Why do we watch so much TV?

There have been two vices in my personal life which have eaten more time than anything. Alcohol and watching TV. Alcohol I’ve finally learnt to deal with, but TV is proving to be a real challenge (thanks to Stephen Bowler for the image below).

watching TV

What I actually mean by “TV” is a general classification of visual media that you watch i.e. movies, video, YouTube, Netflix, DVD’s, etc. Also this is not limited to the questionable ways, one obtains this media – you know the various illicit torrent/streaming sites on the interwebs (please, I am not advocating that you should do so). Just a disclaimer, I do not actually own a TV (I ditched the last one a long time ago, to try to curb my addiction).

So why do we watch so much TV?

To answer that question we first need to qualify if that is actually the case, so to prove this with a simple method involving metrics, I did a search on Alexa. The result is that YouTube ranks 2nd of the top 500 global sites. You can break this down by various countries, but the result is essentially the same (in the free world, that is). Screen shot below taken 18.08.2016.

alexa top 500 global sites

Now, the above is not 100% scientific, it is of course a generalisation (see references at the end also). Additionally I have spoken to others and along with myself, we find ourselves doing the same. But looking for further additional “simple/quick” metric sources here’s another found from Quora.

So I really want to know the “why”. Why do we do this activity because personally its an activity that takes up so much of my time. There are various opinions out there, I’m NOT interested in whether this activity is good or bad, I don’t want to know if I’m going to turn into the devil and become a criminal or how my brain will degenerate into a mass of rotten, low IQ slush-puppy. I just want to know why, why… damn it, why?

Well the first general impression of the “why”, is that people seek comfort, to escape and unwind. Interestingly the content also appears to be primarily focused on entertainment rather than education. Additionally various age groups and gender seem to prefer different types of content. So in the context of focusing on our individual reason for doing the act of watching, then the next question is, why do we choose this activity above others?

Imagine its a rainy day, friends are out of town and car is broke in your driveway – TV could be the next best thing. That’s an extreme case but generally, it is certainly true, we experience laughter, being afraid or being entertained.

But we need to look more at the properties of this medium to better to understand why. Well, by being easily available, cheep and not having to fit this into a schedule (on demand). It is straight forward to conclude, that there is relatively no effort involved in seeking out or getting some emotion feeling via this medium. In the extreme case when watching alone, there are no people to negotiate with (on what to watch), no scheduled time to sync up with others and we can watch anywhere we like.

This my friends, is better than crack cocaine!

But I’m still curious, you see I can understand the ease and availability of watching TV compared to say, going out or meeting with friends. I mean even if you made the case that you wanted to tune out or turn off you brain… you could engage in activities like cooking, fixing something, grating a carrot or polishing your shoes, its clear that TV wins all the time.

But what about a book or dare I say it… radio, surely they can be grouped together as the same activity?

Not so fast, when watching your attention span is shortened compared to reading. Your ability to question or ponder what’s going on is far less. Finally imagination is somewhat stifled when watching TV. Needless to say the mind reacts differently towards these various media. So I would conclude these are not exactly the same “type” of activity. Yes, all can be used to escape, feel emotion but not all have the same effect.

For those who don’t want to read, I found this interesting short YouTube video related to this about “uses and gratification” which applies to various media.

In conclusion, the time old adage “never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide” could certainly be a helpful. But I think armed with the reasons and understanding of the activity, we all should be able to better assess whether to keep doing this or find alternatives.

Here are some of the references I used:

  1. http://informitv.com/2013/07/07/why-people-watch-television/
  2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/does-tv-rot-your-brain/
  3. http://www.flowjournal.org/2007/03/why-do-i-love-television-so-very-much/
  4. http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2013/mar/18/10-reasons-watching-more-tv
  5. http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/11-reasons-you-should-stop-watching-television-now.html
  6. http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/we-are-what-we-watch-we-watch-what-we-are
  7. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10333530/TV-or-a-good-book-Readers-fail-the-screen-test.html
  8. http://www.medicaldaily.com/neural-pathways-watching-tv-human-brain-reading-book-389744
  9. http://webshare.northseattle.edu/fam180/topics/tv/tvvsread.htm

If you have other references to why we watch “TV”, it would be great to hear from you, please post in the comments below.


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