August 5, 2014

Summer rerun: What does TV do to you?

Some years ago, Ben Berger put up a provocative article on National Review Online entitled "Tocqueville and the Tube," and since this deals with both television and culture, I suppose I ought to have a few thoughts on it. And, of course, I do.

In parsing an article like this, one needs to avoid two assumptions. The first, on the part of the writer, is that television is all-bad, or at least a necessary evil to be watched as little as possible. The other, on the part of the reader, is to assume that every serious article written about television is going to bash it.*

*Which reminds me of an old Peanuts cartoon - Lucy is reading an article about television, and asks Linus if he agrees with the premise that TV can be harmful to your health. His reply: "I don't know - I've never had one fall on me."

Berger's start is not promissing on either level.  He begins with a flat declaration: "Television makes us fat, lazy, inattentive, unsociable, mistrustful, materialistic — and unhappy about all of that. It cheapens political discourse, weakens family ties, prevents face-to-face socializing, and exposes kids to sex and inures them to violence." I notice he didn't include the national debt, the bad weather in the South, or the rise of Bin Laden - but perhaps I wasn't reading closely enough.

OK, so I'm being a little flip there. Truth is, I agree with much of what Berger says in that paragraph - with reservations.  Like most things, television itself is neither good nor evil, but neutral. The same goes for watching television. Yes, you can watch too much, in the same way that you can eat too much chocolate, or spend too much time in the sun. The effects aren't going to be good for you.

Television is best used not as replacement, but as an augmentation, for human interaction, if you allow the exchange of information that one gets from television to become an interpersonal, interactive activity. I've often argued that I learned more from watching Alistair Cooke's brilliant television series America than I did from the high school classes I was taking at the same time. A smart teacher (of which there weren't many in the high school I attended) might have found out a way to integrate that program into the classroom, to use it as a springboard for learning and discussion about topics that Cooke didn't cover.

Berger does not deny that the quality of television you watch can make a difference, acknowledging that "moderate viewing is not so bad" (and that "[h]igh-quality programs may enrich us,") - but the problem is that we do not watch in moderation. "According to the Nielsen Company, in 2009 the average American watched more TV per day (over five hours) than ever before." But was not thus always the case? The March 18, 1961 issue of TV Guide notes that according to a Nielsen survey in January 1961, "people in the average home put in six hours a day in front of their TV sets. This is the highest level in three years, just short of the all-time peak of six hours, six minutes which was hit two months in a row in 1958."

Now, I suppose there are subtleties embedded in these statistics. For example, we seem to work longer hours that we did in the 50s and 60s, and more women have jobs today than they did then, which means we may be spending a larger percentage of our disposable time in front of the tube. And there's no denying that families don't watch TV together the way they used to, which when added to the likelihood that every room in the home has a television leads one to suspect that our six hours a day are in fact spent alone, or at least with fewer people around us than there used to be. The DVR, and the introduction of "on demand" viewing, makes the shared experience of television one step further removed.

Hmm. Suddenly, I seem to have talked my way into agreeing with Berger, or at least part of his premise. And from there, of course, things get more complicated.

Berger moves on to Neil Postman's comment that television has "an inherent bias toward the shallow," and it's hard to argue that television isn't what it used to be, at least when one considers the overall quality of what passes for programming today. While it's true that not everything on during The Golden Age of Television was golden, a lot of it was pretty good. Even as the 50s transition into the 60s, however, the pressure of ratings - the rise of "lowest-common denominator programming that produces Postman's "shallow" bias - becomes more noticable, as I pointed out in this piece considering the fall of The Voice of Firestone in the early 60s

Berger scores points by underscoring the relationship between television and behavior - for example, the idea that violent programs, if they don't actually cause violent behavior, can desenitize viewers to it. (I would not, however, include things like Bugs Bunny cartoons in that category, as many TV-bashers do.) And he argues that television can encourage other forms of behavior, such as materialism and sensuality, not only through the content of the actual program but also through the advertising that accompanies it. And to me that seems a hard argument to deny, as some commentators attempt. The very purpose of advertising is to influence behavior, after all, so why should the program itself be any different?

In discussing the physical and mental effects of television, Berger offers one of the most striking paragraphs in the entire article, pointing to the overstimulation which modern television provides. "The average shot length of American movies stood at 27.9 seconds in 1953, just after TV began its ascent, fell to 7.3 seconds in 1986 as MTV gradually took hold, and was 2.5 seconds in 2007." That seems astounding, until you actually start to think about it. The other night I caught the last few minutes of the new Hawaii Five-O while I was waiting for the local news (had to catch up on the latest weather bulletins, you know).

The scene invoived - not a car chase, I think, but rather a car travelling quickly from one point to another. There was a shot of the car, a change in angles, a focus on the hubcaps moving rapidly, a cut to inside the car, another change of angle, an overhead view - none of these images lasted more that two or three seconds. It was ridiculous. We tend to ignore this kind of editing when we can, our mind streamlining things for us and simply conveying the basic message that the car is travelling at a high rate of speed. (The mind is a beautiful thing.)

But if you take a minute to really pay attention to what you're seeing, you're likely to have some kind of seizure from all the rapid cuts. (Perhaps the reason more people don't have this reaction is that they're only half-paying attention, anyway.) Setting aside the sociological implications of this, I think this is just bad television: lazy, time-wasting, a substitute for actually writing a scene. Most of all, it's self-indulgent - someone once said that the best movie music (and I think this goes for television as well) is that which doesn't call attention to itself. In other words, it enhances while never overshadowing. What we see now in the editing process, too often, is "art" run amok, begging to be realized as clever when in fact it has nothing to do with storytelling. If your editing screams "look at me!" it's probably because you're afraid your story is too weak to keep the viewer's attention. On the other hand, maybe I'm just being old-fashioned in saying this. Nonetheless, it's probably difficult to dispute the idea that such programming can make people hyperactive.*

*Although, in my case, it's mostly in exercising my thumb through repeated clicks on the remote.

Berger makes many familiar arguments against television - that it cuts down on physical and mental activity, leading to overweight bodies and underweight minds, and while I think the second is open to debate, I'm not about to argue with the first (although I would suggest there are other sociological factors, such as the breakup of the nuclear family, that play a role as well). However, the most interesting part of his discussion is that which centers around the premise of the title.

Tocqueville and his most famous book
Tocqueville, of course, knew nothing about television. And yet he did forsee its effects, in a way. In his extensive writing about democracy, Tocqueville sought to understand it as a form of technology. As Berger notes, "Democracy extends citizens’ movement beyond their previous boundaries in feudal and aristocratic hierarchies, enabling them to do pretty much what they like. In that sense it constitutes a technology of freedom. But Tocqueville worried that citizens might use the new technology in ways that undermined their prospects for maintaining freedom." In other words, as our freedom gives us access to new and different experiences, "[t]he soul cleaves to them; it dwells on them every day and in great detail; in the end they shut out the rest of the world and sometimes come between the soul and God."

Heady stuff, and you really need to read over this a couple of times to understand the implications. But Tocqueville saw in this the ultimate threat: that the freedom eventually could "isolate men from each other.”

Is this what television has done? Can you give it that much credit? Well, if you consider how much of TV has become niche programming, designed to appeal to a specific demographic or interest group, then it means we have less incentive to become well-rounded people of eclectic tastes. If you look at the chattering heads on news programs calculated to appeal to like-minded thinkers, then we have less desire to understand the other points of view. If you enjoy the ease of "on-demand" viewing, then you have less opportunity to discuss what you saw on television last night with a co-worker who may not yet have seen it. Instead, you'll go to the on-line message boards.*

*Realizing, of course, that in the virtual workplace your co-worker may be an on-line one anyway.

If it seems that I came to praise - or at least defend - TV, only to wind up damning it, then you understand the inherently complex relationship between humans and television. Television is an amazing piece of technology, one at which I've never really stopped marvelling. The advancements - from black and white to color, to big screen, and now to HD and 3D, all of which I've lived through - are astonishing, and admirable.

Make no mistake - I enjoy watching television. It's a simple pleasure, one which I think has enhanced my life and brought pleasure to it. It has given me the chance to read and write about it, for which I am grateful. And there are too many people who make easy hay out of attacking it, for TV is an easy target.

But that's not to say that all the attacks are justified. If Berger sometimes falls into the TV-bashing trap, he also makes some salient points, ones that deserve consideration, and - if you disagree with them - a serious, thoughtful analysis. (One which I'm not at all sure I've provided here.) The end result, whatever your viewpoint, is a confirmation of my main argument, which is that television is the chief cultural shaper of the last seven decades.

But what do you think? Whether you agree or disagree your comments, as always, are welcome.

Originally posted June 1, 2011

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!