IF YOU FEEL LIKE giving television a poke in the eye, you'll have to get in line. It's always open season on TV, of course, but this year more people than ever seem to be out for the kill.
Assaults against television are more common than commercials for old Elvis Presley records.
What has TV done to deserve this furor? Partly it's the renewed audacity of a "new season" that reveals itself to be, as usual, "new" in only the tiniest sense. Partly it's the fact that activist groups revved up to combat violence on the air are still in the mood for a fight even though most of the violence is gone. Partly it's just the fact that television is the most convenient target in America.
But while it is probably each citizen's duty and certainly each television critic's duty to keep up a stedy barrage against the tube, if only in self-defense, ther's also a distinct danger that television is going to be made the scapegoat for every single social ill in the country. If this fury keeps up, we'll be seeing news photos of politicians smashing up TV sets the way they used to smash up slot machines. And the thought of television sets being burned at the stake or flogged in public doesn't seem all that far from the realm of possibility.
ABC's sex-talk satire "Soap" had inspired some of this new unrest, of course. Time magazine reports that "Soap" protest by religious and other groups are only the biginning, that churches are launching entire campaigns against real or imagined evils of television and instructing members on how to fight fire with brimstone.
Only a few pages after Time's report on public alarm over TV's perversity, the magazine offered a full-page ad for Home Box Office, a pay-TV service that offers an alternative to commercial television and happens to be owned by Time Inc. Just a coincidence, of course.
But religious groups have no monopoly on alarm over television. In August, the College Entrance Examination Board blamed a 14-year decline in exams scores by high school graduates on, among other things, television, claiming it "detracts from homework" and "competes with schooling generally." Children will have seen up to 15,000 hours of it by the time they reach the age of 16, the report said.
This was as if to endorse a prophecy of the late Goucho Marx, recently recalled by writer Colman McCarthy. Marx wrote to TV's own Goodman Ace that he feared a generation's constant exposure to television "will produce a population composed entirely of goons."
Marx is among those whose immortality is insured partly by the fact that he will be available on television for uncountable years to come.
The idea that television is warping the minds of the young is very, very popular - so popular it has to be suspect. Perhaps we should thank a Miami lawyer for illuminating the lurking absurdity in this viewpoint by carrying it to an extreme. The lawyer's defense for a 15-year-old boy charged with the murder of an elderly neighbor will be, the lawyer said, that the kids was "suffering from and acted under the influence of prolonged, intense, involuntary, subliminal television intoxication."
This almost fits in with author Marie Winn's provocative description of television as "The Plug-In-Drug" that is creating a race of passive, hapless zombies bereft of the will to resist.
Several books slated for publication over the coming months will further agonize over television's effects on society and all us poor, helpless little viewers. Frank Mankiewicz and Jeff Greenfield both have studies on the way, and the conscience of the media himself, Daniel Schorr, writes about television in the current Esquire; it's an excerpt from his upcoming book.
Goring television has become the chicest sport since tennis. Admittedly it's more fun, but as usual, people are getting carried away. Much sound, much fury, little light.
Most attacks on television make the error of assessing the medium in terms of its content. Naturally one can proceed from the typical nightly and daily offerings of TV to a condemnation of the medium as the obvious instrument of the devil. In fact, the ratio of bilge to art on television is probably no greater than the ratio of juck to brilliance in the movies when the movies were the dominant entertainment in America. Television's output is even greater than was Hollywood's in the heyday, and it is ridiculous to expect a masterpiece or ennobling glow every time you turn on the set.
If anything, television helped the movies grow up; its popularity forced filmmakers to abandon old fantasy formulas and assimilate the result influences of foreign directors. This might never have happened if TV hadn't taken over the movies' court jester role.
Now, has television mangled the psyches of the generations brought up on it? Those who think it has can't seem to agree on the precise nature of the mangling. Some say TV has created a generation of snarling vicious dogs who rape and maim willy-nilly, and some say it ahs created drained completely of the will to fight back. What effect television watching has on Canadian rats we don't know yet, but it wouldn't be all that surprising if rodents got cancer just from the thought of seeing "Donny and Marie" more than once.
The question nobody asks is, how do we know that television hasn't in fact kept things from becoming even worse than they are? It doesn't take much imagination to blame television for this and that, but what we'll never know is what the last 30 years would have been like without it. Maybe television is a gift that has helped us through them. Maybe television's cooling influence has actually helped us deal with the raging problems we would have had to face anyway. Isn't it quite possible that the human body is evolving to withstand the effects of Big Macs, and that the human mind is likewise adapting to the effects of watching television?
Nicholas Johnson of the National Citizen's Committee for Broadcasting says television has been taken over by "the hucksters" and that this great influential medium is being used for trivial commercial ends. True, to an extent, but what does he offer as a replacement? Who should "contol" this great influential medium - people like him? We may have more to fear from the do-gooders than we do from the profit-makers. Perhaps we should be grateful that the people who control television are much more interested in making money than they are in reshaping society.
Of course television programming is largely deplorable. Yes, television commercials can be insipid and insulting. But one can't help thinking that if all the energies being lavished on attacking commercial television were redirected toward improving public television, a lot more good could come of the hysteria. About all the media reformers can do with commercial TV is urge that violence be reduced, that sex be reduced, that stereotypes be reduced, and so on. There is no evidence whatsoever that all these pacifying alterations do anything to improve the quality of television or the quality of life.
Pouring a lot more money and energy into public TV and changing its poor-sister status in the media would be a much more constructive undertaking. But of course working in that directions is quite a bit harder than raising a fist to the tube and blaming it for everything from crime to depression to prickly heat. Television has become the liberals' fluoride; it's the new monster element conspiring to rot us from within. It is as hard to accept all the charges that TV is destroying our humanity as it was to swallow the idea that the Commies were poisoning our drinking water in the '50s.
For a sensible perspective on the subject, and a refreshing note of optimism as well, let us turn to the Peanut Charlie Brown. Charlie was saying to Lucy just the other day, "There's a lot more to life than not watching TV!"
And there's a lot more to improving TV than just trying to kill it.