What’s on TV Tonight?

By Larry A. Tucker

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    A look at some of the messages television sends.

    With the flip of a switch we can bring the world into our homes. With television, we can tune in to wholesome entertainment, helpful news, and educational, uplifting, and informative programs.

    But TV can also bring an influence—sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle—that can destroy whatever spirit of unity and righteousness we may be trying to encourage in our lives.

    The days are long past when we could consider TV to be an innocent, innocuous part of daily life or a casual baby-sitter. It is a powerful, persuasive teacher and a primary companion for children, many of whom spend more time in front of the TV than in school. Considering that some members of the average family watch more than seven hours of TV per day, it is not surprising that contemporary research indicates that human development and behavior are affected by television to a degree far exceeding earlier judgments.1

    Unfortunately, this medium, which has been used for much good, has increasingly been misused. The number of programs and commercials that conflict with gospel standards is steadily rising, and few viewers demonstrate enough self-discipline to resist. Some of us don’t even realize what hidden messages we’re receiving—and little by little we subconsciously come to accept them as normal or appropriate.

    The following discussion is based on some of the most recent information available. Most of this research comes from the 1970s and early 80s, and it deals only with U.S. network television, excluding cable stations. Still, it can give us an idea of some of the messages TV is sending.


    According to the Neilson Index, the average American child watches 18,000 television murders before he or she graduates from high school.2 Other acts of aggression, such as hitting and shooting, are commonplace in children’s shows, where violence tends to be greater than in adult programs.3

    Content analyses conducted over more than a decade show that the level of violence on television has remained stable and high. Findings indicate that more than 80 percent of all television programs contain violent behavior and that the average television program includes more than five acts of violence.4


    Research indicates that consumption of alcohol is shown or mentioned in 80 percent of prime-time programs.5 Alcoholic beverages not only outnumber other beverages consumed on TV, but the pattern of drinking is virtually the inverse of the pattern found in the real world. On television, acts of drinking alcohol are twice as frequent as acts of drinking the second-ranking beverages—coffee and tea—fourteen times more frequent than consuming soft drinks, and at least fifteen times more frequent than drinking water. Moreover, 52 percent of all identifiable alcoholic beverages on television are hard liquor, 22 percent are wine, and 16 percent are beer.6

    Research also shows that soap operas average almost three one-minute intervals per twenty-one-minute program during which an alcohol-related event occurs.7 This amounts to at least six incidents per hour. Other studies show that during no hour of early evening TV is the average rate of alcohol usage fewer than 1 1/2 incidents per hour, and during later times (9:00–11:00 P.M.), no hour passes with fewer than three incidents of drinking.8

    It has been estimated that the average child will be exposed to ten drinking episodes on television per day—almost 4,000 annually.9 Since television characters rarely refuse drinks or express disapproval of drinking, and since most drinkers in the prime-time world are “good guys,” it’s easy to see how viewers could easily develop unhealthy, distorted attitudes about alcohol.


    Each year the average child watches approximately 22,000 commercials—5,000 of them for food products, the majority of which are high-calorie, high-sugar, low-nutrition items.10 Research indicates that 67 percent of Saturday morning commercials are for sugared cereals, candy bars, and other sweets.11 Only 3 percent of TV food ads are for fruits and vegetables.12

    Meals portrayed on prime-time television are anything but balanced and far from relaxed. On TV, snacking (39 percent of all eating-drinking incidents) is almost as common as breakfast, lunch, and dinner combined (42 percent). During daytime weekend children’s programs, snacking comprises 45 percent of all eating events, while regular meals constitute only 24 percent. Fruits are chosen as snacks on television only 4 to 5 percent of the time.13 Clearly, TV does not promote good eating habits.

    Opulent Life-style

    Affluence and power are common themes of some of the most popular shows on current prime-time television. Some programs consistently glamorize materialism and glorify “the things of this world.” (See D&C 121:35.) With high-fashion wardrobes, luxurious estates, and insatiable appetites for wealth, these TV characters portray the false idea that greed brings gratification and that “the natural man” (see Mosiah 3:19) is happy. Life-styles portrayed on these programs often promote self-satisfaction rather than sacrifice, greed instead of charity, and conceit rather than humility.

    Marriage and Family Life

    Although some popular shows depict healthy family life, more often marriage and family are either ignored or are conveyed as largely irrelevant or ineffectual.14 For male TV characters, the important world is outside the home; they rarely have much of a family life, and if they do, family must take a back seat to the more rewarding demands of a job. Some studies show that viewers can’t even tell if 46 percent of men on TV are married; other studies indicate that 66 percent of the white males and 75 percent of the nonwhite males who are major characters on TV are not depicted as husbands.15 Interestingly, these distortions are not as common among female television characters.

    Television also tends to promote small families. The average TV family size is approximately three persons. Only 6.8 percent of all characters on TV have children;16 and 20 percent of TV’s married couples have no children.17


    Perhaps the most harmful messages TV brings into our homes relate to intimate physical relations. In the past several years, there has been a marked increase in the frequency of flirtatious behavior and sexual innuendos on TV. Storylines and settings that include revealing or enticing apparel and explicit camera angles are on the increase.18 Moreover, references to intimate physical relations on TV, whether verbally insinuated or contextually implied, occur most often between unmarried partners—five times more frequently than between married couples. References to such relations with prostitutes come in second. Together, references to sexual conduct between unmarried partners and with prostitutes account for about 70 percent of all references to intimate physical conduct on television.19

    Male/female associations on TV tend to overemphasize the physical aspects of relationships. Couples tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time expressing love physically rather than through acts of kindness, sacrifice, and service. In 1975, the following acts occurred every evening from 8:00 to 11:00 P.M. on the three major U.S. television networks: kissing, 3.7 times per hour; embracing, 2.7 times per hour; aggressive touching, 5.5 times per hour.20 In the thirteen years since that study was made, much more intimate contact has become commonplace—in commercials as well as regular programming.

    Also disturbing is the research that shows nearly 33 percent of all close relationships on TV involve conflict or violence. Relationships that are romantically linked tend to have the most conflict and violence—48 percent.21

    One expert has concluded: “Television is a sex educator of our children and a potentially powerful one. Contemporary television entertainment is saturated with … lessons which are likely to have an impact on young viewers’ sexual development and behavior.”22

    The amount of contaminated content on television is significant. The preceding findings are just a few of thousands of possible examples. Few programs can be watched in their entirety without viewers being exposed to undesirable material. Sometimes we reason that because most of a show is wholesome—there are just a few unacceptable parts—that it is worth watching. We may feel that we can ignore the foul parts of a program if the rest of it is uplifting.

    What we forget is that once images and thoughts are put into the mind, they are not easily removed. For this reason, exposure to erotic television scenes may be more harmful in some ways than alcohol. Although both damage the body, alcohol is eventually metabolized and eliminated from the system. Once pictures are viewed, however, they enter the mind and are available for recall and flashback for decades to come. Moreover, when questionable material is entertained regularly, it influences values, attitudes, and in time, behavior.

    Sometimes we feel justified in our viewing behavior because we are strict with our children and do not allow them to partake of unwholesome entertainment. But is a program unfit for youngsters appropriate for adults? Are we not also to be pure and undefiled?

    Some Effects of Television

    The primary conclusion of a two-volume report of the National Institute of Mental Health is that television teaches.23 During the past decade, numerous studies have been conducted to determine precisely the consequences of the many microlessons of television. Without question, TV has tremendous influence on its viewers—far more than most of us realize.

    The idea that viewing violence on TV tends to increase aggressive behavior has been thoroughly researched and established.24 The reverse is also true: prosocial behavior can induce an attitude of cooperation and helpfulness in viewers. However, this behavior accounts for only a small portion of television portrayals.25

    Research also suggests that vicarious experience through the media, such as television entertainment, tends to engender feelings of pessimism and even fearfulness. Studies show that a diet high in TV leads to feelings of tension and mistrust.26 These negative feelings are quite understandable, considering that most plots are constructed around problems and conflicts, pathology and crime.

    Aggressive and sexual behavior on TV have become increasingly explicit and graphic in order to attract audiences. Nowadays, little is withheld from viewers’ senses. Viewers have become blunted over time because their arousal reactions have become habituated.27 Evidently television, especially violent fare, desensitizes and creates callousness. It is now clear that exposure to violence increases tolerance for violence.28

    One might expect TV watching to be associated with imagination and creativity. However, several studies,29 including my own research, indicate that watching television actually depresses these important qualities. Evidence suggests that television tends to replace self-generated activities, such as reading, building, drawing, and play, which are known to stimulate the mind and enhance creativity.

    In my own research, I have found that as the levels of TV viewing increase, adolescents tend to be more troubled and frustrated, less moralistic and church-oriented, less sensitive and self-controlled, and less stable and outgoing.30 Other research shows that as the levels of TV-watching rise, attitudes of acceptance toward drug use increase,31 and school grades, reading ability, and verbal fluency tend to decline.32 Another study of mine suggests that, among teenagers, alcohol use and television viewing are significantly related.33

    Some students of television’s effects suggest that the primary problem of television is not the behavior it produces, but the behavior it prevents. It is clear that television is a passive pastime—mentally, socially, and physically. When the tube is on, the mind is off, interpersonal interactions cease, and the body is sedentary. Once tuned in, adults and youth do not read books, study scriptures, play games together, ride bikes, or visit friends. The admonition of modern-day prophets to be busily involved in sharing the gospel, tracing our ancestors, attending the temple, writing in our journals, serving others, and sharing memorable times with family members cannot be heeded while watching television. Indeed, TV tends to replace many important activities.

    Recently, I completed two studies that examined additional risks associated with the passivity of television viewing. One investigation employed a sample of approximately 400 high-school boys.34 As time spent watching television increased among the boys, physical fitness levels decreased significantly. Infrequent television viewers performed substantially better than frequent viewers on six of seven measures of physical fitness, including global fitness, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, a side-step activity, and a jog/walk test of aerobic fitness. Infrequent watchers also performed significantly better than moderate viewers on most of the physical fitness tests.

    Another recent study of mine included 6,138 adults.35 Results indicated that as television viewing time increased, prevalence of obesity and super-obesity increased. Frequent television watchers were 2.3 times more likely to be obese, and 3.2 times more likely to be super-obese, than infrequent watchers. Similarly, other researchers have found that the more television youngsters watch, the greater their risk of obesity.36

    We as Church members frequently feel that we have insufficient time to accomplish the things we have been admonished to do. What many of us don’t realize is that we can gain the equivalent of almost one extra workday each week simply by cutting down television viewing by one hour each day. In a year, we could free up an extra six weeks’ worth of eight-hour days! This “extra” time could be used to develop new, desirable habits.

    Few influences are more pervasive and have greater power to shape our attitudes and practices—both subtly and directly, for both good and ill—than television. It is true that many programs have value, but we must choose carefully and teach our families how to choose. As we shorten our exposure to TV—and especially to the misleading messages it sends us—we can lengthen our strides in the gospel and better utilize the precious time available to engage in good works and enrich our families with that which is good and uplifting in literature, art, and life itself.

    Breaking the TV Habit

    Excessive TV viewing is a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition that sometimes becomes involuntary, or nearly so. For many families, watching television is more than a habit; it is a dependency, marked by withdrawal and dysfunction when the TV set is not available. It is a pattern that requires diligent effort to break.

    To counter the problems associated with TV viewing, families need to establish rules and guidelines. An excellent time to do so would be during a well-planned family council meeting or family home evening. Inform yourself and your family of the facts regarding excessive TV viewing before making your decisions. And involve all family members in formulating the boundaries so everyone will support the policy—and so they will view it as a remedy rather than a restriction.

    One of the first decisions you need to make is how much time family members will be allowed to spend watching TV each day or week. Research suggests that there are few, if any, problems associated with one to two hours of daily viewing. As viewing time rises beyond this level, however, hazards seem to increase commensurately. Even if your family is not ready to establish a time limit, a firm commitment to reduce daily viewing would be a step in the right direction.

    More critical than establishing a TV time limit is the need to establish guidelines to ensure that you and your family watch only wholesome, worthwhile programs. Indiscriminate television viewing, even for short periods of time, can have unhealthy effects on the mind and the spirit. Here are some questions that can be helpful as you evaluate and select programs to watch:

    1. What else could we be doing that would be more constructive and unifying for our family?

    2. What are the underlying messages of this program?

    3. Are principles contrary to the gospel taught in this program—perhaps subtly?

    4. Do the characters dress immodestly or behave immorally?

    5. Would we feel comfortable during the entire program if the Savior was watching with us?

    Plan your television viewing in advance. Just as preplanned meals help dieters to stay within prescribed caloric boundaries and to use their calories wisely, preselection of television programs helps viewers to stay within predetermined time limits and to avoid haphazard channel searches and inappropriate programs. A good practice is to turn the set off when the preplanned program is over; otherwise, you may find yourself lured into another hour of television entertainment.

    Photography by Craig Dimond

    Show References


    1. 1.

      See David Pearl, Lorraine Bouthilet, and Joyce Lazar, eds., Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties, vol. 2, NIMH, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982. See also Dorothy Singer, “A Time to Reexamine the Role of Television in Our Lives,” American Psychologist, July 1983, pp. 815–16.

    2. 2.

      See M. Rothenberg, “The Effects of Television Violence on Children and Youth,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 1975, 234:1043–46.

    3. 3.

      See Nancy Signorielli, Larry Gross, and Michael Morgan, “Violence in Television Programs: Ten Years Later,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:158–73.

    4. 4.

      Ibid. See also T. H. A. van der Voort, Television Violence: A Child’s-eye View, Elsevier Science Pub., 1986.

    5. 5.

      See John Dillin, “TV Drinking: How Networks Pour Liquor into Your Living Room,” Christian Science Monitor, 30 June 1975, pp. 1, 6; John Dillin, “TV Drinking: Do Networks Follow Own Code?” Christian Science Monitor, 1 July 1975, pp. 12–13; and John Dillin, “TV Drinking Does Not Mirror U.S.,” Christian Science Monitor, 11 July 1975, p. 4.

    6. 6.

      See Warren Breed and James DeFoe, “The Portrayal of the Drinking Process on Prime-time Television,” Journal of Communication, 1981, 31 (1): 58–67.

    7. 7.

      See Warren Garlington, “Drinking on Television: A Preliminary Study with Emphasis on Method,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1977, 38:2199–2205.

    8. 8.

      See Bradley Greenberg, Carlos Fernandez-Collado, D. Graef, Felipe Korzenny, and Charles Atkin, “Trends in the Use of Alcohol and Other Substances on Television,” in Bradley Greenberg, ed., Life on Television, Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1980.

    9. 9.


    10. 10.

      See R. Choate, Statement before the Subcommittee on Communications of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Washington, D.C.: House of Representatives, 14 July 1975.

    11. 11.

      See Francis Barcus and Rachel Wolkin, Children’s Television: An Analysis of Programming and Advertising, New York: Prager, 1977.

    12. 12.

      See L. Masover, “Television Food Advertising: A Positive or Negative Contribution to Nutrition Education?” Master’s thesis, Northwestern University, 1977.

    13. 13.

      See George Gerbner, Michael Morgan, and Nancy Signorielli, “Programming Health Portrayals: What Viewers See, Say, and Do,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:291–307.

    14. 14.

      See Elizabeth Roberts, “Television and Sexual Learning in Childhood,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:209–23.

    15. 15.

      U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television, August 1977.

    16. 16.


    17. 17.

      See Bradley Greenberg, “Television and Role Socialization: An Overview,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:179–90.

    18. 18.

      See Elizabeth Roberts, “Television and Sexual Learning in Childhood,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, pp. 209–23. See also Doug Hill, “Is TV Sex Getting Bolder?” TV Guide, August 8, 1987, pp. 2–5.

    19. 19.

      See Carlos Fernandez-Collado, Bradley Greenberg, Felipe Korzenny, and Charles Atkin, “Sexual Intimacy and Drug Use in TV Series,” Journal of Communication, 1978, 28(3): 30–37.

    20. 20.

      See Susan Franzblau, Joyce Sprafkin, and Eli Rubinstein, “Sex on TV: A Content Analysis,” Journal of Communication, 1977, 27(2): 164–70.

    21. 21.

      See George Gerbner, A Preliminary Summary of the Special Analysis of Television Content Undertaken for the Project on Human Sexual Development, Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania, Amenberg School of Communications, March 1976.

    22. 22.

      See Roberts, “Television and Sexual Learning in Childhood,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:222.

    23. 23.

      See Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior.

    24. 24.

      Ibid. See also Eli Rubinstein, “Television and Behavior,” in American Psychologist, July 1983, pp. 820–25; and George Comstock, Steven Chaffee, Natan Katzman, Maxwell McCombs, and Donald Roberts, Television and Human Behavior, New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1978, pp. 1–17, 385–452.

    25. 25.

      See J. Philipe Rushton, “Television and Prosocial Behavior,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:248–58.

    26. 26.

      See George Comstock, “Violence in Television Content: An Overview,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:108–25.

    27. 27.

      See Dolf Zillmann, “Television Viewing and Arousal,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:53–67.

    28. 28.

      See Ronald Drabman and Margaret Thomas, “Does Media Violence Increase Children’s Toleration of Real-life Aggression?” Developmental Psychology, 1974, 10:418–21. See also Victor Cline, Roger Croft, and Steven Courrier, “Desensitization of Children to Television Violence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 27:360–65.

    29. 29.

      Dorothy Singer, “Television and the Developing Imagination of the Child,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:39–52.

    30. 30.

      Larry Tucker, “Television, Teenagers, and Health,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 1987, 16:415–25. In press.

    31. 31.

      See Charles Atkin, “Effects of Drug Commercials on Young Viewers,” Journal of Communication, 1978, 28:(4):71–79.

    32. 32.

      See Sydney Burton, James Calonico, and Dennis McSeveney, “Effects of Preschool Television Watching on First-grade Children,” Journal of Communication, 1979, 29(3):164–70. See also Jerome and Dorothy Singer, “Psychologists Look at Television: Cognitive, Developmental, Personality, and Social Policy Implications, American Psychologist, July 1983, 38:826–34; and Michael Morgan and Larry Gross, “Television and Educational Achievement and Aspiration,” in Pearl, Bouthilet, and Lazar, Television and Behavior, 2:78–90.

    33. 33.

      See Larry Tucker, “Television’s Role Regarding Alcohol Use among Teenagers,” Adolescence, Fall 1985, pp. 593–98.

    34. 34.

      See Larry Tucker, “The Relationship of Television Viewing to Physical Fitness and Obesity, Adolescence, Winter 1986, pp. 797–806. See also Psychology Today, “Couch Potatoes Need Exercise,” August 1987, p. 13.

    35. 35.

      See Larry Tucker, “Television Viewing and Obesity in Adult Males,” unpublished ms.

    36. 36.

      William Dietz and Steven Gortmaker, “Do We Fatten Our Children at the Television Set? Obesity and Television Viewing in Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics, May 1985, pp. 807–12.

    • Larry A. Tucker, an associate professor of community health at Alabama’s Auburn University, is a high councilor in the Columbus Georgia Stake.