TV as Friend
to Shape the Media Shaping Us.
We hate to love
television. We hate the way we love to lose ourselves in
the groove tube. We hate how we love that ravenous
creature devouring our time. Hours pass as minutes as we
stare slack-jawed in mute worship of a box we've elevated
We love to hate television. We love to curse the
one-eyed monster. We love to hate TV for being such a
bore, for keeping us from going out and living. We love
to see rebel heroes in movies picking up shotguns and
blasting the babble box to smithereens.
TV is a sinister beastie, claims its enemies. TV
supplants our free will with the cavernous cravings of
mass consumerism. Entertained by mindless violence and
meaningless sex, we're distracted from personal growth by
murder trials and sports spectaculars rivaling the clash
of gladiators in blood-stained coliseums. Gruesome. By
design or default, warn those who despise TV, television
is destroying our civilization with moral depravity akin
to the decadence of Rome before the empire fell.
Do you agree with such accusations? Do you see TV as a
friend or foe? Are you ready to accept the truth that
television is both friend and foe? Are you ready to act
smart when you interact with TV?
Are you ready to claim the power of our personal and
community media choices? If enough of us change our ways,
we may wind up changing the world. If we're smart, we'll
agree to help shape the media shaping us.
Do you believe trying to improve TV is like trying to
revive a dying horse? Do you feel we should just put the
sorry beast out of its misery?
Perhaps you agree with Jerry Mander's book, Four
Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Watching
TV walls out most direct experiences, Mander says,
replacing real life with artificial reality. TV
brainwashes us, displacing our native imagination with
televised images. TV also imposes on us a set of biases
that alienates us from others and ourselves. And TV turns
us into mass consumers as part of a conspiracy to
centralize social control.
"If we believe in democratic processes," Mander
writes, "then we must also believe in resisting whatever
Mander raises core issues, yet his technophobia
recalls the Luddites who torched factories during the
Industrial Revolution. Also, the draconian measures he
advocates seem downright undemocratic. If we kill TV, we
also kill all the good TV can do. Why toss out the baby
with the bathwater?
Before we convict immature television as an enemy of
the people, before we sentence the media to perdition,
before we rush to judgement, let's evaluate the evidence.
How does TV deserve to be seen as a foe?
The most common charge against TV is that frequent
depiction of violence on the screen increases violence in
the streets. Let's break that allegation in half. How
much violence is there on TV? And do we really know that
media violence contributes to social violence?
Submitted for your approval, we have evidence compiled
by the Media Education Foundation and the Dove
Foundation. Kindly consider these vital statistics about
our television viewing habits:
> About 95 percent of all U.S. households have at
least one TV set.
> Almost 80 percent of all U.S. households have at
least two TV sets.
> Nearly 50 percent of all U.S. households have a
TV set in a child's room.
> The average TV set in the USA is watched 6 to 7
hours every day.
> By the time most children start the first grade,
they have spent more time watching TV than they will
spend in classrooms at college.
You get the idea. Television receiving sets are
everywhere, and we watch TV a lot. We are a nation of
television viewers. Our ancestors sat before campfires as
storytellers helped us ward off the night. We now sit
before the TV as media storytellers help us ward off the
And what about our exposure to violence during all
those hours of watching television? Here are two facts
from the two foundations:
> The average child sees about 10,000 diverse acts
of violence on TV every year.
> By the time a child graduates from high school,
he or she will have seen about 18,000 violent deaths on
Violence does exist in the world, of course, and
programs about "real life" can legitimately contain
violence. But how is violence being portrayed? According
to reports by the two watchdog foundations:
> More than 65 percent of the major characters in
weekly TV series are involved in at least one act of
violence per episode.
> The perpetrators of violence in weekly TV shows
go unpunished almost 75 percent of the time.
> The "good guys" face consequences for their
violent actions only 15 percent of the time.
> Only 4 percent of prime time TV programs have
So much for the drama and "action" shows. The debate
continues over how to classify slapstick. What about the
news? Think about the findings from the last Media Watch
"snapshot" of evening newscasts across the nation on one
> Crime was the most frequent type of news
reported, comprising 30 percent of the local news
segments (excluding weather and sports).
> Murder, the least frequent of all felonies, was
the most commonly reported crime story.
> Disaster stories (fires, floods, etc.) were the
second most frequent type of news story, comprising 10
percent of the newscast, followed closely by stories
about government, especially the criminal courts.
Media Watch didn't report how often a murder or other
violent crime was the "lead story" in newscasts on the
day of their snapshot. If they measure this factor the
next time, "violence" likely will be the most frequent
lead story. Mayhem make for compelling television in any
media market, and ratings is the name of the game in the
of Media Violence
Now, how does all this media violence affect us
individually and collectively as a society? Professional
journals contain reports of more than 3,000 studies since
the Fifties that investigated the relationship between
violence on television and violence in society. Much of
this research was collected by Senator Paul Simon and
published in a Senate report, available through the
Library of Congress.
"The cumulative nature of all the studies is
convincing," says Althea Houston, co-director of the
Center for Research on the Influence of Television on
Children. "Watching violence tends to increase and
activate aggressive behavior. Also, repetitive exposure
to violence increases our acceptance of violence as a
legitimate way to solve problems. This acceptance of
violence then gets built into the social psyche of
children and adults alike."
"The links between exposure to television violence and
increased aggression is well documented," agrees Dr.
Diana Hawkins, president of Interactive Associates. "At
this point, very few people dispute these links other
than people paid to dispute it. We're being exposed to so
much violence on TV that when we see violence in real
life, we're desensitized to people's pain. Violence is no
longer viewed as shocking. Meanwhile, the media has
become a training ground for aggressive behavior. And I
fear that people enjoy the adrenaline rush, kind of like
going on a roller coaster ride."
Experts say TV violence becomes more and more graphic
every day just so we can feel the same old thrill as
yesteryear, kind of like a junkie who need to keep
increasing the dosage to get high. In the past, the Lone
Ranger never killed anybody with his silver bullets. But
a fiery horse and a cloud of dust just doesn't do it for
us any more. Today's kids expect heroes to be lethal.
It's a morbid age.
Still, we need to see TV violence in context, cautions
Hawkins, who's now working at Stanford to develop an
interactive TV ratings system to replace the already
obsolete V-Chip. "The problem is that so many other
things have broken down in our culture, and these forces
contribute to violence in society. That's an issue we've
brushed under the carpet."
We can follow a similar line of reasoning about
research into the impact of promiscuity on television.
For instance, how often do lovers on TV pause for a
condom? The word alone makes us wince. At a time when
careless sex can kill, do the characters on TV model
responsible behavior in their relationships? Rarely. Even
dead six-year-old beauty queens serve as sex objects for
the purveyors of televised perversity.
and Present Dangers?
What else can we introduce in the case against
television? Please permit me to voice some of the more
controversial charges leveled at TV.
TV steals our time. &emdash; TV has a hypnotic
quality. Once the eyes and ears are engaged, the mind
follows. When watching TV, are we reading (or writing)
books, magazines, newspapers? Are we playing tag with the
kids? Are we driving down to a homeless shelter and
volunteering? Are we going on a family picnic someplace
where nature can uplift our souls. No. We're lounging
around like overbaked sofa spuds while our lifework goes
TV causes short attention spans. &emdash; To
make television as attention-grabbing as possible, TV
shows increasingly bombard us with a barrage of
fast-paced sounds and images. Will we ever reach the
limits on how much information can be packed into one
30-second commercial? Sit through an evening of
television, and then try concentrating your mind on
something for two hours. How long before you can adjust
to the task at hand? Children today are so agitated by
"attention deficit disorder" that doctors administer
drugs to slow them down. Notice how the length of this
paragraph produces impatience? Wanna bet TV at least
contributes to our short attention span?
TV aims at the lowest common denominator.
&emdash; TV tends to reinforce our basest instincts. If
we look at commercial or noncommercial broadcast networks
and local affiliate stations, if we look at cable and
various other subscription TV services, and even if we
look at all the new interactive TV services, fiscal
survival for every type of television operation depends
upon appealing to the largest number of people possible
with the most attractive product possible. Economic facts
of life. Amid the many woes of our world, since most of
us apparently want to be dumb or dumber, television
caters to our desires to become comfortably numb.
TV reduces our intelligence. &emdash; Making
sense of life is a challenge in any era. In our era of
rapid social and technological change, mindless sex and
violence on TV does not expand our capacity to reason.
Even the high-brow murder mysteries seldom ask us to
think logically about whodunit before springing surprise
solutions (Ellery Queen was a rare exception). Granted,
educational programs can help improve our mental acuity,
but when was the last time you saw a quality educational
program in prime-time on any commercial network?
Mass-market TV tends to bolster idiocy.
TV induces addiction. &emdash; The interaction
between television and the public is akin to what
psychologists term a "dysfunctional, codependent
relationship." Each depends on the other to gratify
unhealthy impulses. Most of have lousy self esteem to
begin with, so we're constantly looking outside of
ourselves for validation that we're okay. TV programming
and advertising tends to reinforce our addiction to
external authority, the ads massaging our minds into
imagining we'll be more popular if we buy XYZ.
TV fosters racial unrest. &emdash; By sheer
demographics alone, the mass market for broadcast TV
remains the white middle class. Those with other than
European origins tend to be portrayed as stereotypes,
from lazy black males to sexy oriental females. We
Europeans keep thinking we're better while those with
ancestry elsewhere on earth feel disgraced and ashamed.
Old resentments fester. We see life as fight between "us
or them." Rather than help us feel connected with a
common tongue, both broadcasting and "narrowcasting"
instead tends to harden our ethnic differences.
TV undermines democracy. &emdash; Our
culturally engrained authority addiction drives us to
give away our power to TV. It's the same force that makes
us give away our power to messiahs encouraging suicide
for a ride on a comet's trail. We're prone to follow
tyrants of any guise, sadly, yet the TV industry
essentially relies upon our dependency as a dynamo for
generating revenues. Dare we ask, is this is a deliberate
policy? Vertical integration of the media sure seems a
bit anti-competitive at times.
Even given the benefits of the doubt (knowing folks in
the industry with good intentions and deeply caring
hearts), the net effect is the same. We tend to feel less
willing and able to practice personal democracy in our
daily doings. When our TV tendencies toward senseless
cruelty are added to the mix, are we any more inclined to
try responsible self rule?
Let's be reasonable. Mander wrote his book in 1977.
Many fears of television have been allayed by the
evolution of TV in 1997. Fifty years ago when
"terrestrial antenna television broadcasting" began,
technology then only worked with centralized transmission
of single TV channels to local audiences. Times change.
"Multichannel decentralization" is the new media model.
The balance is shifting from TV as foe toward TV as
Before we blame the media, let's appreaciate that most
of us are suffering from what Alvin Toffler 20 years ago
called "future shock." We're overwhelmed by too much
information and change coming at us way too fast to
handle. A hundred years ago, the first telephones and
automobiles scared folks silly. How do we use the phone
and car today?
Once the new media becomes old hat, we'll more readily
grasp the whiz-bang gadgets beginning to appear in our
homes, schools, jobs, and communities. We'll navigate the
"500 channel" ocean almost as well as the kids. We may
not use personal communicators to buy yachts from the
beach, but we will use TV to see and talk to anyone
&emdash; if we choose. Everything comes back to our media
Enter the new age of wide-screen digital
For the next two decades or so, local TV stations will
continue broadcasting long-wave signals to analog TV
receiver sets attached to rooftop antennas. If you want
limited interactivity, local TV stations may someday give
away or invite you to buy an inexpensive "set-top box"
with a modem for a phoneline "return path" back to the
station. Press a button on the remote to order a 12-inch
pizza deluxe for $2.
If you love movies, the new high-resolution television
(HDTV) will deliver video almost as sharp and vivid as
the original film. Better still, the new digital TV
screens are the same basic shape as motion picture
screens. When watching movies on TV, ever see the top and
bottom of the screen blanked out when they show a wide
panavision shot? The new digital TV has the same
width-to-height "aspect ratio" as motion pictures, (16:9
versus 4:3 for analog TV). Expect to see flat-panel wide
screens by about 2010 as they become more lightweight and
Meanwhile, subscription interactive TV companies in
the cable and satellite and wireless industries keep
promising hundreds of channels of digital programming
delivered "on-demand" to our two-way TV screens. Despite
due disdain for all the overoptimistic hype, interactive
TV truly is here. Check out the "broadband" TV networks
already doing business in Orlando FL and Alexandria VA.
Look into more than a hundred tests and trials of
interactive TV technologies and services since 1995
alone. The bucks being invested make interacive TV an
The next generation of children will grow up adept at
using full multimedia consoles linked into one worldwide
network of networks. Interactive TV will be more than a
"video jukebox" for entertainment and news. Mix in the
the ever-evolving Internet accessible on our TV sets and
you begin to glimpse the scope and power of TV
One day we'll have viewphone services on TV, too.
Interactive media messages are inventing fresh terrain
of the mind to explore. Unlike the 19th Century pioneers
who used rivers and then railroads to uproot the natives
and settle the American west. the "cyberspace" frontier
we'll develop in the 21st Century is being created form
pure imagination. We boldly go where no one has gone
Instead of laying steel wheels for steel rails racing
across the embattled prairie, the modern media land rush"
is building "media content" transportation system
incorporating digital antennas, cables, satellites,
microwave dishes, optical fibers, copper wires, and even
utility power lines. By building communication channels
among people living in every land, we cultivate the soil
for "interactivity" to flourish.
Feeling like it will never make sense? Is that what's
bugging you? Dare we delve deeper? Doesn't talking about
all this new-fangled modern technology somehow resurrect
our deeply buried dread of Big Brother?
"George Orwell had a dark vision of a culturally
isolated and confined world of networked computers and
telescreens where a few people control everything," says
Peter Huber, a Forbes columnist and author of Orwell's
Revenge, "but the real impact of telecommunications
technology is exactly the opposite. The
[decentralized] new media instead has been a
liberating force. We're further away from Big Brother now
than ever before."
The Internet and interactive TV services transcend the
old tribal boundaries. A child today can download more
information on the Web in an hour than our ancestors
could learn in a lifetime. Media content may come from
anywhere on the planet. That's genuine freedom!
As one of the ways TV and other interactive media can
become a friend, look into how "distance learning"
already is revolutionizing our school systems. Once
students gain instant access to the best brains on earth,
their horizons expand. Once they imagine themselves
fulfilling "impossible dreams," the rest is logistics. A
fully educated populace, believed Jefferson, is the most
reliable safeguard of democracy.
Do you support such practical idealism, or would you
rather be done with TV altogether? Do you think TV is not
As we move into the 21st Century, interactive media
will become ordinary to us. Until then, the media of
tomorrow remains mutable as the media companies today
wait for us to show our preferences.
Elsewhere in this premier edition of Smart TV, please
read articles about personal and community strategies to
raise the quality of television. Here I want to focus on
the central choice of whether or not we're willing to
change the nature of television. Right now TV is more foe
than friend. Only a shift in our attitudes toward the
media can avert disaster.
In the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil
Postman cites Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. "Orwell
[in 1984] warns that we will be overcome by an
externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision,
people come to love their oppression, to adore the
technologies that undo their capacity to think."
Public discourse in the age of show business is
drowning in a sea of trivialities, says Postman "The
problem is not that television presents us with
entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter
is presented as entertaining."
Yet don't kill the messenger, says Postman "Each
medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique
mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for
thought, for expression, for sensibility, which is what
McLuhan meant in saying, 'The medium is the
Media philosopher Marshall McLuhan also said, "The
medium is the massage." How TV messages massage our minds
has been decided by TV being a one-way medium. But in the
two-way TV now becoming possible, the medium massages the
message as the message massages the medium. TV shapes us
as we shape TV.
Our interactive connection with the media is
increasing. Where does this leave us? What can we
actually do that will make TV better? For better or
worse, TV will become whatever we make it.
the Blame Game
Does television stand accused and convicted? Have you
any other claims to file? If only one of the charges
against the media are true, then we got trouble right
here in TV city. And what's the source of our sorrow?
If we look honestly at television and our own reasons
for watching TV, let's admit that TV is the way it is
because most of us like it that way. We may love to blame
TV for every problem in the world, but where does the
buck stop? When we say we hate television, could it be we
really hate ourselves? Is TV is just one more expression
of our secret self-disgust? Denial ain't a river in
How can we ask the TV industry to improve its
ingredients when we gobble up the junk food fare they
offer? Our private histories may impel our conduct, but
just as we must own our choices to overeat or smoke or
get drunk on power, we have to own our choice to fill our
minds with sounds and images from savage TV shows. What
do you want to think about when laying awake in bed
TV is just another vehicle we can use to carry us
anywhere we want to go. We're in the driver's seat. Look
in the mirror to see who's behind the wheel. Our
insecurities can leave us feeling like flattened roadkill
on the Information Superhighway, but who's the person who
walked in front of a truck? All actions yield
consequences. To quote Walt Kelly's Pogo, "We have met
the enemy, and he is us."
On the flip side, the TV industry also has a
responsibility to offer media content and services that
elevates our lives and communities. Do they? At their
best, TV executives are like those at Discovery Channel
consciously using TV and other new media as a tool for
improving our world. At their worst, they are like some
at Fox who seem to believe that a worthwhile nature show
is an hour of vicious animal attacks. Would you impose
censorship? I defend our right to watch dreck.
While the TV industry may profit from some
"consciousness raising," we still must come back to our
own personal use of the TV set. Playing the blame game
never solves anything. If we don't like what we see on
the TV screen, are we willing to change our television
for Deep Media Literacy
The nature of TV tomorrow depends on the media choices
we make today. Shall we grow and change to evolve with
the times? From where I sit, the most viable solution is
for us to develop a deeper kind of media literacy than
what's now taught in our schools.
Initially, teachers talked about "computer literacy"
as the raw ability to operate the new digital devices.
More recently, we've started talking about "media
literacy" as the ability to think critically about media
content. Both are vital skills. We need to know how to
use all the new-fangled gadgets in our homes and jobs. We
also need to know how to tell propaganda from a hole our
heads. But this is not enough.
If we are going to be smart TV users, children and
adults alike need to be more aware of our power within
the web of life. We need "deep media literacy,"
consciousness of our common interactivity, so we make
personal and community media choices for the highest
"If people feel more connected with the world," says
Esther Dyson, noted media visionary, "they feel more
powerful. They have more self esteem and more incentive
to take action about whatever they care about. When
people feel they can have an impact on the world around
them, they get more politically involved. They feel an
investment in the society around them."
Dare we stop blaming the TV and accept accountability
for what we've permitted television to become? Are we
willing to use our time and attention more carefully? Are
we willing to spend our dollar like a vote? Are we
willing to tell the TV networks what we want (phone, fax,
email, and snailmail). Are we willing to try a bit more
If we use it attentively, TV can help us feel more
connected, more powerful than people have ever felt
before in human history. We can use the new interactive
media as a means for evolving the global sense to
practice personal democracy and responsible self
Sound like a daunting task? Hope need not be blind to
reality, and skepticism need not give way to cynicism.
Faith in our dreams induces choices that help make our
dreams come true. Our visions create our lives as our
lives create our visions.
Our rapidly changing world is a scary, confusing place
these days. Why deny our natural fear of the unknown? We
already hold inside all the power we need to transform
the media and ourselves into a vital force for good in
The future of TV depends on our media choices today.