The trouble with TV


For 48 hours Chad Broughton’s Consumerism and Popular Culture students did not watch TV, use the Internet (they were allowed to check e-mail once per day), read magazines or newspapers, or listen to the radio.

“You said there are other things to do,” said Michael Hirsch, ’11, during the class discussion after the media-starvation exercise, “but I wasn’t in the mood to read a novel or exercise after running around all day.” The eight students came to a consensus: nobody who reads for school wants to read for pleasure. Broughton, AM'97, PhD'01, wanted them to get a sense of their dependence on media through abstaining from it. “One of the criticisms of media,” Broughton explained, “is that it leads to less development of social capital and relationships.” But for Debbie Ao, ’09, who asserted that she spends time with her family while watching TV, it can have the reverse effect.

The class took an online PBS “media literacy” quiz and learned: the average American seventh-grader watches three hours of television per day, children view an average of 40,000 commercials a year, and excessive TV watching is associated with obesity. The students also took a quiz to evaluate their own relationships to media, which, in an ironic twist, turned out to be a marketing tool for a book about TV-free life. "Yikes," the site warned those high scores, "you probably have a serious addiction problem." But never fear, it continued: we have the solution for only $11.95!

During the class's second hour, students analyzed race perceptions in mass media through clips from Peter Pan, Pocahontas, and the 1986 documentary Ethnic Notions, which argues that the end of slavery led to popular-culture images of African Americans as threatening. “Psychologists say there are two primal emotions: love and fear,” Broughton said. “Love can sell some movies, some popular culture, but not as much as fear.”

He urged the class to consider today’s equivalent media images. “The constructed gangster rapper really is the polar social other” from the suburban residents who constitute a majority of rap consumers, noted Kendall Ames, ’10. Broughton pointed to connections between perceptions mass media help create of African Americans and policies regulating things like welfare and incarceration. “Conspiracy isn’t a helpful word,” Broughton said about the connections between media and policy, “but loop is. There’s a feedback loop.”

Shira Tevah, '09

Photos: Kendall Ames, '10; Debbie Ao, '09; Liz Baker-Jennings, ‘09; and Michael Hirsch, '11, watch Ethnic Notions with instructor Chad Broughton; the film shows a popular media image of blacks from the slave era.

July 18, 2008