Over the years, people have looked at the “vast wasteland” of television and seen the approaching end of western civilization. I try to take criticism of the medium with a grain of salt, but I recently came across some studies suggesting that it wasn’t only me who had changed.
Two researchers at the University of California, Yalda Uhls and Patricia Greenfield, devised a way to measure the values expressed in U.S. television shows. Their idea was not that TV is a corrupting influence or a source of moral instruction, but a mirror that reflects our society back to us.
Given how much the world has changed over the decades, you might not think that TV shows from the years 1967, 1977, 1987, and 1997 would have much in common. But they did. Taking the two most popular programs for tweens from each of those years, as well as from 2007, Uhls and Greenfield looked for 16 values demonstrated by the characters, such as benevolence, popularity, community feeling, financial success, tradition, and fame.
For the first four decades, the shows were fairly consistent: Community feeling was the top value for all of them except 1987, when it ranked second. Benevolence and tradition were consistently at the top. Meanwhile, fame ranked 15th in 1967, 1987, and 1997. (In 1977, it was 13th.)
Achievement and financial success hovered around the bottom half of the list; they were never dominant forces in the characters’ lives.
By 2007, however, community feeling had dropped to the 11th spot. Benevolence had fallen to 12th, and tradition to 15th. Financial success had jumped from 12th to 5th since 1997, achievement to 2nd, and fame to 1st.