NEW YORK—A Columbia University study released Tuesday suggests that viewing fewer than four hours of television a day severely inhibits a person's ability to ridicule popular culture.
"An hour or two of television per day simply does not provide enough information to effectively mock mediocre sitcoms, vapid celebrities, music videos, and talk-show hosts—an essential skill in modern society," said Dr. Madeleine Ben-Ami, a professor of cognitive science and chief author of the study. "The average person requires a minimum of four to six hours of television programming each day to be conversant on the subject of The Apprentice or able to impersonate Anna Nicole Smith."
Tracking 800 individuals between the ages of 15 and 39, researchers found that people who watch fewer than four hours of television a day have difficulty understanding the references made on VH1's Best Week Ever, and are often unable to point out the absurdity of infomercial products or the cluelessness of American Idol finalists.
"Study participants who watched television inconsistently were less personally invested in what they saw than regular viewers," Ben-Ami said. "While some sporadic viewers were able to enjoy jokes made by others, they were unable to make jokes of their own. The regular viewers averaged 12 celebrity-related sarcastic asides per hour, while the uninformed viewers made almost none."
The contrast between regular and irregular TV viewers was made plain by a simple experiment: Irregular and regular TV viewers were videotaped while watching footage of Michael Jackson.
"Note how this young man remains calm, observing the series of photographs quietly," said Ben-Ami, pointing to one of two monitors running footage of individual study participants. "Meanwhile, his counterpart laughs uproariously, pretends to gag, and feigns sexual intercourse with a throw pillow. Seconds later, he leaves his seat to execute some kind of '80s-style breakdance and injures himself, probably because of his excessive weight."
"The first man doesn't have a television," Ben-Ami added gravely. "The other man watches an average of 40 hours of network and cable programming each week."
Ben-Ami said study participants who watched fewer than 28 hours per week were unable to ridicule Paris Hilton "with any specificity whatsoever."
"By incorporating Paris Hilton into our oral interviews, we provided participants with an easy opportunity to 'riff' on the heiress," Ben-Ami said. "Nevertheless, non-TV viewers reacted to softball questions like 'What's up with Paris' hair extensions?' with monosyllabic shrugs or bemused silence. It was like they were completely ignorant of her many skanky attributes and laughable traits."
Ben-Ami said she and her colleagues fear that, if it is not corrected, television illiteracy could result in an American sub-group unable to function in the modern world.
"Because the ridicule of pop culture comprises the bulk of today's social discourse, a non-viewer is at a distinct disadvantage in the workplace, on campus, and in the dating scene," Ben-Ami said. "An employee who can't participate in jokes about Ashlee Simpson's disastrous Orange Bowl appearance will sit dumbfounded while a more able coworker ingratiates himself to the boss by laughing. And just as the bird with the most colorful plumage attracts the most attention, so too does the bar-TV viewer who yells, 'Have a sandwich before you faint!' when Mary-Kate Olsen appears on screen."
The study's findings have triggered concern among parents across the country.
"I don't want my 10-year-old to enter college without the ability to mock boy bands," said Myra Savage of Phoenix. "I want him to excel, like those kids who form campus sketch troupes or win college-wide trivia contests. Should I make him cut down on his reading?"
University of Colorado communication arts professor N. Clyde Graf said parents should nurture their children's enthusiasm for pop culture by having them watch a minimum of four hours of television each day, with at least two of those hours falling during prime time.
"As a TV-literate child grows into adolescence, he begins to develop either moody contempt or perverse love for camp," Graf said. "Both attitudes are vital to the informed ridicule of pop culture."
Graf said parents should encourage children by example.
"Don't instruct your child to turn on Nanny 911 and then go and watch educational television right in front of them," Graf said. "They should only be watching PBS once they've attained the level of jaded detachment that will allow them to find humor in low-budget sets, nerdy hosts, and clichéd, Ken Burns-style pan-and-scan direction."
Graf said that, without supersaturation in the worst forms of the medium, children will treat television as a source of passive entertainment.
"Long gone are the days when an individual would switch on his set and enjoy a simple, satisfying, and fun hour of diversion," Graf said. "To perceive television this way is to be hopelessly out of step with our times."