Television Does not Dictate Viewers; It Lets Them Choose 5

(An article; by one NEB)

Watching television is now a routine that has become part of almost every family’s life. Though, based on age and interest, different members of the family have their own favorite program, one thing that is certain is that they spend a number of hours weekly watching their respective favorite program.

One concern of television viewing that is oftentimes expressed is that television presents a lot of programs exposing such a trash as violence, resulting in the programs’ being labeled as trashy. This is especially true of private television stations whose main concern is to attract as many viewers as they can through those trashy, violent programs they think the viewers enjoy watching.

Such a concern is, for example, expressed by Simon Marcus Gower, Principal of Harapan Bangsa High School in his article published by the Jakarta Post on May 01, 2002. He wrote that while private television stations can actually show good, educational programs, they resort to broadcasting those trashy programs. He firmly believes that television stations have a moral obligation to show more quality programs to their viewing audience.

Whatever vested interest Gower may have behind making that statement, one thing is clear. Implied in his statement is that television viewers at large still comprise low-educated people who can not yet critically select for themselves which programs are worth watching and which are not. Therefore—he added—television stations should help them by showing only good, educational programs.

Building on Gower’s opinion, which is partly true and partly misled about today’s television viewing, this paper elaborates more on the idea of television viewing. It attempts to address the following related issues:

1. the nature of television viewing today

2. understanding how television re-presents reality: media representations

3. media literacy as a filter

4. freedom of mass media (on the part of television) vs. freedom of choice (on the part of


5. implication on education

The Nature of Television Viewing Today

Television viewing today is different from that in the past. In the past there was only one station or channel. And this station was owned by the state, the consequence of which was that the programs and their showing were controlled by the government. From one side, this was positive in that the government made sure that any program shown was that which was worth watching (and was supportive of its political policy too). From the other, this underestimated the viewers in the sense that they were considered incapable of selecting only good programs to watch from a selection of programming the channel (and the government) could have made various. For the programs shown, the viewers had to contribute some money on a monthly basis. Therefore, to expect that the channel would show them quality programs was only fair.

Today, there are a number of private television stations available in addition to the still-existing national channel. Not paying any single Rupiah, the viewers have a variety of programs to choose from. To expect that those channels would show them only “quality” programs is too much. Instead, this is a good chance for the viewers to be educated, critical, and responsible in that they can choose to watch only programs worth watching, basing that still on their preference and existing norms and values. This is where television-facilitated (media) education lies. Alwasilah (2001: 66) asserts, “we are now overwhelmed by perplexing artificial creation of the mass media. To survive, we have to count on our critical thinking skills.” By definition, the viewers have to be able to tell which programs are entertainingly educational, educationally entertaining, entertainingly misleading, sexually educational, sexually influential, religiously influential, all-age safe, politically educational, etc.

“Education for all” once campaigned nationwide should now not only mean education for all citizens deserving it without exception, but it should also imply education in all the citizens—in this case, the viewers—think, see, believe, and do. In the case of television programs, no matter how trashy some may turn out to be, they may still serve the viewers a good lesson in that the viewers can educate themselves not to watch the programs. Groucho Marx, cited in Stevenson (1987: 80), even makes it an extreme saying, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book.”

Understanding How Television Represents Reality: Media Representations

According to Mursito B. M., reality in television is constructed in such a way that it is only chunks of the whole unified event in reality. Chandler asserts that this construction includes such aspects of reality as people, places, objects, events, cultural identities and other abstract concepts and that this representation may be in speech or writing as well as still or moving pictures. B. M. continues to say that this is all geared towards serving the viewers and advertisers’ interest. And Bushman affirms that advertisers assume violent programs will attract larger audiences and will therefore gain more exposure for their products in between the showing. This explains why our television screen is flooded by many violent programs.

In general, Mursito asserts that all television programs are forms of representation of what reality is. No matter how real the programs may seem to the viewers, they do not portray reality as it is perceived in real life. They are represented in such a way that they look real. This way of representing reality employs linked components integrated into the organizational and institutional system of television (media): broadcaster’s language style, technology, asset, professionalism, advertisement, market, even ideology, says B. M.

Upon understanding this, we know that there is virtually always a vested interest behind any program we watch on television. This interest is that of the advertisers intending to promote their products in between the showing of a program they think the viewers enjoy watching, i.e., the violent program, or any program at all made to look real by both technology and television stations smart people.

Media Literacy as a Filter

To be able to select which programs are worth watching and which are not, based on the quality of the programs and the propaganda behind the programming, what is needed on the part of the viewers is media literacy, which has critical thinking embedded in it.

Thoman asserts that media literacy is the ability to choose and select, the ability to challenge and question, the ability to be conscious about what is going on around us and not be passive and therefore, vulnerable.

He continues to say that television and mass media have become so ingrained in our cultural milieu that we should no longer view the task of media literacy as providing “protection” against unwanted messages. Our goal must be to help people become competent, critical and literate in all media forms so that they can control the interpretation of what they see or hear rather than letting the interpretation control them.

Citing some media literacy experts, Thoman identifies five ideas that the viewers should know about media messages as follows:

1. All media messages are “constructed”

Whatever we see in the media—including television—is creatively constructed by someone or a group of people wanting us to take it as real. Words, pictures or arrangements that may be rejected are not included. The opposites are incorporated.

2. Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules

Each form of media message has its own creative language to overwhelm the viewers. And the understanding towards this (grammar, syntax, and metaphor system of media language) enables us to appreciate and enjoy media experiences as well as helps us to be less vulnerable to manipulation.

3. Different people experience the same media message differently

Due to differences in age, upbringing, and education, there are no two people who interpret or understand the same media message the same way. These factors we have in ourselves will always help tell us whether to accept or reject the message.

4. Media are primarily businesses driven by a profit motive

Any program we watch on television is so constructed as to create an audience to see the products of the sponsor advertised in between the showing of the program. The joke saying “acara televisi di antara iklan (programming in between commercial break)” and not “iklan di antara acara televisi (commercial break in between programming) may after all be true.

5. Media have embedded values and points of view

All lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors portrayed in television programs have values embedded in them to be offered to the viewers. It is the critical thinking skill of being able to recognize and analyze the propaganda behind the program that will enable the viewers to accept or reject the message.

Freedom of Mass Media (on the Part of Television) vs. Freedom of Choice (on the Part of Viewers)

While television has its rights to show practically whatever programs it means to broadcast, holding to its freedom of mass media, the viewers too have their freedom of choice, that is, right to choose the only program(s) they should watch, guided by their critical thinking embedded in their media literacy.

For young viewers, parental guidance is necessary. Therefore, parents must see to it that they spend some quality time with their children talking about their favorite television programs. Doing so, they can talk about what is good and bad about the programs. This constitutes what is known as home-based media awareness education to enable the children to posses the required skills to later be able to select good programs to watch themselves.

To make things better, on the part of television stations, when they broadcast their programs, there are still held some norms, the least of which is appropriate showing time. Programs potential to expose violence causing bad influences are shown late at night, for example, when children are presumably fast asleep.

Also, to give a wider range of programs to choose from, television stations show a mix of programs ranging from the best to the least good. This shows that, in the end, it is the viewers themselves who should be able to choose which programs suit them best.

Implication on Education

It is urgent that media awareness education be incorporated into the school curriculum in addition to home-based media education we can expect to take place informally at home. This must be done as soon as possible as “we must prepare young people for living in a world of powerful images, words and sounds” (UNESCO, 1982 in Thoman).

By bringing the media education into the classroom, Thoman says, we turn the closed, one-way system of commercial mass media into a two-way process of discussion, reflection and action with each other and with the media themselves.

Chandler introduces the following approaches to teaching media representations:

a. thematically: e.g. class, age, gender, ethnicity, or more broadly via identity, stereotyping, prejudice (typically racial) or bias (typically political); also topics such as royalty, motherhood, nationhood, etc.

b. generically: e.g. bias in news, class in soap operas and sitcoms, gender in ads.

c. media-specifically: e.g. in TV, film, comics, magazines (mags useful for representations aimed at specific audiences.

Thoman says that one of the best ways to understand how the media work is by students making their own personal video, creating a website for their Scout troop, developing an ad campaign to alert kids to the dangers of smoking, etc.


Alwasilah, A. C. (2001). Language, Culture, and Education: A Portrait of Contemporary Indonesia. Bandung: C.V. Andira.

Chandler, D. (–). Media representations. Media Semiotics. Retrieved November 1st, 2002 from

Mursito B.M. (–). Budaya televisi dan determinisme simbolik. Jurnal Vol. 8.1. Retrieved November 1st, 2002 from

Stevenson, D.K. (1987). American Life and Institutions. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Schulbuchverlage GmbH u. Co. KG.

Thoman, E. (–). Skills and strategies for media education. Retrieved November 1st, 2002 from

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *