TV-turnoff week

As the novelist David Foster Wallace wrote, television currently has us "by the throat".[i]  According to a 2003 Independent Television Commission report, on average adults spend  three hours and 34 minutes a day watching television, with children watching two hours 23 minutes.  That’s over 24 hours of television a week or, put another way, more than 52 days of television a year.  "Just like a light bulb, the television is always on.  It tends to be put on first thing in the morning when the household wakes up, and it is often on last thing at night", the report said.[ii]


It seems then that most people won’t be observing next week’s TV-Turnoff Week.  As the majority of people get their news from television it is unlikely they will even be aware of it – after all turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, do they?[iii]  Even when the print media – whose interests are closely intertwined with television programming – cover this rebellion it is normally in an ironic, flippant manner.  Take for example the Guardian’s ‘debate’ about last year’s TV-Turnoff Week.  As with much mainstream criticism Laura Barton’s plea to "turn it off" was based on the moralistic and slightly condescending idea "there are so many better things to do with your time."  Arguing to "keep it on" was Lucy Mangan: "How can anyone not love a machine that devotes itself entirely to your service, that asks no reward, that has no ulterior motives, no purpose but to entertain?"[iv]


Television’s ability to entertain – or should that be divert? – the general public is well known.  But what if we take television seriously and consider its ability to inform and teach viewers?  What will the person who wants to learn about the world and their position in it find on television?  While Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s seminal Manufacturing Consent and the UK media watchdog Media Lens have shown how television news, along with the mainstream press, is biased in favour of state and corporate interests, we shouldn’t forget just how much the medium is also involved in the mass production of ignorance.


In his aptly titled book The More You Watch, The Less You Know Danny Schechter refers to a University of Massachusetts study that found a strong correlation between the amount of television people watched and their knowledge of the 1991 Gulf war.  It concluded the greater the viewing time, the lower the relative knowledge about the war, and the higher the relative support for the US Government.[v]


Assessing the UK television news coverage of the  2004 military coup in Haiti, Media Lens noted "for all their satellite communications and computer-generated studios, the news media often do not give us news at all – they give us noise."[vi]  Media Lens Editor David Edwards elaborated: "It’s just the reporting of movements: the rebels are advancing.  Aristide has left the country.  The Marines have arrived.  That’s not news, it tells us nothing meaningful about what’s actually happening.  I defy anyone to have any idea about what’s going on from watching, say, BBC news."[vii]


This confusion is replicated in the Glasgow University Media Group’s (GUMG) 2004 study, Bad New From Israel.  The study’s co-author Greg Philo noted "If you don’t understand the Middle East crisis it might be because you are watching it on TV news."[viii]  Transcribing and analysing 89 BBC1 and ITN news bulletins in 2000, the study found that of 3536 lines of text in total, only 17 explained the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It should be no surprise then to find that the majority of the 300 young people surveyed did not know the Palestinians were subject to a military occupation.  In fact there were more people (11 per cent) who believed that the Palestinians were occupying the territories, rather than the true picture of Israeli occupiers (9 per cent).


Interestingly, a key finding to come out of the research was that  people were more interested when they understood more about the history of the conflict.  Conversely incomprehension led to detachment and an increased sense of powerlessness.  Like the University of Massachusetts study it is clear the misinformation and ignorance television news spreads about the Middle East conflict isn’t accidental or random.  The GUMG gave two main reasons television news does not contextualise or give clear explanations: the commercial news market always pushing for pictures and action, and the close links between Israel and the US and UK.  Philo notes, "It is clear that a lack of discussion on the news of the origins of the conflict and the controversial aspects of the occupation would operate in favour of Israel."


Combining forces with Save the Children and the Department of International Development the GUMG have also conducted several studies into television coverage of the developing world.  As with Bad News From Israel they found audiences were misinformed due to the low level of explanations and context.[ix]  Ditto the general publics frightening lack of knowledge about domestic issues such as crime and punishment and asylum.[x]


For too long we have been watching out for George Orwell’s 1984.  In his critique of television culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that while Orwell gave "a fairly precise blueprint of the machinery of thought-control as it currently operates in scores of countries" it is not an accurate description of life in the UK today.[xi]  There is no boot stamping on our face forever.  Ultimately we choose to tune in.  Nobody forces us.  As the media analyst Mark Crispin Miller said "Big Brother isn’t watching you so much as Big Brother is you, watching."[xii] 



TV-turnoff week is April 23 – 29 2007.  Go to for more information.  Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England[email protected]. 

[1]   David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction in A supposedly fun thing Ill never do again (London: Abacus, 2004), p. 49.


[1]   Matt Wells, ‘Children who ‘can’t live without’ constant TV’, Guardian, 10 June 2003,


[1]   Greg Philo and Mike Berry, Bad news from Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2004), p. 200.


[1]   Laura Barton and Lucy Mangan, ‘TV or not TV’, Guardian, 26 April 2006,,,1761665,00.html


[1]   Danny Schechter, The More You Watch, The Less You Know (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), p. 56.


[1]   ‘Media Alert: Bringing hell to Haiti – part 1′, Media Lens, 1 March 2004,


[1]       David Edwards, Media Lens message board, 1 March 2004,


[1]   Greg Philo, ‘Missing in action’, Guardian, 16 April 2002,,4394251,00.html.  See also Philo and Berry.


[1]   ‘Media coverage of the developing world: audience understanding and interest’, Glasgow University Media Group,


[1]   Michael Hough, Attitudes to punishment: findings from the 1996 British Crime Survey (Research and Statistics Directorate, No. 64, 1998), p. 1.  ‘Crime falls but public believe otherwise’, Safer Society, Autumn 2003, p. 8.  ‘Asylum seekers in the UK: Myths and facts’, Oxfam,


[1]   Neil Postman, Amusing ourselves to death (London: Methuen, 1985), p 160.


[1]   Grant Wakefield, The fire this time, Hidden Art recording, 2002, inlay booklet.



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