Thursday, 16 July 2015

State funding for television is a very bad idea

The government is calling for a national debate on BBC funding.

The mother of someone I know lives alone and has very few friends. She watches six hours of television every day.

I instinctively find that horrifying. Surely, spending half your time sitting passively in front of a screen is not a human way to live.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual case. In the UK, almost 6 hours a day of television is the average for pensioners:

The evidence agrees with this instinctive view. Watching television makes children fat. In adults it is associated with lower mental health, heart disease and early death, unhappiness,  loneliness and dementia, spending less time with friends and communicating less within the family. One paper shows, by comparing Germans in the former DDR who did and did not have access to West German TV, that watching television increases material aspirations, that is, it makes people greedier. Also, people watch television even though they report lower satisfaction from doing it, which supports the common sense view that TV is addictive.

As the authors of one paper put it:
... television viewing has a negative impact on life satisfaction by harming, and to some extent replacing, relationships with other people. 
television provides... a virtual network of relationships and interactions that, despite being completely artificial and illusory, tend to become a substitute for actual social relationships.
What should government do about the TV market, then? Obviously, television should be treated like tobacco: it is a dangerous, addictive substance that harms the individual and society. It should be discouraged by whatever means we can find, including regulation, taxation and persuasion.

Instead, the state provides a large subsidy, in the form of a hypothecated tax, to a national body which is tasked with broadcasting lots of television.
Just as people now look back at the acceptance of smoking in the 50s and ask "what were we doing?", we will one day do the same with regard to television policy. TV is one of the great harmful inventions of the twentieth century. Subsidising it is a terrible idea. Let's stop.