Reality Programming: Evolutionary Models of
Film and Television Viewership
READING IS NOT dead, but it is practiced by a steadily decreasing percentage of Americans. The consumption of books, newspapers, and magazines is becoming an elite activity, still practiced by some educated and relatively affluent citizens but increasingly eschewed by others. At the same time, a sizable and steadily growing percentage of the world's population has become heavy consumers of television and film.
Why do people prefer television and film to other media? Why do we consume so much television and film? Many observers of contemporary culture have addressed these questions. Some see our heavy consumption of television and film as a symptom of cultural decay. Some see it as a symptom of capitalism and its need to colonize leisure time and commoditize audience attention. Media historians have deemed these questions too broad to be answered simply, arguing that our turn away from print media to television and film is a result of myriad and complex causes. What unites most observers and scholars of media is the belief that our heavy consumption of television and film is symptomatic, worrisome, and perhaps even a threat to democratic societies.
These observers may be correct. Heavy consumption of television and film can have profound negative consequences for individual consumers and for the societies in which television and film become staples. A complete explanation of our heavy consumption of television and film would account for a large number and wide range of interrelated factors, including historical, social, political, economic, psychological, and technological factors. But this essay attempts to address why we have become heavy consumers of television and film. It is an answer that has yet to be thoughtfully explored by media theorists even though there exists ample empirical evidence to support the answer. It is a simple answer, but not simplistic. It is a parsimonious answer, but it is not a mere caricature of a theory. Rather, it suggests an overarching theoretical framework within which we can make sense of a wide range of television and film content and effects.
To wit, I argue that humans have evolved to prefer television and film to print media and that our heavy consumption of television and film is attributable to the situation that these media provide efficient access to people, places, and other highly salient phenomena.
I also argue that there is no need to conceptualize the access provided by television and film as mediated access. Rather, we prefer television and film in large part because these media provide access that seems real to us. We typically see and respond to television and film content as if it is real. Indeed, the realism of television and film content is