In Defence of Television


As the world seemingly moves increasingly online, we’re awash with articles and think pieces keen to proclaim the death of television. Away from all of the premature obituaries and supposed resurgences, behind closed doors there is a greater significance that TV plays in the lives of ordinary people.


Led by researchers at Bristol University, the Poverty and Social Exclusion survey looks at what the public think constitutes an unacceptably low standard of living in the UK. Presented with a list of 76 items (46 for adults and 30 for children), people were asked to rate items as either ‘necessary and which all people should be able to afford, and which they should not have to do without’ and those which ‘may be desirable but are not necessary’. 


The 2012 edition of the survey found that “the one item which seen as a necessity by a majority overall where there is some disagreement across groups is a television.” Crucially, it was also found to be significantly more important to those groups more likely to be in poverty – people with no qualifications, in manual work, with a limiting illness and in the bottom 20% of earners.


A similar debate was sparked during research into our Essential Items report, with TV proving to be the most controversial inclusion on the list. Television was the only one of our 10 to receive an average score of less than 3 (1 nonessential, 5 absolutely essential), with some respondents feeling that a TV should be considered a luxury – ‘a TV is not essential in keeping someone warm, safe and well fed’ as one respondent put it.


However, as we are always keen to stress, Furniture Poverty is not just about material and physical needs, but the effects it can have on the mental health and wellbeing of a household. In recent years, society has grown increasingly aware of the damaging effects of loneliness and social isolation. As one of our respondents perceptively pointed out, ‘to someone with certain mental or physical health problems, it is their only contact with the outside world.’ To deprive someone of a television set might mean depriving them of their only source of company and their only connection with the outside world. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who would argue that wasn’t falling below an acceptable standard of living.


And it’s about more than just binging on reality TV; the reality is that TV is a hub for families and friends to bond and spend time together. Whether inviting friends around to watch the soaps or football, or an excuse for gathering round for family time, a TV can have a tremendous social impact on people’s lives. There might not be as many water coolers knocking about anymore, but the culture of ‘water cooler conversation’ is alive and well. Outside of awkward, stunted small talk about the weather, television is among the most common and effective conversation starters – and a potential friendship starter. Those without a TV risk being excluded.