What about television's broader impact on governance? Here, it's the level of competition that seems to matter -- a hopeful sign given that the future of global TV is likely to be considerably more competitive. If the only channel that viewers watch is biased in its coverage, then, unsurprisingly, they are likely to be swayed toward that viewpoint. Brazil's Globo channel, for all its positive impact on fertility rates, has played a less positive role in terms of bias-free reporting. It has long had a close relationship with government, as well as a dominant market share. In Brazil's 1989 election -- a race in which Globo was squarely behind right-leaning presidential candidate Fernando Collor de Mello -- the difference between people who never watched television and those who watched it frequently was a 13 percentage-point increase in the likelihood of voting for Collor, scholar Taylor Boas found. But with channels proliferating nearly everywhere, television controllers may have much less power to sway elections today. In the choice-rich United States, for example, there is no simple relation between hours watched and voting patterns, even if those who watch particular channels are more likely to vote Republican or Democrat.
Then there's corruption. Consider the bribes that Peruvian secret-police chief Vladimiro Montesinos had to pay to subvert competitive newsmaking during the 1990s. It cost only $300,000 per month for Montesinos to bribe most of the congressmen in Peru's government, and about $250,000 a month to bribe the judges -- a real bargain. But Montesinos had to spend about $3 million a month to subvert six of the seven available television channels to ensure friendly coverage for the government. The good news here is that competition in the electronic Fourth Estate can apparently make it more expensive to run a country corruptly.
Corruption is one thing, but could television help solve a problem we've had since before Sumer and Elam battled it out around Basra in 2700 B.C. -- keeping countries from fighting each other? Maybe.
U.S. researchers who study violence on TV battle viciously themselves over whether it translates into more aggressive behavior in real life. But at least from a broader perspective, television might play a role in stemming the global threat of war. It isn't that TV reporting of death and destruction necessarily reduces support for wars already begun -- that's an argument that has raged over conflicts from Vietnam to the Iraq war. It is more that, by fostering a growing global cosmopolitanism, television might make war less attractive to begin with. Indeed, the idea that communications are central to building cross-cultural goodwill is an old one. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels suggested in the 19th century that railways were vital in rapidly cementing the union of the working class: "that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarians, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years," they wrote in The Communist Manifesto. If the Amtraks of the world can have such an impact, surely the Hallmark Channel can do even better.
The fact that Kobe Bryant (born in Philadelphia, plays for the Los Angeles Lakers) sees his basketball shirt considerably outsell those of Yao Ming (born in Shanghai, plays for the Houston Rockets) in China suggests something of that growing global cosmopolitanism at work. The considerable response of global television viewers to images of famine in Ethiopia, or the tsunami in Asia, also shows how TV is a powerful force for shrinking the emotional distance between peoples within and between countries. In the United States, an additional minute of nightly news coverage of the Asian tsunami increased online donation levels to charities involved in relief efforts by 13 percent, according to research from the William Davidson Institute. And analysis of U.S. public opinion indicates that more coverage of a country on evening news shows is related to increased sympathy and support for that country.
Of course, the extent to which television helps foster cosmopolitanism depends on what people are watching. People in the Middle East who only watched Arab news channels were considerably less likely to agree that the September 11 attacks were carried out by Arab terrorists than those exposed to Western media coverage, researchers Gentzkow and Shapiro found, even after taking into account other characteristics likely to shape their views such as education, language, and age. Similarly, the tone and content of coverage of the ground invasion of Iraq was notably different on Al Jazeera than it was on U.S. and British network broadcasts in the spring of 2003 -- and surely this helped sustain notably different attitudes toward the war. But with the growing reach of BBC World News and CNN in the Middle East, and the growing reach of Al Jazeera in the West, there is at least a greater potential to understand how the other side thinks.
Just because soap operas and reality shows can help solve real-world problems doesn't mean the world's politicians should now embrace TV as the ultimate policy prescription. There are of course a few things governments could do to harness television's power for good, such as supporting well-designed public service announcements. But for the most part, politicians ought to be paying less attention to TV, not more. They shouldn't be limiting the number of channels or interfering in the news. A vibrant, competitive television market playing Days of Our Lives or Días de Nuestras Vidas on loop might have a bigger impact even than well-meaning educational programs. And competition is critical to ensuring that television helps inform voters, not just indoctrinate them.
In the not-too-distant future, it is quite possible that the world will be watching 24 billion hours of TV a day -- an average of close to four hours for each person in the world. Some of those hours could surely be better spent -- planting trees, helping old ladies cross the road, or playing cricket, perhaps. But watching TV exposes people to new ideas and different people. With that will come greater opportunity, growing equality, a better understanding of the world, and a new appreciation of the complexities of life for a wannabe Afghan woman pop star. Not bad for a siren Medusa supposedly giving so little.