It may have escaped your attention -- as it did mine -- that television sets in American households are now turned on more than seven hours a day on the average. Furthermore, more than 98 percent of all American households -- houses, apartments and other dwellings -- have television sets.
The pervasiveness of television in daily American living is clear when compared with the circulation of America's daily newspapers, which last year reported a combined circulation of 63.3 million -- about 72 percent of the nation's households.
In the first eight months of 1985, TV sets were lit up an average of seven hours and five minutes a day, according to Terri Luke of the A.C. Nielsen Co., the nation's largest television monitoring firm. That's almost all the non-sleeping, non-working hours most folks have.
Of course, skeptics will remind that some of the time the electronic screen serves as the family baby sitter, perhaps as time-passer for a latchkey kid, background noise for a housewife, placebo for an insomniac or even burglar-deterrent to a housebreaker. These uses may warp the figures by a half-hour or so, but there is no getting away from it: television does take up a lot of family and individual time.
The influential role helps explain why newspapers such as The Post now devote as much as a page a day to television news and station logs and a whole section on Sundays.
With this access come power and responsibility. Currently there are networks jockeying for exclusive interviews with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, capitalizing on their previous efforts in Moscow and other experiences with Soviet leaders. It remains to be seen whether the television journalists will pursue the actual interviews with the same kind of curiosity and determination they have leveled at America's president at his news conferences.
During the recent Gorbachev visit to Paris, viewers were treated to every move, every morsel of food or dress favored by Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev. In the tightly packed 30-and 60-second capsules of half-hour news reports (22 minutes after advertisements), there was little reference to other Soviet newsmaking. News of Afghanistan, Poland and political prisoners held in Soviet jails faded from the screen, not so much by plan as by the reality that a program of such short duration does not permit coverage of so many and sometimes complicated stories.
Newspapers have this problem, too, but they usually have more space in which to report the unpleasant, as well as the froth.
Four months ago, when the TWA hijacking in the Middle East dominated in the news media, there were complaints that playing up the personalities of the terrorists made them into celebrities and conferred on them a certain amount of crdibility. The spotlight sometimes obscured the enormity of the crime involved.
While worried Americans wanted coverage of the event, the aggressiveness of rival newscasters also resulted in positioning captors before open microphones and rolling cameras where they could spew out self-serving propaganda and put it out to the world, unchallenged and unedited.
Then when the captives were freed, the media grew almost euphoric about Syria's role in helping bring about the release, ignoring that country's own substantial contribution to violence on other occasions.
This is a problem for the media: how to deal with the immediate breaking news and yet find the time -- or the space -- to put it in perspective. Documentaries that pull pieces together and explain are as rare on television these days as bald-headed news anchors, and some observers are doleful about uplifting change.
Neil Postman, communications professor at New York University, in a forthcoming book entitled, "Amusing Ourselves to Death," writes: "Under the influence of the printing press, discourse was different -- coherent, serious and rational. Now under television it has become shriveled and absurd." Mr. Postman told a New York Times writer, "Americans know a lot of things, but almost nothing. Someone is considered well-informed who simply knows that a plane was hijacked or there was an earthquake in Mexico City."
With seven hours spent each day on television watching, there probably isn't time to read more about such events.