When I read that the Dean of West Point made a special trip to the set of 24 to beg the writers there to change the way they depict torture, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Of course his students were swayed by the show’s hair-raising depictions of Jack Bauer, the show’s tragic hero, using torture to extract vital information that saves the world time and again. Of course West Pointers who watched 24 religiously were convinced that torture is an effective interrogation tool . . . despite the fact that their battle-seasoned instructors told them it wasn’t. Who would you believe? A real-life military interrogator or a really clever storyteller?
Since most of us don’t get the skinny on torture from actual black-ops interrogators, we just might find ourselves relying on depictions we’ve seen in films like Rendition or A Mighty Heart or in TV shows like 24, The Unit, or NCIS. Believe it or not, information that’s presented in a deeply compelling narrative frame, with fantastically attractive people and witty repartee, can actually be more convincing, and more memorable, than a dry lecture from an expert. In fact, all the things that we associate with good entertainment — a feeling of involvement, excitement, absorption and pleasure — are precisely the same things we associate with a really powerful learning experience.
So how realistic does a TV show have to be when the premise of the show is completely unrealistic? What responsibility do writers have to be accurate when the average TV viewer doesn’t expect to be educated about anything when they plop down in front of the set with a cold one?
Not surprisingly, Howard Gordon, show-runner, head-writer and executive producer of 24 is troubled by the fact that people might regard his show as a source of information. At a recent event at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, I talked with him about how TV might shape our views about national security. For him, torture is simply a narrative device that serves his creative needs: Jack Bauer doesn’t have time to utilize legitimate interrogation techniques such as clever ruses and rapport-building. A time bomb is ticking, after all. Gordon feels that the media is the scapegoat for all kinds of social ills and that adults are perfectly capable of telling the difference between fiction and reality.
But while we might like to think that children are the only ones seriously affected by depictions on TV, we would be wrong. While you might believe it’s naÃ¯ve to think that a TV show — a fictional TV show, no less — could affect the beliefs and behavior of a mature adult, that’s exactly what our research has shown us. Time and time again.
According to a 2001 Porter Novelli survey, over half of regular prime time and daytime drama viewers reported that they learned something about a disease or how to prevent it from a TV show. About one-third of regular viewers said they took some action after hearing about a health issue or disease on a TV show. We recently conducted a survey of viewers who watched an episode of Numb3rs in which a main character registers as an organ donor. We found that 10% of respondents who had seen the show and had never registered before as organ donors, actually signed up to donate their organs.
In 2003, we conducted a survey with Princeton Survey Associates to see whether TV shows with government and civic themes — such as 24, Law & Order, JAG and Alias — had any effect on viewers attitudes about government or their interest in voting or getting involved in civic activities. It turned out that
- 70% of viewers of government themed shows said they talk about the characters/themes of the shows with family and friends
- 52% said they learn something from watching these shows
- 43% said a TV show encouraged them to seek out more information about a political or social issue
- 31% said a TV show has changed their way of thinking about a political or social issue
And these are the people who were willing to admit that a mere TV drama affected the way they live their lives.
Writers like Howard Gordon have a tough job on their hands. Not only do they have to create compelling drama that pleases advertisers and audiences and studio executives alike, they also have to be aware that their handiwork will become a part of people’s lives. It will serve as a conversation starter, a moral thermometer and a lightening rod for political outrage . . . not just here in the States, but everywhere the show is broadcast — and 24 is now in Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East. Is it possible that the majority of viewers outside the U.S. are convinced that Jack Bauer’s techniques accurately depict U.S. interrogation practices? You can bet your sweet bippy they do.