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Views on the Idiot Box

THE PEOPLE LOOK AT TELEVISION, A Study of Audience Attitudes, by Gary A. Steiner, Knopf, 422 pp., $7.95.

By J. MICHAEL Crichton

Few technological developments have brought such rapid and important changes to any society as has television to the United States. In 15 years, TV has become an integral part of the lives of most Americans: there are sets in 90 per cent of American homes, and these sets are in operation for fully one third of the working day. What are the effects of our remarkable and rapid acceptance of this most massive of mass media? How do people feel about it?

The People Look at Television is the first scholarly attempt to discover the attitudes of audiences toward television, both as an element in the social structure of their lives, and as a source of information and entertainment. Working with a national survey of approximately 2500 adults, and secondarily with an American Research Bureau sampling of viewing habits in New York City, Dr. Gary A. Steiner and the staff, of the Columbia Bureau of Applied Social Research have come up with a number of surprising results.

The dependence of many people on television as a routine, daily source of entertainment is striking. A majority of the survey named it the development of the last 25 years that has done most to make life "enjoyable, pleasant, and interesting," but feelings run much more deeply than that. A better indication of the importance of TV comes from their reactions to the breakdown of the set. What has been jokingly called the New American Tragedy does seem to take on some aspects of a crisis. "When it is out of order, I feel like someone is dead," said one person. "I went to bed early because I was lost for something to do," said another.

Viewers Satisfied

When the set is working, people watch a lot of television, and they are generally satisfied with what they see. Those interviewed seemed to feel that the programs--and the programs mix--were good. Certain aspects of programming were criticized, particularly TV violence and interruptive, infantile commercials. It is interesting that the distaste for commercials apparently does not stem from any general resentment of sponsor advertisements. Fully 75 per cent of the survey felt that the sponsors were entitled to their say.

A major finding of the survey was that everyone, regardless of educational or religious background, considers TV a source of entertainment. Everyone expressed the desire for more informational and educational shows, but at the same time did not want to sacrifice entertainment. Few people now use the set as a deliberate source of information, aside from news and weather reports: as a public service, documentary medium television is a failure. An independent check on the viewing habits of individuals who strongly expressed desire for more information on TV showed that these people, when presented with the choice of entertainment or information, generally favored entertainment--as did everyone else.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the study concerns the essentially ambivalent attitude of most viewers toward their set. People enjoy television, and yet they feel they should not watch. They consider it both entertaining and a waste of time. Here, as Dr. Steiner suggests, there may be a conflict between the passive relaxation of TV viewing and and the American insistence on "doing something" with leisure time. This conflict does not arise with other leisure activities; reading is improving," and golf "healthful," but TV is not so easily justified. The need to rationalize viewing time may lie at the bottom of the widespread request for more educational and informational programs.

It should be noted that there are a number of things wrong with the presentation of the study. Statistically, the book discusses only the most general and superficial findings of the survey, presented graphically--and occasionally ambiguously. In particular, the text too often fails to indicate which figures are statistically significant, and which are not. The casual reader may pick out seeming trends which actually do not exist; he ought to be forewarned.

At the same time the book is certainly a satisfactory preliminary study in the field. It is especially valuable for indicating fruitful areas of future research: the comparative study of the viewer's expressed preferences and his actual viewing patterns looks particularly promising. In short, The People Look at Television is a generally readable and worth while pilot study in an area of ever-growing sociological importance

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