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'Disturbance' or 'Radiance': Have We Failed the TV Test?

August 17, 1997|Al Vecchione | Al Vecchione, former president of MacNeil Lehrer Productions, recently retired after a 43-year career in television

WASHINGTON — "I believe that television is going to be the test of the modern world and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television, of that I am quite sure."

--E.B. White, 1938

*

I had that not-so-famous quote framed almost 20 years ago, and it hangs on my office wall to this day. To me, it stands as an eloquent reminder of the awesome power of the medium. Debates about its value, hazards and its usage have been going on since television's earliest days.

The most recent wrangling has focused on a new program-ratings system and the V-chip technology that will be the tool used to help enforce it. Both are now on the books, one as law and the other in the form of a deal struck between the broadcasters and a group representing parent organizations, doctors and educators. The questions raised are familiar: Are the new rules needed? Are they fair? Does this constitute censorship? Have 1st Amendment rights been violated?

And what would White have thought about this particular debate if he were still alive? My guess is that he would have joined the growing chorus of parents, educators, doctors, government leaders and others who argue that television's influence on society has exceeded all reasonable limits: that its influence on our mores may exceed that of our religious institutions; that its capacity to mold public information and, in turn, public policy may be greater than that of our political institutions; and that its reach into the minds of our children may exceed that of our education system.

In the 50 years since it was introduced, television has become a challenge to our society's mental and physical health. The medium now swallows up more than one-quarter of the waking day of both adults and children. It transforms everything it touches--politics, the judicial system and the presidency, to name a few.

The improper if not illegal fund-raising methods used in the 1996 presidential campaign which are currently being investigated by the U.S. Senate is one example of how television affects us in indirect ways. Seventy cents on all those campaign dollars raised went to purchase TV air time. Without TV advertising, a modern-day political candidacy is simply not viable.

Television has fed into the distortion of our values and standards and shaped the minds of two generations of children, with much evidence that the shaping has been largely negative. Research dating back more than 20 years, including the Surgeon General's landmark study of television violence, has identified and underscored the negative impact of television on our society. As these studies suggest, television's contribution to the increase in violence in our everyday lives registers somewhere between significant and enormous. At the very least, it has desensitized children and adults to the true effects of violent behavior. And there is new evidence that heavy viewership can lead to a decline in physical fitness, leading to growing rates of obesity among young and old alike. All this is due, in large part, to the sheer volume of time spent sitting in front of the tube.

Each year, while its influence has increased, our control over television has diminished. We have been mostly unsuccessful, if not helpless, in our efforts to channel television for the greater good, although there have been many who have tried through the years. Those efforts deserve our praise--indeed our gratitude--but the truth is, the impact has been minimal. Trash continues to dominate.

Prime-time schedules are largely made up of mindless sitcoms and action drama programs heavily laced with violence encounters. Newsmagazine programs that are increasingly sensational and often trite have been substituted for legitimate television journalism in prime time. Local news programs all pursue the same distorting formulas: murders and rapes followed by more murders followed by too much sports and weather. And legitimate constructive, educative children's programs are harder to find than ever. Mind-numbing cartoons make up much of the menus offered our kids today.

The television industry has defended itself by pleading its rights in a free-market economy, and its free-speech prerogative as guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. The courts have largely agreed, as does public opinion.

Some steps have now been taken with the new ratings system and the V-chip--and they clearly are within the boundaries of 1st Amendment parameters--to bring some common-sense controls to bear. But there is more to be done. Next, we must develop ways and means--through public persuasion, not further legislation, if possible--to convince the American people to watch less television. Less exposure will translate to less harmful effects and more time spent with families and children, more time for community and public issues and cultural interests.

Think of it this way: We spend eight to nine hours a day working and commuting; another eight hours are spent sleeping; maybe two more hours are devoted to eating. Do the arithmetic and you find that there's about five or six hours left for everything else. Most of it goes to watching TV.

It was only 25 five years ago that the anti-smoking and environmental campaigns began in earnest. At the time, many of us scoffed at these initiatives. But today our lungs, the air we breathe and the water we drink have all been dramatically improved. If we got those things done, we can--with the same kind of will--cut into our TV viewing habits.

I think E.B. White's reaction would be: Amen.

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