Can Your Students Read TV?

Of course, students already know how to read the highly emotional and symbolic language of television. They learned it informally by clocking in an average of 5000 hours in front of the set before they reach school age — the same amount of time it takes to jet around the world 148 times, or orbit the moon 30 times. But just because students are sitting slack-jawed and motionless in front of the set, it doesn’t mean their minds aren’t hard at work. Contrary to popular wisdom, television watching is not a passive activity.

It takes concentration to make sense of contemporary television. Narratives are broken by commercials, flying graphics, rolls and crawls, fast cuts and fades to black. Students may not have the vocabulary to articulate to adults how they make a story out of this hodge-podge of images, but on a rudimentary level, they already have a firm grasp on the grammar of television. In order for them to be fully aware that television is carefully constructed with specific codes and conventions, someone has to talk to them about the way tv works. —Kathleen TynerCan Your Students Read TV? (Media Literacy Review)

While I agree with Tyner’s main point, that students should be trained to think critically about TV, I don’t agree with the phrasing “television watching is not a passive activity.” Yes, a viewer’s brain is active, but there’s no way for the viewer to change the experience based on reactions.

You can shout questions or challenges to a live speaker, you can applaud or boo, or sit in stony silence, or whisper a comment to your neighbor. Good speakers can pick up on such cues, and if they don’t the audience will.

You can write back to a weblog.

All you can do to a TV is turn it off. It’s binary. Or, in the case of those call-in contests, at best it’s multiple choice. It is of course possible for live TV to respond more subtly to audience input, but didn’t Ray Bradbury cover that pretty thoroughly in Fahrenheit 451?

Perhaps Tyner could have said “TV need not be a passive experience, if you are a critical viewer.” I’d agree with that — but it’s probably fair to say that most of the slack-jawed teens aren’t tuning in because they want to exercise their minds.