Is there a right way to watch TV?

Now most people who know me, know this about me. TV is an integral part of my life. I moved on up with The Jeffersons. I learned all about The Facts of Life with Tootie and Blair. I even learned a thing or two about a town called Bel-Air from The Fresh Prince. But those shows? Those were passing fancies. They provided an escape, and occasionally a heartfelt lesson, but I never really connected with them as I do with television these days. Sure, the phenomenon isn’t limited to TV, but long form narrative allows the characters to evolve and for the audience to grow with them. I would even argue that the more emotionally visceral responses people get from their “entertainment” is more often found on television than any other form.

But the question is, how do we account for this? What makes something more powerful than something else? What makes us read certain sights and sounds as more impactful than any others? There’s no denying that personal life experiences are a huge factor in our readings, but is it really fair to surrender all of television’s emotional power to the viewer? For instance, for a young child, is the sadness felt by the death of a main character lessened because he or she has never experienced death in his or her own life? It seems as if, rationally speaking, it should, but we find ourselves laughing and crying with countless characters that we could never possibly know in our lifetimes.

But as I mentioned before, it seems unfair to examine television solely from the perspective of the viewer. Although our own individual readings should not be discounted, there is no arguing that television creators are armed with their own ideas, messages, or morals. So where do those fit in when talking about the relationship between the television program and its viewers. As I previously stated, it would do a disservice to the viewers to credit the creators as the sole meaning-makers, but there’s also equal danger in arming the audience with that power.

One specific example of this is, returning to the concept of meaning, that most individuals will have different readings of the same texts. for instance a friend of mine recently started watching Doctor Who. As she discusses it with me, she constantly references details that I registered as amusing, but ultimately unimportant. She reads it in a very different way than I do. This is not to say that either one of us is right or either one of us is wrong, but it is difficult to ignore some of the facts.

For instance, like I said, she is just starting Doctor Who, whereas I’ve been through the first three seasons as well as Torchwood. Now, it could easily be that she is picking up on the meanings intended because she doesn’t have the influence of the other Doctors and the spin-off material. On the other hand, I could just as easily be picking up on the meaning because I do have access to those outside sources.

Ultimately, it is foolish to claim that one of us is right and the other is wrong, but the question of how we watch is one of critical importance. As the face of television itself continues to change and evolve, the core components of creator and viewer remain the same. As things continue to shift, the constants become increasingly valuable in a cultural study of the medium.


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