Saturday, June 12, 2021

TV Then and Now

(I came across this article I wrote over 20 years ago in 1999 and thought it would be hopelessly outdated. But though it certainly deserves a new perspective, I think it mostly held up. And if you were born in the 1950's, see how many of these shows listed you used to watch!)

Lying on a bed in northern Ghana this summer, I found myself thinking about this:


Betty Boop; Clutch Cargo; Soupy Sales; Captain Kangaroo; Romper Room; Mickey Mouse; 

Our Miss Brooks; My Three Sons; I Love Lucy; Love That Bob; The Andy Griffith Show; The Dick Van Dyke Show; The Donna Reed Show; The Danny Thomas Show; The Jack Benny Show; 

The Dobie Gillis Show; The Patty Duke Show; Leave It To Beaver; Father Knows Best; The Honeymooners; Ozzie and Harriet; Burns and Allen; Abbot and Costello; Amos and Andy; 

The Three Stooges; Dennis the Menace; The Little Rascals; Gomer Pyle; F Troop; Sgt. Bilko; McHale's Navy; Hogan's Heroes; Gilligan's Island; Flipper; Sea Hunt; Gunsmoke; Rawhide; Bonanza; Wagon Train;  Maverick; The Wild Wild West; The Texas Rangers; The Lone Ranger; Death Valley Days; Roy Rogers; Hopalong Cassady; The Real McCoys; The Beverly Hillbillies; Petticoat Junction; Green Acres; I Dream of Jeannie; Bewitched; My Favorite Martian; Star Trek; Lost in Space; The Outer Limits; The Twilight Zone; The Alfred Hitchcock Show; Lassie; Rin Tin Tin; Mister Ed; Wild Kingdom; Perry Mason; 77 Sunset Strip; Route 66; Hawaii 5 O; Highway Patrol;Dragnet; The FBI; I Spy; The Avengers; Mission Impossible; The Mod Squad; The Untouchables; The Fugitive; Superman; Car 54 Where Are You? Dr. Kildare; Ben Casey; The Jetsons; The Flintstones; Beat the Clock; Truth or Consequences; Queen for a Day; The Price Is Right; Concentration; To Tell the Truth; I've Got a Secret; What's My Line?; The 64,000 Question; You Bet Your Life; Jeopardy; Candid Camera; Hollywood Squares; The Walt Disney Show; The Ed Sullivan Show; The Jackie Gleason Show; The Carol Burnet Show; The Joey Bishop Show; The Jack Paar Show; The Red Skeleton Show; The Dinah Shore Show; The Dick Clark Show; American Bandstand; Laugh-In


Those who know me in my role as anti-TV crusader may be smiling as incredulously as I was. If habitual TV viewing is as bad as I've claimed, what do I make of this incredible list, this litany of my childhood TV? Do I relax and realize that everything's fine? Do I intensify my efforts to save the children from my fate?  Do I suggest kids only watch Nick at Nite?  


A clue came to me later in the summer as I read our recommended school reading, "The Shelter of Each Other." Amongst many fine points Mary Pipher makes, one thought struck particularly deep—"What made sense even thirty or forty years ago is counter-intuitive today." That got me wondering. What was different about TV viewing back then? If it was different, how was it different? Are those differences significant? These questions rarely enter discussions about TV, leaving us free to comfort ourselves that "we turned out okay." Pipher's book suggests that things aredifferent for kids today—radically different— and we would all do well to pay attention. 


I would say the first big difference in my childhood experience was that TV hadn't been around for 50 years. The "art" of TV—i.e., the craft most suited to the medium—had yet to be developed. Here I'm speaking of multiple angles, close-ups and fade-outs, speed of shifting images, condensation of plot—watching Seinfeld and then My Three Sons would make these differences immediately obvious. Early TV was more like our present-day videotaping of school plays—a kind of theater in a box. Neil Postman, a long-standing critic of TV's effects on children and culture, remarks in his essay, Remembering the Golden Age, that between 1948 and 1958, over 1500 fifty-two minute plays were performed live on American television (the remaining eight minutes used for credits, coming attractions and of course, commercials). He lists an impressive group of talented writers who wrote "serious, provocative and original dramas." As television "matured," it shifted from a writing medium to a technical and merchandising medium. "Entrepreneurs and executives had discovered that television is a vast, unsleeping money machine, provided that it is used to keep viewers in a condition of almost psychopathic consumership. Thus, American television turned toward sit-coms, soap operas and game shows. Its uses fell into the hands of merchants who, obviously, have a different agenda from serious artists."


This is good food for thought, but my list above (note Gilligan's Island) was hardly the stuff of provocative writing. Yet the overall pace of the shows (and the commercials) was markedly different. Listening to Barney and Andy chat in the jailhouse and watching Beaver throw stones off the bridge into the water was pretty darn close to the real time pace of my daily life. My memory of the news was Walter Cronkite talking. Both Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers were a bit like my teachers being followed around with a camera. By the time Sesame Street  hit the air, it was a whole new ballgame. TV had hit its rhythmic stride, had found its media identity that separated it from real life, theater, radio and movies—fast-paced, constantly shifting images, slickly packaged.


As children's nervous systems adapted, they required things faster and louder for stimulation. Watch a commercial shown on MTV for an extreme example or go to the movies and notice the televisionized previews—consciously 20% louder than the feature film and a frantic image assault increasingly difficult for old-timers like myself to stomach. While the media industry consciously and methodically ups the ante, we teachers and parents are coping with the epidemic rise of ADD.


It's not only the pace of the shows that invites short attention spans, but the number  of shows to choose from. I still remember the signal around midnight when NO SHOWS WERE BROADCAST ON ANY CHANNEL until around 6:30 the next morning (was that Sunrise Semester?) In our 24/ 7, 25 to 500 channel TV world, this story seems virtually unbelievable to today's child. When we did tune in, we tended to stick with one show the whole time, also a radical idea for today's remote channel-surfing generation. TV, already fragmented by commercials, became even more manic with increased paces and the constant temptation to move back and forth between shows. We watch our children begin to play with something and then turn away when it gets hard to look for something else to do and we wonder why. 


Then there's the whole sticky issue of content. As we grew older, we may have protested the sanitized morality of the collective American dream entering our heads every night or laughed at "Father Knowing Best"  and Ward lecturing Wally about being nice to his younger brother. But now the laugh is on us as our own children see us as hopeless Homer Simpsons and our six-year olds turn on prime time TV and watch adults engage in casual sex, rampant violence and lives of uncaring indifference without judgement. Not only aren't these characters viewed as distasteful, but they're portrayed as cool. I enjoyed Seinfeld as much as the next person and desperately struggled to believe it was really satirical. But did anyone else think it was going a tad too far to have George smiling about his fiance's death because it freed him of commitment? Was anyone else uncomfortable watching a 9:00 show with their kids about a masturbation contest or "finishing the sex act with a swirl?" 

Lest this seem too close to "a return to 50's family values" for comfort, let's remember Amos and Andy, Jack Benny's  Rochester, the Lone Ranger's Tonto, "my name's Jose Jimenez" and the whole Cowboy and Indians mentality. The "good old days" weren't all that good for non-whites and women, on or off the screen. The Bill Cosby Show notwithstanding, I frankly don't see all that much improvement. And given a choice between the way women are portrayed on MTV and Lucy Ricardo, Alice Cramden, and Donna Reed, I'd go for the latter.


TV networks in the 50's and the 60's had a firm censorship stance which filtered some adult themes—mostly sexual—from children unprepared for them. Parents didn't have to work so hard monitoring the kid's watching because the industry took the responsibility. Why is it so hard for today's parents to commit to monitoring their kids' media intake? Not only has prime time TV abdicated that responsibility, but the media industry has intensified both the amounts and the number of mediums available. How can we keep track? No sooner do we shut off the TV then our child's research on the Internet takes a left turn to the pornographic chat room. We're pressured to get Nintendo and fail to notice our sons playing games that stalk women. We're careful about what shows we watch and then send our children off to birthday parties with unsupervised video viewing. The burden of buying the V-chip lands on our individual overburdened shoulders.


This is indeed something new under the sun. Most of our parents showed us how to set limits when it came to candy, sexual experimentation, or smoking. They provided models that we may have chosen to follow, reject, revise or modify, but that functioned as models nonetheless. But very few of us have models of protecting children from inappropriate images on TV because the culture and industry mostly did it for us. That's a difference worth noting. 


If there are problems with too much inappropriate sexual material too easily available, how much more so with violence. There is no doubt that the number of acts of violence per viewing hour, the intensity of such acts and their increasingly graphic portrayal has risen dramatically since Dragnet  and Perry Mason, Let's not parade out the statistics here of how much violence children witness—they're simply too depressing. Nor need we trot out the latest research that shows that the emotional system reacts to violence "real or imagined" in much the same way. Let's just note that the episode showing Beavis and Butthead laughing at the trapped stewardess in the burning plane simply never would have entered even the most calloused TV executive's mind in the 1950's. 


Finally, if my list indicates that I wasted an entire childhood in front of the "boob tube," my own memory is quite different. Most of the time, from six years old on, I was roaming around the local park with my friends wading in creeks, climbing trees, skipping stones in the lake, playing hide and seek in "Lover's lane," choosing up teams for baseball or football, building forts from old Christmas trees. In my house, I was listening to my scratchy 78's of Beethoven imagining stories, playing board games, reading books and comic books, practicing my lassoing, lying in the hammock in the back yard, throwing the ball against the front stoop while narrating my no-hitter World Series victory. TV was just one of many sources for stories and entertainment and one mostly in line with my experience in my daily world. 


Fast forward (with your remote in hand, of course) to TV now and there can be no question that it is a different experience entirely. Not only has TV changed—content, pace, availability—and children's lives changed—very few opportunities to get to the bottom of boredom and come up with something interesting on their own—but the whole culture has become televisionized.


USA Today is a television newspaper, the 6:00 o'clock News is indistinguishable from a TV Drama, scandal in the White House is no different than an afternoon Soap Opera; Natural Disasters have catchy soundbyte titles, movies, videos, video games, the Internet, radio, music (MTV) are melting together into one vast undifferentiated television, a giant lens that has become the dominant medium through which children filter the world. Running the whole show is the Almighty Buck, allowing advertising executives to shamelessly target children as a great, untapped market , buoyed up by one irrefutable truth—television works. Children do become loyal to Nike and Barbie. They do learn to be lifelong consumers in a world that cannot afford wanton consumption. They also reach puberty earlier, put rock star posters on their walls at eight years old, wearing S&M paraphernalia at six, tell their teachers they'll get them fired at four—and these are the good kids. 


The walls my generation grew up with were exclusive, stifling and constraining. But they also gave us something to shape a response to— we built muscles pushing against it. We imagined that knocking down walls was enough to build the new world, but now understand, at great expense to a whole generation of children, that growing up with no walls is as damaging, and probably more damaging, that growing up with too many. Walls can exclude and restrain, but they can also protect. If children are to remain children—and biology suggests a long maturation period as children is a good idea—it's time to build new walls—or at least fences with gates that have childproof locks. If good parenting in the 60's meant exposing children to more, good parenting in the 90's means protecting them from too much.


One last image. The hole in our cultural ozone layer grows daily larger, eroding the protective filters that shield us from harmful rays. Our biggest challenge as parents is to remember to rub the media sunscreen on our children. I recommend the highest possible number! Someday our children will thank us for it.



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