The Influence of Television and Last Week Tonight

This week’s readings centered on observational learning. Whether deliberate or unintentional, the majority of social learning occurs in one’s immediate environment. However, Bandura (2001) explains that “a vast amount of information about human values, styles of thinking, and behavior patterns is gained from the extensive modeling in the symbolic environment of the mass media” (p. 5). Technology has expanded the range of modeling influences that people are exposed to on a daily basis and are no longer confined to their immediate environment for information. Through use of the internet, individuals have access to a global communication network with a limitless amount of information.

Bandura (2001) explains that television is another powerful source of social influence that is “best defined in terms of the contents people watch rather than the sheer amount of television viewing”(p. 12). Bandura (2001) continues to explain that heavy television viewing shapes the viewers beliefs and conceptions of reality” (p. 12). These are significant points because they show that the media not only influences an individual’s beliefs and values, they affect a person’s perception of reality. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, television viewing was the leisure activity that occupied the most amount of time (2 hours, 49 minutes) for Americans in 2014. Second to watching TV was spending time with family and friends and family. According to the Washington Post, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu are on the rise with 40 percent of American households subscribing to a service. These sites allow people to continuously watch television episodes or movies without interruption.

In examining current television shows, it takes little effort to find examples of social stereotypes and other distortions of reality. Instead of highlighting the negative aspects of television, I wanted to discuss a show that has had a positive impact by addressing important social issues in an oddly comedic and entertaining way. This show is a news-satire program called Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The show airs weekly on HBO but clips from the show are usually added to YouTube. The host, John Oliver, covers a vast array of social issues from LBGT rights, prison reform, FDA food labeling standard and many others. Last summer, Oliver aired a segment on net neutrality laws and accused the internet and cable companies of advocating legislation that would give them power to favor certain types of internet traffic over others, restricting the free and open system. He urged Americans to voice their opinions by directly contacting the Federal Communications Commission. According to Time, the sudden increase in traffic and received so many comments that it caused the FCC’s server to crash. In a different episode, Oliver addresses the constitutionality of civil forfeiture laws that allowed the seizure of personal property by police without evidence of a crime. After increased exposure to the issue from the Washington Post and Oliver’s segment, Attorney General, Eric Holder announced that he would enact many limits on the civil forfeiture law.

Finally, an internet audience tracking service supports the argument that Oliver’s show is having a significant impact on Americans’ awareness of social injustice and is motivating them to take action and voice their concerns. The audience tracking service is called and provides data to on digital traffic. Parsely performed an internet audience tracking study and found that Oliver’s segments “routinely change the amount of interest in the topics he addresses, even after the buzz around the segments have died down”. The graph below shows the increased internet traffic of websites regarding contract chicken farming:


Oliver’s ability to use television and the internet in a way that promotes activism and social consciousness is an inspiring example of how technology can be used to expose issues that are disregarded and overlooked. By changing viewer awareness, he changes their social realities which motivates people to respond either by acting or changing their thinking. I know there are many other examples of how technology is being used to promote positive social change- so please feel free to share any additional thoughts or examples.


Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communications. J.Bryant, & D. Zillman(Eds.). Media effects: Advances in Theory and Research (2nd ed., 121-153). Hillsdale, NJ.


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