"My younger brother learned to count before I did, because he watched 'Sesame Street," said Carter Cooper, 12. "And I was in school."
It was raining insights at the "Families in the Media" panel yesterday, part of the Smithsonian's Kin and Communities Symposium. The trouble was that nobody followed up the ideas. The result was a tantalizing intellectual hash - just exactly like the hash of murder, lipstick, pratfall, toothpaste, song and canned laughter that we get on TV.
Cooper and his brother Anderson, 10, joined their father, author-actor Wyatt Cooper, on the panel since they are what panelist Margaret Mead call skilled tube-watchers.
Time allowed only the briefest expansion on the subject of TV and education. Cooper seemed to feel that television complemented school. But as various comments showed, there are those, like McLuhan, who fell TV has supplanted school and the reason education generally is such a shambles today is that its 19th-century methods are hopelessly unable to compete with the cunning techniques of, especially, commercials, the true teachers of TV.
All morning long the audience quivered to jump into the conversation, and when they were finally turned loose they hurled still more ideas into the pot. One woman held the floor for four minutes with a 2,000-word sentence that jammed together enough thoughts to fuel a dozen panels.
The subject was imply too big, too central to all our lives.
A few of the questions:
Are we, the nation of spectators, prisoners in the hands of those who can read but not write is semi-literate, what shall we call people who can only watch and have no means of replying electronically? The medium's message lies in the hands of the industry, the Establishment, the state, or whatever you want to call it.
Now, panelist E. Richard Sorenson of the Anthropological Film Center pointed out that a counter-movement is afoot, that young people and old are making films everywhere, working with video, mastering inexpensive techniques for speaking out electronically.
"It's still in the experimental stage," he warned. "It's not getting onto network TV yet."
And the problem, added Robert Lewis Shayon, TV critic, educator and writer, is that it's not going to get on network TV, either. The nets, he said, will resist with all their power. They are not about to give up control of all the message-sending.
Is the neat, predigested and often slanted reality of TV taking the place in our minds of the chaotic and uncomfortable reality of life?
The session began with screenings of TV commercials of 1960 and of 1975. The differences between them - drew this comment from Mead:
"In the second set of ads, the racial mixtures were carefully arranged, orientals, blacks and so on. Consciously arranged. Call it good works - or fear - but it was conscious. The black families shown were properous people (who appeared to be flying to Los Angeles, touring Watts and Redondo Beach, falling in love and snapping their Kodaks). Behind it is a statement: Everybody ought to be able to take a trip like that."
Noting the many levels one can see TV ads on, she mentioned GE's Progress for People - "not one of my favorite slogans; it usually ends up with something to do with nuclear energy . . ."
She also discussed the changes implicit in TV America over 15 years: the smaller families, the emergence of minorities and women and so forth. One could have gone on for hours, but other territory had to be covered. The audience, feeling like Hansel and Gretel before the witch's cottage, scrambled from this subject to that, trying to grab all the goodies at once.
What is the link between TV violence and the ads?
"TV drama says we live in a violent world and better keep a low profile," said Shayon. "The ads say the only road to happienss lies in the consumption of products. The real business of TV is the maintenance of our consumption-oriented economy. And the biggest lie of all is that there is happiness and fulfillment in this . . . in buying and consuming."
Why, you could have had a panel just on the offhand remarks of the group:
"Our discontent comes from our interest in achieving being changed to an interest in acquiring."
"Look at Rita Hayworth, what she represented in the American dream, what she ended up with: It's a metaphor of great power."
"Those families on the West Side of New York who went a week without TV, were going to have picnics and conversation? TV filmed every foot of it."
"TV isolates people from each other. The muscles are immobilized . . . There's no muscle response: it's all being done for you, there on the screen."
One of the real differences between peoples in the world is knowing how things are done. The difference between knowing how to write a book and just seeing, say, the Bible and not understanding where it comes from. People should learn the techniques of television."