It’s Official: It’s Not Television That Makes You Stupid

Elke Weissmann

On Monday, 13 September, The Guardian ran a story with the subtitle ‘TV really does rot your brain’. It was based on research by different American health scientists who looked into the relationship between (self-reported) television consumption and decline in grey matter in later life. The great aspect was that these were long-term studies, often starting as far back as the 1980s. The not so great element was that they focused on self-reported television consumption (seldom, sometimes, often) and very little else. When you read the statement of one of the research leads, Kelley Pettee Gabriel, what becomes evident is that it’s not about watching television but sedentary behaviour which television consumption is assumed to be.

So it’s not television, it’s lack of movement which is the actual problem. You could as well say ‘driving everywhere makes you stupid’. But obviously that is not a headline people would trust. However, a headline works that confirms society’s believes about television, a hugely important medium, but one where the technology is based in the home and has become a ‘home appliance’, which we consume in the private sphere and which women consume more. So why does television remain the bad object?

In my own research from 2012 I highlighted that television in the UK only became ‘good’ in the eyes of critics when it could be masculinised, either by the recourse to an imagined ‘creative genius’ of a showrunner or by connecting it to technology such as the internet and streaming services. What that research also implied is that in the UK (and also in the US) television overall remains connected to the feminine (and the working-class).

The value systems that are applied in order to judge television remain those highly established in our society. Valuable is that which is connected to the masculine, the upper or upper middle-classes and often that which is white (unless it is working class and white). Everything else is just labelled ‘trash’, at best perceived as popular culture, at worst as ‘rotting your brain’.

But television is a medium of incredible innovation and of huge importance in our daily lives. Be honest: how often did you turn to television for information, comfort or both during the pandemic? And what role does television play for you in your daily life? Should we not, because we use it daily, celebrate it more?

Well, that was our thinking when we developed the Critical Awards in Television, an award that aims to celebrate that which is often forgotten or overlooked and which we set up in order to challenge the hierarchies described above. Considering the impact of the pandemic on us all, we decided to focus this year on everything to do with the pandemic.

This meant celebrating writing and production design that managed to use the constraints of the pandemic for creative purposes, celebrating those production managers who are in charge of health and safety who have managed to come up with clever ideas to continue producing the programmes we love, and giving an award to the television programme that gave us most comfort.

The last category (the television programme that gave us most comfort) is decided by you, the public, and you can still vote by putting the number 195-874-377 into the Vevox app (voting closes Monday 20 September 2021).

Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on television, transnational relations, and gender and the media.

Leave a Reply