Tuesday, August 17


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.

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