How to Watch TV (and other media)

Following on my recent commentary responding to a survey in which 70% of Christian women indicated that media does not influence their decisions, it occurred to me that I could suggest some frameworks for how to view media, and live with the tension of its influence on our lives. Watching television doesn’t sound like something that should require skill . . . but if you pay attention – even a little – you’ll see what kind of effort is being put into influencing you. While a good bit of what I will offer here applies most directly to television viewing, you can certainly generalize the questions I ask to include movies, radio, internet, music, and news outlets.

This is a bit of a lesson in semiotics, or a way of understanding signs and symbols. Trust me, it’s not as intimidating as it might sound. You can arrive at some healthy thought processes regarding the media you consume with the aid of a few simple questions.

Question 1 – Who pays for the media you consume? Ultimately, in most cases, the answer will be YOU, but often it’s in a very indirect way. You pay for what you watch, along with what I watch, along with what the world watches. In an oversimplification of the process, the television show that you watch is brought to you by a television station or network. The station or network has spent its money on producing the show or purchasing the license to a show produced by someone else. The station or network has been paid for advertising time slots by companies promoting their products. The consumer of the products has paid money for the products, theoretically, in part because he or she has learned about the products from advertising.

So, while you may think you’re watching the latest episode of Glee, and have to wade through all the pesky commercials, in reality, you’re there to watch those commercials, and it’s the Madonna tribute episode that’s serving as the vehicle to make sure you do. Tricky, eh? (I realize that DVRs and watching shows on the internet can partially cut down on this, but I’ve got two words of response for you: product placement).

O.k., so why does it matter who pays the bills? Because it often shapes the content of the media you’re consuming. For example, is it possible that the news reporting on military operations around the world, done by NBC or MSNBC could be shaped by the fact that these networks are owned by General Electric, which among other things, is a major U.S. defense contractor? Similarly, could financial reporting on CNBC be shaped by the fact that GE has a significant financial investment operation?

These things matter because the companies that foot the bill for the media you consume are interested in selling you products . . . but also feelings about how you will feel when you use those products . . . and beliefs about the kinds of people who use those products . . . and the kind of person you will be for using those products.

There’s a whole lot more to this, but you can start here. Try to remember this question the next time you watch TV. Watch the commercials, not just the shows. Ask what it means that the companies that are advertising have chosen the particular programs, time slots, and the networks or stations they have. Ask if you’re the kind of consumer they’re after. Ask if the commercials that appeal to you the most are attractive because of the actual products, or the way you’re feeling.

I’ve got more to say about these feelings, but I’ll save that for another post.

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  1. I posted something similar today. Watching critically keeps us free from the entanglements of consumerism.

  2. Great post Steve. Look forward to further thoughts on this subject. Lately, I’ve been repelled or is it repulsed by most of what comes across my 52″ Big Screen. I feel that if I take in anymore of the nonsense that is our world both commercials and programming I’m going to puke uncontrollably. The good thing is I’m doing more reading.

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