So much for concept programming.
PBS' idea this week was to block out nights of air time for programs investigating violence American-style. Local affiliates, such as KCET (whose "Life & Times" is exploring various themes on the issue), chime in with local takes. All in all, a fine way to both really dig into a topic and let the PBS brethren all join hands.
One catch, though. One of the concept's centerpieces, "Frontline's" provocative-sounding report, "Does TV Kill?," blows holes in the assumptions behind the media blitz. Reporter Al Austin spends months in Hudson, N.Y., to study the effects of TV violence on kids--only to find that he is looking at the wrong issue.
Violence, Austin announces with some frustration, couldn't really be linked between real life and tube-watching. The real issue? Austin: "It was the stupefying amount of it that people watch . . . and the power of the hold the appliance has on its owners."
Yet even this last point is off the mark. In the four Hudson homes where a "Frontline" crew installs (with the homeowners' permission) hidden surveillance cameras to record TV viewing habits, whatever power the appliance has is permitted by the owners. They could turn the thing off. They choose not to.
The reasons for this are interestingly diverse. The single mothers of two school kids, Paul Martin and Isiah Heard, say that as much as they're concerned about the accumulative violence on television, it's safer than the streets, where they believe it's too dangerous for their kids. TV becomes daddy.
In the home of young Jonathon Surita, the TV is on, but Jonathon and his siblings hardly seem to notice it. In the home of Paul and Pat Abitabile, the tube is, as Austin terms it, the living room "fireplace." Schoolteacher Pat professes a hatred of TV, yet turns it on nightly, and even when she's sick of all the O.J. coverage, keeps it on.
Supported by thousands of studies suggesting a causal link between massive doses of TV violence and violent behavior, and highlighting researcher Leonard Eron's groundbreaking 1960 study of Hudson youth that first cited the link, Austin clearly figures that it's only a matter of time before his months in the same town will show some kid doing a Power Rangers number on mom.
Like a good scientist, Austin ultimately acknowledges that his hypothesis has been upended. What he actually observes are a lot of bored people splayed out on the bed or the floor or the sofa, doing nothing.
But as Claremont College Prof. Barry Sanders powerfully stresses to Austin, this could be the worst problem of all. Maybe the country is nastier now because of too much TV; maybe not. Maybe single-parent kids are doubly handicapped with an electronic dad; maybe not. But, Sanders argues, most TV is sucking the imagination right out of kids, who are losing the notion of "down time . . . to meet yourself."
Does TV kill? Yes--the art of self-reflection.
* "Does TV Kill?" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, and at 8:30 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.