I like television. I don’t love it. Outside of baseball season I’m not a daily watcher. But it’s a nice thing to have in the house. I even think of it as a relatively cheap form of entertainment. Much cheaper, for example, than its closest analogue, going to the movies.
Apparently, I was wrong. Turns out, each hour of TV watched costs me $4 in increased spending. This from Juliet Schor, currently a Boston College sociologist:
"Television viewing results in an upscaling of desire. And that in turn leads people to buy." Her study found that every additional hour of TV viewing per week boosts spending by roughly $200 a year.
Schor’s research isn’t exactly breaking news. Best I can figure, it dates from her book, published in 1999 when she was a Harvard economist and professor of women’s studies, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. (The hardcover had a somewhat less catchy subtitle.)
I have never met Prof. Schor, nor have I read any of her books. But she strikes me as somebody with a particular disdain for mainstream culture, something that is a bit of a problem if you study mainstream culture for a living. And she shares a fetish common in many academic/intellectual types I know, a militant hatred of TV. These people take pride in working into the conversation that they don’t own one, or if they do, it’s a small old set banished to an unloved corner of the house.
Schor’s core thesis is basically the same as that of The Millionaire Next Door, that the common folk are seduced into spending more than they should by a false consciousness implanted by the mass media. If you watch TV you will see people with affluent lifestyles to which you will be unable to resist aspiring. In other words, don’t watch TV, you might find out about cool stuff to buy.
In support of this, Schor points to a statistical relationship between TV watching and spending. The first thing to mention is that this relationship is not, on reflection, all that big. For most people, watching an additional 10 hours of TV per week would be a meaningful change in lifestyle. But spending the additional $40 per week that goes with it would be barely noticeable.
Moreover, as statistics professors delight in pointing out, correlation is not causality. Having not read her book, I will have to assume that Schor did all the calculations correctly, that she isolated out such factors as income and age, and that her results were statistically significant. But even then, all she has found is that two things, TV watching and spending, tend to run together. A little.
Finding that A and B are statistically related supports the thesis that A causes B. But it is also consistent with the theory that B causes A or that both are side effects of C.
I am not sure how I would explain how spending more makes you want to watch more TV, but give me a day or two and I’m sure that I could come up with something nearly as plausible as the other way around. (Perhaps if you spend a lot on a new TV and cable service you will tend to watch it more?)
My guess is that comparatively affluent people with ample free time tend to both watch more TV and spend more money.
I don’t have a problem with the advice to watch less TV. As I said at the top, I’m not a big TV guy myself and I have the unscientific belief that most people would be better off spending the time doing something more useful. Reading blogs, for example. But saying that watching less TV will help you save is a bit more than I can stomach.
Besides, at $4 an hour, it’s still a little cheaper than the movies.