"Audible wallpaper" is how one scholar scornfully once referred to television, a reference to the ceaseless drone of mind-numbing fare that emanates from the ubiquitous tube.
But anyone unconvinced of television's power to influence and change society--for better and for worse--need only tune in to the conversations of a couple of old broadcasting pros like Bill Moyers and Ted Turner.
They would hardly be found preaching from the same pulpit, the introspective journalist Moyers and populist cablecaster Turner. But when waxing about the impact of television, as they both did last week on separate occasions here, their words sound surprisingly similar.
Moyers, the newsman responsible for the long-running "Bill Moyers' Journal" on PBS as well as numerous special reports on CBS, where he now hangs his hat, has again experienced television's impact first-hand.
Shortly after the recent broadcast of his CBS documentary "The Vanishing Family--Crisis in Black America," Moyers read a "frightening" review in a major national newspaper. The reviewer chastised Moyers for presenting such images of despair when "The Cosby Show" each week does such a magnificent job portraying a positive image of black family life.
"Here was this woman (critic)saying that reality is what prime-time television tells us it is," Moyers said the other day. "This is the scariest thing I have read in a long time." He wrote the critic a very pointed letter in which he added the cautionary note that, if what she said were true, "we are likely one day to have a President who is an actor. . . . "
Moyers, the senior analyst for "The CBS Evening News," smiled almost imperceptibly as he delivered that last line. But his message is serious:Television shapes the thinking of America like no other element of pop culture.
In the case of "Vanishing Family," a 90-minute "CBS Reports" that aired Jan. 25, the power of television could be seen both in the behavior of the documentary's inner-city subjects and in the broadcast's reception in Washington.
In the Newark, N.J., ghetto where the special was shot--and where homes with live-in fathers are in the minority--the TV provides the role model for young black men, Moyers said. Rap stardom, not carpentry or plumbing, is the profession to which they aspire.
"If they don't go to the street, they go to the tube," he said when interviewed in Claremont the day he was to give the keynote speech at a major fund-raising event for the Claremont Graduate School. "Hollywood illusions and Madison Avenue hustling shape their perceptions."
The flip side of TV's influence was seen in the disproportionately high share of viewers "Vanishing Family" drew in the nation's capital--20%, compared with an average 14%nationwide. "It had an impact," Moyers said, and to prove it, he rattled off a list of seven columnists in the Washington Post who have written about the issue since the documentary aired.
"The audience for documentaries is small, but the audience comes to a documentary to be engaged, not to be entertained. People generally watch television as consumers. They watch public affairs as citizens."
The latter brand of television has been much lauded in the last few weeks as all three networks gave millions an eyewitness view, first of the Challenger shuttle disaster and then of ballot booths in the Philippines.
Coverage of those events substantiates Moyers' belief that, somewhere beneath the thick commercial haze of network television lies "a remnant of conscience." "The networks know that broadcast journalism is trapped between two masters," he said. "One is the market that says 'reach the masses' and the other is the sense of civic responsibility that says 'inform the citizens.' It's just that every time they (a network)take an hour or two for a documentary, the competing networks schedule something that knocks them right off the box."
Turner, who owns Cable News Network and Atlanta superstation WTBS, was speaking before the Hollywood Radio & Television Society last week, flanked by many of the most powerful executives in the entertainment business.
The subject was television. "This industry," Turner noted, "has more influence on what the people of this country and the world see and hear than any other. There is more responsibility here for the future of the planet than there is even in the school system."
Turner, in the process of buying MGM, has programmed his share of schlock at WTBS. The station beams a steady diet of network reruns and old movies to cable-TV households across America. But the originator of round-the-clock cable news noted that he also has "in the last four years probably done more documentaries than all the commercial networks put together."
As a purveyor of broadcast journalism, Turner said that he felt it was "my responsibility to learn a little bit more about the world." And the medium by which that same kind of knowledge gets to the masses, he implied, is television.