In a feature article for New York magazine, Jonathan Chait examines the cultural sway of television and movies, concluding that their influence may be even greater than imagined. Especially in rapidly-industrializing folk societies like parts of rural India and Brazil, the power of electronic visual media eclipses almost anything that has come before it:
Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.
Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.
Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.
In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment.
Ultimately, he says, television and movie executives’ cultural power is everything it’s cracked up to be:
This capacity to mold the moral premises of large segments of the public, and especially the youngest and most impressionable elements, may or may not be unfair. What it is undoubtedly is a source of cultural (and hence political) power. Liberals like to believe that our strength derives solely from the natural concordance of the people, that we represent what most Americans believe, or would believe if not for the distorting rightward pull of Fox News and the Koch brothers and the rest. Conservatives surely do benefit from these outposts of power, and most would rather indulge their own populist fantasies than admit it. But they do have a point about one thing: We liberals owe not a small measure of our success to the propaganda campaign of a tiny, disproportionately influential cultural elite.
I’ve had a few fairly intense debates with friends and acquaintances about the essential nature of television and, specifically, whether it’s intrinsically opposed to the (re)building of a Christian culture in the way that, say, contraception is intrinsically opposed to the telos of a sexual act. I’ve occasionally played the antagonist, and tried to defend the medium against the somewhat-predictable denunciations of graduate student/academic types (of course they don’t watch any television, given the nature of their calling, but ought their zero-tolerance policy be expanded into a moral imperative for all Christians? And didn’t a man no less than Blessed John Paul II exhort us to use every means at our disposal for evangelization, including frequent appearances on . . . television?).
In truth, I sympathize strongly with the anti-TV crowd, but wish their arguments sounded less like how Charles Murray pins them (hipsterish sermons) and more like monastic calls for detachment from the world and dedication to study. In that vein, this article–and these studies–really ought to jar people who cannot see any possible issue with this daily, ritualistic, visual devotion that saturates and appears to subtly steer our collective moral thinking.
In any case, do read the whole article here.