The Most Powerful Educational System in the World with No One in Charge: The Impact of Commercial Television

Theodore W. Frick

Department of Instructional Systems Technology
School of Education
Indiana University, Bloomington

(Last revised in October, 1992)

Wake up America! The next time you hear on the news that a child intentionally kills somebody with a gun, ask yourself, "Now where did he learn to solve his problems like that?"


In the past decade there have been strong political pressures to change the American educational system. The business sector has become especially interested because the U.S. is no longer the dominant competitor in an increasingly global marketplace. This translates into lost dollars in potential profits, the bottom line. Countries such as Japan and Germany are mentioned frequently in recent comparisons. The business community is saying that students who are coming out of the public educational system are not well enough prepared, and that is why U.S. business and industry is losing its competitive edge. Business and political leaders are pointing their fingers at the public American educational system. Reform, restructuring, and transformation of the public schools are part of the current rhetoric.

I agree that significant change in the American educational system is needed. The problem is that we are not also focussing on the most powerful part, the part which is exerting the most influence on American citizens. That part is not the public schools. Instead, my contention is that the most powerful part of our current educational system is mediated by commercial television. The problem is that no one is really in control of this part of the educational system, and very few if any educational reformers are addressing it seriously.


What does it mean to educate? To 'educate' is to guide or lead those who want to learn, i.e., follow the lead. To educate there must be a teacher, a student, content and a context. If we are talking about the part of our educational system that occurs in traditional public schools, then the teachers are college-educated adults who are professionally licensed; the students are children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 18; the content is comprised of subjects such as language arts, arithmetic, history, science, algebra, English, biology, geography, music, art, etc.; and the context is classrooms inside of school buildings in a community school district. To be sure, the public school systems are one part of the American educational system. A more significant part of the American educational system is being largely ignored in current educational reform efforts. This part of the system is more powerful and enduring, affecting nearly all of us. I don't know what to call it just yet. It usually operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, with the subject matter typically changing every 30 to 60 minutes on numerous cable channels. Most American citizens, including the young and old alike, participate in this part of the educational system. Many of us spend as much or more time engaged with -- i.e., paying attention to -- messages coming from television sets as we do in our jobs, at school, or at play.

We are the students in this TV-mediated part of our educational system. While we are being entertained, we are also learning from the messages and teachers on television. We may not think we are learning anything, but the evidence is overwhelming that we do.

The budget in this part of the educational system is based on commercial advertising revenues. One of the main content areas taught is the subject of consumption. The content is more often geared toward development of attitudes, values and emotions than it is toward acquisition of knowledge. We are taught to want things -- so that we will buy and receive more of those advertised products and services, with the expectation that we will feel good as a result. The same commercials appear repeatedly on many different TV channels. As we flip from one cable channel to another with our remote controls we are likely, at any given time, to encounter commercial messages on several of the various channels. Indeed, we are much more likely to encounter the same commercial airing at the same time on two different channels than we are to win the lottery.

We also learn from the stories told, enacted, or coming to us live between the commercials. Telling stories around the campfire in ancient times has been replaced with the television in modern times. In ancient times story telling, drama and enactment by demonstration were primary methods of educating the young, prior to the invention of writing and reading.

The revenues from advertising help to pay, often quite handsomely, the teachers on TV who are well-known story tellers, athletes, singers, comedians, politicians and actors such as Morley Safer, Madonna, Candice Bergen, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Tom Brokaw, Bill Cosby, Jack Nicklaus, Charles Kuralt, Bill Clinton and Barbara Walters.

The context of this TV-mediated part of our educational system is often the living rooms, bedrooms and dens of our homes -- wherever we can comfortably watch and listen. But the context also includes hotel rooms, bars, department stores, and waiting rooms. And we can take battery-operated portable TV's just about anywhere.

The Success of the TV-Mediated Part of Our Educational System

We can evaluate the success of education by determining how well students have followed the lead. Let's look at some of the results, not at student test scores in academic subjects such as math and reading, but how well the public at large has carried out its "assignments." We have learned to consume more, so much so that we too often overindulge; we cannot find enough places to put the leftover waste; and we have bought so many things on credit that we are indebted to the hilt -- not only as individuals but as a nation. We are exhausting natural resources to feed our consumption wants, faster than any other nation in the world and faster than those resources can be replaced or renewed.

We have also become a more violent people -- hurting ourselves and others more than before. Murders, assaults, rape, destruction of property and thefts have increased to the point that our jails are overflowing and our legal system is jammed with criminal cases. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. Look at all the violence on TV, the models we are exposed to as "students." Shootings, explosions, car crashes and fights occur all too often on TV. In sporting events, the message is to defeat our opponent to gain the spoils of victory. While we don't see rape on TV, sexual messages are often embedded implicitly in many commercial advertisements and TV shows. So why are we surprised that these things also occur in real life?

The educational research on student engagement is pretty clear. Students tend to learn more in subjects they spend more time on. Yes, it is difficult to establish cause and effect here, between time spent watching TV and consumption and violence -- just as it is difficult to establish a causal link between smoking of cigarettes and lung cancer. But we should not let that stop us from acting sensibly when there are obvious indicators of the relation. Most physicians and life insurance companies are convinced of the relation between smoking and lung cancer, even though causality is difficult to prove scientifically.

In the late spring of 1992, Vice-President Quayle disputed the message sent from an episode of a TV sit-com, Murphy Brown, in which she chose to give birth to a child out of wedlock and raise the child as a single parent. While I disagree with Quayle's faulty moral reasoning, I nonetheless use his reaction as an example of the realization of the educational impact of television. I believe that Quayle is correct about that. I too am concerned about what is being taught and learned as well, and that is why I write this piece.

Bill Clinton, when running for President in 1992, understood the educational impact of television. About a month before the Democratic National Convention, he began to televise unrehearsed question-and-answer sessions on issues raised by members of audiences who were chosen by a neutral third party. He even did so on MTV, in an attempt to reach the younger generation. Clinton was attempting to educate voters on the important issues facing this country and his plans for dealing with them. His choice of format indicated his awareness that the issues are too complicated for representation by sound bites in the typical 30-second political campaign advertisements on TV.

Perhaps the greatest argument supporting the effectiveness of the TV-mediated part of our educational system is the fact that many large businesses continue to advertise their products and services. I find it hard to believe that such people, whose primary motive is to make money, would continue to invest literally billions of dollars in advertising if they did not have clear evidence that it works. Apparently their messages are being received and acted upon by the television audience in sufficient numbers to make such advertising a worthwhile investment.

If the commercial advertisements are so educationally effective, then it is also likely that what happens between the commercials is having an educational impact on America. TV commercials and shows are what the public and private school part of our educational system is competing with, and it would appear that the TV-mediated part of our educational system is doing a better job of inculcating values and attitudes. Commercial television is reaching many more students, not just those who attend school between ages of 5 and 18. And the TV-mediated part of our educational system is reaching more people more of the time: evenings, nights, weekends and summers, as well as during the daytime for those not in school or work.

So, it would appear that the private sector has succeeded in creating a more effective part of our educational system than that of the public schools. Unfortunately, the private enterprise system has shot itself in the foot. It is not satisfied with the knowledge, skills and values held by the students who have been educated in part under its own influence through television. The business community on one hand talks to public school educators about the need for a work ethic, yet the message sent through TV advertisements is to consume, take it easy, and enjoy the good life.

I am not claiming that all of what is presented on commercial TV is not good from an educational point of view. News media coverage of health issues such as AIDS and problems with destruction of our environment have been educationally very worthwhile, for example. As another example, the American public learned a great deal about sexual harassment from Anita Hill and others who testified in the U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings concerning Judge Clarence Thomas for appointment to the Supreme Court. I also laud the Discovery Channel for its efforts in educating the public. And I support non-commercial public television. Bill Moyers is one of my favorite teachers on PBS.

What I am worried about is that, in general, commercial television has become like a runaway horse -- it is out of control and we don't know where it might go. The main purpose of any educational system should be to select the best of culture for sharing with future generations, so that they will not repeat so many of our past mistakes and will further improve the quality of life.

The Problem: No One Is in Control

The part of the American educational system which is TV-mediated is not under any real leadership with respect to its educational mission. Commercial advertisers want TV shows that attract a lot of viewers. TV executives in turn decide what shows to broadcast by surveying their audience (e.g., Nielson ratings). One might conclude that this is democracy in action. It may very well be democratic, but the blind are leading the blind.

What the majority wants for entertainment is not necessarily good for them from an educational point of view. So we have a downward spiral here -- commercial advertisers are fairly successful in convincing people to want to buy what they have to sell. And what attracts larger TV audiences is not in the hands of business but those of an increasingly less well-educated public. In effect, no one is in control of the situation, exercising true educational leadership.

The role of teachers should be to select the best of culture for sharing with the next generation. While there are notable exceptions, most TV teachers and their script writers are forced to operate within narrow constraints, because their "principals" (i.e., TV executives) know where their "bread is buttered." If their shows lose mass appeal, then they will lose their commercial sponsors.

If profit, consumption and sensory stimulation continue to be the major values which determine the content of TV, which is a major and powerful educational agent, then America is likely to continue this downward spiral. Other important values are being neglected.

Who is going to stand up and take a leadership role? And how can they do so, if the TV media are controlled by the economics of big business advertisers and consumer entertainment demands? Other less "developed" countries should take heed, or history will repeat itself in these nations as well.

I am not against free enterprise. I support it to the extent it does not harm people and society as a whole. I am alarmed at the influence of the part of our educational system which is mediated by commercial television. I am not trying to get public schools off the hook either. Reform is needed in both arenas. If reform is to be truly systemic, as many are arguing it should be, then the whole educational system must be addressed. The whole system includes both the public school sector and the part mediated by commercial television. If big business points the finger at the failures of public school systems, then it should also point the finger at itself for its own role in promoting consumerism and violence at the expense of inculcating wisdom.

Wake up America! The next time you hear on the news that a child intentionally kills somebody with a gun, ask yourself, "Now where did he learn to solve his problems like that?"

Instead of pointing fingers or guns, let's together figure out a way to do something constructive to solve the whole problem in American education, and not focus solely on the school systems. Commercial television is part of the problem and cannot be allowed to ignore its own role in educating the American public.

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Last updated by T. W. Frick, July 5, 2019.