Why do broadcasters continue to offer alcohol-related, sexual, and violent programming, given the overwhelming data testifying to the damage done by such fare? Our question stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of television’s clientele. As a writer for the Journal of the American Medical Association observed:
Cable aside, the television industry is not in the business of selling programs to audiences. It is in the business of selling audiences to advertisers. Issues of “quality” and “social responsibility” are entirely peripheral to the issue of maximizing audience size within a competitive market.
Television does not exist to entertain us; it exists to sell to us. Colman McCarthy, professor at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, explains, “It is a commercial arrangement, with the TV set a salesman permanently assigned to one house, and often two or three salesmen working different rooms.” Dr. John Condry, professor of human development and family studies at Cornell University, writes, “The task of those who program television is to capture the public’s attention and to hold it long enough to advertise a product.”
While this amazes some parents, it is reality that everyone in the television industry thoroughly understands. Doug Herzog, while serving as president of Fox Entertainment, thus justified the level of alcohol, sex, and violence on his network, saying, “This is all happening because society is evolving and changing, but the bottom line is people seem to be buying it.” Gene DeWitt, chairman of one of the leading firms selling television advertising time, similarly admitted, “There’s no point in moralizing whether this is a good or bad thing. Television is a business whose purpose is gathering audience.”
Indeed, children see one hour of commercials for every five hours of programs they watch on commercial television. This means that during calendar year 1997, when the average U.S. child watched television 25 hours a week, he spend 260 full hours (or the equivalent of 6.5 weeks of forty-hour-per-week shifts) just watching commercials.
This is significant when we consider that the most essential product of the advertising industry is hunger. That is, commercials are intended to create a feeling of lack in the viewer, a deep ache that can only be assuaged by purchasing the product. As Dr. Neil Postman, chairman of the Department of Communications Arts at New York University, points out, “What the advertiser needs to know is not what is right about the product but what is wrong about the buyer.” So we hand our children over to Madison Avenue to be told, hundreds of hours a year, how hungry, bored, ugly, and unpopular they are and will continue to be until they spend (or persuade their parents to spend) a few more dollars. And then we wonder why our children feel so hungry, bored, ugly, and unpopular, and why they are so needy.