Is This the End of the Television Age?
While American parents might complain that their children watch too much TV, the United Nations is celebrating World Television Day, which recognizes television's role in bringing global attention to conflicts and threats to peace as well as its potential to spotlight critical economic, social and health issues.
However, while the UN lauds TV, some experts believe the medium's best days are over.
TV is good for you
In March 1996, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 21 to be World Television Day. Television flickered to life in the 1920s. Over the second half of the 20th century, those flickering images strengthened and grew, until TV became the most widely used telecommunication medium for news and entertainment, reaching into every corner of the globe.
"Television doesn't require literacy and presents information in all visual forms, which doesn't require any specific skills for comprehension," says Janis Karklins, assistant director-general of UNESCO.
World Television Day, he says, celebrates the influence and impact of TV.
"This day allows people to underscore the power of TV communication, its role in sharpening the focus of many of the world's major challenges; would it be world economy, would it be cultural development, would it be good governance or freedom of expression," Karklins says. "We can also note the increased impact of television on all societies, but especially in the developing world where enabling environment for television emissions and television industry are under development."
Over the past 50 years, he notes, television helped spread new social ideas, especially in developing countries.
"For instance in Africa, television shaped the societies' shift toward post-colonial independence, political pluralism and economic liberation," Karklins says. "If we look closer in the history, in late 1980s beginning of 1990s in Eastern Europe, television shaped the shift towards democracies in that part of the world."
He says television has been especially effective at mobilizing the world for different causes.
"For instance, campaigns to fight HIV/AIDS, to collect funds for action against poverty, in favor of education, cultural diversity," Karklins says. "The combination of sound and image means that the television has had a great chance of representing the diversity of our cultural expression and foster intercultural dialogue by visual, audio means to clearly show the differences existing around the world. In this sense, television brought people of the world closer together presenting us with opportunities to see the differences, to see the diversity in unity."
And, with new technologies, Janis Karklins expects television to continue to evolve and impact our lives.
"The world has become a big network and TV is part of this network society," he says. "TV certainly is moving already and increasingly will move to mobile devices. All this will complement existing technological platforms like satellite TV and cable TV. So I think this convergence will increase the impact of TV on the development of democracy and will continue to provide space for citizen participation, and clearly TV will continue to play its crucial role in disseminating information in the increasingly dynamic world we're living in.
One expert contends the age of mass communication is over.
However, Anthony Smith, author of "Television: an International History," believes the medium's days are numbered.
"Television came and now is almost gone and in 50 years time, the form which we've been used to, will disappear all together," says Smith. "The age of mass communication has, more or less, come to an end."
That's because, Smith says, people don't rely on TV today the same way they did in the 1950s and 1960s.
"They have so many other distractions," he explains. "You have to realize that lots of people use the screens now for pornography, for shopping, for reasons other than what we normally take to be entertainment. It's a source of information, but a very thin information. I think most people who are seriously interested in what's going in the world consult websites, one or two surviving newspapers. Of course, many fewer people will still watch it, but they will be getting their narrative stories from a much wider variety of sources than the thing we have for the last 50, 60 years called television."
Smith notes that a growing number of people around the world are not just media consumers. They create and send their own video, audio and text to each other. In such a busy communication environment, he says, television's role is being constantly redefined as we discover new ways to create and distribute information - something to think about, on World Television Day.