Turn On the TV 2003

An exercise in living through our favorite appliance
April 21-27, 2003

Day Seven: We Rest

(Sun 27 Apr 2003)

Today, it's time to take stock of what we've learned this week:

Now, I promised an easy final day, and this is it: leave the tube on all afternoon, and do other things around the house. This kind of viewing is startlingly common in the American household, where the average TV is switched on 7 hours and 40 minutes per day -- effectively all of our waking hours at home.

In the evening, after taking in all the noise and chaos this constant TV chatter provides, it's now time to turn it off. Listen to the quiet. Look deep into your set. What is it about this box that draws us into its world so readily? Is it a physiological reaction to the interlaced lines, the bright colors, the gases reacting inside? Is it psychological, a dependency we've arrived upon after so many years of abuse? Or is it sociological, an easy-to-open window into the lives we think other people are leading? These are questions we all need to answer in order to address our relationship with what is often the most-loved and most-used appliance in our homes. Failing that, we risk our own culture and society against lazy entertainment.

Day Six: Hey, Kids!

(Sat 26 Apr 2003)

The Children's Television Act of 1990 limits advertising in children's programming to 12 minutes per hour during the week, and 10.5 hours on the weekend. In addition, it requires programmers to carry at least three hours per week of "core educational programming, on pain of losing their license to broadcast.

After it was passed, as the Center for Media Education reports, programmers tried to slide in shows like The Jetsons ("teaches children what life will be like in the 21st Century") as children's educational programming. (A 1996 rule has since clarified such creative classifications.)

But there are lesser-known restrictions in the CTA. Namely, it bans "program-length commercials" (ads for show-oriented products during the show) and "host selling" (promotion of ancillary products by the show's starring characters). These rules are in place to prevent the line between content and advertisement in profitable franchises such as Dragon Ball Z from being blurred in the eyes of the kids.

Your assignment today is a two-parter (don't worry, tomorrow's a piece of cake). Watch one hour of "children's programming" today. (The FCC maintains a list of children's programming by market.) See if your local stations are following the FCC rules of 10.5 minutes of ads and a firewall between the show and its products.

Then, turn to where the kids' eyes really are -- MTV. Tune in for an hour, and allow your jaw to drop freely when you see the percentage of the day that is dedicated to the ads. MTV commercial breaks are regularly 4.5 minutes in length, by my stopwatch, and sometimes stretch as far as 6 to 7 minutes long, including station promos. It's all well and good that educational programming is controlled, but that is no reason to expect that the real youth draws are going to play along.

You've been sweating all week, but relax. Tomorrow will be your cooling off period.

Day Five: Buying In to You

(Fri 25 Apr 2003)

"Back again, new and improved, we return to our irregularly-programmed schedule, hidden cleverly between heavy-breasted beer and car commercials."
From Television, the Drug of a Nation by Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy

If you ask a television executive what their network's payload is, the main content they provide, he or she will likely tell you, the viewer, that it is obviously their programming. But to advertisers, the payload of the programming is advertisements. We see in the Super Bowl (a phenomenon I have already taken the media angle on) that advertisers jockey for position, willing to pay over $2 million for a 30-second spot. But the Super Bowl is merely the grandest showcase for ad extravagance: major sporting and entertainment events year round can command million-dollar price tags, from the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament to the Oscars to the series finale of Seinfeld.

This battle for eyeballs and demographics changes both the structure and content of TV programming. Your exercise for today is to watch the patterns of TV ads. Grab a pen and a stopwatch, and turn to a sitcom. Take note of the start and stop times of the commercial segments, and when they happen in the course of the show. A typical pattern is to start with a 3-minute segment, followed by the opening credits, then 2 minutes of commercials, then an 8-minute segment, 3 minutes of commercials, another 8 minutes, 3 more minutes, and closing out with 2 minutes of closing credits.

Networks have found that they lose fewer viewers -- and get more ad space -- if they run their shows together seamlessly, so those short closing and opening segments are now a staple. But in that overlap, you'll commonly see six minutes of ads versus four minutes of actual content. And the ads in popular shows gradually push out the content: some shows, such as "The Simpsons", front-load their ads to get more eyeballs, pushing the show's segments toward the last few minutes. Others are shortened to make room for more ads when they prove commercially successful. An average show has about 22 minutes of content per half-hour, but you may see that highly successful shows can dip as low as 20, amounting to 20 minutes per hour of advertising.

Tomorrow, we will see what level of advertising your kids are seeing on Saturday morning cartoons.

Day Four: Buying In to Bias

(Thu 24 Apr 2003)

It's the buzzword of journalism criticism. Bias. Who's doing it, for what agenda, and under whose leadership is the subject of political accusations and media hand-wringing.

Bias is everywhere. It is a product of the experiences every individual has during life. And certainly media figures have their own political leanings, as we all do. But the hallmark of a good journalist is his or her ability to check them at the door of the news room.

What that does not mean is that journalists necessarily have to shy away from conflict with public figures. They merely need to challenge them evenly. But dating back to the Nixon era, bias was the call to circle the wagons when a politician was under attack. Claiming bias -- typically liberal bias -- among the press corps was found to allow politicians to abandon a defensive position by seizing the offensive against the Fourth Estate. Can this be a valid argument, or is it merely a case of several Don Quixotes tilting at invisible windmills?

One way to check empirically for the presence of bias is to watch the attention given to each end of the political spectrum. (Other tests, such as the experience or effectiveness of the chosen advocates and how narrowly that spectrum is represented are, while equally important, out of the scope of this experiment.)

Today, and for the rest of the week, you will need a stopwatch. I recommend taking two hours for this exercise. Flip over to the 24-hour news networks. For each issue featuring live discussion or taped analysis, start the timer when you can determine which end of the spectrum the interviewee represents. (Leave out members of the military, and journalists. Commentators, such as talk show hosts who appear to be arguing their own case rather than facilitating a discussion, should be counted.) Count up the time on each side.

Does this total look balanced to you? If your figures match up with the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the answer is a resounding no. FAIR did an assessment of Fox News, comparing appearances of Democrats and Republicans over the course of five months. On "Special Report with Brit Hume," fifty Republicans were guests, versus six Democrats, a ratio of over eight to one. What's more, 91% percent of the guests were male, and 93% were white. Fair and balanced, indeed. Even CNN, the so-called bastion of liberal bias, skews 56%-44% in favor of conservative guests on "Wolf Blitzer Reports." The question looms: are bias claims forcing media outlets to take a position that is counter to the principles of objective journalism?

Day Three: Televising the Revolution

(Wed 23 Apr 2003)

So far, I've done some pretty serious badmouthing of the American television system, if not its audience.

Today, a detour into what America does well: allowing public participation. Public access television is a phenomenon that began in the 1960's as a means of including citizens in a medium which is otherwise too expensive and complicated for individuals to use in communicating to a mass audience. Several cable companies offered a studio and some equipment to people willing to sign up, create their content, and air it, as a good-faith effort in working with the community. (Many others did so at the point of a gun, so to speak, as the "local franchising authority" -- usually, cities -- required public access as a condition of providing cable service in a municipality.)

Irrespective of how it came into being, the fact that it's available at all in some areas is cause for celebration. Public access TV is the source of some of the most interesting, individualistic and iconoclastic work on the dial. None of it, really, is packaged with high production values, and it's often hard to find, given that schedules can't be found in the newspaper, no ads can be found for the shows (or, for that matter, in them: commercially-oriented programs are usually banned outright). But with a little digging, you're quite likely to find something that appeals to you, and something you won't find anywhere else.

Your mission for Wednesday (which any media-savvy New Englander will tell you is still Prince Spaghetti Day) is to locate both your public access channel and the schedule for same. (Many are available on the Web.) Should you fail in either of these pursuits, your secondary action item is to ask your cable company, and its franchising authority, why. The medium is yours to reclaim, bit by bit, and public access is the most direct action any viewer can take to change the landscape of TV.

Tomorrow, I get my Bernie Goldberg on. We'll be looking at bias.

Day Two: TV, mauvais or mal compris?

(Tue 22 Apr 2003)

On Monday, your assignment was to look for TV content from a foreign source. Today, we'll be looking for programs in a foreign language. (For the purposes of this experiment, "foreign language" will mean "any language other than the official language or languages of your country." That means no cheating, Canadians, just because you get Radio-Canada.)

Over the last ten years, this has gradually become easier for those in the United States who have cable, but there is still a long way to go. Spanish-language networks like Univision and Telemundo are generally available on basic cable nationwide. The International Channel is also available, though in more limited areas, and offers a broad range of foreign-language shows, including programs in Hindi, Tagalog, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic, and French.

So I'll leave you with a real challenge: find a program that is teaching a foreign language.

I can think of only two American programs that qualify: French in Action, and Destinos, both on PBS, both underwritten by the Annenberg/CPB project, and both over 10 years old. America is rapidly becoming a bilingual country, with the Latino population anticipated to be a plurality by 2050, and it is shameful that we have neither an ongoing investment in public education for both youth and adults in foreign languages, nor, it seems, an adequate viewership to support it.

I admit, it was simple for me to complete this exercise. I'm in Japan this week, and the public NHK network here has youth-oriented English courses and adult-oriented Korean courses every day. It is important to begin to see the television as a force for good, and a vehicle of interaction, rather than simply a means of escapism and isolation. If we start to think of television as more of a tool and less of a toy, we begin to solve some of the problems of social and cultural isolation that we discovered yesterday.

Day One: You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

(Mon 21 Apr 2003)

Welcome to Day One of your fantastic voyage into media consumption.

Your mission for today is to locate and watch a foreign-based news broadcast.

Europeans should have no trouble with this exercise. Those Europeans with cable or satellite will likely have BBC World, Deutsche Welle, Italy's RAI, the Belgian TV5 (which rebroadcasts the news from Belgium, France, Canada and Switzerland), and perhaps even Spanish or Portuguese networks. All in addition to CNN, of course.

However, in the United States, outside of border-area cities like Seattle and Detroit where CBC can be seen, most Americans have very limited access to foreign news. Spanish-language networks like Univision, while often available on cable, are based in Miami and Los Angeles. In most cases, terrestrial (that is, over-the-airwaves) and cable viewers may have nothing more than a 30-minute PBS rebroadcast of the BBC or ITN World News each weekday. Satellite and digital cable viewers can receive most major international networks, but they have to know to look for them, and they pay $10 to $25 per month per channel for the privilege.

Our limited access to news from the world around us isolates us from public opinion around the world. It is not enough to rely on a few seconds of protesters in some foreign street, or footage of some summit meeting, to develop a sense of a nation's standing in the world, and this cultural illiteracy over time turns itself into isolationism and xenophobia. Part of your media education this week is finding out where to look for the global context, especially when it's in hiding.

Tomorrow, the global context takes a different form: foreign languages.

A modest proposal

(Wed 16 Apr 2003)

For the last few years, I've stood up on my soapbox to support Adbusters' TV Turnoff Week, which is April 21-27.

Well, this year, I've had a change of heart. Having watched the cable news channels through the Iraq invasion, I think that there is no better time, no better opportunity, for a lesson in the tactics of mass distraction than now.

I'm setting up a little do-it-yourself exercise. Watch TV. Watch lots of TV. Really watch it, day and night. The average American television is on 7 hours and 40 minutes a day. Can you keep up?

Don't just stick to your regular sitcoms and newscasts. Stretch out. Take in a few hours of Fox News, the daytime soaps, MTV, TNN, Oxygen, the Home Shopping Network. Watch American Idol, the movie of the week, French in Action, and the NHL playoffs. And watch all the commercials in between. (Got a TiVo? Put the remote down.)

TV is a medium in desperate need of some widespread critical examination. The 24-hour news networks and their "embedded reporters" are virtually tripping over themselves to reach new levels of propaganda. Prime time is pumping recycled reality at a ridiculous rate. This is the time for all good citizens to take a step back (or more, as the size of your screen dictates) and inspect the product they're consuming.

I will be providing updates on the festivities, including daily exercises in media awareness.

Spread the word.

Turn it on.