What's on the Box?: The unexpected benefits of television
Illustration by Alice Kirk

Within the first month of Coronavirus hitting the UK, the average amount of time an individual spent watching television increased to over six hours, an hour and a half greater than the average figure for 2019. But this rise isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

With the UK in the midst of a third national lockdown since the pandemic began, many are finding themselves searching for ways to manage when confined to our homes. Whilst many continue to work from home and care for children, there are hours left in the day to fill; leading most to turn to their television sets.

With services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple releasing a number of new series in the last year, it’s no surprise we’ve found ourselves hooked to one or another. ‘Bridgerton’, which began streaming on Netflix on Christmas Day, has been announced on Twitter as the biggest series ever, with 82 million households tuning into the show in the first 28 days. These series can provide comfort to those seeking to escape the pressures of the pandemic, if only for a short while.

Striking the Balance

Throughout the challenges of lockdown, access to television can be beneficial. It can help us relax, allow us to step away from the news and escape the world of Coronavirus even if only for a while. While evidence suggests watching too much news can negatively impact our mental health, there is a lot to be said for the benefits of escapist television.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, and well before, health experts have indicated the importance of not consuming ‘too much’ TV. In a 2019 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, the potential harm of excessive screen time was flagged, suggesting we must ensure to engage in some form of regular movement or exercise and come away from technology. But striking balance doesn’t have to mean turning off the television all together; there are some proven benefits.

Turning to TV

During the first lockdown, OfCom’s Media Nations reported that an estimated twelve million UK adults adopted a new video streaming system and spent an average of 40% of their day watching these services. Whilst a lot of this time spent may have been to keep up to date with the news, as the British Government held daily briefings on the pandemic, the majority was spent watching television series and films. 

Netflix experienced an increase of 15 million paid subscribers and the typical person spent six hours and 25 minutes each day watching at the height of the first lockdown – this figure has been thought to have remained similar throughout the following lockdowns, too. Experts suggest that any more than three and a half hours of television a day is excessive. It’s widely accepted that this extremity can lead to detrimental health consequences for the older and younger generations, due to long periods of remaining sedentary and an association with cognitive decline and chronic illnesses. Whilst it’s important to be aware of how often we are choosing to sit in front of our screens to avoid potential health complications, it doesn’t have to become harmful if we remain mindful of our choices. Television can be a helping hand during this challenging time. 

A Role in Activism?

It’s certainly been a lifeline for creative professions; television has proven necessary in reinforcing the importance of the arts. With many industries taking a hit, including the arts and the world of theatre, it’s one element of entertainment that we have held onto whilst other aspects have been sidelined. As one of the only available forms of entertainment, it has also allowed programmes to focus on current affairs during the pandemic. ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ paid tribute to the struggling theatre industry and dedicated a performance to the Black Lives Matter cause, raising awareness of these important issues.

Television as Education

Alongside being a source of entertainment, the world of television lends itself to be educational, something that ought to be recognised rather than dismissed. Throughout the pandemic programmes that offer to teach us something have been just as widely viewed as those categorised as entertainment. There’s fact as well as fiction across all channels and services, providing insight and new information. As viewers we are able to expand our knowledge and curiosity, with national treasure Sir David Attenborough releasing ‘Perfect Planet’ on the BBC from the start of the New Year, for instance.

Health experts have regularly shared their knowledge and studies on the negative implications television can have on children. A 2019 study led by Dr. Mireia Adelantado-Renau suggests that excessive television watching among children “has been shown to decrease attention and cognitive functioning.” This potential detriment can be questioned when establishing what content children engage with. Due to the sudden shift to home-schooling, the BBC is providing educational resources online via their BBC Bitesize website and offering curriculum based television programmes every week day via CBBC and BBC 2. With a 437% increase in CBBC viewers since the service began this year, it’s clear this has been a hugely supportive initiative for parents juggling work and attempting to teach their children.

Good For Our Mental Health?

Just after the first lockdown, the Office of National Statistics concluded that nearly 50% of people in the UK reported feelings of anxiety since the virus hit, stating that lockdown was affecting their wellbeing. They found a range of activities helped to combat these feelings of stress including running and baking, but the most popular was taking the time to watch some television.

Television can be a form of reassurance during a time of isolation. One particular show that’s brought this comfort across the country is Channel 4’s ‘Gogglebox’, the show that shares different household’s reactions to the weeks’ TV. Its light hearted, comedic nature has captured the hearts of the nation, providing an intimacy with relatable human interactions that so many of us are currently craving. Watching people watch the same programmes as you and having similar reactions can help remind you that you’re not alone, something that’s pertinent in this isolating time. The show reached its biggest ever overnight volume of 4.5 million viewers in November and its second in December with 4.6 million. The love for this show is evident when compared to Channel 4’s ever popular ‘The Last Leg’ who also reached its second biggest overnight audience in the same week, with a measly 1.9 million viewers in comparison.

Considering all of this it seems, as long as it is not consumed excessively, television can be a force for good during these challenging times. It provides comfort, distraction, education and entertainment. It can enable us to feel connected to one another in a time when we can’t be physically. Perhaps it’s time we all felt a little less guilty after spending some time catching up on our favourite shows.