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Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture by William F. Fore

William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).

Published in 1987 by Augsburg Publishing House. Used by permission of the author and copyright holder.

Chapter One: The World of Television

Wouldn`t it be remarkable if, right before our eyes, American television was trying
to tell us as much about ourselves as we can bear to know?
Richard Adler in Television as a Cultural Force, l976


The Real World and the World of Television

For the first time in history, both children and adults are living in two worlds. One is the reality system of face-to-face encounter with other people, working at the office or store or home, taking care of the children or visiting with neighbors, playing with the kids and tending the yard, reading books and telling stories and remembering the past and planning for the future.

We call this the real world.

The other is the far more vivid and appealing pseudoreality system which provides instantaneous and transient sensation, immediate gratification, a flood of words and pictures in a never-ending, always-available outpouring of moving images, but with no face-to-face relationships, no genuine experiences of learning from failures or successes, no processing of data as when we read it, and almost no connection with our past or our cultural tradition.

We call this the world of television.

This book is about the new worldview of television, and its effect on our culture. It is also about religion, which has a particular worldview of its own. And it is about the way religion and television are today acting, interacting, and reacting over the question of who will shape the faith and value system of our culture in the future, and what the shape of that worldview will be.

What We Know about Television

We know a great deal about television, about who uses it, how it is used, and what effects it has on users. According to the A. C. Nielsen Company, in l985 the television set was on in the average home seven hours and seven minutes a day. The average viewer watched about four hours and thirty minutes each day.1. This amounts to 31.5 hours per week, or considerably more than one full day and night in every week of every month, year after year.

This single statistic means that, aside from eating, sleeping, and working, most people in America spend about 80% of their entire lives in the world of television rather than in the real world. Of course the television world does not completely exclude the real world, but families watch more than 45 hours each week, and in households with cable and subscription services the figure jumps to 58 hours, while most adults spend only 40 hours at work and children spend only 30 hours in school.2.

Consider, for example, how an average family of four spends their seven hours "with TV" each week-day. By 4:30 in the afternoon Junior is home from school and has turned on the set to watch a robot cartoon from his usual sprawl on the floor. This is the beginning of almost continuous involvement with TV of at least some family members until they go to bed. They won`t all be watching all the time. In fact, sometimes nobody will be watching. Often they will be doing something else while they are watching. But, like 86 million American homes each day, this family will become a part of the world of television.

Soon Dad comes home from work and watches some of the local 5:30 news while chatting with Sis. At dinner they view an old rerun of "All in the Family" or a game show and then finish with the evening news. For the next hour they will be in and out of the TV room (which used to be called "the living room"), leaving the set tuned to a game show such as "Wheel of Fortune" or "The Newlywed Game."

Just before eight o`clock they all gather to discuss whether to watch the "Bill Cosby Show" (Sis`s favorite), "Magnum, Private Eye" (Junior`s favorite), or an old movie which Mom and Dad saw years ago and would like to see again. As a compromise, they switch channels back and forth during the commercials, and, if Mom and Dad give up, may very possibly stay with the new music-TV channel which entrances both Junior and Sis, who at this point may be doing part of their homework at the same time.

The evening continues. Phone calls come and go. Mom sends Junior off to bed. Dad goes over to the desk and pays some bills. Sis, her homework spread out before her, watches part of the "Merv Griffin" show and "Night Court" before leaving to wash her hair. Dad picks up the evening news before turning the set off at ll:30. According to the statistics, that`s an average evening in an average American home.

"Average" means that for every family watching four hours a day, another family is watching ten hours a day. It is important to note that America is the only nation in the world whose citizens spend most of their leisure time in the world of television. For Europeans and Japanese, the average daily viewing is one to three hours, and in the rest of the world it is far less. Americans spend two to seven times more hours each day living in the world of television than any other people on earth.

And what effect is all this television viewing having on us? Again, research tells us a great deal. Returning to our typical family, if Junior is like 40% of his fellow fourth-graders, he is watching five hours or more of television daily. His time spent watching television is time not spent doing something else, such as developing motor skills through play, or social skills through being with other kids, or conceptual and creative skills through hobbies, or developing imagination and logical abilities through reading.

And if Sis is like her friends, she will have logged l6,000 hours of television by the time she graduates from high school -- more time than she will have spent in classes from Kindergarten through l2th grade. She will have watched something like 500,000 commercials. Her own tastes in clothes and music and her habits of behavior and speech may not have been directly shaped by television, if she has enough built-in skepticism and sales resistance. But the tastes and habits of her peers will have been influenced (otherwise the advertisers would not spend $19 billion a year on television ads), and they, in turn, will largely influence and shape her tastes, habits, and values.

Here are some of the other, more sobering, findings about the effects of television on children:3.

- Children who are heavy users of television (four hours or more a day) typically do worse in school than light viewers, although there is some evidence that watching TV helps low I.Q. students in some subjects.

- Watching television depresses reading skills.

- Watching television does not encourage an expansion in language skills.

- Watching television reinforces violent behavior.

- Children are strongly influenced by commercials. Below the age of eight most children do not understand that commercials are designed to sell something, yet they are the targets of sophisticated sales techniques.4.

Television reinforces divisions between rich and poor, black and white, male and female. Black students watch more TV than Hispanic students, who, in turn, watch more than white students. Children of parents with less education watch more, and, at the fourth-grade level, boys watch more TV than girls. Heavy viewing is associated with poor academic performance, which makes these findings particularly troublesome.

On the other hand, television serves many socially useful purposes. From the point of view of the advertisers, television is the keystone of our economic system. Without television to teach people what to buy, and, indeed, to teach them to buy, our vast production-consumption system would falter, perhaps even collapse. With more than 86 million homes using television sets (98% of all homes), our 1,220 operating television stations, all but 113 of which are commercial, reach people more economically than does any other medium. Recognizing its central commercial role, advertisers in l984 spent $19 billion dollars on television to get their message across to consumers.5. This was a very good bargain indeed, for it represented an outlay of a mere $211 per household on the part of all the advertisers taken together, in exchange for which they were able to reach virtually every person in the nation, every day, all year long.

People like television. They find it entertaining, informative, and interesting. They would like to spend their spare time with it almost as much as with friends. More than half the families in America frequently watch TV together -- more than any other any other activity except having meals together. People believe TV is doing "a better job" in the community than the churches, police, newspapers, schools or their local government. They get most of their news and information from TV and find it the most credible news source compared with all other media.6.

Here are some of specific ways people find TV useful in their lives.

First, television provides people with an opportunity for relaxation and escape. Many viewers watch simply to pass the time, to get away from pressures, to enjoy. Michael Real points out that individuals driven by the Calvinist work ethic and our cultural consumer-ethic require opportunities to do nothing. Television is perhaps most useful to many people by allowing them to laugh, to get angry, to feel emotions, or even to be bored without feeling a sense of responsibility or a pang of conscience. Television often is criticized for its banality, its failure to challenge. But it is precisely this quality that appeals most to many people: they feel the need to escape momentarily from the pressures of life. Historically, every society has discovered some means of temporary escape for its citizens, ranging from orgiastic dancing and dramatic rituals to alcohol and opium. In comparison to many alternatives, television offers escape that is inexpensive, immediate, and socially acceptable.

Second, and closely related, television provides many people with important psychological compensation for a sense of alienation or frustration born of loneliness, poverty, illness, joblessness, loss of loved ones, divorce, and similar problems. For these people television is always there, accessible, available, a moving and speaking image in "living" color, compensating for a loss of contact in another part of their lives. Perhaps this explains why there are more TV sets than bathtubs in America: many people apparently need companionship and psychological compensation more than cleanliness.

Third, television provides a sense of security and stability. One of the strongest messages of television is that life is not totally chaotic, that there is somebody in charge. Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News for 16 years, says that the nightly newscast on TV offers proof to the viewer that "the world`s still here and there`s going to be another day."7. From Dr. Kildare to Marcus Welby, M.D., from Matt Dillon to Kojak, from Edward R. Murrow to Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather -- we are assured that doctors heal, that law officers keep the peace, that the news is understandable and not too threatening, in other words, that the world is a place of reasonable security and stability.

Fourth, television brings us information, in vast quantities. It pictures the world for us, from the marvels under the sea to explorations of another planet. It slows the running cheetah and speeds the unfolding of an orchid. It peers into the heart of space and backward in time. It is almost literally our window on the world. This is perhaps its most obvious, though not its most important, utility.

Fifth, television helps us to cope. It tells us how we should behave in the presence of the rich and of the poor, what teenagers should wear, what words are acceptable in polite society. It shows us how to pick a lock and how to defend ourselves against a mugger. It helps us deal with stomach upsets and dirty toilet bowls. And through careful attention to stereotypes and formula situations, from its soap operas to its dramas, television provides us with scenarios which we can "put on" and use in dealing with real situations in everyday life.

Sixth, television gives us a sense of belonging. When a president is shot or a Challenger mission ends in disaster, we suffer as a nation -- together. When the Rose Bowl Parade or the Superbowl is on, we know we can discuss it with everyone tomorrow because we will all "be" there today. In addition to this sense of the whole nation being together, television gives us a sense of belonging to individuals. As Marcus Welby, M.D., Robert Young received thousands of letters a year requesting personal medical advice. The three anchors of the nightly news are greeted routinely as Dan, Tom, and Peter by complete strangers, and for more than a decade Walter Cronkite was considered "the most trusted individual in America." Since these individuals belong to us, we belong to them -- and to each other.

Finally, television provides us with a rich fantasy world. In recent years a whole new genre of "situation fantasies" has developed, taking us routinely to a forbidden island or to a love boat -- as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do. Music-TV has added a new level of vivid stream-of-consciousness visuals to rock music which excites the fantasy life of youth, just as "Love Boat" excites the fantasy life of their elders. And in both cases television is sufficiently removed from the real life of viewers that the experience can be exciting and at the same time safe.

Indeed, we do know a great deal about the effects of television, both the good and the bad. But these are merely the surface effects of television`s deeper power. They do not explain the primary role of television at all.

The Hidden Role of Television

There is a hidden role of television which transcends all of these surface effects. The primary, but hidden, role of television is to tell what our world is like, how it works, and what it means. Dean George Gerbner at the Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia points out that television acts as "the cultivator of our culture."8.

While it is true that television is having a profound effect on us as it succeeds or fails at entertaining, informing, and selling, somehow we have to back off and try for a broader perspective. For behind the entertainment, the information and the selling, something far more important is going on.

Imagine that we are in a boat, rowing across a vast, slow-moving river so large that we cannot even see the other side. We view other boats moving back and forth. Some are faster than others, some larger and carry more wealth, some are going different directions. But all of us -- ourselves and those we are observing -- are unaware that all of of us are being moved by the river itself. Similarly, as we move through the world of television, some programs are more effective, some more costly and entertaining, others go off in educa or special-interest directions. But all of them -- and ourselves -- are being changed from what we were to what we will become, by the pro-cess-of-television itself.

This developmental process, this slow changing, takes place constantly as we watch the television images. The process goes on regardless of what program is viewed at a given moment. It is present in every sitcom, every soap opera, every movie, every newscast and commercial -- regardless of whether the particular program is in good taste or bad, high art or kitsch, pandering or profound.

What is happening is that the whole medium is both reflecting and expressing the myths by which we live. These myths tell us who we are, what we have done, what power we have, who has power and who does not, who can do what to whom with what effect, what is of value and what is not, what is right and what is not. It also tells us what has happened, and what has not. It takes our history and our present and interprets it to us. In a sense, television coverage of events is less concerned with history than with what television itself says ought to be remembered. TV thus becomes a kind of collective memory of our shared experiences. One need only think back to what we remember of major events -- the deaths of presidents, or the waging of war, for example -- to realize that most of what we remember is in fact what the images television has fashioned and repeated on our behalf. The same is true of our present: television decides on our behalf what we will think about.

It is here that much of the research and discussion about television proves to be fruitless, or even diversionary and misleading. By focusing on how TV sells a product, on who is "ahead" in the Nielsen ratings, on whether a particular program was canceled or censored or sponsored or not, we are diverted from the larger issue. The same is true of many media reform efforts: by attempting to get people excited about liberal bias in the news, or nudity or profanity in a particular program, or the ideological bent of a certain series, or whether a network is "Christian," concerned leaders have diverted the attention of viewers from the most important problem, the basic point, namely, that the whole process-of-television is providing us with a worldview which not only determines what we think, but also how we think and who we are. Television is constantly, seven hours a day, every day, every week, all year long, shaping our faith, our values, and our culture, and while we may feel vaguely uneasy, we don`t know what is happening to us.

The research community itself must assume part of the blame for pointing our attention in the wrong direction. James Carey has shown that the past 30 years of American studies in the mass media have been grounded in the "transmission" or "transportation" view of communication: who says what to whom with what effect. This is communication as business sees it, the process of transmitting messages at a distance for the purpose of control.9. By contrast, European researchers have seen communication much more as a process through which a shared culture is created, modified, and transformed. They have stressed the view that communication is not directed toward the extension of messages, but toward the the maintenance of a society.

Primarily, however, it is the television industry itself that has been driven by attempts to develop theories and practices which would bring about certain predictable kinds of behavior -- to get people to buy a particular brand, to prefer one product over another, to vote for a particular candidate, and so on. Thus, to return to our river analogy, while both researchers and industry leaders have been able to map with considerable accuracy the directions and speeds of various boats carrying packets of "information" across the waters (e.g., the Nielsen ratings or the motivational research), they have failed to relate their maps to the movement of the river as a whole (the changes in the entire culture). As a result, the public has never had the information it needs to give serious consideration to the over-all impact of television on their lives.

Carey urges researchers in America to deal with communication more as a cultural study. This is what the general public must do as well. Cultural studies seek to understand human behavior and to interpret its significance, to look at TV, for example, and to diagnose its human meanings. Carey proposes that human behavior be considered as a text, with the task of the researcher being to construct a "reading" of the text. He likens this to the discipline of hermeneutics: "Our `texts` are not always printed on pages or chiseled in stone -- though sometimes they are. Usually, they are texts of public utterance or shaped behavior. But we are faced just like the literary critic with figuring out what the text says, of constructing a reading of it."10.

In a modest sense, this is the approach followed in this book, as we examine "texts" in the world of television and construct a "reading" of them in order to surmise their meaning for society as a whole.

The Concern of Religion

But why should religion be concerned with the cultural role of television? Granted that there are many church-sponsored programs on television, and that church people want to get their messages across to the wider public, just as educators, artists, vegetarians, Rotarians, and other groups in society want to get their ideas expressed. What is unique about the interest of religion in television`s role in society?

Here it is important to state what is meant by religion. While attendance at church services may be one index of religiosity, it certainly is not a sufficient one. Neither is adherence to a particular creed, nor membership in a particular church, nor support of "religion in general." I propose as a good working definition one suggested by Donald Miller: religion is that set of symbolic expressions and activities which (1) reflect a person`s attempt to give ultimate meaning to life, and (2) justify one`s behavior and way of life, conscious of the certitude of death and the pervasiveness of human suffering11.

If this is the way we define religion, then we can see that television and religion are on a kind of collision course in American culture. It is not that television and religion are simply providing different ways of looking at the world. Science, art, and religion all represent different ways of describing the same experiences, and they need not be antagonistic. Nor is it that television has replaced religion`s information-giving role, though it is true, as Tawney says, that in the Geneva of Calvin`s day, the pulpit was both lectern and press, while today the church`s monopoly on information has been effectively usurped by the mass media. The challenge is much more fundamental: in many ways television is beginning to replace the institution that historically has performed the functions we have understood as religious. Television, rather than the churches, is becoming the place where people find a worldview which reflects what to them is of ultimate value, and which justifies their behavior and way of life. Television today, whether the viewers know it or not, and whether the television industry itself knows it or not, is competing not merely for our attention and dollars, but for our very souls.

It is not only our individual souls that are at stake, but also the soul of the nation. Robert Bellah`s study of the roots of American democracy led him to conclude that during the nation`s early life "the real school of republican virtue in America . . . was the church." The church was not only the first true institution in American society, but it "gave the first lessons in participation in the public life." Bellah cites Alexis de Tocqueville`s observation that "it was the mores that contributed to the success of the American democracy, and the mores were rooted in religion."12. In a sense it is these mores, these values and expressions of moral attitudes or what Toqueville called "the habits of the heart" which are at risk if the mass media in general, and television in particular, were to succeed in replacing the church as the place where the mores are generated and sustained.

Of course it is the whole culture, not just television, which supplies us with these mores and with our faith and values. Without a culture we would simply cease to be human, and what our particular culture holds to be good, true, and beautiful are what we as humans by and large also find to be good, true and beautiful. It was this reality that Emile Durkheim referred to when he wrote not that religion is a social phenomenon but that "society is a religious phenomenon."13.

In many ways culture comes down to who you remember, what you remember, and when you remember. Television is rewiring the collective nervous system of our particular culture, and in doing so is beginning to determine the answers to all three questions. For while it is true that culture expresses itself through every form of communication: face-to-face, family, school, work, recreation, and so on, today television is assuming the dominant role of expression in our lives. Television is becoming the primary expression of the mores and the meanings -- the real religion -- for most of us.

This means that television is itself becoming a kind of religion, shaping the faith and values of many people in the nation, and providing an alternate worldview to the old reality, and to the old religious view based on that reality, for millions of viewers. As we shall see, the values, assumptions, and worldview of television`s "religion" are in almost every way diametrically opposed to the values, assumptions, and worldview of the historic Judeo-Christian tradition in which the vast majority of Americans profess to believe.

Paul Tillich has said that "the substance of culture is religion and the form of religion is culture."14. This concept has profound implications for the roles of both television and religion in our society. It means that television, which has become the prime cultivator of our culture, is providing us with the myths, teachings and expressions of our religion, whether or not we recognize it. It also means that churches and religious schools and seminaries must take a new and completely different view of the profound role television is assuming in our culture, unless they are prepared to abdicate their own role as the place where people search and find meaning, faith and value for their lives.

The question is not whether we face a religionless future. People are going to continue to ponder the fundamental meaning of life and to give it expression in ritual, myth, and celebration. The question is where the ultimate questions about the significance of life and one`s moral responsibility are going to be asked, and from what source will come the proposed answers. Whether the churches will continue to play the role they have played historically in America depends on whether they can provide a better context for pondering, celebrating, and working out the meaning of people`s lives than alternative sources can. And by far the most powerful alternative to a religious worldview that is emerging as we approach the end of the twentieth century is the worldview of television.



1. Television: 1986 Nielsen Report (Northbrook, IL: A. C. Nielsen Company, l986), pp. 6-8.

2. Joan Gentz Cooney, "The Long Way to Go in Children`s Television," Broadcasting, 13 October 1986, p. 26.

3. Mark Fetler, "Television Viewing and School Achievement," Journal of Communication, 34/2 (Spring l984): 104-ll8.

4. Daniel B. Wackmam, Ellen Wartella, and Scott Ward, "Learning to be Consumers: The Role of the Family," Journal of Communication, Vol. 27, No.1, Winter 1977, pp. 118-124.

5. Broadcasting/Cable Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: Broadcasting Publications, 1986), p. A-2.5.

6. Burns W. Roper, "Trends in Attitudes Toward Television and Other Media: a Twenty-Four Year Review," A report by The Roper Organization Inc. (New York: Television Information Office), 1983.

7. Alex S. Jones, "The Anchors, Who They Are, What They Do, the Tests They Face," The New York Times Magazine, 27 July 1986, p. 12.

8. The concept of media as the cultivator of culture was first proposed by George Gerbner in articles and reports during the 1960`s in connection with his media research at the Annenberg School of Communication.

9. James Carey, "Communication and Culture," Communication Research, April, l975, pp. l73-l9l.

10. Ibid., p. l88.

11. Donald E. Miller, "The Future of Liberal Christianity," The Christian Century, March 19, l982, p. 266.

12. Robert Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond, Varieties of Civil Religion (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. 16.

13. Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Joseph Swain (New York: Collier, 1961) [originally published in French, 1912], p. 62.

14. Paul Tillich, The Interpretation of History (New York: Scribner, 1936), p. 236.

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