Carole Owens: The vast TV wasteland

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STOCKBRIDGE — Television is ubiquitous. There are TVs in the bedroom, bathroom, and the family SUV. You cannot get away from them. Formerly quiet neighborhood restaurants now have at least four flat screens, one on every wall. Why?

Where better to find an answer about media than on the Internet?

A random sample of online comments revealed this:

Whether dining with others or alone: "I can't eat without a TV on."

When dining with others: "TV gives you something to look at when you can't think of anything to say."

Four studies found watching TV creates a sense of relationship with TV personalities and characters. The studies did not conclude that forming these pseudo or surrogate relationships diminishes the need for real human interaction but neither did they rule it out.

Online there are dozens of pitches directed at restaurants.

"Your patrons expect TVs just as they expect walls, doors, and windows."

"Television is a marketing tool."

"Replicate a sports bar and reap the rewards."

"Simply by adding televisions a local restaurant can evolve into a hot spot."

It appears restaurants buy into the hype — literally. When they install the TVs, are they transformed into hot spots? Maybe, but here's the certainty: studies show people eat more while watching TV. A restaurant may not attract more customers, but the ones they attract will order more.

Television watching shuts down the critical faculty in the brain: TV on; brain off. While watching TV, diners don't calculate the cost or the consequence of the amount they are eating and drinking. TVs are good for business and bad for health.

Multiple studies show that the more TV people watch the more they weigh. People eat more and are less active while watching TV, but there is another variable. Since the brain turns off as you watch you are burning fewer calories because, evidently, thinking burns calories.

University of Vermont researchers set up a six-week study with 36 subjects. They ranged from overweight to obese and watched an average of five hours of TV daily. Twenty subjects cut their TV viewing. Without decreasing intake or increasing exercise, researchers found those 20 subjects burned 120 more calories per day than the other 16.

The average American watches more than four hours of TV per day. It seemed prudent to ask what affect viewing had on a person. Early studies focused on content. For example, does watching violent acts encourage violent behavior; does watching sexual content encourage promiscuity?

In the 1980s, I testified in front of a Senate Committee on Family and took a different approach. I suggested that content mattered less than the act of sustained watching. I took the position that the mere act of watching changes the person. I called the condition the "Spectator Syndrome."

A spectator is not able to affect the outcome nor is a spectator responsible for it. That decreases empathy d desensitizes the person from what is observed. Simulated reality — TV shows and movies — are brighter and better organized than real life. A news report is clearer and more authoritative than observation. Reality is de-emphasized.

For example, on a street in New York City, a number of us witnessed a robbery at gun point and the robber escaping on foot. No one called the police or chased the criminal or even looked afraid. Instead bystanders took out their phones and turned to a TV in a nearby store window. I asked what they were doing and they responded: "Trying to find out what happened."

Finally, researchers have focused less on content and more on the act of being watchers. Studies have found that excessive TV watching changes us.

Researchers followed 1,000 29-month-olds through their early school years and found the more TV they watched the more likely they were to be fat, bullied, poor at math, and prone to misbehavior in the classroom.

An Iowa State study showed children who watched TV more than two hours a day were more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorders.

TV is ubiquitous. We accept it as part of the landscape and seek it out to keep us company. The telephone has become a body part and apparently connected is the only way to be. Those who prefer a calm, quiet atmosphere in which to eat with no artificial stimulation may search in vain. The term undivided attention may become an oxymoron.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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