Thursday, September 13, 2007

Television: Back to the Future

Let’s start with a statement: anyone reading this post will have watched TV. Today you may watch more or less, replace it with the Web or a DVD on your laptop, but one way or another, TV has helped shape who you are.

So here’s a thought. How do you think the millions of people who are just now joining the TV Age are impacted by it? It’s an important question because the momentum towards TV is amazing. Some estimates say the number of television sets in Asia grew from 100 million to 600 million in the last 25 years or so. For these regions, the TV adventure is just beginning and the impacts can be unexpected and, yes, wonderful. For them TV is not life’s trivial pursuits on repeat, but a window to a better world.

Now for a story - actually a whole book of stories about the lives of women in rural India and what happened when their villages got access to cable TV.

Like all good stories, this one begins with a barrier; a mountain range of barriers. It is a story about women living in rural Bihar, Goa, Haryana and Tamil Nadu, as well as in New Delhi. Women who don’t have a lot of control over their lives. Around half of them require permission from their husbands to go shopping, and two-thirds have to ask to visit friends. Sons are more highly regarded than daughters and domestic violence is often regarded as acceptable.

Emily Oster of University of Chicago and Robert Jensen of Brown University found that this very common situation shifted dramatically after the introduction of TV. Cable TV. How did TV change the lives of these women? Simply by offering them emotional connections with other worlds through soap operas. Village women were inspired by a new spirit of independence and possibility. They avidly followed the lives of urban women in shows like Because a Mother-in-Law Was Once a Daughter-in-Law – one of the most popular shows of 2007. The women they saw on screen were better educated and had fewer children. They were able to work outside their homes and have control over their own money. These were new stories to rural women, and in a very short time, attitudes, expectations and behavior began to change. Six to seven months was all it took.

These effects are huge. The academic paper is here but the out-take is clear. While TV is becoming part of an and/and world in Europe, the U.S. and other developed countries, in emerging nations its unique power is just starting to be felt. If the Indian experience is anything to go by, TV is realizing its potential as a great educator.