Why Viewers Watch: A Reappraisal of Television's Effects (Revised Edition)

Jim Fowles

The effects of television are straightforward and easily understood; the motivations for and consequences of viewing are simple and clear-cut. TV has a more or less benign effect on its viewers. Except when it comes to what most would consider positive or beneficial outcomes, in which case the medium is an enormously powerful facilitator. Author Fowles asserts that "television shows relieve rather than stimulate hostility... [and] television is a grandly therapeutic force in the lives of virtually all Americans" (p. viii). Despite four decades of research and criticism suggesting at least the plausibility of a few deleterious consequences resulting from televiewing, according to Fowles the real problem is not one of television and its programming, rather, it is "TV Priggery." Were it not for "the cluster of anti-television attitudes that are prevalent among [Fowles's] academic colleagues and common in the world-at-large" (p. ix), there would be little to say about the subject and, presumably, little need for a book such as this one.

Nevertheless, apparently "TV Prigs" speak with such a loud and persistent (if monothematic) voice that Fowles has found himself compelled to write at great length about what's "right" with TV. The book is an interminable apotheosis of the medium, its content, the people who manage it, and the corporate structures that finance and operate it.

Fowles gleefully identifies contradictions and incongruities held by "TV Prigs," usually with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The academic community will, I think, acknowledge (however grudgingly) many of these foibles. For instance, Fowles notes that "As much as Prigs may publicly belittle television viewers, it appears to be the case that privately they [Prigs] watch as much video fantasy as anyone else" (p. 99). 'Fess up, readers. Tell the truth. You know you've viewed Gilligan's Island (for scholarly purposes only, of course) and America's Funniest Home Videos (the kids wanted to watch it, right?). Evidently, Fowles's accusation is so important, so noteworthy, and so novel, it is worth repeating. And he does so. Several times. Just in case we somehow missed it the first, second, or third time, he mentions it yet again.

Guided, he writes, by his "sole allegiance... to ideas, and to the power of ideas" (p. xi), Fowles wallows in ideas. That many of the ideas are absent evidence, explanatory ability or logic is of little concern. For example, after discussing Fred Silverman's prowess as a network programmer, Fowles offers this pearl to explain Silverman's sudden impotence in 1980: "With one thing and another, Silverman lost the knack of catching the public pulse" (p. 84). Ain't it the truth. It's always somethin'. Either one thing or the other. This is wisdom according to the Gilda Radner Saturday Night Live character, Roseanne Roseannadanna. (If TV's so wonderful, it must be instructive to cite it as evidence in support of my own argument.)

This is a silly book. The book's purpose may not be silly; the author's arguments and the evidence he marshalls to support them certainly are. Frequently naïve in his wide-eyed rapture with the medium, Fowles seeks to discredit the results of social science research on the effects of television that do not agree with his position. Those studies he cites to provide support for his thesis, though, escape serious scrutiny. Interestingly absent from the arguments presented by Fowles are the work of critical theorists and critical approaches. Evidently such positions do not fall within the scope of TV Priggery. Fowles's argument, moreover, is constructed in such a way that virtually any criticism of the text provides support for the text's assertions: my negative response to the book demonstrates my own Priggery. A classic double-bind.

The title of the text reveals the author's bias: an assertion, not a question. Why Viewers Watch might be a useful book for generating discussion. To employ this book as the sole text for a class in media effects, for instance, would be an error. Incidentally, the answer to the question implied by the book's title is that TV provides us with what we want. The evidence, according to Fowles, is the Nielsen ratings. I thought we had given up that old chestnut long ago.



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