Monday, November 15, 2010

Comstock and Scharrer - Television

Comstock, George A., and Erica Scharrer. Television: What's on, Who's Watching, and What It Means. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999.

This is a synthesis of television laboratory-type studies and quantitative research. The authors reviewed a vast array of data and analyzed its meaning for the medium of television.

Key Arguments (by chapter)
Chapter 1 - There were three eras of American television. 1.) The early years - late 1940s-1950s. 2.) Equilibrium - 1960s-70s, 3 networks spread over rising number of stations 3.) Transition - 1980s to present (1999), rise of cable and number of stations in general

Chapter 2 - Focuses on commercials, studies about their form, public opinion of, and effectiveness. Nothing too surprising here.

Chapter 3 - How people watch. Again, nothing I haven't heard.

Chapter 4 - News is controlled by gatekeepers, and shaped by journalists who strive for objectivity. However, it is also designed to be viewer-friendly and to attract viewers. The numbers of viewers who watch some form of TV news is surprisingly high, even among younger viewers, but their retention is surprisingly low.

Chapter 5 - Television has become increasingly important in politics since the 1952 election, with the Nixon-Kennedy and then Carter-Ford debates as key moments. The authors focus on Presidential elections in this chapter. They conclude that debates receive a high amount of attention but have little effect on the election results.

Chapter 6 - How does television news shape public thought and action? Observations include: "relevance to the consumer and magnitude of the occurrence" are the two key factors in determining whether a viewer will take action because of some threat or other news story. As newspaper reading declines, television is becoming more influential in setting the civic attention.

Chapter 7 - Does television have an adverse effect on scholastic performance? (262) "Viewing not only interferes with and displaces scholastic endeavors but also shapes the motives and directs the preferences of the young toward the trivial and the banal."

Chapter 8 - Does television lead to antisocial behavior? (310) The Surgeon General "was correct in arguing that television violence increases aggressiveness." It also influences illegal and harmful behavior, social functioning of the young.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Putnam's thesis, that civic participation has declined in inverse proportion to television's rise, is noted, expanded upon, and somewhat complicated. The authors conclude that the news media serves interested voters positively, and could find no inverse relationship between TV news or newspaper reading and political participation.

There is a wealth of useful information synthesized in this book. Unfortunately, little to no effort was put toward the prose. Some sections read like this, "X and Y studied this problem, with these results. A and B studied this problem in a slightly different way, with these results. We, the authors, support the results of A and B for these reasons." Clearly, a vast amount of work was done in compiling this work. But this book could have benefited from a year's worth of editing, moving the studies into footnotes and actually writing an interesting argument based on the data. I hope I never fall into the trap of writing a book like this.

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