The Insidious Box

Part One

The Insidious Box

Although television has operated for only four decades in Australia, and a little longer in other countries it has had a considerable impact on society both directly and indirectly. It has proved to be a powerful influence on how people think and how they behave.

Television has proved extremely popular. In the United States for instance over 98% of homes have at least one set and on average the set is on for six to seven hours a day(1).


The actual idea of television goes back to the Nineteenth Century when it appeared in cartoons and other drawings. In 1907 Boris Rosing, a Russian, patented a system using a cathode-ray tube. The following year Campbell Swinton, a British scientist proposed a system which has been described as the basis of television today(2).

The development of television to the point where it could become a household item was largely the work of a British inventor, John Logie Baird. Baird began experimenting in 1922 and by 1927 he could televise pictures of himself from London to Glasgow. In 1930 he began selling sets to the public and in the same year the first televised play was broadcast in Britain(3).

Meanwhile there had been important developments in other countries. Boris Grabowsky claims to have made a television broadcast in the Soviet Union in 1926. In 1927 American Telephone and Telegraph Company televised a speech made by Herbert Hoover in Washington which was seen in New York. By the end of 1928 the United States had licensed eighteen experimental television stations. Perhaps ominously, it was in Nazi Germany in 1935 that the first regular television service in the world began. Although the Nazis saw the propaganda potential Adolf Hitler never spoke directly from a television studio(4).

World War II saw an interruption to the development of television. In Britain television services ceased in 1939 and America's services petered out in 1942. In Nazi occupied France however the Germans used the Eiffel Tower to broadcast a service that could actually be picked up in Britain. In Berlin, television continued until late in 1943 when Allied bombers destroyed the transmitters(5).

It was in the period after World War II that television really took off. In 1949 only 2% of American homes had television but by 1960 this figure had grown to 90%. By 1985 television had virtually saturated American society and appears to have been accepted by more people in a shorter period of time than any other invention(6).

Television came to Australia in 1956 when two commercial television licenses were granted to operators in Sydney and Melbourne. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) began setting up stations shortly after. By 1965 about 80% of the country was covered by television(7).


Many of the indirect consequences of the introduction of television came about because time that had been spent on other activities was now spent watching television. Thus as people took up watching television there was a decline in time spent going to the movies, socializing with friends, sleeping, and reading books and newspapers(8).

Most studies of the relationship between television and reading found that not only did time spent reading decrease but that reading skills, especially among the young also declined. In the United States there was a steady decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test reading scores from 1963 to 1981 and this follows almost directly the widespread penetration of television. It appears that once reading skills are learnt they are not lost but when young people are distracted from reading the lack of practice inhibits the development of better reading skills(9).

The introduction of television saw attendance at some sports events decline, but with others it actually rose. The televising of sports events has attracted quite large audiences(10).


A television service itself is a fairly substantial industry. By 1985 the United States had 1,167 commercial and 326 public television stations. Many of the commercial stations are affiliated or owned by one of the three major networks, namely ABC, NBC or CBC(11). Advertising carried by television is the source of considerable profit. One minute of exposure on an American network has been estimated to cost from $200,000 to $1,000,000(12).

A feature of the Australian industry is the concentration of ownership. Television, together with radio and newspapers, has tended to be owned by a small number of companies such as the John Fairfax Group and the Murdoch Group. This means that a relatively small number of people have a large influence over what we read, what we hear and what we see in the media(13).

A subsidiary industry to television is the ratings service. Basically these services try to determine what percentage of the population is watching a particular program and thus gauge that program's popularity. A ratings service can give demographic information about viewers such as age, sex and education. This of course allows advertisers to see which programs are the most popular with groups they see as potential customers(14). Needless to say, low ratings generally spell the death of a program.


Many governments have set up bodies to regulate the television industry.

Initially commercial television in Australia was controlled by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board which was set up under the Broadcasting and Television Act(15). In 1976 legislation was introduced to replace the Board with the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. The Tribunal was to determine matters such as standards for programs, conditions for broadcast of advertisements, and hours during which programs may be televised(16). Another matter that has fallen to the Tribunal is the question of Australian content. A big proportion of television consists of imported programs, mainly American or British in origin. No doubt quality imported programs should be shown, but not to the point where local product is forced off air. Actual production costs for Australian programs are generally lower than for American programs. However when American programs are sold to other countries the cost is amortized and thus an American program can be bought in Australia for a fraction of the costs of producing locally(17).

Nevertheless regulation has ensured a certain level of Australian content. For a time the 10BA tax legislation, through which the Federal Government subsidised the Australian film industry, was also used to subsidise the production of local mini-series(18).


Studies, particularly those done in the United States indicate that there is both class and ethnic bias in the representation of characters on television. For instance a big proportion of the characters are wealthy whilst those from lower income levels are much less likely to be portrayed. Blue collar workers are underrepresented whilst police, lawyers, doctors and managers are overrepresented(19).

The portrayal of ethnic minorities on American shows is not in proportion to their numbers in the actual population. Whites tend to be overrepresented whilst Negroes, Hispanics and Asians are underrepresented. One study found only one American Indian out of 6,663 television characters.

On the other hand the characterisation of Negroes does not reflect the real life situation. They are often shown as police or members of the professions rather than as criminals. In real life, Negroes are not well represented in the more highly paid professions and are involved in a disproportionately high number of violent crimes(20).

In Australia with a large number of imported programs we tend to see more of America's minorities than our own.


Television news is another area showing bias and distortion. For instance an event that concerns an elite nation is more likely to be reported than an event concerning a Third World nation. Naturally enough much of the news shown in this country is Australian news but foreign news tend to be dominated by events in or relating to the United States and Western Europe. Events involving elite persons such as politicians or movie stars have a good chance of becoming news items though the event may be relatively trivial. As a general rule the more negative an event is, the more likely it is to be reported(21).

A number of politicians have been quite vociferous in decrying what they see as bias in television and other media. The possible negative effects on a politician's career no doubt has much to do with this.

The American politician, Spiro Agnew claimed that a small number of anchormen, commentators and producers decided what people would learn of the day's events and had enough power and influence to create national issues overnight. Richard Nixon blamed his fall from grace largely on the 'box'. In Australia Dr. Jim Cairns claimed that it was the media who decided who would govern the country(22).

What these people seem to be getting at is that the modern media is powerful and pervasive and can manipulate public opinion.

Television news has been characterised by brevity and standardisation. If we take into account commercials, weather reports, sport, 'headlines', and recapitulation we find that the average 30 minute news program actually has only 17 to 18 minutes of news. The number of items is around 12 to 14 and varies little from day to day or from channel to channel. Items rarely exceed two minutes with the main four or five items preceding the commercial break, less important items follow and sport follows a second commercial break. Once an item becomes an important news story, such as the Azaria case or the Falklands crisis, competition ensures that all stations include it(23).


The question of violence on television has been a matter of considerable controversy. A number of studies have been done on this problem.

Surprisingly it is children's shows that contain the most violence although the television world in general is more violent than the real world. One study of children's shows found that 93.6% contained violence with an average of 5.77 acts of violence per program. It should be noted that some of this was cartoon violence of the 'Road Runner' type(24).

Some studies have tried to see if viewing violence was likely to result in violent behaviour. The general conclusion of these studies was that viewing violence increased the likelihood of acting violently in everyday life(25). There is a possibility that some people who are already inclined to violence are also more attracted to violent programs.

It has been suggested that there is a relationship between political bias and violence shown on television news. It has also claimed that some groups have incited violence in a way that is likely to give a negative picture of their opponents when the incidents are shown on the news(26).


The effects of television on attitudes has been examined by researchers. It has been found that heavy television viewers have a disproportionate fear of violence in the real world.

The negative portrayal of older people has given rise to negative attitudes to the elderly, especially amongst the young.

It appears that attitudes and beliefs are being quietly and insidiously influenced by what people see on television(27).

Sometimes the impact is less subtle. For instance 'The Cosby Show' was described as having a 'drench' effect rather than the 'drip, drip, drip' effect. In other words the audience may be more influenced by critical images, and a single strong character or collection of characters may cause substantial changes in attitudes and beliefs(28). The implication here is that programs can be designed to influence or change the way people think. Whilst this may be basically a technical question for psychologists there should be some questioning about the morals of using entertainment as a vehicle for indoctrination or attitude change.

The portrayal of police, crime and the justice system is another example of television giving a distorted view of society. On television criminals are almost always caught and if they do get away it is due to overly lenient judges. In America where most of these shows originate the real life situation is almost the opposite. Less than 20% of reported felonies result in arrests. Most of those caught go to jail and are given heavy sentences. Many ordinary people have a distorted view of the level of crime and the justice system due, it appears to the influence of television(29).


Television advertising is an important and profitable feature of the industry. Of the considerable amount spent on advertising in Australia, over a quarter goes to television(30). In America the average child sees an estimated 20,000 commercials a year(31).

Advertisements tend to play on people's needs and attempt to persuade and create demand. They are noted for bias more than honesty or directness(32).

American research has revealed a number of biases. Males tend to be slightly overrepresented. White people are generally overrepresented but minorities, especially Hispanics are underrepresented. Young adults featured in a disproportionate number of advertisements but teenagers and older adults were less well represented(33).

Advertisements have come in for criticism. They are said to be persuasive rather than informative. Advertisements are said to accept the world as it is and reinforce current social roles. Sexism and materialism have in part been blamed on advertising. It has been claimed that advertisements exploit human feelings and emotions such as love, caring, fear, greed and jealousy(34).

Most of these criticisms could also be levelled at advertisements in other media. It should also be remembered that neither television nor advertising created materialism or sexism. Furthermore anyone with any intelligence knows that advertisements are meant to be persuasive and that their object is to sell a product.

Advertisements are persuasive but other programs can also be persuasive. Nearly all television has some potential to influence our ideas and indirectly the broader society.


An American writer, Neil Postman claims that television has turned public affairs, including politics, religion, news, education and journalism into a form of entertainment. Culture was being transformed into show business(35).

Postman thinks that television not only directs our knowledge of the world but our ways of knowing. Television requires minimal skills to comprehend it and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. It requires neither application nor endurance. It is not a medium suited to argument, hypotheses, discussion or the traditional methods of reasoned discourse. It relies on story telling with dynamic images and music. The result is a sort of cultural shriveling, not through authoritarian tyranny but a social burlesque. George Orwell's '1984' is not of relevance but Huxley's 'Brave New World' certainly is. The population is distracted by trivia and people laugh rather than think(36).

Postman's ideas do not lend themselves to measurement or empirical testing. Nevertheless with television programs designed more for ratings than to make us think there is a strong tendency to superficiality. Even information programs such as current affairs and documentaries need to be designed to keep people's attention and as such they feature the picturesque or dramatic and rarely make real demands on the viewer.

Other writers have expressed concern about the manipulative influence of television. It has been described as propaganda for the status quo. Messages delivered through entertainment are not however likely to be seen as propaganda. In fact manipulation seems to be most effective when evidence of its presence is nonexistence(37).


In the relatively few years that it has been with us television has had a profound effect on individuals and society.

Television watching is basically sedentary and has been linked to problems of obesity and lack of physical fitness. It has resulted in less time spent reading and socialising and may even have made people less imaginative(38).

Television has a great power to manipulate our thinking and behaviour. Subtle and indirect messages delivered through entertainment have a pervasive effect and do not incite conscious or critical thought. The messages are not balanced or ideologically neutral.

Lower income people are not well represented on television. Fictional representations tend to be of the comic types such as Al Bundy or Homer Simpson. The occasional non-fictional type as seen in documentaries is likely to be an object of pity such as street children. The wealthy are much better represented both in the proportion and the characterisations they are shown. The result is a subtle indoctrination in support of an inequitable social structure.

The need for programs on commercial television to please sponsors further exacerbates the problems of bias. Sponsors benefit if people see high levels of consumption as an ideal. Obviously those with high incomes and sumptuous lifestyles provide better models than the poor. The sponsors want their products associated with wealth rather than squalor(39).

Sometimes there is an obvious political bias. For instance in the 1960's American shows like 'Mission Impossible' and 'The Man from UNCLE' often showed American heroes battling villains from Iron Curtain countries. Thus the shows provided propaganda for America's cold war politics and involvement in Vietnam(40).

As pointed out previously television news is generally limited and unbalanced. Trivia concerning elite people in major countries is reported while serious problems and events in Third World countries is ignored. The antics of Madonna make news but a civil war in Africa doesn't rate a mention. This distorted view of the world verges on censorship and political manipulation. With people reading less, and possibly with less skill, they do not receive ideas and information to counter balance the distortions and superficiality of television.

Television has provided a cheap and popular form of entertainment for millions of people. It has the potential to provide a broad range of information on a wide variety of issues but has not really fulfilled this potential. It has a powerful potential for indoctrination and the manipulation of our thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and values. Indirectly then, television has a strong, if covert influence on our economic, social and political behaviour. It is difficult to see where this is taking us. We are losing control and to make matters worse we show no concern about it.


1. G.A. Cheney. Television in American Society, 1983, p.2

2. F. Wheen. Television - A World History, 1985, p.13

3. Ibid., p.13,22

4. Ibid., p.15,16,20,29

5. Ibid., p.38,39

6. J. Condry, The Psychology of Television, 1989, p.10-12

7. J. Tulloch and G. Turner, (Eds) Australian Television, Programs, Pleasures and Politics, 1989, p.1-2

8. Condry, Op. Cit., p.12-14

9. Ibid., p.15-17

10. Ibid., p.17-19

11. Ibid., P.22

12. Ibid., p.23

13. T. Barr, Reflections of Reality, 1977, p.51

14. Condry, Op. Cit., p.25

15. Barr, Op. Cit., p.28-29

16. Ibid., p.46

17. Ibid., p.108-111

18. Tulloch and Turner, Op. Cit., p.8-13

19. Condry, Op. Cit., p.70-71

20. Ibid., p.71-72

21. B. Bonney and H. Wilson, "Marketing the News", Australia's Commercial Media, 1983, p.301

22. Barr, Op. Cit. p.23

23. Bonney and Wilson, Op. Cit., p.289-292

24. Condry, Op. Cit., p.66-67

25. Ibid., p.88-93

26. R. Clutterbuck, The Media and Political Violence, 1981

27. Condry, Op. Cit. p.140-141

28. Ibid., p.269

29. Ibid., p.269-270

30. Barr, Op. Cit., p.197

31. Condry, Op. Cit., p.176

32. Barr, Op. Cit., p.189-190

33. Condry, Op. Cit., p.193-195

34. Barr, Op. Cit., p.178-180

35. N. Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1986, p.81

36. Ibid., p.80-89, 160-168

37. D.W. Cross, Mediaspeak, 1983, p.115

38. Condry, Op. Cit., p.15-20

39. Cross, Op. Cit., p.89-90

40. Ibid., p.105


Barr, T. Reflections of Reality, Adelaide, Rigby, 1977

Bonney, B. and Wilson, H. "Marketing the News", Australia's Commercial Media, Melbourne, Macmillan, 1983

Cheney, G.A. Television in American Society, Franklin Watts, 1983

Cross, D.W. Mediaspeak, New York, Mentor, 1983

Clutterbuck, R. The Media and Political Violence, Macmillan, 1981

Condry, J. The Psychology of Television, New Jersey, Erlbaum, 1989

Postman, N. Amusing Ourselves to Death, London, Methuen, 1976

Tulloch, J. and Turner, G. Australian Television, Programs, Pleasures and Politics, North Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1989

Wheen, F. Television - A World History, Century Publishing, 1985

The Insidious Box