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MAN BITES TOWN

Isn't It High Time We Stop Letting Television Get the Better of Us?

October 28, 1990|HARRY SHEARER

WHEN I WAS IN Knoxville, Tenn., a few years ago, the big hero in town was a man named Christopher Whittle. Aside from the local banks, his was the only company with the money, and the desire, to construct a big, new building downtown. It reassured people that Knoxville wasn't going to fold up and blow away anytime soon.

But outside Tennessee, Whittle is a far more controversial character. His Channel On plan proposes to put TVs, VCRs and satellite dishes in the nation's schoolrooms for free, so long as principals agree to play the tape of his daily newscast for all students. The price: Each newscast contains two minutes of commercials. Whittle's business, the one that built that big, new building, is providing the advertising equivalent of fish in a barrel--captive audiences. He allows advertisers to target (pick one) students in school, patients in doctors' waiting rooms or maybe one day, actual Folsom inmates.

To protect California students from that daily two minutes of crassness, our school superintendent has banned Channel One from the state's classrooms. Excuse me, but when I went to school, teachers routinely passed out magazines edited and published for students. The publications were called Scholastic Magazine; you'd spend a period a week with them, and they all contained ads.

Scholastic Magazines are still around, still targeting the student market. And no schools chief is proposing to ban them.

Another controversy is a-brew over late-night television infomercials. You've seen them, particularly if you have cable: long commercials, 30 to 60 minuteseach, pitching baldness remedies, impotence cures, miracle woks--but they're commercials masquerading as television programs. Let's not get into the philosophical thicket about all television programs being commercials; these are different.

Mike Reagan, the ex-President's son, had a guest on his "show": the inventor of the revolutionary Diet Patch, a weight-loss device. And when we took a "break," the commercial just happened to be for the Diet Patch. At the end of the show, Mike said the Diet Patch guy had been such a good "guest" that he would have to have him back soon. Of course, he would. Mr. Diet Patch paid for the show, the set, probably Mike's suit. Besides, they taped only one "show," ever. He was back just as soon as they could rewind the tape and run it again.

The infomercials have titles full of '50s future worship ("Amazing Discoveries," "Incredible Breakthroughs") and some semi-famous hosts (this is the burial ground to which Lyle Waggoner and Brenda Vaccaro have migrated), but the guests--i.e., sponsors--strongly resemble the fast-talking pitch artists who used to work the carnival circuit and who still demonstrate remarkable food-whacking devices on the fringes of flea markets.

Reganautical deregulation made this trend possible. Let the people have commercials unhindered by petty constraints of length, the FCC said, and so it is. But, as silly a use of air time as these programs may be, the notion is nothing new. For years, newspapers as august and trustworthy as this one have run ads disguised as news stories or columns. Albert Shanker earned his way into Woody Allen movie immortality by authoring years' worth of "advertorials" in the Sunday New York Times. And these carry a tiny "ADVERTISEMENT" advisory, no more conspicuous than the disclaimers that bracket the Diet Patch Kid's show.

Channel One and infomercials have this in common: What we tolerated in print becomes alarming when it re-emerges on television. After 40 years, we're still afraid of it; we attribute to it magical powers to change us.

Admittedly, television can bamboozle. It has convinced a large portion of the country, for example, that Dan Rather is of this world. The commercials on Channel One are not provably more mind-rotting than the ads in Scholastic. That debate should be about whether students need a once-over-lightly dose of current events at the price of watching even more TV, or whether teachers should assign students to read The Times instead.

And infomercials aren't forcing new productions of "La Forza del Destino" off the air. They are on because stations and cable networks don't have the guts to sign off at night when they run out of ideas or money--Channel 4's head recently said you have to go 24-hour, or else you're jump-starting your station each day--and "Amazing Discoveries" pays a little money to fill the void. But these things are goofy, not sinister. Protecting people from possibly purchasing car wax that will allow you to set fire to your finish makes as much sense as the state health department buying billboards to tell smokers what they already know, while mental health clinics shut down for lack of funds.

Channel 11 used to have reporters talk to each other via monitors on their desks. They were sitting no more than 20 feet from each other, but they talked to TV sets. And television advertisers are increasingly using images that they've shot off a TV screen, a process they say makes things look "more real" to people.

Maybe, but not for much longer. We are adventurers at the frontier of human consciousness. We are separating the seeing from the believing.

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