The Power of TV: Television’s Impact on the Status of Women

Published June 23rd, 2009 - 10:15 GMT

The Power of TV: Television’s Impact on the Status of Women


New research shows how turning on the television can be a simple yet influential way of improving a woman’s standing in rural India



In their paper, “The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India,” University of Chicago Department of Economics professor Emily Oster and Robert Jensen of the University of California, Los Angeles, explore the effect of the introduction of cable television in rural areas of India on a particular set of values and behaviors, namely attitudes toward and discrimination against women.


Measuring the power of television

The authors’ analysis is based on a survey of 2,500 women in 180 villages in India; they were interviewed once a year for three years in 2001, 2002, and 2003. These years represent a time of rapid growth in rural cable access. During the three years of the study, cable television was newly introduced in 21 of the 180 participating villages. The analysis in the paper relies on comparing changes in gender attitudes and behaviors between years across villages based on whether (and when) they added cable television. The authors used several measures of the status of women. They began with two measures of attitudes: attitudes toward beating and son preference. Attitudes toward spousal abuse were measured by asking women whether beating is acceptable in six possible situations (if a woman neglects children, is unfaithful, etc.), and counting the total number of situations in which she reports beating is acceptable. Son preference was measured by asking women who want more children whether they want their next child to be a boy.


Jensen and Oster found large effects of cable on both of these variables. Women who live in villages that introduce cable see large declines in both the number of acceptable beating situations and son preference; villages that do not introduce cable see no change. This change happens between 2001 and 2002 for villages that introduce cable in 2002, and between 2002 and 2003 for villages that introduce cable in 2003. In other words, the timing of the change in attitudes lines up with the timing of the change in cable access.


How cable television affects status

Soap operas are among the most popular shows on cable: the most popular show in both 2000 and 2007 (based on Indian Nielsen ratings) is “Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi,” (Because a Mother-in-Law was Once a Daughter-in-Law, Also), a show based around the life of a wealthy industrial family in the large city of Mumbai. Many characters on popular soap operas have more education, marry later, and have smaller families – all things rarely found in rural areas; and many female characters work outside the home, sometimes as professionals, running businesses, or in other positions of authority. By exposing rural households to urban attitudes and values, cable and satellite television may lead to improvements in status for rural women. It is this possibility that Jensen and Oster explore in their paper. In particular, they evaluate the effect of the introduction of cable and satellite television on a variety of measures of women’s status: autonomy, attitudes toward spousal abuse, son preference, and fertility. In addition, they explore the effects on education for children, which some authors have argued will increase when the status of women is higher.


“That simply turning on the television can improve a woman’s life as well as that of her children is particularly intriguing in light of the traditional and somewhat more complex approaches to promoting education and enhancing women’s standing in society,” said Oster.  “For instance, calls to “empower women” are often vague. Reducing poverty, building schools, and improving teacher quality in order to boost enrollment may be as difficult to accomplish as the problems they are attempting to solve.”


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