TV is Bad, M’kay? Light Bulb Moments and the Benefit of Firsthand Educational Experience

The spectrum of writers that have contributed to the subject of whether television can be good or bad is far and wide. Steven Johnson, in an article entitled “Watching TV makes You Smarter,” the author does much to posit that TV can and will make you smarter—provided you watch shows with complex storylines. According to Johnson, the “Sleeper Curve [a term he coins to demarcate shows where you have to pay attention, make inferences, and track shifting social relationships] is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today […]” (par. 4). Shows of the nature which he speaks (e.g. 24, The West Wing, and E.R., among others) involve three elements: multiple threads, flashing arrows, and social networks one must stay attuned to in order to get the most benefit (par. 7). Johnson notes, after all, the mind does like to be challenged; that there is “pleasure to be found in solving puzzles, detecting patterns, or unpacking a complex narrative system” (par. 34).

But, what of shows such as Family Guy…? Antonia Peacocke, in her article: “Family Guy and Freud: Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,” argues Family Guy does have merit, though hidden (308). Much of the humor espoused on Family Guy strikes at our unconscious. It brings to light the most animalistic and aggressive impulses therefrom (308). However, there also exists a corollary…. In “Hidden Intellectualism,” by Gerald Graff, “real intellectuals [can] turn any subject […] into grist for their mill through the thoughtful questions they bring to [the table], whereas a dullard will find a way to drain the interest out of the richest subject” (381). Graff continues, conflict can contribute greatly to intellectual development but in most cases, comes “down to a choice between being physically tough and being verbal” (382). For those that choose being verbal over physical toughness, i.e. an individual that is “street smart” over being “an “intellectual,” can learn to become an intellectual. That is, in reading [or watching TV], you can learn the “rudiments of the intellectual life: how to make an argument, weigh different kinds of evidence, move between particulars and generalizations, summarize the views of others, and enter into a conversation about ideas” (383). Graff describes the impact of this is seen when a street smart person engages in sports debates (384). That person may join a larger sense of community that reaches a public and national level—especially when you can join a Facebook group or page dedicated to a particular subject, be it a book or television show (Graff 384; Peacocke 303).

Under the right circumstances then, watching television can be good for you, but in all probability, it’s the worst thing you can do. Watching television is time-consuming, requires a higher capacity for cognitive functions to derive the full benefit, and firsthand experience is often best for an authentic learning experience.

Watching television, as it’s currently understood, is time-consuming. Gone are the days when you would have to wait a seemingly interminable amount of time for the next episode of your favorite show to air on TV. Now, online streaming services funnel your favorite shows into your home when you want them. According to Lev-Ram, Netflix, one of many popular online media streaming services, “has trained viewers to binge” (par. 5). A term that has grown in recent years, referring to the tendency of viewers to “binge-watch” multiple episodes of a series in one sitting. This perceived benefit is not without its cost though. Winland, in a study among college students found that “39.4% of [surveyed] students reported that they are less engaged in their academics than with online content” (10). To be sure, watching TV, particularly Netflix, can be a major distraction. If viewers are “binge watching,” then they are spending upwards of three hours or more in front of their TV or computers—Netflix, being an online resource, is watched by students primarily on their laptops (Winland 10). Is there any benefit then…? Steven Johnson seems to think so.

Steven Johnson, in “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” posits that watching TV can actually make a person smarter. He argues that the cognitive demand placed on the minds of viewers is the same as those of readers (par. 7). It would seem that Peacocke and Johnson would be in agreement on this point. Peacocke asserts that even the most coarse of television shows (“Family Guy,” for instance) has merit (308). But where does that merit lie? That merit lies in the thoughtful questions you bring with you in viewing your favorite series or episodes thereof. In order to derive the most benefit, you must already possess an inquisitive, or intellectual mind. As Graff observes, “[r]eal intellectuals turn any subject […] into grist for their mill through the thoughtful questions they bring to it” (381). It would seem then that if you can’t bring anything to the table when viewing, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. However, if, as Johnson surmises, you’re gaining the most benefit from shows that connect multiple threads, thereby exercising the parts of your brain that map social networks, that benefit can be obtained from real, ordinary life. Rather than seeing how your favorite character (a character that’s often written by one or more screenwriters) navigates complex social frameworks, navigate your own.

Firsthand educational experience is often best. In 1993, in developing suggestions for moving students away from “superficial regurgitation” of educational content, the Council for National Academic Awards “championed the strategy of ‘learning by doing,’” especially focusing on methods that fostered a deeper understanding of educational material via “games, simulations, and role plays; visits; and work experience” (par. 1). Ned Laff asserts the challenge in getting a student to interact with material “is not simply to exploit students’ nonacademic interests, but to get them to see those interests through academic eyes” (qtd. in Graff 385). It is through these moments of deeper understanding that provoke “light bulb moments,” as Murphy contends. When an individual learns through their own experience—or has educational content placed in a contextual setting best accustomed to their own level of understanding, their interaction, and consequential understanding, with material grows by leaps and bounds (Murphy par. 14).

In conclusion, watching TV is extremely time consuming, viewers are sometimes watching in three hour periods three or more times per week. That can be over 546 hours per year! There may be some benefit from watching your favorite characters on screen—but that benefit can best be derived if you’re an active watcher (one who asks questions of themselves, or others, or otherwise mentally or verbally participates in the on screen action) versus being just a passive conduit for fictional on screen actions. Firsthand experience is often best for gaining an educational experience. Seeing the words and actions of your favorite on screen characters may be a viable substitute for experience, but should it…? I would opt for firsthand experience over mapping my social interactions to those of fictional characters.

Works Cited:

Council for National Academic Awards. “The Benefits of Active Learning,”, accessed 16 March 2017.

Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism,” They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, with Readings (Second Edition), edited by Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russell Durst, Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 299-311.

Johnson, Steven. “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” The New York Times,

Lev-Ram, Michael. “How Netflix Became Hollywood’s Frenemy,” WordPress, 7 June 2016,

Murphy, Darryl. “Light Bulb Moments.” WordPress, 19 March 2017,

Peacocke, Antonia. “Family Guy and Freud: Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,” They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, with Readings (Second Edition), edited by Gerald Graff, Cathy Birkenstein, and Russell Durst, Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc., 2012, pp. 299-311.

Winland, Cassandra.“An Exploration of Binge-Watching and Its Effects on College Academics,” Squarespace, static54c08e42e4b0f1b78348c9ce/t/5527e9a3e4b0c120ebdc7650/1428679075633/ Winland+-+Final+Paper.pdf. Accessed 19 March 2017.