How much TV is enough?

This week the TV Licensing company released its annual Telescope survey of Britain’s television watching. The headline numbers are that the number of TVs in homes has fallen from 2.3 sets per household to 1.8, but that we’re watching more TV than ever – an average of 4.2 hours a day.

These figures turn up every year, and every year I’m surprised by them. I constantly hear how people would love to cook, or read, or learn a new skill, but don’t have time. Obviously some of us are very busy, but where does the average 4.2 hours come from to watch TV? Is it just that we watch TV while we do other things? And is there really that much to see?

This year’s TV survey also includes a somewhat contrived innovation called the ‘telehappiness index‘. This is a measure of what kind of TV makes us most happy. In a radically unexpected finding, comedy is the TV genre that brings the most happiness to our lives. Watching the news makes us least happy, with dramas coming second last – a result probably skewed by the Downton Abbey Christmas Special.

The report actively celebrates our TV watching habit. “TeleScope 2013 looks at our emotional connections to the programmes we love, how our favourite TV programmes make us happy and our love for TV” says the introduction, written by TV Licensing’s Head of Revenue Management. The only note of hesitation comes from a foreword by Dr Mark Williamson of Action for Happiness:

“television also brings challenges for our wellbeing, particularly for those who spend an above average number of hours watching. Some of these problems are well documented: the physical health risks from prolonged inactivity; or the potential impact on children’s behaviour and social skills. But arguably the biggest risk that TV poses for our emotional health are the negative stories that dominate the news. Although it’s no surprise to discover that viewers are least happy when watching the news, the impact of this is more severe than many realise. It leaves many of us assuming the world around is a much worse place than it really is.”


Having sounded that caution, Williamson then goes on to say that the problem is not how much TV we watch, but what sort of TV. “We could all benefit from more programmes that not only boost our own TeleHappiness, but also help us to see the good in the world and inspire us to contribute to it.” It’s a shame he doesn’t press his point a little further, since his own organisation suggests that people who want to be happier should connect more socially, do more physical exercise, be comfortable with who they are, and engage more with the world around them. Too much TV would work against all of those, I’d have thought.


The TV Licensing company obviously isn’t the place to look for a critique of TV culture, but for something that takes up so much of our waking lives, I find it rather strange that there is so little public discussion about the role of television, about whether there’s a problem with how much we watch or not.


  1. Television viewing has changed quite dramatically in my lifetime. Where we had 3 channels to watch and one TV per household, no matter the size of the household, we didn’t watch all that much programming. We had a few programs we enjoyed, but at the end of the 13 week run when everything went to reruns the TV sat quiet. Now we not only have the television in every possible location in the home, but have all kinds of gadgets hooked up to it. If you take into account rented movies (disc or netflix) and video games the number of hours one sits in front of a TV screen rises dramatically. Television has replaced social interactions and that is sad.

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