"The television," science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury lamented in 1953, is "that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little." Bradbury wasn't alone in his angst: Television has been as reviled as it has been welcomed since the first broadcasts began in 1928. Critics of television, from disgusted defenders of the politically correct to outraged conservative culture warriors, blame it for poor health, ignorance, and moral decline, among other assorted ills. Some go further: According to a recent fatwa in India, television is "nearly impossible to use … without a sin." Last year, a top Saudi cleric declared it permissible to kill the executives of television stations for spreading sedition and immorality.
So will the rapid, planetwide proliferation of television sets and digital and satellite channels, to corners of the world where the Internet is yet unheard of, be the cause of global decay such critics fear? Hardly. A world of couch potatoes in front of digital sets will have its downsides -- fewer bowling clubs, more Wii bowling. It may or may not be a world of greater obesity, depending on whom you ask. But it could also be a world more equal for women, healthier, better governed, more united in response to global tragedy, and more likely to vote for local versions of American Idol than shoot at people.
Indeed, television, that 1920s technology so many of us take for granted, is still coming to tens of millions with a transformative power -- for the good -- that the world is only now coming to understand. The potential scope of this transformation is enormous: By 2007, there was more than one television set for every four people on the planet, and 1.1 billion households had one. Another 150 million-plus households will be tuned in by 2013.
In our collective enthusiasm for whiz-bang new social-networking tools like Twitter and Facebook, the implications of this next television age -- from lower birthrates among poor women to decreased corruption to higher school enrollment rates -- have largely gone overlooked despite their much more sweeping impact. And it's not earnest educational programming that's reshaping the world on all those TV sets. The programs that so many dismiss as junk -- from song-and-dance shows to Desperate Housewives -- are being eagerly consumed by poor people everywhere who are just now getting access to television for the first time. That's a powerful force for spreading glitz and drama -- but also social change.