Television is Good for You
by Matt Bynum
Many critics compare television to a mind-altering drug. While the medium has been greatly abused, it still has great potential that has not yet been realized
Critics of television imagine a television viewer as one who sits entranced before a magic box, unable to turn away from the constantly changing images that entice, assault and stupefy. Television is proclaimed to be a mind-altering drug, one that leads to isolation and depression; it is a killer of time and creativity; it is obnoxious, sensationalist, violent; it is a vast wasteland.
Yet in its early years, television was looked upon with awe. It represented the dream of the creation of a marvelous tool for communication. Television would serve as an educational medium, so some thought; through it, viewers would be transported to distant lands, to the cutting edge of scientific research, and to the stages of Broadway. Needless to say, the early twentieth century visionaries had no idea of what television would become at twentieth century's end.
Modern day critics of television have been correct in their assessment of how the medium of television has been abused. But the answer to the problem of modern day television, according to many, is to "turn it off". This is, at times, an appropriate response, but it can not be the only response. The fact remains that television still is a marvel, and the visions from the early twentieth century are as yet unrealized.
The problems associated with modern television are real. But the problems involve more than the television medium; the problems are complex, intertwined with other problems that plague modern society.
A writer responded to a recent report concerning a parallel between Internet use and heightened feelings of isolation and depression. The writer remarked that other modern inventions should share the blame; even the automobile contributes its share of isolation. The passenger is shielded from face-to-face contact with other travelers, cocooned in a temperature controlled environment, caressed (or bombarded) by music emanating from the stereo.
So it is with other modern inventions; the telephone, airplane, personal computer, and many other devices. The convenience that they offer is not without a cost, and the cost is not often realized until many years after the device has been absorbed into society's everyday routine.
The story of modern television is a tale of excess. If the excesses were restrained, could television become a useful device, one that actually benefits society? Could television become a device that communicates and educates, instead of one that violates and enslaves?
The following is an examination of criticisms aimed towards television, along with commentary and suggestions for reform.
"Television represents an assault of mind-altering visual images"
Television viewing is much different than, say, reading a book. While reading a book, the brain is given the task of creating a world of visual associations; but while viewing television, the constant stream of images relieves the brain from the visualization task. This medium of television, or the "moving image", combines sound and ever-changing images to create a convincing illusion of reality.
Also, different from a book, a television program carries along in a time-frame that is controlled by the program's creator. A one- hour television program will always take one hour to view, and a five-minute scene will always take five minutes to view. A viewer can not linger on a particular scene (unless equipped with a remote), but a book reader can spend any amount of time on a particular chapter.
But there are other mediums or artforms that also combine sound and images, and progress within a measured time-frame; namely, any of the performing arts - dance, music, and theatre. Is the viewer harmed when viewing these artforms, because the visual element has already been pre-formed, as it has with television and cinema?
Some critics have labeled televisions as the "plug-in drug", and since the medium has been abused by so many, this label is not entirely undeserved. But in a sense, all mediums and artforms have a certain "drug-like" quality, even book reading. When you are engrossed in the story told in a book, are you not "taken away", temporarily, to situations and surroundings different than your own? The skill of the writer and your own imagination creates a moving image within your own mind. The power to create new worlds and capture imaginations is shared by all of the Arts.
However, there is one aspect of television and cinema that is different from other media. Michael Medved writes that "television doesn't sit still. In 1940, the camera moved from one shot to another every 35 seconds. Today, the average is 5 seconds" (Medved1).
The pace of a television scene is set not only by movement of objects and characters within a scene, but also by camera movements - panning from side to side or up and down, zooming in and out, or rotating. The final pace is established after the scenes have been shot, in the editing phase. The Editor chooses among the various shots, and splices the chosen ones together. Suppose that two cameras are recording a conversation between two actors, with camera A on Actor 1, and Camera B on Actor 2. First, the Editor might use the first 15 seconds of the camera A shot, discarding the first 15 seconds of the camera B shot. Then, the editor might choose the next 10 seconds of the camera B shot, discarding the next 10 seconds of the camera A shot. And so on, until the entire conversation is constructed into a continuous scene, with emphasis shifting between Actors A and B, sometimes showing an actor speaking, but at other times showing an actor's reaction.
Now imagine a second scene. A child is shown playing in a yard (15 seconds), the mother is shown gazing at the child (10 seconds), child gets up and runs toward the street (5 seconds), mother looks horrified, shouts, starts to run for the child (3 seconds), car is shown coming down the street (2 seconds), child runs into the street (1 second), mother runs for child (.5 seconds), driver of car sees child, tries to stop (.5 seconds), mother screams (.3 seconds), stranger grabs child (.3 seconds), car skids to stop (1 second), stranger gives child to mother who comforts crying child (30 seconds).
Notice that as the scene reached its dramatic climax, the shots were displayed in an increasingly rapid procession, until the anti-climax, which was the longest shot of all. In general, rapid cuts between shots indicate excitement and an increase in tension, and extended shots with few cuts indicate calmness and a release from tension.
This continuously changing visual perspective is unique to the mediums of the moving image. In a theatrical play, the eyes of the audience may be looking anywhere on-stage, or even wandering to other audience members. If the audience is expected to focus upon a key player at a crucial time, then the audience eyes must be led to this player, and whether or not this is done depends upon the skill of the playwright, the talent of the actor, and the agility of the stagehands. But even when an audience member is focused upon a particular player, the audience member cannot be moved close to, and then distant from the action; nor can the perspective of the audience be changed to view the action from above, below, and side to side. But through the medium of the moving image, the representation of continuously changing perspectives is not a problem at all. A television viewer does not have to decide what action is most important; the camera becomes the eyes of the viewer, shifting back and forth, making constant adjustments to take in the best view of the action.
The problem with many modern television programs is not that they use techniques of camera movements and of cutting back and forth; the problem occurs when the techniques are not used judiciously. Decisions on when to use rapid cuts or movements should be driven by the story or the script, and the pacing of the story should have an ebb and flow, with cycles of extended period of calm followed by a period of conflict, driven forth by a dramatic thread, culminating in a final conflict, and finally leading to a resolution. But using rapid cuts and movements continuously through the entire length of a program, as many modern television programs do, is a severe misuse of the medium, thoroughly unprofessional, and an insult to viewer intelligence.
The reason that modern television programs adopt a frenetic style is to capture the attention of viewers. Rapid cuts and movements are supposed to be a signal that an important event is about to occur. But often, it is a false alarm, the scene lacks substance, and can deliver nothing. But before the viewer can figure this out, the next scene blusters in, armed with the same false promise as the previous scene.
The frenetic style has been fully developed by MTV, which had its beginnings in 1981. This cable channel features music "videos", which usually constitute of a set of compelling visuals that are inspired by a particular song, with the purpose of promoting the song's performers, and the goal of convincing viewers to purchase the performers' recordings (tapes, CDs, and videos). Oftentimes, the music is raucous and the performers are unruly, and visuals are constructed that matched the song's style. But even songs with a more relaxed tempo (e.g., ballads) employ a rapid, disjointed style of editing; this adds a level of excitement, appealing to youth, who are the driving force behind recording sales.
A recent video (1998) by Madonna entitled "Ray of Light" represents every visual excess that has yet been devised. The performer is first shown standing in normal position, but then, the performer's body becomes distorted, being pulled from one side to the other, as if it was being subjected to the forces of a wind tunnel. In the background, one scene after another is projected, shown in incredibly rapid motion. The scenes are accompanied by a fast disco beat. Viewers with normal sensibilities would consider this video to be nightmarish, a representation of a drug-induced hallucination. Unfortunately, many viewers have been hardened by continued exposure to such excesses; and these excesses are accepted as normal. Under television's rating system, this video would probably receive a TV-G, suitable for all ages, because the video does not contain any "objectionable" material - violence, nudity, profanity or obscenity. But it should be marked as Unsuitable for All; it represents an act of violence towards minds capable of careful reasoning and artistic sensibilities.
The editing styles and techniques that were used to sell recordings on MTV began to spill over in other areas of television, infecting almost all types of programs. The intro to a local news program announces that it is "Live! Late-breaking! Local!", as computer-generated graphics swoop forward, bombarding the viewer. Then, the camera does a fast zoom towards the news anchors. One news anchor announces that there is a late-breaking story developing, and that there is a reporter standing by live, ready to fill us in with more details. And so continues the newscast, switching quickly back and forth between news anchors, live reporters, taped reports, and commercials, with all the gaps filled in by pulse-pounding rhythms and a generous dose of flying graphics.
Compare the television program Little House on the Prairie (produced in the 1970's, pre-MTV) with many of today's programs, and you will see the difference in style. With "House", the pace seems very slow in the beginning; it takes time to adjust to the more relaxed pacing employed by this program. But "House" does not need the jolts administered by frenetic editing; the stories were driven by good writing and the judicious application of editing techniques.
There is no legitimate reason why television must be characterized by hyperactivity. Television is like an attentive servant ready to do its master's bidding, able to provide a useful and important service to its viewers, but also capable of treating its viewers with contempt, as useful idiots. Viewers must become discriminating, able to identify television programming that is useful and appropriate, rejecting television programming that is unruly and distasteful.
"Television viewing leads to isolation and depression"
We require human interaction and a sense of purpose in order to live healthy lives. Excessive television viewing interferes with the pursuit of life's goals and purpose, and it consumes time that might be spent with friends, family and others. But excessive television viewing is no different than any activity that is pursued to excess. Life is a complicated balancing act filled with events and priorities that must be constantly monitored, shifted and re-arranged. To spend too much time watching television is to live a life that is unbalanced; yet, to abstain from viewing worthwhile television might be living a life that is less enriched.
There are two requirements that television producers must consider while making decisions regarding the style and content of programs. The requirements are: "Will this program be financially profitable?" and "Will this program serve the viewing public?" If program is not financially profitable, then the producer will eventually become bankrupt; and if the program does not serve the public, then the producer should find another profession.
Most modern television producers give fulfillment of the first requirement their full attention, while the second requirement is seldom considered. A steady increase in profitability is celebrated, with little regard of how the lives of the viewing public are impacted. When profitability is the only consideration, television producers tend to view the public as those whose lives can be easily manipulated, who possess little intelligence, who have no life goals or purpose, and who have nothing better to do than spend every spare moment engaged in the pursuit of television viewing. And the type and quality of programming will reflect this attitude; programming will be created not to enrich lives, but to lure and entrap viewers, using every technique and gimmick that can be imagined.
But the television producer who desires to serve the viewing public will create a different type of programming. These programs will assume that the viewer is intelligent, and is living a life that is purposeful. These programs will not attempt to steal every spare moment from the viewer, nor will they desensitize the viewer with a barrage of mind-numbing images or ear-splitting noises. The object of these programs will be to increase sensitivity and feed intelligence, so that the viewer can competently face real-world problems and concerns.
"Television programming is obnoxious and vile"
For the most part, television has evolved (or "de-evolved"?) into a medium that is almost strictly devoted to entertainment. Now, there is nothing wrong with allowing time for entertainment. Entertainment can be considered to be recreation, that which provides a needful rest from daily activities, allowing a renewal of strength that is needed for activities that will follow. So, entertainment and recreation can be one in the same. But entertainment can also mutate into that which is no longer recreation - instead of renewing inner strength, allowing it to build and replenish, strength and resolve are diminished, and the inner sensibilities are damaged or destroyed.
It seems that television has severe limitations in being able to provide "recreative" entertainment. For example, experiencing a live musical performance provides a much richer sensory environment than viewing the same event televised. (It should be noted that many modern live musical events have become more like modern television programs. They have become equipped with huge television monitors, laser lights and blaring amplifiers). Sometimes a televised or recorded event of a special performance is all that is available, so those that live in North America can enjoy an event performed in Europe, or those that live in 1998 can observe a performance from 1948. But televised events should never replace participation in live events. Television's presentation of live events is truncated, and can not compete with live events that are rich in sensory detail.
Most television producers give little thought to television's limitations or to its proper use. Television has strayed from the lofty ideals of the visionaries; television's creed has become: All is Permissible in the Name of Entertainment. Television is not used to properly serve the needs of its audience; instead, television becomes a never-ending entertainment extravaganza, providing rollercoaster-like thrills and sideshow acts - a surreal universe, much like a carnival funhouse, that offers no way of escape.
The modern television producer has no inclination to communicate meaningfully with the audience, because to admit that communication is possible is to admit that the audience possesses intelligence. Also, the producer does not want to admit to the possession of personal convictions, for fear that these ideals may be unpopular, thus affecting program ratings and advertising dollars. The producer prefers to withdraw into the shadows, becoming a faceless, values-free entity. The audience turns from being real human beings, with minds and souls, to being numbers that are manipulated on a profit and loss statement. To increase the statement's bottom line, the television producer seeks to "push the envelope", giving the viewers what they have not seen before, expanding the boundaries of expression over every limit that defines good taste and proper behavior.
Impropriety need not be television's watchword. Indeed, television could easily serve as an example of good taste. But television producers alone can not assure this; they must have the support of a vocal viewership.
Television has become the equivalent of a public square. A public square was the heart of a small town, it was there that all the townsfolk would gather to shop, exchange news, and listen to discussion and debates concerning issues affecting the town and the country. With the size of today's cities, gathering in a central public square has become impractical. So television has become somewhat like the public square of old. But it does not matter whether you speak in a true public square or on television, you still are held responsible for what you say, and you are bound by rules of proper public behavior, not being exempt from libel or slander, nor given license to issue profane speech or vulgar display. But these boundaries has modern television crossed, and those who broadcast such programs should be held responsible for them, just as the leaders of the small town considered the propriety of the actions and speech of those who speak or perform before the citizenry.
"Television watching wastes valuable time"
If time is ill-spent watching television rather than doing what is necessary, then television can easily become a source of time- killing amusement. However, the medium of television, as with any other medium or art, can actually save time, when used properly. The medium of the moving image represents a distillation of thought; for example, a whole life's story can be told in one hour. In this hypothetical program, every detail of life is not represented, only those essential details. In this way, the viewer is not bogged down by extraneous detail, but is shown the crucial events of an individual's life, along with major decisions and their outcomes.
Would it be better to read this individual's autobiography, rather than watching the one-hour program that is based on this same book? Certainly there would be details and insight that will be caught by the book reader and missed by the program watcher. But the program is an interpretation of the book, a vision realized by the script writer, director, actors, technicians, and others. While the book can use descriptive language, the program uses costuming, props, lighting, sound, and the skill of the actors. Using these elements, a television program can extend the vision of a book's story. It was the American film director D.W. Griffith who said that "the task that I am trying to achieve is to make you see". Insight that may take a lifetime to gain might be grasped in a much shorter time through the medium of the moving image.
But the purpose of some television programs is not to provide insight, but to lock the viewer into a regular viewing habit, coaxing them to tune in at the same time each day or each week. These viewers suffer from "soap opera" syndrome. A soap opera continues indefinitely, never coming to a conclusion, presenting much conflict but no resolution. This is a very poor form of drama, plodding along endlessly, consuming the lives of its viewers (one television soap opera recently celebrated its twenty- fifth anniversary). This type of programming should be avoided.
Even programming that is desirable can cause inconvenience. What if a particular program is broadcast at a time when you should be otherwise occupied? Technology has come to the rescue; a VCR can be set to automatically record a program for later viewing. Future technology may allow you to view a particular program on demand via the Internet, satellite, cable, or even a local digital television station.
"Television is a bad influence on children"
Studies have indicated that some pre-school children view 54 hours of television per week (UnTV), with the typical child watching up to 25,000 hours before age 18 (Kaufman). This is clearly an abuse of the medium, even if the content of the television programs are of high quality. There are also indications that excessive television viewing has a negative affect on a child's sight, hearing, general health, reading skills, creativity, intellectual and social development (UnTV). Young minds have not sufficiently matured; they do not have a stable frame of reference, and can not easily separate the images and messages presented on television from those in the real world. Television is a medium for adults, and should be presented to children with supervision and with caution.
But many adults provide poor examples by their own viewing habits, watching soap operas, "adult" movies, all-weekend sport marathons, violent action programs, and mindless sitcoms. The children follow the example set by their parents, with the potential of becoming television addicts. Parents should use discretion and self-control in their own viewing habits, and they should teach their children that television is not a toy. A child should not be given unlimited access to television, for the same reason that a child is not given the key to a liquor cabinet.
"Television news dwells on the sensational and violent"
Most television newscasts care very little about presenting "news"; the goal seems to be creating some grotesque form of "entertainment". Rather than giving the viewers greater insight of events that concern the community, they dwell upon events that are violent and sensational. According to TVNews: "If a story easily lends itself to pictures - especially emotional ones - it will get vastly bigger play over stories which are hard to illustrate..That's why TV news shows are filled with bloody crime, fires and accidents, teary-eyed victims, cute kids and animals, and small street protests photographed to look bigger than they are." (TVnews)
One of the major sources of television news is leads generated by the police scanner. Reporters and cameras are dispatched to the scene of auto accidents, fires, catastrophes, and shootings. And if it is a slow news day? Bad news is imported; "networks offer closed-circuit daily satellite feeds of other stories broadcast across the country." (TVnews)
This undue exposure to violence has a deleterious effect upon viewers. Michael Medved, in a 1993 speech to the Independent Institute, stated "How many people here have ever in real life witnessed a murder? No one. How many people here have ever seen a murder on TV? How many people here have ever seen a murder dramatized, or reported on, oh say, in the last day? We all have. We see it constantly. This notion that we just report on reality is just absurd. It is destructive, it is poisonous. Not true. The most violent ghetto in American life isn't South Central Los Angeles, it is prime time television, where violence is overstated grotesquely." (Medved2)
A television station that continuously magnifies violent crime or personal tragedy and presents these events as "news" is not providing a useful service to the community. Television news should not consist of a sensationalized presentation of a random series of unconnected events. News programs should represent thoughtful, reasoned analysis, using the inherent qualities of the medium to best advantage. Television news should resemble a documentary, an intense, unrelenting search for truth. The object of television news, and any form of news media, should be to present events as they relate to the continuous unfolding of the world's history.
Local news media should strive to give viewers a clear picture of the complex activities within the community. This means, among other things, that the local media should keep a watchful eye upon the activities of city hall and other government bodies. A healthful suspicion of government activities is not paranoia; indeed, it is what keeps government leadership accountable to the electorate, for it is far too easy for leaders to overstep their boundaries when they perceive that their activities will be unreported.
"Television programming is saturated with commercials"
Every viewer knows that watching commercial television means enduring the display of commercials. Not only is the time devoted to commercials an annoyance, but also the amount of program interruptions, as well as the great number of commercials that are squeezed inside a time slot. Viewers become oversaturated by the number of incongruous images and messages that are presented within the span of a single program (the "MTV effect").
For example, a half hour drama or sitcom might begin with a one minute scene to capture viewer interest, followed by the program's opening credits, then several minutes of commercials (each commercial lasting anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds), then Act 1 of the program (ten minutes), followed by more commercials, then Act 2, more commercials, closing scene (one minute), and then, finally, closing credits. But even while the closing credits are running, viewers are treated with more commercials; the screen is split in half, and while credits roll on one side, advertisements for future programs play on the other side. And during a news program, or a program shown in the late night or early morning hours, viewers must endure even more commercial interruptions.
The medium of the moving image demands continuity, that one scene follow another without interruption. The rhythm established by a television drama is broken by the intrusion of commercial messages; it is not possible to maintain dramatic momentum when attention is constantly diverted. A serious dramatic scene is spoiled when it is followed by loud and brassy advertisements.
Television stations charge for commercial time based upon a particular program's ratings and viewer demographics, that is, how many and what type of viewers are watching (the most desirable demographic is young adults, those who are most likely to part with their "disposable" income). "Successful" programs are those who are able to attract a large audience that possesses the "right" demographics. A "successful" program can become even more profitable if the television producer is able to increase the number of commercial slots within the program. The net effect is that, while the program might be considered a success, program content and quality suffers, and the television producer is no longer enriching the lives of the audience; instead, the producer becomes no more than a huckster or a con artist.
Ideally, commercials should be unobtrusive and subdued, presenting their message clearly and professionally. Examples of these can be seen during Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentations, whose sole sponsor is Hallmark Cards. These two hour programs do have commercial interruptions, however, the commercials are subdued, and much less frequent than other programs. Other instances can be seen during PBS presentations, whose programs run from thirty minutes to one hour without commercial interruption. Companies and individuals who associate themselves with these programs are not merely advertisers, but "sponsors" ("This program was made possible by.."). Before and after each program, the sponsors are announced, and a short, tasteful advertisement is shown. Some PBS programs are funded with government money (the "Corporation for Public Broadcasting"), but there is no reason why worthwhile programming can not be entirely funded by individuals and companies who desire excellence in television.
Television stations must always be concerned with maintaining a steady stream of income so that operations and broadcasts can continue. But instead of fragmenting programs with blocks of commercial time, other potential income sources should be explored. If viewers feel that a particular television station provides a valuable service to the community, then the viewers might be persuaded to provide the station with monetary support. The television station can offer its viewers items for sale, such as videotapes of favorite programs, books and other materials. The station can make further use of its studio facilities by offering video production services to corporations, or by offering classes in video production. The station could provide broadcast services to other companies, such as transmitting television, radio, telephone, computer, internet, or any other type of data. The television station could operate strictly as a non-profit organization, as part of a church, school or community group.
"Television is a vast wasteland"
This statement is difficult to dispute, considering some of the examples presented thus far. But it also should be stated that television need not continue to be a "wasteland". To change television from unruly to refined requires considerable planning and constant labor.
Consider a cultivated garden. Visitors to the garden admire its beauty, but do not realize the never-ending maintenance that the garden demands. Modern television is like an untended garden, overgrown and weed infested, abandoned by its caretakers. But unlike the garden, television's influence is felt far beyond the immediate neighborhood. A garden that has become an eyesore can have a fence built around it that removes it from the public's gaze. Not so with television; it is constantly finding new conduits through cable, satellite, and the Internet - saturating every corner and crevice, like a flood.
Positive changes in television will not happen by hoping that television will fade away. Positive changes will happen when broadcasters, concerned citizens, and community leaders take an active role in the reformation of television, just like a caretaker who pledges to restore an untended garden.
Promoting positive changes in television should lead to educational efforts that inform viewers on how television has been abused, and should include guidelines on the proper use of television. There should also be publications that provide discriminating reviews of television programming, so that the community can be educated on which broadcasters are acting responsibly, and which are not. Using these resources, citizens will be able to intelligently express their concerns to broadcasters, advertisers, and community leaders.
Most citizens can participate in creating good programming for their community. Individuals and businesses can serve as sponsors to help fund television station operations and the development of new television programming. A television producer, with the assistance from a sponsor, can create good television programming and distribute it to the local market. Or the program can be distributed through syndication, or to one of the broadcast or cable networks. Ambitious individuals can purchase or build their own television station, or invest in an existing television station or network.
Through all of these labors, the "wasteland" that is modern television can be transformed into a fertile land, one that is highly cultivated and fruitful. Television can then truly serve as an educational medium, as well a conduit for artistic expression. Television will then become a true realization of early twentieth century visions.
Kaufman. Ron Kaufman, How Television Images Affect Children http://www.turnoffyourtv.com/healtheducation/children.html
Medved1. Michael Medved, The Destructive Impact of Television on People of Faith
Medved2. Michael Medved speech before the Independent Institute, Hollywood's Three Big Lies About Media and Society http://www.independent.org/events/transcript.asp?eventID=69
TVFree. Statistics on Television's Impact
TVNews. What Stations Cover, and Can't Afford to Cover
UnTV. Summary of Research on the Effects of Television Viewing http://www.labouroflove.org/tv-toys-&-technology/television/research-on-the-effects-of-television
Updated by: Matt Bynum