TV Is Driving Us Quietly Insane

Elvis lived in TV heaven. The television room at Graceland was decorated with leopardskin prints and contained a three-screen unit that showed all the networks at once. Elvis apparently got the idea from Lyndon Johnson, who had a similar custom three-screener installed in the White House, so he could watch the bad news from Vietnam on NBC, ABC, and CBS simultaneously. The primary difference was that, when Elvis didn't like what he saw, he shot the TV; when Johnson didn't like what he saw, he decided not to seek re-election.Keith Moon also lived in a kind of TV heaven. Whenever The Who's late but formidable drummer checked into a hotel, one of his first priorities was the destruction of his room. The almost-ritualized hurling of the television set from the balcony and watching it shatter on the concrete below or splash down on the pool was high on the wrecking agenda. Although dozens of other rock 'n' roll bands of the seventies and eighties would copy Moon's recreational demolition, he established the pattern in which the sacrificial TV set was crucial. It was as though the destruction of the TV symbolized a kind of declared separation from civilization as the rest of us knew it.The idea of destroying a TV set is similar to standing on the parapet of a tall building and fantasizing about jumping: It's natural. The TV set squats in our homes like some high-tech Buddha, drab and reproachful when turned off, colorful, noisy, and hypnotic when powered up. In poll after poll, individuals demonstrate serious misgivings regarding the role TV plays in society. The general perception is that we watch too much of it, that our children watch too much of it, that it fails to deliver what we really want, and it trivializes everything from our view of the world to the basic democratic process.A Jungian might propose that television has usurped the collective unconscious in this culture. Or maybe we just went to sleep and left our mass awareness in the hands of a machine. And if the HAL 9000, the computer in 2001, taught us anything, we should know it's a very dangerous thing to do. "Open the pod bay door, please HAL." But HAL isn't listening. We wish, like Elvis, we could whip out our .357 and pop a cap on the sonofabitch.The closest most of us come to blowing away the TV is the use of the remote. According to journalist Roger Rosenblatt in an essay on the The Newshour With Jim Lehrer, marking the fortieth anniversary of the invention of the TV remote, "men like to use the remote more than women. It reminds them of a gun and invests them with a sense of power."Confirmation of this was provided by a mail-order catalog, "Things You Never Know Existed." For $39.98, you can purchase the "Gunvertor" -- a "universal TV remote" in the shape of Colt .45 automatic. "Hold trigger for rapid fire channel selection or squeeze off 'single rounds' to change channels more slowly," reads the copy. The psychology behind the "Gunvertor" suggests that TV has become so omnipotent that we need a surrogate weapon to defend ourselves against it. It is, as correspondent Al Austin on the PBS show Frontline put it, "as though an appliance from hell has moved into everyone's home" and we are powerless to do anything but howl for help.We want Bill Clinton to give us the V chip (even though the average child will probably figure out how to neutralize it faster than a parent can learn how to operate it). We want Hollywood to give us a TV ratings system because, on our own, we can't distinguish the good from the bad and the ugly. All manner of corruption may flow from this electronic monster, but the one thing we can't do is turn it off and leave it off, or even keep our children away from it.If asked to select the two most significant technological advances of the twentieth century, I'd probably pick television and the H-Bomb. Nuclear weapons totally revolutionized our attitudes toward warfare. TV produced an equally radical reorganization of our domestic lives. A handful of men may have walked on the moon, but millions of us all across the world have retreated to the couch. In his 1944 novel, 1984, George Orwell fantasized a totalitarian state in which behavior was controlled and ordered by having TV sets watch the population. In fact, the bizarre reverse has come to pass. Behavior is decontrolled and disordered by having the population watch television.The first practical demonstration of broadcast TV was made in 1928 in Schenectady, New York, when a short live drama was broadcast to a radio set equipped with a 3-inch screen. Both the press and the scientific community either ignored the event or dismissed it as a shortlived gimmick. Only a lone British scientist realized the significance of what he had seen and remarked for the record. "Gentlemen, you have just invented the greatest time waster of all time." Even he didn't realize the degree to which TV time-wasting would absorb and dominate our lives.Sixty-eight years later, even the jargon of TV conveys an attitude of passivity in the presence of a superior force. We categorize ourselves as couch potatoes, vegetative lumps of immobile starch who become one with the radiation. We surf, i.e. we ride peaks and troughs of a waveform beyond our control, merely maintaining our equilibrium, or, to paraphrase Descartes, we graze, therefore we're sheep. Our only active role in our TV destiny is to zap or tune out, but this substitution of one show for another is only a modification of the message, not a challenge to the medium. We may switch content, but we remain helpless before the form, perpetual deer caught in the single cyclops headlight.TV has never been big on self-examination. Only a handful of shows have attempted even a cursory analysis of what a box in every room really meant. Thus when PBS announced it was running a three-part series, Signal To Noise: Life With Television, which claimed to be a "look at the power, business and allure of television at the close of the century," I sat up and took notice. Would we see some serious media soul-searching? The series objectives, as laid out by producer-writer-director Cara Mertes, seemed promising. "Americans watch between four and six hours of television a day -- television watching is what we do most next to sleeping. Millions of advertising dollars are spent trying to get us to watch television in the first place."As far as Mertes is concerned, the problems start when people attempt to delve beneath the money and the statistics. "What we don't understand is how TV affects people in their everyday lives, and that while TV's current hybrid of commercialism and fantasy can be compelling, television's potential is far greater than we as a society have realized."In a series of independently produced segments linked by talking-head commentary, Signal To Noise covers fairly standard topics like the packaging of news as entertainment, and the "if it bleeds it leads" concentration on street violence and disaster. It breaks down the fundamentals of how Rush Limbaugh cooks up his prize stew of malice and disinformation. It looks at racism on TV, and how action shows like Cops present crime as something confined exclusively to the poor and the underclass. It points out how, in the world of TV, with the exception of a few shows like 60 Minutes, white-collar crime is ignored because it is simply too complicated for no-brain reportage. The prevailing attitude is pretty much reflected by a statement, early in the show, by TV maverick Linda Ellerbee. "If TV is a window on the world, you have to remember who is framing that window. Nothing lies more easily than a camera."A major section of one of the three one-hours shows is devoted to the influence of advertising on both viewers and the television industry. One segment traces the unholy creation of a thirty-second commercial intended to attract teenage girls to McDonald's. (Apparently, female teenagers are a low-response demographic in the fast burger market.) We see happy teens skipping, dancing, emoting like game-show contestants, and generally running around with their mouths open like teenage females are wont to do on TV commercials, dressed in fashionwear so garish that it might even daunt Edina Monsoon. At the same time, a seductively robotic voiceover repeats the original ad agency production notes for the $185,769 commercial."The objective of this spot is to convince girls in the age group of ten to eighteen that McDonald's empathizes and admires them. This spot is a tribute to the female gender. Everything should be taken into account, every object, prop, and piece of clothing should compliment each other in -- heightened reality vignettes. The cast should be inspirational, we don't want rowdy street-looking kids. We want a cross section of the American girl -- some blacks, some Latins. McDonald's still represents God, America, and apple pie. These spots should not look too urban, too ethnic, too new wave, or too anything. Locations should be beautiful, but not weird, clothing should be contemporary but not punk. We can go out of the ordinary but we can't live there."The odd part is that, at no point in the spot do we see one of these young women chowing down a Quarter Pounder With Cheese. Food is something else that has been all but banished from the script. For a brief moment, a suitably non-rowdy character picks at some McFries, but that's it. All that's being sold is the McDonald's logo and a concept of delightful social conformity. In the McWorld, young females can achieve happy-happy joy-joy, just as long as they are not too ethnic, too punk, or too anything. The ad agency may believe they are creating a desire, but consciously or otherwise, they are hitting a audience in the full insecurity of puberty with fantasy masquerading as a benchmark for reality.In the movie How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Richard E. Grant, playing an advertising exec in the full throes of total emotional collapse, proclaims, "television is the greatest means of communication since the wheel." It's a joke, of course, intended to underscore the character's diseased sense of proportion, but each time I hear the line, it strikes an ironically resonant chord. TV has become the primary means of metaphysical transportation, and we're all along for the ride, without a clue where we're going. Oddly, some of the best guesses seem to have emerged from the motion picture industry, perhaps because the two media, although highly interrelated, still view each other as rivals.As early as 1957, in A Face In The Crowd, director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg accurately predicted TV's potential for soundbite fascism. Andy Griffith's character, Lonesome Roads, a scary, right-wing combination of Elvis and Will Rogers -- almost a hayseed precursor of Rush Limbaugh -- is brought down only when his crude cynicism accidently goes out on the air. Network and Broadcast News both became classics by exploring TV's seemingly limitless potential for manipulation. More recently, the movie To Die For took a look at another piece of TV weirdness -- that we all secretly want to be on television. As Nicole Kidman, playing the psycho TV weatherperson so sweetly declared -- "In America today, you're nobody if you're not on TV."At various times, even pros like Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes and David Frost who, among other TV coups, conducted the extensive Richard Nixon interviews, have expressed amazement that crooks, con men, and individuals plainly guilty of everything from insider trading to mass murder will willingly subject themselves to what amounts to trial by television. Wallace is still baffled by some of the subjects of 60 Minutes investigations. "It's either that they believe that they can be the one to beat the system, or the idea of being on TV is so seductive that it robs them of all common sense," he said.Recently a furor has emerged over the possibility that Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers may have triggered a number of real-life, psychedelic homicides. Attorney turned mega novelist John Grisham (who hardly abjures violence in his own work) has even gone so far as to suggest that Natural Born Killers should be prosecuted under product liability laws, and that a creative work that causes copycat mayhem in the real world is as legally dangerous as an exploding automobile or a leaking breast implant.Stone, on the other hand, reminds us, in a recent Vanity Fair interview, that Natural Born Killers is yet another Hollywood analysis of TV. It's a satiric -- if a bit heavy-handed -- commentary on TV's attitude toward violence. "It's a wake-up call to a schizophrenic country and culture which decries violence but just can't get enough of it. Viewers are bombarded day in and day out by tabloid trash shows, entertainment and news programs which convert tragedy into soap opera, replete with weepy musical sound tracks and reportage that drips with fake emotion." The obvious question is whether TV itself is responsible, not just for the possibility of reenacted violence, but maybe, at least in part, for the schizophrenia itself.Does TV Kill?, an edition of the PBS award-winning investigative documentary series Frontline that aired in January 1995, delved a little deeper into what Stone is talking about. Does TV Kill? opens with black and white archive footage of a classic behaviorist experiment -- B. F. Skinner's rat. That's the rodent with the electrode planted in the pleasure center of its brain, who learns that, by stomping on a convenient footpedal, can treat itself to something akin to an electric orgasm. The question Does TV Kill? poses is whether human response to TV is similar, although maybe not quite as ecstatic as that of the voltage-addicted rat. Are we actually being programmed by the very nature of television as to be incapable of shutting off the damn thing. Does TV Kill? concentrates mainly on the relationship between TV and violence. It cites those scary, but ultimately confusing statistics like "before the average child leaves elementary school, it will have witnessed over eight thousand TV murders," and suggests this may be why the world is perceived as being on a fast track to hell.The study of individual and group responses to TV and TV violence began in the mid-fifties, when a number of experiments seemed to confirm a definite cause and effect between violence observed and violence acted out. At Stanford, researcher Albert Bandura showed small children films of an adult beating up a Bobo Bop Bag, then left the child alone with a real Bobo and filmed the resulting beating that the child inflicted on the bag.Around the same time, Leonard Berkowitz at the University of Wisconsin showed clips of Kirk Douglas being punched bloody in the movie The Champion to groups of adult males and then observed a measured increase in their capacity for violence. In 1960, Leonard Eron conducted a much simpler study. He observed third graders in the schoolyard and then checked the amount of television watched by those who exhibited the most hostility and aggression. The tallied, figures amounted to Eron's Law. "The more TV, the meaner the kid" was widely accepted -- particularly by advocates of TV censorship.No one would deny that a certain "monkey see/monkey do" factor exists in humans. (Simians that we are.) A perfect, if bizarre, example is how in the days after the death of Marilyn Monroe, the national suicide rate jumped a massive 12 percent and went even higher here in Southern California. The makers of TV shows, however, are quick to point out that most of the TV "cause and effect" research has been conducted by the rat torture school of behaviorists, who are always happy to show mankind at its most venal. Also, no control group exists to test these suppositions. No extended comparison community exists that does not watch TV.At the 1993 Senate hearings on violence on television that indirectly spawned the concept of the V chip and the Hollywood scramble for a TV ratings code, Howard Stringer, then president of CBS, and a Brit by birth, cited another kind of control group. "I was born and raised in a country that puts on a lot of American movies and has more graphic violence in its live drama on the BBC and elsewhere. [Yet] there's a lot less violence in the United Kingdom than there is here. There are 200 million handguns in America and that has a lot to do with the violence."Fox executive vice president George Vrandenberg echoes the same point. "I think most in the television business do not accept the view that what we put on television is contributing to, in any significant measure, violence in society. Today, unfortunately, I think the problem is that kids who used to have to use their fists now have knives and guns. The TV industry is the whipping boy for violence in society. We're an easy target."It might also be said that violence is also an easy target. While politicians, educators, sociologists, and TV producers tangle themselves in an impossible cat's cradle of censorship and quantification, we ignore what may be far more deep- seated problems with TV. Debate rages as to what kind of violence may be the most corrupting -- Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? The Wild Bunch? Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? The Zapruder film? (Of the above, only the Zapruder film was ever actually kept from the American public.) No-win situations will almost certainly be created along the lines of the erotic versus pornographic hair-splitting in the kindred field of sexual censorship. Amid all this sound and fury, nobody attempts to probe a possible linkage between TV and non-violent problems like greed or stupidity, or that television might just be driving us quietly insane.The most frighteningly creepy moments in Does TV Kill? feature hidden-camera footage of children interacting with the blasting TV set. A seven-year- old boy lays on his bed watching the tube, constantly shifting position in a classic pattern of discontent and boredom. He channel surfs and briefly switches to a video game. He only lingers on a show at a point when it's fast, furious, and loud. He doesn't search for any narrative thread; he merely seeks simulation to the max, almost using the remote to jolt himself like Skinner's rat with its footpedal.In another sequence, a thirteen-year-old girl briefly dances with her cat while the TV is momentarily calm and lyrical, perhaps during a cosmetics commercial, but then the programming cuts into the furious wham bang of a promo for an upcoming action show. She puts down the cat, and her body language seems to show her on the threshold of distress and confusion. A moment of peace has been destroyed.A group of kids of varying ages get their hands on a forbidden video, a copy of Friday The 13th Part VII -- The New Blood. All but the youngest of the group, who is little more than a baby, stare intently at the screen, slack-faced, totally absorbed by the slaughterplay. The little one clings to a sibling, back to the screen, seemingly shocked, perhaps not so much by the images but by the sound and the weird vibe in the room. Watching any of this footage was not a pleasant experience. Part of me felt that it was some voyeurist intrusion. Another part of me was just plain horrified. What the hell is going to happen when these kids grow into adults?Nobody ever bothered to find out what happened to Skinner's rat once the plug was pulled on its electric thrills, but I doubt that it lived to see a healthy and well-balanced old age. In the same way, little research has ever been done on the long-term cumulative psychological, cultural, and even physiological effects of a lifetime in front of TV. Anecdotal evidence, however, exists in abundance. Ask any teacher and they'll tell you that the attention span of kids for whom television has been the first babysitter appears to be getting shorter and shorter. Some kids' imaginations actually seem to be in the process of atrophy in the face of nonstop, mass-produced fantasies. Books and even radio require a certain exercise of the imagination, but TV requires none. Even audio rock 'n' roll demanded that imaginary images be conjured. With MTV, even that effort is eliminated. Unfortunately, the imagination, like any other muscle, seems to operate according to the rules of use it or lose it.Ask most parents and they will tell you how hard it can be to explain the realities of domestic economics to kids that are pumped by commercials to "tell your mom to get you (fill in the product of your choice)" and, by inference, that the parent is a failure if she fails to deliver the goods. (Ask Lyle and Erik Menendez about the Porsche.) Political campaign managers confirm that when these TV babies grow up and get the vote, they don't grow out of the TV-induced belief in instant gratification as a inalienable right. They form an electorate that can be conned into voting for the unsavory or unsuitable candidate, just as long as they can be convinced that all problems of the nation can be solved in the space of an hour, just like on Star Trek.Professor George Gerbner is one of the very few who have actually studied the long-term effects of TV. For more than a quarter of a century, his students at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania have monitored shows and logged statistics. Although still largely locked into the specifics of violence, Gerbner recognizes that the perception-warping potential of TV is as important as mere copycat behavior -- he has coined the phrase, "mean world syndrome." The most obvious example is, while crime figures are actually on a steady, if gradual, decline, the general perception is that they are actually rising by quantum bounds. "If you're growing up in a heavy viewing home, you live in meaner world -- and you act like it -- than your neighbor who lives in the same world and watches less television."Barry Sanders, who teaches a course called The History of Ideas at Claremont College, takes the mean world theory a step further. "We may be inadvertently creating a new kind of human being, generations of kids without imaginations, with the inability to conjure their images because television does it for them. And that's real, that's amazingly important if we care about anything like hope."In Sanders, I feel that I've found a kindred spirit. To a great extent, he seems to be echoing some of the ideas presented by Devo and The Church Of The SubGenius in the early eighties; that the appliance-dependent, conspicuously consuming, television man -- what one might call homo tubular -- was actually in a state of counter Darwinian decline, that we, as a species were de-evolving, heading right back to the primal swamp.Sanders does nothing if not confirm this thought. "Life for that [TV-watching] kid is not going on inside the child. It's going on someplace inside that little box. Young people grow up now with the idea that there has to be sound -- at least sound -- all the time, and better yet, if it's accompanied by pictures. Television, especially now, creates a kind of remote-ist behavior. If I don't like you, I can click you off."For a while, I believed the SubGenius style of destructuring of popular images might be the key to defusing the worst effects of TV. If imagination was being destroyed, maybe it could be saved by a form of video surrealism that provided the same blanket stimulus as commercial TV, but also opened a door at the end of the corridor to further individual fantasies. Unfortunately, the destructured image was so easily co-opted by MTV and the hip end of advertising, I had to junk that idea.The bottom line would be that individuals without imagination are also individuals without empathy. And without empathy -- the ability to instinctively feel the possible results of one's actions on others -- only two forms of civilization are ultimately possible; either a rigidly codified totalitarianism or a vicious, self-serving, do-what-you-want, neo-barbarism. Either one would seriously leave us screwed. Cara Mertes, creator of Signal to Noise, thinks this kind of thinking is "too extreme and too nihilistic." At the same time, though, she seems to be pinning a lot of her hopes on nothing more than alternatives to commercial television like PBS, public access, and the Internet, doubts about some of these appear even in her own series. Most telling is the Internet nerd who wistfully remarks, while scrolling through a menu of on-line chat rooms, "This speaking back and forth makes me part of this [Internet] community, but only if I stay home alone."Toward the end of writing this piece, a thought struck me. What do you call a phenomenon that pervades every home, dominates lives, distorts reality, promotes blind conformity in behavior and belief, discourages and destroys imaginative thought, demands constant unwavering attention, and wants our money? It used to be called a religion. Now it's called TV. I even managed to find someone who agreed with this idea. Douglas Rushkoff, author of the book, Media Virus comes to Jung via Star Trek. "I don't see any cause and effect relationship at all. I don't think television affects our social subconscious or social psyche. I think television is our social subconscious. It is our social subconscious, it is our psychic darkness. They quoted Carl Jung on Star Trek last night, 'we have to learn to embrace the darkness.'" Although Rushkoff may be more correct than a lot of the other experts, I find it hard to accept his passivity in the face of this threat to our collective unconscious. I seem to recall that Dylan Thomas had something to say about the psychic darkness, and he by no means recommended embracing it.Signal to Noise airs on PBS, July 11, 18, and 25.

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