In developed countries like Belgium, more than 98% of the households are equipped with at least one television set. Each individual spends more than 3 hours and 40 minutes of his day watching the TV, which represents 20 to 25% of our waking time and 75% of our leisure time. Or 56 days a year, 11 years out of a life that averages 81 years(1)!
Television is a political fact
The television is a very particular technical object if we judge it by the particularly long time that we devote to it, by the colossal influence that it represents, managing to hold the attention of voluntary individuals (with the exception of the young children who most often are put in front of the set first by their parents) in proportions which seem to know no equal. Television is a major political fact: it has a determining influence on the organization of the rhythm of life, on the shaping not only of the ideas, of the representation of the world and of the social relations, but also of the conscience and of the personality, the television taking the children at the cradle. The television is an object of power that we forget to take the measure so much it invited itself under the airs of anodyne machine until the living room, the kitchen, the room, and now until the pocket for the users of these telephones known as « intelligent » which make it possible to look at stupid programs everywhere where one follows them.
That the television is an object of power, it is what one had been able to realize by observing the appetite of the powerful to try to control the arcane of it. Let’s think of Berlusconi who had taken over the main Italian channels whose programs were as bad as the chest size of the bunga-bunga announcers. Or less far, to Nicolas Sarkozy and his very televisual friendships, before he decided to change the way the management of France Télévisions was appointed in order to place obedient individuals there. Or more closely, the very cordial relations of the leaders of the Belgian political parties with the bosses of the two competing groups, RTL, which claims to be the main French-speaking Belgian channel but which is under Luxembourg law (we will come back to this in the next issue), and RTBF, which is squarely in the hands of the political parties, and under the particular influence of the PS.
The parties need the media to disseminate their words, the media need the parties to relax the regulatory frameworks that still constrain them a little, and moreover to ensure the racy spectacle that feeds the media one-upmanship(2).
Television is a key part of a central power relationship in our societies, which are still sometimes erroneously referred to as « information societies ». This is a crucial issue of political struggle, yet one that largely escapes public debate. Guess why?
If television is a political object, apart from the alcove fights between electoral parties, what are the consequences of its use? They are numerous and globally very problematic.
Against television: Bernard Stiegler, philosopher
Among other effects, let us quote those identified by the philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who speaks about television as a real system of capture of the attention which makes screen, it is the case to say it, with the social relations, the relations between human beings. Stiegler underlines that screens, television in particular, prevent what Freud called sublimation, which is a psychic investment in creative, cultural, social, work activities, etc. This is what leads, for example, to trying to seduce your neighbor rather than jumping on her. To invest yourself in a career rather than fighting your fellow idiots, but also to work to earn the money that will allow you to buy the object of your dreams, etc. The non-immediate satisfaction of the impulses leads to the sublimation of the desire in the activities which will build the individual and his social relations. The personal psychic investment that results from this frustration and the resulting re-engagement is the core of the libido.
The television ruins the libido, this desire created in reaction to the non-fulfillment of an impulse, by making it fail on the merchandise since the marketing is the television background, the beginning and the end of any program. In front of the post, you are no longer interacting with your fellow human beings with whom discussions, frustrations and achievements could have been born, but in front of a device that captures your attention, prevents interaction, and proposes as a response to your impulses the act of purchase, material consumption.
This report is serious explains us B. Stiegler, because the television ruins the psychic economy of the individuals by isolating them, by reducing the libido to the drive (of purchase), what destroys the desire, leads to a kind of weakening of the subject on the one hand and of displeasure on the other hand. To be brief, let’s say, following B. Stiegler’s remarks, that it is hard to imagine a people fed on television rising up against oppression, like the Spaniards in 1936 for example. And that one feels that Secret Story, the JT and The Voice could well be not foreign to the absence of strength, will, desire, freedom and intensity which seems to characterize so clearly the viewer slumped in front of his set, whose channels have for mission to sell their available brain time. Can we build an individual and a society with cans of coca-cola?
Guy Debord had this reflection, already in 1967: « The alienation of the spectator to the benefit of the contemplated object (which is the result of its own unconscious activity) is expressed thus: the more it contemplates, the less it lives; the more it accepts to recognize itself in the dominant images of the need, the less it understands its own existence and its own desire « ..(3)
Against television: Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist
The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, returning from painful televisual experiences(4), gave two televised lectures at the Collège de France which were the subject of a book entitled Sur la télévision(5). He explained why, according to him, television is a force of symbolic violence that must be understood and denounced.
He noted in particular that the time constraints of the small screen impose a « fast thinking » which makes almost impossible any contextualization and any conceptualization essential to the development of a slightly complex idea. But how can we understand a complex world without ideas that can also be complex, without being complicated? This fast thinking, which results from the pressure of the urgency imposed by the ratings and the marketing logic, characterizes the attitude of the media which compete and run after subjects which they try to cover first. This media race implies that each group follows closely what its neighbor is doing, in order to position itself in relation to him.
From then on, the « circular circulation of information » appears, which pushes newsrooms to create « news items » simply because the competitor has done so a little earlier. It is a pack logic, as the journalist Serge Halimi pointed out. The circulation of information is circular because the media, which justify their choices by marketing logic, come to confuse current events with those of the media, the interest of the audience with the figures of the ratings, the real world with its television representation. We thus regularly reach the caricature in the programs where, to speak about the current events, the journalists invite experts manufacturers of the current events that are other journalists, rather than people who live certain situations that it would be good to explain, or people whose job is not to make the current events but to analyze certain facets of the current world.
These distorting effects of television remain however largely invisible on the screen and exercise an « invisible censorship », starting with the choice of subjects on which the guest on television has nothing to say — this may be necessary for the exercise of fourth power, but it is also the guarantee of never talking about certain things. This invisible censorship exercises a symbolic violence, says Bourdieu, which sometimes takes the form of « hiding by showing »: showing only one aspect of a person, a neighborhood, a group, a history, easily allows to reduce it to what can be only a caricature of one of its characteristics. It is always to hide certain dynamics or certain stakes which make the subject such as one sees it on the screen without, therefore, being able to understand it.
Pierre Bourdieu declared in this book, in 1996, « We can and must fight against the audimat in the name of democracy »(6). But what are university sociologists doing?
Against television: Michel Desmurget, neurologist
Television as a stake of political power and source of cronyism, as a destroyer of desire and psychic investment, as a biased social reconstruction of reality, so many problematic effects identified. We also knew that, globally, spending hours in front of the television is not good for your health. But at what level exactly? One neurologist has done just that, examining the health and cognitive effects of exposure to the small screen in depth, compiling thousands of pages of scientific literature and other inputs.
In a study that includes 1193 references, the neurologist and director of research at the French INSERM Michel Desmurget reaches the synthetic conclusion that « to put it in prosaic terms, recent research establishes television as a gigantic machine to stultify, an incredible organ of decerebration of which our children are the first victims »(7).
The television record is very cruel and looks like that of cigarettes, alcohol, obesity and diabetes combined (guess why?). Children are particularly affected, and this is not leftist speculation — far from it — but the results of scientific studies.
For example, a 2‑year-old who watches one hour of TV a day doubles the likelihood of developing attentional problems as he or she grows older. At age 3, two hours of TV per day triples the risk of being overweight. At age 7, watching one hour of TV per day increases the likelihood of becoming an adult without a degree by more than one-third. Between the ages of 40 and 60, watching one hour of TV a day increases the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease by one-third, etc. Not surprisingly, all of these factors are compounded by unfavorable socioeconomic conditions. More simply: the poor suffer more from the deleterious effects of TV, which they watch more. All these facts are known to scientists, and denied as were the effects of asbestos or tobacco before.
What to do?
The neurologist proposes simple and accessible solutions(8):
- Firstly, to be aware of the « strongly harmful action on cognitive development (and aging), sleep, school success, health, aggressiveness, intra and extra-familial sociability ». Knowing that « there is no good use of the small screen », that it is very difficult to target audiovisual consumption precisely. So the best option is zero TV. If you are looking for a way to start the revolution, to disalienate yourself, to decolonize your imagination, a proposal from Kairos: throw away your TV set!
- Second: Never put a television in a bedroom, especially for a child;
- Third: no television before 6 years old;
- Fourth: until 17 years old, no more than 3–4 hours per week, no advertising, make very targeted choices of content and remove risky health content (alcohol, tobacco, violence, sexuality, food);
- Fifth: adults do what they want, but television is an isolating factor and « exposes them to major morbid risks.
You will notice that these solutions, which are practicable for everyone, although they are the opposite of the laissez-faire and no-limit propensity that floods the media discourse, do not require political measures, although they do not exclude them either. We could thus envisage media education programs that are a little more scientifically based than those that circulate on a few rare school benches. It’s not about explaining to children how a commercial is made or the difference between the news and a documentary, but about explaining to them that watching television is very bad for them. It’s about time.
RTBF management contract: let’s save ourselves, let’s get rid of the ads!
There is a constant in the analyses of the philosopher, the sociologist and the neurologist on the television: the advertising logic is its cancer, the commercial advertising itself being the worst of the contents and the outcome of the process which makes of the television the decelerator that it became.
This dossier is dedicated to RTBF and the advertising that is eating away at it, at a time when the management contract is being renegotiated. This contract (as well as other regulatory texts) stipulates in particular the rights and obligations of RTBF with regard to commercial advertising, notably concerning the quantity of advertising authorized, in which formats (tunnels, split screens, sponsoring, etc.), when, and for which products. The renegotiation of the management contract can be an opportunity to push back the advertisement, and it seems to us that the arguments developed by the specialists unconditionally plead in this sense.
If it is not desirable and even less feasible to suppress television by decree, it would be healthy to propose a radio and television without advertising, an audiovisual body freed from the cancerous logic of marketing. Moreover, there is no reason why public service broadcasting, 70% of which is financed by users, should broadcast commercial advertisements whose harmfulness is no longer in question.
Moreover, is it even conceivable in a decent society that the public service broadcasts messages that are disastrous for health, culturally deleterious and that dramatically accelerate the destruction of ecosystems by encouraging over-consumption while all ecological alarms are turned on red? Is it not the State and the public authorities, as the ultimate guarantors of the RTBF, who must assume, especially from a financial point of view, the innumerable damages of advertising? This logic of the pyromaniac not yet fireman is totally irresponsible politically.
The advertising tsunami is flooding the streets, the newspapers (but certainly not Kairos, which is anti-productivist and for a decent society, i.e. necessarily publiphobic), your living rooms and kitchens, the table in the restaurant, the cinema, the stations, the schools (despite the ban), in short, it is colonizing all spaces and times apart from those that you are cautiously protecting. If there is one place where advertising must begin to recede, it is in the public space, which includes the public audiovisual service.
It is one thing for those who want to receive commercial advertising in their homes to do so, but it is quite another for those who do not want to be subjected to it to avoid its influence in the public space. The solution to the tension is simple: for the audiovisual sector, it is a matter of creating an offer without advertising that no longer exists. The PS with the help of the MR has indeed pushed the RTBF into the advertising trap 30 years ago. But the non-market is the birthplace of public service and remains its future. Unless it becomes an advertising service, with the help of political parties, all united behind advertising, « humanists » and « ecologists » included, despite some fine speeches that give in without complex once the adverts come.
It is time to stop commercial advertising, which is devastating the planet and our consciences.
On television, on which we have dwelt so much on its media, social and advertising role, but also on the radio, whose listening is stunted by the stupid interruptions and hardly zappable that the advertisement makes him undergo.
You will find the first part of this dossier in its entirety in the paper version of your April-May Kairos, including a summary of the evolution of the holdings of the Régie Média Belge (RMB), the RTBF’s advertising agency, and an illustration of the relations between the RMB, its partners and the RTBF. The file ends with a proposal for action consisting in writing massively to your leaders to demand the progressive end of advertising at RTBF. This action is relayed on our website.
The second part of the dossier, which you will read in the June issue, will be entitled « Effects of RTBF’s advertising ». You will find a critical analysis of an RTBF program, two testimonies: one from an RTBF worker, the other from an artist confronted with the cultural policy in the advertising environment. A political and regulatory contextualization of the renegotiation of the management contract will precede a follow-up of the « letter campaign » action that will close this file.
A last word, which we borrow from the late Marc Moulin, to avoid misunderstanding those who claim that an RTBF without advertising is no longer possible, although it was in the past and we are richer than at that time… : « Reasonable People say it’s unreasonable to want to eliminate advertising on public service radio and television. Frankly, if we can’t do something as easy as that, I don’t see how we’re going to do anything complicated: save the planet from species extinction, global warming and disaster, preserve energy and clean water, fight hunger, death, disease, stop violence, terrorism and white collar crime. Reasonable People think it is unrealistic to suppress TV and radio programs that promote the exponential accumulation of waste and over-consumption, and thus the diabetes and obesity epidemic that is taking over and killing the world. Because Reasonable People think that public TV does not belong to the community. For them, public TV belongs to the media-advertising lobby(9). »
- Les chiffres sont tirés de TV Lobotomie. La vérité scientifique sur les effets de la télévision, Michel Desmurget, Max Milo Editions, Paris, 2011
- Marc Moulin, La surenchère, horreur médiatique, Bruxelles, Labor, 2002
- Guy Debord, La société du spectacle, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1992, p. 31
- Voir les films de Pierre Carles : Pas vu pas pris, 1998, La sociologie est un sport de combat, 2011, Enfin pris ?, 2002.
- Sur la Télévision, Pierre Bourdieu, Paris, Raison d’Agir, 1996
- Sur la Télévision, page 77
- TV Lobotomie, pages 73–74
- TV Lobotomie, pages 246–247
- Télémoustique, 16avril 2008