struggle between the concept of offering a medium that can educate the public about important issues, and one that can entertain the public. “Networks will always pick entertainment [over education], because it gets more viewers,” Wright said.

“There are shows about Nostradamus and UFOs that come across as trying to be educational, but really, most shows are designed for an eight grade education level,” Wright said.

He admits that some shows do a great job of combining entertainment with worthwhile information. For example, the HBO program The Wire, that chronicled life in inner-city Baltimore, was seen as so realistic and informative that entire college courses at universities such as Harvard and Duke were taught based around the show.

“There are positive examples [of shows that are both educational and informative] out there,” Wright said, “but unfortunately those are the exception, not the norm.”

There are too many reality shows.

From the program, The 1900 House on PBS to Jersey Shore on MTV, reality television is everywhere. Starting modestly in the early 1990s with programs like COPS and The Real World, reality television has grown to become a dominant force in the industry.

According to Nielson, during the 2010 – 2011 television season, 56.4 percent of the total prime-time viewing audience was watching reality television on an average night.

Wright acknowledges that some reality shows can provide important insights to different people and communities. He gives the example of the dance competition program, So You Think You Can Dance? as a show that, in an entertaining fashion, teaches viewers about dance techniques and terms that they otherwise would know little about.

The most part, however, Wright finds reality programming to be more detrimental than good for viewers.

“Reality shows have been a growing trend over the last decade, but the majority of them are not reality at all. [Reality programs] are more concerned about creating artificial drama than providing a coherent story that is truthful,” Wright said.

It’s not engaging enough

Wright believes that television is being surpassed by mediums like the Internet and video games. What’s the main reason for this? User engagement.

“Television is very passive,” Wright said. He believes the internet is more popular because, unlike television, an experience that is customizable and personal.

“More viewers would rather just spend time watching clips on YouTube, which is great for short attention spans, ” Wright said.

Some television shows and marketers, however, are finding ways to turn a once passive medium into something interactive.

According to research on social media and television 42 percent of US adults who have access to the internet, utilize social media to comment, watch or read something about a television show.  This type of interaction could mean posting in a forum, or tweeting about watching a particular program. The study also shows that television networks are investing more than ever before to engage users, which could be a sign of good things to come for television.

By Erica DeAngelis

Photo by stuartpilbrow (Flikr)


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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.