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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 April, 2005, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Self improvement, the couch potato way
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Anti-TV campaigners want us to switch off the box this week, arguing that television has come to rule our lives. But a new book in the US flies in the face of fashion and suggests that watching TV makes you smarter.

Britain in the 1970s was a troubled place to be. But amid this unhappy era of industrial strife, rampant inflation and excessive polyester, the British always held one thing dear: their television.

In the popular mind the 70s remain the high watermark of TV. In a poll earlier this month for BBC Four, 31% voted it the greatest decade for television, followed by the 80s, the 90s and the 60s. Just over one in 10 nominated the current decade.

If those sentiments were to be translated into viewing figures, the people behind Turnoff TV Week, which started on Monday, could sit back, put their feet up and relax... read a good book perhaps.

But while TV has lost some audience to other forms of home entertainment - most notably the internet - it remains an overwhelming influence.

TV Turnoff week is an 11-year-old campaign run by an activists' group called White Dot, which opposes television, full stop. It is part of the Canadian anti-consumerist outfit Adbusters.

TUNING IN
On average, Britons spend three hours a day watching TV
Compared to 17 minutes reading newspapers
11 minutes reading books
And seven minutes online
Source: Orange Prize for Fiction (2002)
"White Dot is against TV at a fundamental level," says the group's UK spokesman David Burke. "The whole base model of TV depends on average viewing time of three to four hours a day. That's a huge commitment of time, when you consider we work eight hours, sleep eight hours - you give half of the rest of your day to television."

Mr Burke cites a couple of the numerous claims that have been levelled against television over time - it contributes to obesity, it is linked to attention deficit disorder.

Almost since its launch, television has been on the back foot. Exactly 50 years ago the Nuffield Foundation began a study into the effects of TV on children.

The report three years later, entitled Television and the Child, was "reassuring" according to an Observer newspaper story at the time, although it suggested TV reduced social contacts outside the family, slightly hampered bright children and hastened arguments in the home.

In the half century since, TV has changed into the multi-channel, 24-hour programming environment we know today. But critics say more competition has led to a decline in the quality as programme makers have resorted to lowest common denominator formats.

The Observer article
TV bad for you? It's been a debate since the 1950s
Now though, a new book in the US is challenging the notion that TV has "dumbed down" over the years; that watching television is bad for you.

In Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson argues that audiences are nostalgic for a "golden era" of TV that didn't really exist. We remember the good shows, but forget the abundance of dross.

"You have to compare like with like," says Mr Johnson, who believes US shows such as ER, West Wing, Seinfeld, 24 and the Sopranos - all of which have won loyal followings in the UK - are infinitely more sophisticated than their equivalents in the 70s.

Today's programmes have more complex narratives, moral ambiguity, bigger casts, numerous intertwined plotlines - in essence, the sort of depth one would expect from a weighty novel.

"The form of these shows, the fact the onus is on the viewer to make connections and understand what's going on... watching them is a mental work out," says Mr Johnson.

Hill Street Blues, the long-running New York police drama which started in 1981, is Mr Johnson's baseline. It tore up the cop show rule book by injecting realism into a traditionally shoot 'em up format. Its success cleared the way for a host of increasingly more complex TV dramas, he says.

Reality TV is good?

There's been a similar trend on this side of the Atlantic, says scriptwriter Tony McHale, who writes for BBC dramas Silent Witness and Waking the Dead. The shows combine the science of pathology with the suspense of a traditional whodunit.

You have these intense interpersonal dynamics when they are solving a challenge, and the audience is trying to figure out if there's a better strategy
Steven Johnson on the intellectual challenge of watching reality shows
Compare these to Quincy ME, the 70s equivalent about a crime fighting coroner. "It was a more na´ve take on pathology," says Mr McHale, "nowhere near as complex in plotting or character development."

"I always say what we do is drama - the journeys of the characters may be exaggerated, but there are elements of realism. The science is real. The trick with a good script is to take an audience down a path so they will bridge that credibility gap," says Mr McHale.

More controversially, perhaps, is that Steven Johnson extends his "TV is good for you" thesis to the reality format that has mushroomed in the US and UK. Watching Big Brother, I'm A Celebrity..., the Apprentice can also be brain food.

Quality at the margins

"What people miss when they see reality shows is that these are group psychology experiences," says Mr Johnson. "It's fascinating to watch because it's unscripted. You have these intense interpersonal dynamics when they are solving a challenge, and the audience is trying to figure out if there's a better strategy. It's a much more engaged experience than watching a mediocre cop show."

Make Me a Supermodel
Make Me a Supermodel - intellectual viewing?
So could Mr Johnson be on to something here? Is today's TV more intellectual than it's often credited to be?

Television critic Chris Dunkley doesn't think so. He acknowledges the crop of high-end, quality US dramas, but points out most come from the HBO stable. HBO (Home Box Office) is a subscription channel, rather than free-to-air. It's cornered a niche market which is prepared to pay for quality, says Mr Dunkley.

Overall, TV has dumbed down since the 70s, he says, because quality shows have been "shunted to the margins" of the schedules. Of reality programmes, a few, such as Channel 4's Faking It and the BBC's Castaway, stand out, he says.

Tim Gardam, former director of programmes at Channel 4, says programming has got better, but within a far narrower field.

"In the multi-channel environment, you have to grab viewers, whereas before they had to settle into a programme. So in reality shows and the American dramas, there is innovation in the form."

Where TV has suffered, he says, is in innovation of broader content - fewer documentaries, less foreign news coverage. The reality format has overtaken comedy, he says, because it is familiar and immediately accessible, whereas comedies require time to take root among audiences.

A key difference, he notes, between the 70s and today is the absence of American shows at prime time in Britain. "People sentimentalise the past but US shows in prime time just don't rate with British audiences these days."


Add your comments to this story using the form below:

It is and it isn't, TV is far, far more informative that state schools these days it covers a wider range of topics and is far more up to date. However the trouble arises when people take what is on TV is total truth this is were propaganda creeps in and TV becomes a corrupting influence.
Paul Mahon, England

My wife and I couldn't afford a TV + licence when we bought our first house and after a while we realised that we were very happy without one. We've lived like this for 8 years. When people discover this they always say two things:
- "Well there's never anything good on anyway!"
- "I hardly ever watch ours."
But challenge them to give up their TV and we're met with looks of horror
Ben Harvey, Sussex, UK

I actually agree that TV could make you smarter... by "arming" you with lots of information. But having the intelligence to make good use of that information hardly comes from TV. And the worry is that TV often kills off that intelligence through information overload or twisted information. It's akin to the parable of a donkey carrying books.
Kazem, UK

Got rid of my TV a couple of years ago - Best thing I ever did. I was amazed at how much of my life I reclaimed. Try it and you'll never look back!
John-David Papworth, UK

My son is two and watches an hour of Cbeebies first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I am convinced his impressive vocabulary is in part due to what he has seen on TV, which he also links to what he has seen in books and in the outside world. He can count to ten without any prompting and I've lost count of the animals he can name. Children's TV now is sophisticated and a very high quality, and uses technological advancements to make programmes engaging and stimulating - the learning that takes place as a result is almost a by-product of what is for him an enjoyable experience.
Joanna Farmer, Coventry, UK

I love to read - but it is so solitary. I can share a good TV programme with my partner, we can't read the same book together (not even by buying two copies - he's a much slower reader!)
Susan Jones, UK

If you consider TV to mean "The Ascent Of Man", "Life On Earth", "The Singing Detective", "Edge of Darkness" or "James Burke's Connections", then yes, TV is good for our inteligence. But I feel the continual diet of reality gibberish is turning our minds into mush. I avoid TV as much as possible, but that's not a principled stance. It's just self-preservation!
Russell Jones, Manchester UK

The findings are rubbish - bit like childrens tv really - Dick and Dom, childrens tv presenters - need I say more,
Steve Edwards, Brighton England

I have to agree with the sentiment of this story - TV aids intelligence - it does not destroy or hinder. I have been an avid watcher of TV for many years now - I grew up in the 70s and 80s and, like so many of my contemporaries, have a nostalgic view of the TV made during this period. The standard of television is not higher than it used to be and to compare something like 24 to 'a weighty novel' is nonsense. Reading a novel requires the reader to use their imagination. Programmes like The Brains Trust which were popular in the 50s would be beyond the grasp of many today. The innovative drama of the 60s was extraordinary and quality like that is rarer nowadays, so when it happens, eg with Shameless, it really stands out.
S Cattan, England

I know a family who are all obese, and the parents are constantly ordering their children to go and watch TV because the children make a noise when playing together. Is it any wonder their kids are getting fatter and fatter?
Sarah Naylor, UK

After 20 years of life without TV, I have recently aquired one. Amongst the dross there are a number of excellent programmes (Alan Hart Davis' programmes about the history of technology, wildlife programmes etc). However, after spending a couple of hours being entertained, even educated, I still have the uneasy feeling I've not made the *best* use of my time. I think this comes from the fact that you can watch the TV without really having to engage the brain.
Mark Headey, UK

Wow! There's some real rubbish being highlighted in this report. How slobbing out in front of mindless reality shows can be good for you is beyond any sensible explanation. With the multi channel environment, there is so much more dross. Quality drama series like I Claudius have yet to be bettered by any of the recent output. We're headed towards the society described by Nigel Kneale's "Year Of The Sex Olympics", where people experience things through their television rather than in reality. And when was that shown? 1968. And still relevant today. 'Nuff said.
James Dowling, Birmingham, England

I find that TV is self-regulating. There's so much rubbish in the TV schedules that my wife and I watch little more than the news, films and the occasional documentary.
Phil Rogers, Bournemouth, UK

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