10 Ways TV Has Changed American Culture

MSNBC store, Presidential election
Spectators follow polling results in the MSNBC store in celebration of the 2012 Presidential Election night at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Right now, according to public radio host Ira Glass, "We are living through the golden age of television." Glass said this on a 2007 episode of his show "This American Life." If you think about TV today, do you agree? We have slew of high-quality TV programs like "Mad Men," "Downton Abbey," and "Arrested Development." Yet, we still have cookie-cutter sitcoms, cheesy dramas, and -- of course -- some really bad reality television.

Whether you're watching "Breaking Bad" or "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," the characters we connect with and stories we follow on these shows shape how we see ourselves and the society we inhabit: Just the act of watching TV impacts who we are.


You've probably heard television called "the opiate of the masses," and in some ways that can be true. Who hasn't sunk into the couch after a long day and zoned out to some bad TV? Critics say that when we spend more time watching TV, we spend less time on real-life social interactions. That family time suffers and obesity rates skyrocket.

Of course, not all of television's influence has been negative. If you've ever had friends over to watch the "Mad Men" season finale or the "Walking Dead" premiere, you know that we can bond over TV shows. We also learn from TV. Fans of "Top Chef" or "Cupcake Wars" are doing more than soaking up entertainment; they're picking up meal ideas and shaping their food tastes.

For better or worse, television is a big part of most people' lives, and it's more than a reflection of our society: It's helping to shape who we are, how we interact, and how we see ourselves.Here are 10 ways TV has shaped American culture.

10: Sparks Socialization

friends watching tv show
Socializing while watching TV has always been around, but social media takes it to a whole new level. Robert Deutschman/Digital Vision/Getty Images

When I was watching reruns of "M.A.S.H." on Nick at Nite as a kid, I remember my mom telling me that she and her friends used to get together every week to watch the new episode and talk about it back when it first aired in the 1970s. Social viewing is nothing new, but thanks to the rise of social media networks, this has taken on a whole new dimension.

As an adult, I did the same thing with my friends and "Lost," but with a spin. Not only did we watch the show and talk theories, but we hopped on Facebook and Twitter to connect with other fans. We even joined an online forum, where fans from all over the country would discuss what they thought was going on with that show. We were talking via Facebook, Twitter and online forums with people we'd never have met otherwise.


This interaction between TV and the Internet is pretty fascinating. We don't just watch shows anymore. Have you ever been watching a reality show and seen a character's Twitter hashtag flashed on the screen? That's a clue the show wants you to talk back to him or her -- or share comments with others.

Television is more than something we watch alone in our living rooms or discuss online and around the water cooler at work the next day. A Nielsen study found that around 70 percent of people talked online, on the phone or in person while they were watching TV shows or during commercial breaks [source: Gaskell].

9: Influences How We Cook and Eat

Guy Fieri
Food Network's Guy Fieri does a cooking demo on stage in the Circus Maximus Theater during the 2010 Atlantic City Food And Wine Festival. Tom Briglia/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Back in the day (before cable TV), TV cooking shows were either local morning-show affairs or educational PBS programs like "The Frugal Gourmet" and "The French Chef." Now, an array of food-centric channels like Food Network and the Cooking Channel are changing what we eat, as "celebrity chefs" change our perception of cooking from kitchen drudgery to an art form [source: Da Silva]. Look at how Rachael Ray has popularized extra virgin olive oil (much to some foodies' chagrin) [source: Woodland].

Yet ironically, though there are more shows on TV about food than ever before, the number of people who cook is actually declining. A 2010 Harris poll showed only 41 percent of Americans cook at home five or more times a week. Among millennials, the figure was just 33 percent. With all the extra hours people spend working and on screen time (TV watching, surfing the web), cooking dinner has taken a back seat.


Writer Michael Pollan observes that the big influence TV food shows have had on Americans is not encouraging them to cook -- though it does have that benefit for some viewers -- but shaping their tastes by exposing them to ingredients and dishes they'd never otherwise know about. And the "decline" of cooking shows -- going from programs on how to cook to shows where we mainly watch people eating or performing crazy feats centered around food (Hello "Iron Chef"!) -- follows the decline of cooking in our culture. And with that, the rise of obesity as we eat more fast food and restaurant food [source: Pollan].

But not all food TV is encouraging unhealthy habits, though. TV chef and food activist Jamie Oliver shone a light on the poor quality of food the average American eats on his top-rated show "Food Revolution."

8: Shapes (and Mirrors) Our Values

celebrity apprentice cast
Here's a reality show where you'll learn very little about running a business (unless it's not to hire Gary Busey) -- the cast of "All Star Celebrity Apprentice" does a press tour. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Reality TV is nothing new, and it has come a long way since shows like "Candid Camera." How has the rise of reality television changed us, and what does it say about American culture?

That depends on who you ask -- or which shows you are watching. Some experts think that reality shows make us feel inadequate, and other think it make us feel a lot better about ourselves.


Psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph.D., argues in Psychology Today that reality television shows like "The Apprentice" make viewers feel like they should pursue success, no matter what the cost. He writes that problems like increases in school cheating, cheating in sports and even corporate greed are symptoms of a decline in American values that we can -- at least in part -- attribute to reality television.

On the other hand, The New Yorker columnist Kelefa Sanneh says,"The popularity of unscripted programming has had the unexpected effect of ennobling its scripted counterpart."

In other words, we watch a show like "Honey Boo Boo," and it makes us feel a little bit better about ourselves, and maybe it also makes us feel like we don't have to try so hard, because we're holding ourselves to these lower standards that we see on some reality TV.

However anthropologist Grant McCracken argues that while there is some terrible reality television out there, some reality shows contribute to a "smartening up" in our culture. In shows like these, he says, you come away having learned something. For instance, "Shark Tank" has a lot to teach budding entrepreneurs about pitching their products, determining their prospects for long-term success and valuing a company [source: McCracken].

7: Makes Us More Violent

tv violence, youg girl
Does watching a lot of violent TV make us more aggressive? Chris Thomaidis/Stone/Getty Images

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, we're more focused than ever on what causes people to behave violently, and violent television shows get a big share of the blame. The trouble with studying how violence on television affects real-life violence is that it's hard to measure.

According to Dr. David Ostroff, chairman of the department of television and communication at the University of Florida, one thing that's changed historically is how we study this potential link. "In the past, researchers tried to see if watching a violent TV show caused people to immediately behave more violently, but more modern studies are concerned with the long-term impacts of violent imagery on television," he says.


Ostroff explains that maybe you don't watch an episode of "Breaking Bad," and then go on a shooting spree, but you might be more likely to react violently in a stressful situation, because you've been desensitized to that type of behavior or think it's an acceptable reaction, and there seems to be research to back this up.

A long-term study between 1977 and 1992 looked at 557 children from five countries and their TV viewing habits and revisited them as young adults. The study found that early exposure to TV violence as children was a predictor of aggressive behavior later on. This was true even when the study controlled for socioeconomic factors, parenting styles and children who showed aggressive tendencies early on [source: American Psychological Association].

6: Increases Childhood Obesity

fat boy eating junk food watching tv
There is a strong correlation between the number of hours our kids spend in front of the boob tube and their weight. Donna Day/Stone/Getty Images

Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic here in the U.S., and television bears its share of the blame for our children's ever-expanding waistlines.

There is a strong correlation between the number of hours our kids spend in front of the boob tube and their weight, and research shows that actively limiting a child's TV viewing time can help reduce his risk of obesity [source: Harvard School of Public Health ]. When you dive into the link between television and childhood obesity, you'll find a couple of factors at play: food marketing and sedentary time.


One major problem with excessive TV viewing is that kids are exposed to thousands of marketing messages each year, many of them for junk food. When kids are sitting in front of the TV, they tend to snack more, and when the ads they're seeing are for Pizza Rolls and Butterfingers, guess what snacks they reach for? Food marketing encourages kids to eat more and to make unhealthy choices when they do eat. You don't usually see an ad during "Yo Gabba Gabba" for broccoli, but how many ads do you see for sodas, sugary cereals, candy and fast food? American kids between ages 2 and 11 watch around 3.5 hours of television per day, and that sedentary time means they're burning fewer calories than kids who spend those hours engaged in active play [source: Hinckley]. When you replace time that kids would have spent playing tag in the park with time parked on their behinds -- with a bag of chips in hand -- they gain weight.

5: Hurts Your Marriage

couple fighting  with tv remote
A study found that depictions of TV relationships could affect how you view your marriage. Abel Mitja Varela/E+/Getty Images

Do you like to kick back in front of the TV after a long day? It turns out that your television habit could be affecting your marital relationship.

A September 2012 study published in the journal Mass Communication found that depictions of TV relationships could affect how you view your marriage. People who frequently watched shows like "Mad Men," or "Two and a Half Men" which showed people having affairs and moving from partner to good-looking partner, and who believed TV reflected reality, tended to be less committed to their marriages [sources: Science Daily, Rosenlof].


Ostroff talked about this during our interview, and he said it's clear that TV and other forms of media give us pictures of what reality should be like. We do know that adults as well as kids take cues and learn behaviors from what they see in television. "It's the ability to differentiate what we see on TV from what we see around us and which we believe that determines how much television impacts our perceptions," he said.

That paper in Mass Communication jibes with Ostroff's take. The survey looked at more than 390 people in long-term married relationships, and the researchers found that people who bought into TV depictions of marriage were not only less committed to their relationships overall but also believed that they gave up more to be in their relationship and that their partners had more negative qualities.

4: Distorts Body Image

asian woman looking in mirror
Has TV affected the way you see yourself in the mirror? Let's hope not. Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Whether we're talking about the impossibly thin actresses on shows like the new "90210" series or models in TV advertising, it's clear that TV changes how women see themselves, and often it's not for the better.

Media-driven body dissatisfaction may actually begin as early as age 5, and it can continue into a woman's teens and beyond. Preteen and teen girls often want to look like the models and actresses they see on TV, and that drive for the perfect body leads not only to low self esteem and an unhealthy body image but can contribute also to serious health issues, like eating disorders [source: Heubeck].


I can't think of a more quintessential example of how TV affects body image than Tracey Gold's story. Gold played teenage daughter Carol Seaver on the hit TV show "Growing Pains." At age 19, after she put on a little bit of weight, the writers started slipping "fat Carol" jokes into the script. After a few years of these on-screen jabs, Gold -- who had overcome anorexia at age 12 -- suffered a dangerous relapse. She weighed in at just 90 pounds (41 kilograms) and ended up having to leave the show [source: Ackerman].

Portrayals of the "ideal" female body have gotten progressively thinner since the 1940s, and these increasingly thinner women on television have warped the way we see our bodies. A 1996 study found that 10-year-old children were more unhappy with their bodies after watching music videos or a clip from "Friends" [source: University of Washington].

Less reported is the fact that TV can affect male body image too. A 2006 study of male college students found that the more media they consumed, especially music videos and TV shows, the worse they felt about their bodies [source: Associated Press].

3: Makes Us Less-informed

CNN personalities
CNN might have been the pioneer in 24-hour news programming but lately they have fallen in ratings behind more partisan networks. Mark Von Holden/WireImage

We hear politicians and talking heads on TV complain all the time about what a divided nation we live in, but the 24-hour news stations broadcasting this message likely play a powerful role in that divisiveness.

When Ted Turner founded CNN more than three decades ago, he wanted to create a space where journalists could report the news around the clock, as it happened. It was a revolution in television and in journalism. Before that, people tuned in to one of the network newscasts at 6:30 pm. After the success of CNN, several other 24-hour news channels emerged.


Today, the most successful news channels are the ones with a decided point of view. Fox News launched in 1996 and conservative founder Rupert Murdoch said that he saw this network as a counter to the "liberal bias" in the mainstream media [source: Mifflin]. Since 2002, it has been the No.1 news network in ratings. In fact, Fox News has more viewers than CNN, MSNBC and Headline News combined in primetime [source: Weprin]. In recent years, MSNBC has become the liberal answer to Fox News's conservative punditry -- and picked up some good ratings numbers as a result, mostly coming in at No. 2. Meanwhile, CNN has kept its neutral stance and suffered in the ratings wars [source: Patten].

But this plethora of news channels, particularly with a partisan slant, has not made us smarter. Quite the opposite. A 2012 study found that people who primarily got their news from partisan sources -- like Fox and MSNBC -- knew less about current events than people who watched local or more unbiased news [source: Woolley].

2: Increases Acceptance of the Gay Community

Modern Family, emmy awards
The cast of "Modern Family" at the 2012 Emmy Awards.
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Do you remember Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet in the '90s? What about the episode of "Roseanne" that included two women kissing that came out around that same time? TV networks freaked out and put on-screen warnings on those shows -- it was a huge deal. Cut to today, where portraying gay and lesbian couples has almost become a nonissue. On the hit show "Modern Family," a gay couple adopts a second child. Try airing that in the '90s!

This acceptance of gay characters is partly a reflection of our society's changing attitudes toward the gay community and partly a product of TV's influence. There have been numerous studies showing that when people watch shows with gay characters in them, they hold on to fewer negative gay prejudices [source: Stelter]. Shows like "Modern Family" that portray functional, loving gay relationships as normal help educate people who may have never met an "out" gay person in real life. Back in the 1990s, MTV's "The Real World" featured Pedro Zamora, an AIDS educator living with the disease, who helped put a human face on the tragedy and challenged his roommates' and viewers' stereotypes about gays.


While TV has had a big influence on how American society perceives homosexuals, there's still a long way to go before this group sees total equality. As of January 2013, just nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage [source: Freedom to Marry].

1: Decline in Quality Family Time

family using electronic gadgets
Even though this family is watching TV "together," they really aren't. For quality family time, get away from all electronic gadgets -- including the TV set. Eric Audras/ONOKY/Getty Images

Families spend more than 31 hours watching television each week, on average, while spending only around 38 minutes of the entire week having screen-free interactions with each other [sources: Westphal, Dinner Trade]. This is a drastic decline in family time compared to the pre-TV days, when families would -- at the very least -- gather around the table each evening to chat over supper [source: Dinner Trade].

Some experts will say that any time you spend together can count as quality time; others say that time spent viewing television with kids isn't quality, because family members aren't interacting all that much while watching TV. Or if they do, it's short little conversations between commercials or even by social media rather than meaningful discussions [sources: Westphal,Yale Medical Group.

This decline is worsened by the fact that since the late '70s and early '80s, Americans have been watching TV more on their own, says Dr. David Ostroff of the University of Florida. During that period, televisions got cheaper, and families went from having a single TV set in the living room to having a TV in practically every room of the house. Plus, with hundreds of channels to choose from -- not to mention devices like iPads that stream TV shows -- it's less likely a family will even find one show they can all agree to watch.

To make TV less isolating, kids and parents should watch shows together, particularly when the children are small, so they can talk about the shows afterward and discussing any controversial points. Better yet, turn off the TV and do a family activity like playing a board game or taking a walk in the park. Here, parents and children can concentrate on each other completely without the competition of the boob tube.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Ways TV Has Changed American Culture

I was thrilled about this assignment, because (confession!) TV is a big part of my life. My husband and I both studied television in college, and we watch a lot of TV. I know, the Kill Your Television crowd probably doesn't approve, but I love good TV, and I'm not sorry!

That episode of "This American Life" that I quoted in the introduction is one of my all-time favorite episodes of that radio series. There was something validating about hearing Ira Glass talk about his favorite TV shows. There's a moment in the episode when he confessed that not only do he and his wife watch "The O.C." religiously -- a show I was also watching at the time -- but they sang the theme song together. Loudly. Something about that made me feel a connection with Glass. I know, it might sound kind of silly, but I think that good TV has a way of bringing us together.

It was also around this time in 2007 that my friends and I got really into watching "Lost." We wouldn't just watch the show. We would get together every week for a viewing party with themed snacks and drinks and sit on my porch for hours afterward hatching theories and anticipating the next episode.

TV gets a bad reputation sometimes, but I think there's something special about some of the shows that have been coming out in the last 5-10 years. Watching good TV is more than just zoning out. You're engaged, thinking, theorizing, and I think there's an intrinsic value in that.

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