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When and How Is TV Good for Us?

A new book explores the value of television.

University Press of Mississippi
Source: University Press of Mississippi

Kathleen Collins's From Rabbit Ears to the Rabbit Hole: A Life with Television is an adamantly subjective account of the writer's belief in TV's psychological, social, and cultural value.

While debates in psychological and sociological research on the effects of television–from Sesame Street to Dexter–continue, Collins offers a personal account of television's meaning in her life.

In our era of streaming, binge-watching, and pandemic viewing, her account offers a lively, consoling take on the pleasures and lessons of television.

Much research on TV offers statistical data for its effects, ranging from social ills, cultural benefits, psychological damage, and personal growth. The literature is voluminous, including research suggesting that, in the right circumstances, the TV may invite viewers to "undertake serious dialogue about personal intimacy," particularly among black South African families (Ndlovu); that children who seek "prosocial" content on TV improve their social relations (Mares and Woodard); that violent TV increases stress and tension (Jahangir and Nawaz); and that Sesame Street may reduce gender stereotypes in children (Weisgram). The sheer amount of literature on Sesame Street's impact on children–from understanding race to learning the basics of reading and math–is so vast it would require a dissertation to survey it. In fact, much of the research on television's effects focuses on children.

But Collins offers a personal take on Sesame Street in her development that also happens to mirror the data pretty accurately. She "learned to count to twenty in Spanish through Sesame Street and was introduced to diversity and creativity and the hippest entertainers." She credits Mr. Rogers with "sparking my imagination" and "instilling a base of self-esteem that really can, in part, be traced back to him." She even finds the seeds of her television career: "The genre of workplace comedies was where I likely began to imagine how might adult life might look." (Spoiler: She became a librarian.)

In a study about the benefits and limits of children's television viewing, Anderson et al. (2012) offered some conclusions that resonate with Collins's narrative. For TV to be valuable for children's education, they must "pay attention" with repeated viewing of particular shows–to watch, in a sense, metacognitively; they must comprehend what they watch, and they must "transfer" what they learn from the screen to life.

Collins documents her "consistent desire to talk smartly with smart people about TV." Her book fulfills the desires, showing, as it does, that "regardless of era or content, for anyone who watched TV throughout a lifetime, it has to be given some credit for shaping that life."

In other words, Collins paid attention; she watched a lot of TV! She comprehended what she watched and transferred it to her own life. For example, she credits shows like That Girl, The Mary Tyler Show, and, later, Murphy Brown with shaping her feminist perspective (and that of many of her generation). These same shows, along with Ally McBeal and others, helped her dream about the urban lifestyle she now lives). Absolutely Fabulous enlarged her sensibility–and fine-tuned her sense of humor.

Collins finds more difficult lessons in the saga of the O.J. Simpson trial (originally televised and more recently the subject of a high-profile documentary and serial narrative):

When you heard the Simpson verdict had the power to tell you far more about yourself and your cultural biases and assumptions than you ever wanted to know. I don't think I need to elaborate much more than to confess that I learned in the span of ten seconds that I'd been living under a rock until age thirty and that outrage and shame can exist simultaneously in the same dyspeptic gut.

Relatively recent TV shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Nurse Jackie

... boldly address formerly taboo subjects, especially daring for sitcoms, and they are entertaining, well-written, destigmatizing, and empathy boosting. And the pleasure I experience while watching them flood my bloodstream with serotonin, which makes me happier and therefore likely kinder and potentially adding more goodness to the world.

In her quest to "talk smartly to smart people" about TV, Collins documents TV's capacity to create social bonds in families and communities. She tells the story of a family that has "established an enforced TV-watching period. They watch together "as a corrective to antisocial bingeing and phone watching." (Recall the research on TV and interpersonal intimacy among Black South African families?)

She offers a highly entertaining account of a newsletter devoted to Beverly Hills 90210 that she and a group of colleagues published during the 1990s. She tells the simple story of bonding with a stranger in a cafe over his forgetting the name of a minor character on The Brady Bunch: "I found it galvanizing and profound that a TV show brought us together for a brief, cheerful moment of shared experience."

For Collins, "TV is fundamentally pleasurable." In her words, "I have relatively only lately recognized the physical and psychological value of pleasure and appreciate that TV has provided that for me all these years."

But reading her memoir is to be in the presence of a playful narrator with a sense of humor about her so-called "obsession" with television–an obsession that happens to mirror much of the research on the subject. In fact, what she's documenting is a lifetime metacognitive, prosocial affair with TV.


Anderson, Daniel R, Heather Lavigne, and Katherine Hanson. "The educational impact of television: Understanding Television's Potential And Limitations." The International Companion to Media Studies. New York: Blackwell (December 2012).

Ndlovu, Thabisani. "Fixing Families Through Television?" Cultural Studies, (Vol. 27, No. 3): 379 403.

Weisgram, Erica S. "Reducing Gender Stereotypes in Toys and Play for Smarter, Stronger, and Kinder Kids." American Journal of Play, (Vol. 12, No. 1): 74-88.

Farhana, Syeda and Jahangir and Nazia Nawaz. "Effects of Media (Television) on Mental Health." FWU Journal of Social Sciences, (Summer 2014, Vol.8, No.1): 97-107.

Mares, Marie Louise and Emory Woodard. "Positive Effects of Television on Children’s Social Interactions:
A Meta-Analysis." Media Psychology (Vol. 7): 301–322.

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