I live in Portugal and both children and adults watch countless hours of TV a week, I would bet more than in the United States. Some people like to have the TV on constantly “for company” and few children have their TV viewing limited. Most of the TV shows watched in Portugal are American with subtitles. There are few Portuguese TV shows with much popularity, and many are imitations of imported TV shows, like Master Chef or The Voice.
I had some American friends, with Portuguese ancestry, visit a few months ago, They said they were disappointed to find that Portuguese teenagers looked exactly like American teenagers, in terms of fashion and trends, and were blasting the same music American teenagers listened to on their speakers. I would add that they are watching the same TV shows American teenagers are watching, hours and hours of them, and that is drastically shaping Portuguese culture and these younger generations.
The content, themes and violence in TV shows have changed drastically throughout the years. It is true that TV shows are completely fictional and no actors are harmed during the process, but what do our TV viewing habits really say about us?
TV Shows in the 50’s
A short search online brings up some of the most popular shows in the 50’s. The first thing that strikes me is how many were about families, neighbors or friends. We are relational beings, made for interdependence, love and self-gift, so it is not surprising that TV shows showcase relationships. I Love Lucy is about two couples that are neighbors. They visit each other, have fun and get into trouble with each other. Other shows about families or family life were The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Honeymooners, I Married Joan, Lassie, Leave It To Beaver and Make Room for Daddy. Westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke were also very popular.
TV Shows in 2017
I’ve heard the analogy several times that if you put a frog into boiling water, it will jump right out. If you put it in cold water, then slowly turn up the heat until boiling, it will boil to death. This explanation is fitting for many aspects of the sudden changes the sexual revolution and new media have brought into our lives today, but it seems particularly true of television.
I am not sure when shows about the traditional family disappeared from the map, but I am certain they have disappeared. The most popular recent TV show that comes to mind about family is Modern Family, which does feature one traditional family (a father, mother, three children), but as one option among other equal options (a same-sex couple that adopts children, an older man with a child from a previous marriage with a younger woman). In fact, the entire premise of the show seems to be to undermine the image of the traditional family.
Instead of family, there are many shows about groups of friends (The Big Bang Theory), colleagues (13 Reasons Why), vampires (The Vampire Diaries), work places such as offices, hospitals, courts (Grey’s Anatomy, Suits) and crime (Gotham, Sherlock). All of these examples are taken from this list.
There are many shows about abnormal, vampire or otherwise supernaturally gifted main characters.
In short, oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time, while odd people are always complaining of the dullness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure forever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal, human boy; It is his adventures that are startling. They startle him because he’s normal. But in the modern, psychological novel the hero is abnormal; The center is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober, realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world. (Orthodoxy, by Gilbert K. Chesterton, II. The Maniac)
The most striking characteristic about TV shows for me is the violence. Countless TV shows and even entire channels are dedicated to crime, torture and murder. I cannot keep track of how many CSI’s there are. The top two shows on the list mentioned above are The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, both about violence, power and warfare. A casual flip through TV channels, especially during primetime evening and nighttime, will show people being tortured, tied up, gagged, in the trunk of some car, locked up in some pervert’s basement, abused, murdered, chased by homicidal creatures, or investigated because of their bloody, slow death at the hands of another. How many TV viewers are at home alone, or accompanied by others but glued to the screen and not talking to each other, getting some sort of entertainment by watching other people being harmed. Of course, they are actors and it isn’t at all real. However, what does this say about the viewer? What does this say about us?
There seems to be a tendency in humans to find entertainment and even a certain pleasure from violence and watching others get hurt. TV shows, built to sell, obviously cash in on that. It reminds me of the addictive phenomenon of violence in pornography, but on a smaller scale.
It also reminds me of the Colosseum. It is almost strange and barbaric to think of people piling into a stadium, like they do nowadays for concerts or sports, but to watch people be torn apart and killed by each other or lions. Yet, at the click of a button, in the comfort of your own home, you can now watch the same level of barbaric action or even worse.
What Are the Benefits to Us?
How edifying is watching TV and when do the difficulties in managing its risks outweigh the benefits? Cardinal Sarah says in his latest book, The Power of Silence:
Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet. It holds forth in an unending monologue. Postmodern society rejects the past and looks and the present as a cheap consumer object; it pictures the future in terms of an almost obsessive progress. Its dream which has become a sad reality, will have been to lock silence away in a damp, dark dungeon. Thus there is a dictatorship of speech, a dictatorship of verbal emphasis. In this theater of shadows, nothing is left but a purulent wound of mechanical words, without perspective, without truth, and without foundation. Quite often ‘truth’ is nothing more than the pure and misleading creation of the media, corroborated by fabricated images and testimonies.
When that happens, the word of God fades away, inaccessible and inaudible. Postmodernity is an ongoing offense and aggression against the divine silence. From morning to evening, from evening to morning, silence no longer has any place at all; the noise tries to prevent God himself from speaking. In this hell of noise, man disintegrates and is lost; he is broken up into countless worries, fantasies, and fears. In order to get out of these depressing tunnels, he desperately awaits noise so that it will bring him a few consolations. Noise is a deceptive, addictive, and false tranquilizer. The tragedy of our world is never better summed up than in the fury of senseless noise that stubbornly hates silence. This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder, and kneeling before God. (pg. 74)
Like a frog in water that is gradually brought to boiling point, the incredible violence present on the most popular TV shows would have been shocking in the 1950’s. The themes and ways of capturing the audience reflect the values of postmodernity. Even setting aside the violence, TV is a very powerful and very addictive “noise” in the heart of most of our homes.
American TV influences not only viewers in the United States, but all over the world. Here in Portugal, TV shows and other media that is consumed are largely American. So it seems also for other European countries. I heard once at a Theology of the Body conference that many times, the United States exports the problem and then the solution to that problem. In that case the problem was pornography and the solution was the exposure and marketing of Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Excessive TV viewing has some side effects, which are still coming to light and being studied, as our TV viewing habits are changing. We are still waiting on the solution.