Television, Equality, and Economic Development

The spread of television around the world is a positive force for socioeconomic development, according to an article published in Foreign Policy earlier this week. According to Charles Kenny, the article’s author, “It’s not Twitter or Facebook that’s reinventing the planet. Eighty years after the first commercial broadcast crackled to life, television still rules our world. And let’s hear it for the growing legions of couch potatoes: All those soap operas might be the ticket to a better future after all.”

The article cites a number of interesting studies to support their position. According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank, the increased popularity of soap operas in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s correlated to a decline in family size. Researchers hypothesize that female characters with small families provided an important social cue for rural women. The effect was equivalent to two additional years of education. A similar study conducted in India noted a similar outcome. Television can also play a role in promoting gender equity. The success of a female contestant in Afghan Star (Afghanistan’s version of American Idol), could, according to the program’s director, “do more for women’s right than all the millions of dollars we have spent on public service announcements for women’s rights on TV.”

But more radical changes might also be around the corner. Will people give up

What conclusions should we draw from this? FP suggests that,

In the not-too-distant future, it is quite possible that the world will be watching 24 billion hours of TV a day — an average of close to four hours for each person in the world. Some of those hours could surely be better spent — planting trees, helping old ladies cross the road, or playing cricket, perhaps. But watching TV exposes people to new ideas and different people. With that will come greater opportunity, growing equality, a better understanding of the world, and a new appreciation of the complexities of life for a wannabe Afghan woman pop star. Not bad for a siren Medusa supposedly giving so little.

Perhaps worries about television and the decline of social capital [glossary] were overrated? Was Robert Putnam wrong to suggest that we’d all be Bowling Alone? Perhaps we’re just bowling on Wii instead? The spread of television will not provide a cure to all the challenges of development. But it might not be a cause for worry either.

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