"No one on televison spends all day in bed, too lethargic or depressed to get up," writes Ben Stein in "The View From Sunset Boulevard." "On television, in fact, there is no such thing as depression."
A lot of readers will say "so what?" rather than "aha!" to this conclusion. and to much of Steinhs book. After all, how many Americans are likely to sit still for programs about depressed people too lazy to get out of bed?
But Stein's study of TV series and the people who create them deserves attention. Although the book often reads as if it were dictated extemporaneously, Stein has asked fresh questions about commercial TV and its treatment of crime, wealth, religion and daily life. And in his quest to understnad the Hollywood mind, Stein has adopted, admirably, a total-immersion strategy. One look at the book jacket photo -- with the author leaning against a low-slug Mercedes and gazing through dark glasses over the smog of Los Angeles -- and you know this is a man who has made close contact with his subject matter.
Stein calls attention to some fairly unflattering characteristics of TV's movers and shakers, and having done so he adds that "they are fine people with a great deal to recommend them. I find myself thinking more like them every passing day."
The basic charge he brings against commercial TV is that it presents a glossy picture of American life in which true villainy and ugliness are ignored or rendered in some trivial, easily conquered form.
There are also a number of lesser offenses included in his indictment:
After thousands of hours spent watching police and crime shows, he reorts that he has never seen "a major crime committed by a poor, teen-age, black, Mexican, or Puerto Rican youth..." The poor, he says, are sanitized and the rich pilloried. "One of the clearest messages of television is that businessmen are bad, evil people," he says, recalling the innumerable instances in which the perpetrator of a murder turns out to be the character with the biggest bank balance. The clergy and the military, Stein observes, are also not seen at their most attractive on TV.
Stein attributes television's odd view of American life to the mind-set of a small band of writers and producers (and writer-producers), "a highly articulate, well-heeled, highly motivated class on the mvoe, eager to dominate the other powerful classes and groups in society."
"This tiny community in Hollywood has been given the fulcrum to move the world -- and its members know how to use it," writes Stein. But the specific objectives of the media oligarchy are modest, in his view. "No one in Hollywood seriously wants to do anything drastic to society... Thy simply want to be recognized as members of the leading stratum of society."
To back up his thesis, Stein has conducted an elaborate opinion survey of about 40 TV writers and producers, whom he quotes abundantly. And the quotes -- if fairly rendered -- do support his notion that these are people with a simplistic, conspiratorial vision of the world. Free at last to call the Mafia "The Mafia" instead of "The Syndicate," they seize every opportunity. "If you don't believe that the Mafia is running big business, you must be blind," says one nameless producer.
But just because many of these folks will, if pressed, say unitelligent things about politics and economics does not mean that the content of TV series is best explained through the content of their creators' heads. Stein ignores what seems to be an equally plausible explanation for the wimpy tone and shallow sociology of most series. That explanation is, simply, the urgent economic need ofevery primetime network show to attract a huge percentage of the American people, while not offending or troubling any measurable minority -- in short, the common denominator effect (for all the New Conservatism, how many Americans are truly anxious to see more real-life police stroies of stranger-against-stranger crimes in which the culprits are young and underprivileged?).
But there are vaguely encouraging signs on the horizon that the present manner of allocating the airwaves may be changing. Cable, videocassette recorders, "super-stations" and communications satellites all hold out the promise that 10 or 15 years hence we may have many more individual stations and programs each satisfied to reach a much smaller audience.
This should have a liberating effect. With luck, we may not have too long to wait before Colombo nails his first unemployed member of a minority group for murder.