Society's Storyteller: How TV Creates the Myths by which we Live


This article originally appeared in Issue# 61

Storytelling is the great process that makes us recognizably human. A story is an attempt to make the invisible visible — it has to do with relationships, with intellectual con­nections. We have to have some device to make the visible, dramatic, revealing and embodied in human beings whose characteristics we know and whose actions we can understand. We live our lives in terms of the stories we tell.

What are these stories? How do we weave them into the very complicated uniquely human structure called culture? Basically there are three kinds of stories:

    • There are stories essentially about how things work. Stories that make the inner dynamics of life visible are typically called fiction and drama, sometimes mythology. There is no other way to tell the truth about how things work except to construct the facts of the case so as to lead to the natural development of the un­derlying message and significance of how things really work.


    • Into that context will fit the second kind of story – a story about what things are. It is a kind of factual story: the legend of yesterday or the news of today. It has no meaning by itself, it only has meaning when we fit it into an immensely complex structure about the meaning of it all.


    • A third kind of story is a story of action. It's really a story of value and choice, the prerequisites for action. If this is how things work and this is what things are, we then contemplate a complex of choices, and do something. A story like this presents a desirable goal within a lifestyle. It can be an instruction or a sermon, but mostly it is a commercial — a story of value and choice with which we are surrounded all the time. We happen to live in a culture which offers many, many things to obtain, presumably desirable goals. This is what you ought to do, ought to buy, ought to vote for, ought to consider.

The three kinds of stories have always been woven together in many intricate combinations in a seamless fabric of culture, in different ways at different times. Humankind has woven together the stories that we tell, as we humanize our children and ourselves, in three different ways: the Pre-Print Era (30-50,000 years long), the Print Era (300 years long) and now the Age of Telecommunications.

Basically the age of telecommunications is the age of television. And television is the central cultural instrument, the historical predecessor of which is not print or even radio, but pre-print religion. Television is that ritual mythbuilder — totally involving, compelling, and institutionalizing as the mainstream of the socializing process.

Five Functions of Television as Myth

As in pre-print cultures, television (or storytelling) provides five functions for society.

First of all, television is ritual. It is very different from print and film because it is less selectively used. Most people don't watch television by the program, but by the clock. In the average home, the television is on more than seven hours per day. It has its own rhythm, often governing the rhythm of the home.

Secondly, television is highly institutionalized. There are basically only a few major sources of television program production. A group of about 100 people in Hollywood produce more than 95 percent of all the programs and essen­tially determine what most Americans will see.

Furthermore, television is an institution that is in the business of assembling people and selling them to advertisers at a price. There's an overall concept of programming (storytelling) – whether it is news, drama, talk shows, audience par­ticipation, daytime serials, what­ever — predicated on the formula of "cost per thousand." The basic formula that determines any programming is "how cheap can we provide this without offending too many of the people who will tune in anyway?"

"Those who tell the stories hold the power in society. Today television tells most of the stories to most of the people, most of the time."
George Gerbner

Television is also total in its grasp of an otherwise heterogeneous mass audience. Only about seven per cent of children's viewing time goes into "children's pro­gramming" so most children watch what adults watch. Of course there is very little regional, ethnic, religious or other separate programming. So there is a totality of audience and a uniformity of programming concept and program structure.

Needless to say, television is entertaining (compelling) because it is predicated upon giving some kind of apparent reward all the time. We can argue about the quality of the reward; we cannot argue that no one is driven to watch television, yet people watch it a great deal. Why? Because it brings, I believe, some sense of instant satisfaction. It is the first instrument of humankind to bring the millions of people who have always been "out of it" into the mainstream of cultural life. It has brought the famous, the powerful, the beautiful into the lowliest homes.

People watch television because no one is going to take it away from them. And they will watch it until and unless something more attractive can be provided in their everyday lives. Television is a great bond among otherwise very het­erogeneous and diversified groups.

Finally, television is the overall socializing process superimposed on all the other processes. By the time children can speak (let alone go to school and perhaps learn to read), they will have absorbed thousands of hours of living in a highly compelling world. They see everything represented: all the social types, situations, art and science. Our children learn—and we ourselves learn and maintain—certain assumptions about life that bear the impact and the imprint of this most early and continued daily ritual. In our age, it is television mythology we grow up in and grow up with.

Our studies for over 14 years show that television basically keeps those who are already in the mainstream more embedded in it by helping them hold its tenets more rigidly. Then, television brings members of those groups that have less, or more, than television offers into the mainstream, too.

What is the mainstream like? Let me pick out some of the more salient features on the basis of some 4,000 programs and l5,000 characters that we have analyzed.

First of all, TV is a world in which men out number women at least three to one. This male cast makes the world revolve mostly around questions of power. That is

Why television is so violent: the best, quick­est demonstration of power is a show-down that resolves the issue of who can get away with what against whom. On television, there is an incident of (this kind of) violence on the average of five times an hour.

It is also a world in which a few profes­sions (doctors, lawyers. entertainers, law enforcers and lawbreakers) far outnumber all other working people put together. It is a mean and dangerous world, and we find that those who watch more television are more insecure and apprehensive. They de­mand more protection. They are more likely to even approve of, if not welcome, repression, if it comes in the name of security. This is a dangerous syndrome we call the "mean world syndrome." It is potentially highly volatile, both politically and morally.

The Need for Media Literacy

There seems to be no doubt that television's appeal is based on its intimate connection with viewers' needs and aspirations. Al­though we may improve its content, we certainly will not break that link, and we definitely will not abolish television altogether. At best, we can only teach people how it works and how to use it in ways that are healthy for themselves and for the society.

Our sense of powerlessness about televi­sion is devastating and mystifying. To ac­cept it is to accept disenfranchisement. Television is a hidden curriculum for all people, financed by a hidden taxation with­out representation, paid by everyone regardless of whether they use the service or not. You pay when you wash, not when you watch. Every time you buy a bar of soap a fraction of that price is a tax levy for TV advertising. The total tax amounts to between $55-65 per household a year depending upon the market in which you live.

What then should be the terms of our engagement? That there is an engagement is clear. It has to do with very basic conceptions of life and the dynamics of our society. The more explicit we can make the engagement, the better we can address it.

Bringing these terms of engagement to consciousness is the number one task of education today, which is no longer in the business of dispensing knowledge, but rather instilling good habits for managing knowledge. Pupils today learn most of their information from television before the teacher can teach it, and they bring it with them to school. This is a greatest challenge for education today.

It is also very important, I believe, for tradi­tional religions to address explicitly and specifically the issue of television as a cul­tural mechanism. Taking a position, or some combination of positions, already is an important step toward being in control of our own world, of our own perspective. Whether or not your awareness activity is formal media literacy training, any steps toward critical interaction with the television you see represent huge steps forward.

Above all, turning off the set is not libera­tion, but an illusion. You can turn off the set, but you still live in a world in which vast numbers of people don't. If you don't get information and ideas through the 'box,' yourself, you get them through the cultural "environment" created by the millions of people who are watching.

Author Bio: 

George Gerbner was Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania for thirty years. He is currently Professor of Communication at Temple University, and is the founder and president-emeritus of the Cultural Environment Movement. This article was edited from a presentation to the World Association for Christian Communication.