What Is The Mental Effect Of Broadcast Television?

The Gift Of A Failed Vacuum Tube

Like most people, my transition from living under my parent’s roof to establishing my own household was . . . challenging. The year was 1976, I had $500 to work with and title in the way of marketable skills. I manages to get a decent apartment, in fact it was probably the best apartment I ever lived in, but a steady income was more of a challenge. I worked when I could and spent a lot of empty hours watching TV.

My television, at the time, would seem laughable by today’s standards. As I recall it was a 19″ black & white set and used tubes, not transistors, integrated circuits and certainly no microprocessors. The TV quite working and, myself being essentially broke, my television set remained essentially broken with no hope for repair anytime soon.

I was crestfallen, because TV had been my nearly constant companion during this time of transition. Amazingly enough, right about then I inherited about 40 guitar students from an instructor that was moving out of town and I kept busy teaching. About two weeks after my TV broke something very strange happened; I found that simply being in the presence of television irritated me. Suddenly, the shows I had watched just a few weeks before seemed inane. I was in a period of great learning, making new discoveries about music and guitar technique and my focus on these matters was intense. When television was added to the mix I felt as if my brainpower was being expended by the distraction of television and this hindered the process of my learning.

Perhaps The Most Important Conclusion

Like many people my age, I had grown up with television and spent untold hours watching whatever was on. Television was like sunlight, oxygen or water; it was consumed without question. I watched “what was on” because it was “on”. If it was on TV it had to be worthwhile. There were shows I didn’t like; shows I didn’t watch, but I never questioned the validity of the shows themselves. This was soon to change.

My new conclusion was that just because something was on TV that didn’t mean it was important. Being on TV didn’t mean that something was true or worthwhile. I concluded that much of what was on television was the intellectual equivalent of a candy bar. There was little nutritional value no matter how much flavor was present. If you consider the intake of information as feeding the mind, most TV shows were empty calories.

Let me reiterate; just because something is on TV does not mean that it’s worth the time it takes to watch it. Couple this with the fact that time is the ultimate in non-renewable resources and this conclusion takes on much greater significance. From that time, I no longer watched TV just for the sake of watching TV. In fact, for significant blocks of time during my adult life I have not so much as owned a television set. I currently have a very nice flat screen TV, but it is not connected to an antenna, cable or a satellite dish. I occasionally watch DVDs and BluRays, Netflix or other online sourced videos, but I have not watched broadcast television in any appreciable measure since my television failed, sometime in early 1977. It is no coincidence that the things I watch on my television do not include advertising.

Another Factor

An online dictionary defines distraction as “a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else”. In a computer operating system, interrupts are used to allow devices to interrupt the processor. For example, when I press a key on my computer, an interrupt is generated which tells the processor to pay attention to the keystroke and to process it. Without the interrupt, the keystroke would be processed when the processor got around to it, which would result in delays. If you have ever had a computer become unresponsive, it is probably because for some reason the processor is busy with higher priority tasks and is not responding to the interrupts that your activities are generating.

Human brains work in a similar manner. If you are speaking and a higher priority event comes along your brain will put your speech on hold until the higher priority event has been processed. Suppose you were speaking to someone and a very loud and unexpected thunderclap occurred, chances are very  good that your speech would be interrupted until your brain determined that there was no immediate threat and returned to processing lower priority events. Generally speaking, survival is a higher priority event than speech. But if the thunderclap came within the context of a continuing thunderstorm, you might interrupt your speech for only as long as it took for the sound of the thunderclap to die down. In this situation, your brain already knows that there is a thunderstorm and has determined that there is no immediate threat to its safety, so responding to the thunderclap has become a much lower priority than it would be if that thunderclap were to arise without warning.

Interruption and distraction are very important with regard to human behavior. The reality is, we can only concentrate on thing at a time. We can multitask only by establishing priorities and moving from one task to another quickly. Speaking and playing a musical instrument are two activities that require a lot of immediate attention, while zoning out in front of a television set is much more slowly paced. The last four sentences explain the basis for the entire business of broadcast television.

If you are sitting in front of the television, somewhat relaxed and zoned out, you are ripe for distraction. There is actually a scientific reason that television commercials come along at the intervals in which they do; they are geared to take maximum advantage of attention span. There is no coincidence to the fact that popular music tends to gravitate to song lengths of around three minutes and that television operates on a cycle of three to five minutes between commercial breaks. If you allow someone to lose themselves into a song or a television show for a few minutes, that is a great time to interrupt their reverie and attempt to convince them to buy something. In many cases, advertisements are frenetic but they can also be relaxing or gravely serious depending upon the product and the approach used by the advertiser. If you are advertising a drag race or a rock concert chances are that the frenetic approach will be used, but you’d never use such and approach to advertise cemetery plots or a retirement community.

The match between a program and its advertising is a very complex subject, but one thing remains constant, advertisements use distraction as a way on interrupting your existing thought process in an attempt to influence you. Broadcast television is the playground, perhaps even a battlefield, of distraction. That last fact lies at the heart of the reason why television went from being my companion to my nemesis in a two week period. The timing of matters was perfect; I went from time on my hands to being very busy and it happened in the context of a great deal of learning and personal growth. My personal “processor” could no longer honor the interrupts generated by the distracting nature of broadcast television. My priorities had changed dramatically and I was happy, even thrilled, to leave behind the distraction of television.


In the days before it was common to be able to record television shows within the home television had nearly unchallenged control over time, as perceived by the viewer. Television programming establishes a rhythm and then begins to exert control over the viewer by controlling their perception of time. This is very similar to the terms of hypnosis known as pacing and leading.

A simple question; if you are watching television and have to urinate, when do you do so? Most likely during a commercial. Unless you are the victim of diabetes insipidus (which causes very frequent urination) you are probably going to be present for far more commercial breaks than you are absent. You might well find yourself sitting through commercial breaks while others in the room take their trip to the restroom. The point here is simply that the television, or more correctly the programming on the television, is in control of time. I doubt that there is one person reading this that has not made a desperate dash to the restroom because they waited in discomfort until the television gave them permission to leave.

So, What Is The Mental Effect Of Broadcast Television?

Simply put, broadcast television works by manipulating your attention and attempting to alter your perception of time. It’s a form of hypnosis; but that presumes my definition of hypnosis which is the manipulation of a person’s attention and the use of pacing techniques in an attempt to alter the behavior of the subject.

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