Not So Amusing
American teens take their prowess at the video console quite seriously. Indeed, one recent survey found that the average teenage boy in this nation spends as much as 28 hours a week killing, maiming, and destroying--as well as punching, shooting, and stabbing; flying, driving, and navigating; climbing, plumbing, and slogging--through their beloved video games.
And when they’re not playing their viciously gory video games, they’re watching murder and mayhem on television, or they’re tramping off to see more of the same in the movies, or they’re listening to loud, obscene music about destruction, devastation, and despair, or they’re surfing the internet’s virtual village of violence, sex, and perversion.
American households with teenage children watch an average of 59 hours of cable and network programming a week. Teens see an average of 67 full-length feature films every year--either in theaters or on video or DVD--more than one a week. They own an average of 42 musical compact disks, 16 game cartridges, and 7 computer games. More than 35 percent of all teens have their own television sets; more than 80 percent own radios; almost 76 percent possess cassette or compact disk players; and while only 39 percent own personal computers, more than 88 percent have access to the internet.
The can be little doubt: electronic mass media have become the dominating means of conveying and purveying modern culture among young people. Is that a good thing? Are we satisfied with the way this revolution in culture has transpired in our lifetimes?
Most of us would likely answer “no” in both cases. Indeed, more than 81 percent of all Americans in a recent poll admitted that they were “seriously concerned” or “uncomfortable” with the direction that modern entertainment has taken of late. Only 2 percent believe that media “should have the greatest influence on children’s values.” But 67 percent believe that it does--wielding even “greater influence than parents, teachers, coaches, or religious leaders.” The pioneering media analyst, Marshall McLuhan may not have been very far off the mark when he quipped, “Satan is a great electrical engineer.”
According to Neil Postman in his must-read manifesto, Amusing Ourselves to Death, there are two means by which the spirit of a great culture may be undermined--one, portrayed in George Orwell’s horrifying novel of oppression, 1984, the other in Aldous Huxley’s equally horrifying novel of debauchery, Brave New World, “In the first--the Orwellian--culture becomes a prison. In the second--the Huxleyan--culture becomes a burlesque. . . . In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well underway toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began slowly and modestly in the mid-nineteenth century and has now, in the latter half of the twentieth, reached a perverse maturity in America’s consuming love affair with mass media. As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to the media sovereignty over all their institutions. By ushering in the age of television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future.”
He continued saying, “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the altert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. We must face the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”
Indeed, we must. It is not simply a clever slogan, we have actually begun the process of “amusing ourselves to death.”
Television has become America’s drug of choice--a kind of “electronic valium.” And virtually everyone across this vast land is using it.
More than 98 percent of all households have at least one television set. In fact, more American households have televisions than have indoor plumbing. Not surprisingly, American children watch an inordinate amount of programming. Preschoolers watch an average of more than 27 hours each week--more than 4 hours per day. On school nights, American teens limit their television consumption to only about 3 hours per night. In contrast though, they spend about 54 minutes on homework, less than 16 minutes reading, about 14 minutes alone with their mothers, and less than 5 minutes with their fathers.
And what is it that we are all watching so obsessively?
Certainly, television offerings do not portray real life in any way. A survey of one week’s prime-time network and major cable channel offerings revealed a wide disparity between the lives of Americans and the world of television:
Of the 73 sex scenes shown that week, 31 were of unmarried heterosexual adults, 23 were adulterous, 4 were between married couples, 2 involved homosexual couples, 5 involved lesbian couples, and 8 involved unmarried, heterosexual teens.
Despite the fact that nearly half of all Americans attend church at least once a week, only four of the characters that week in primetime showed any evidence of religious belief. Only one of them appeared to be an orthodox Christian--and she was an angel.
More than half of the programs aired that week portrayed at least one violent act—there were a total of 47 murders, 88 assaults, and 23 accidental deaths. Graphic violence--meaning that blood, assault, or anguish was clearly portrayed--predominated in primetime that week with more than 209 occurrences.
The average American child watches 8,000 made for television murders and 100,000 acts of violence by the end of grade school. By the time the child has graduated from high school, that number will have doubled. The casual carnage is woven into supposedly real life situations with amazing alacrity. One survey found that situation comedies, cartoons, and family dramas were just as likely to feature violence as police procedurals, medical dramas, and period masques.
And this awful barrage is nothing new. While programming has certain gotten more explicit, more brazen, and more perverse in recent years, television has always been a bastion of mindless barbarism. As early as 1961, Newton Minow, at that time the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission assessed the offering of television in a scathing critique, “When television is bad, there is nothing worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet, or rating book to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials--many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all boredom. True you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.”
Eight years later, the Milton Eisenhower Commission reported, “We are deeply troubled by the television’s constant portrayal of violence in pandering to a public preoccupation with violence that television itself has helped to generate.”
In 1992, the National Commission on Children made a plea for a sane program of internal regulation and self-restraint in the television industry, “Pervasive images of crime, violence, and sexuality expose children and youth to situations and problems that often conflict with the common values of our society. Accordingly, we call upon the media, especially television, to discipline themselves so that they are a part of the solution to our society’s serious problems rather than a cause.”
Alas, the plea fell on deaf ears. With the proliferation of cable channel options, has come a proliferation of the very worst elements of broadcast entertainment from the past--plus, a vastly enlarged menu of offerings heretofore unimagined and unimaginable.