AMERICANS APPROACH television the way the Lilliputians must have approached Gulliver. Its presence among us, its size and reach, is undeniable. The numbers alone are staggering: more than 115 million sets in use; 70 million households with television, a reach unequaled by any other medium of communication, including the telephone and the newspaper; more than $6 billion spent each year on advertising on television. It must have been difficult for the Lulliputians to avoid ascribing every new event in their lives to the presence of the giant. Gulliver cast a giant shadow, but did he produce every solar eclipse? Gulliver in the water produced mighty waves, but did he control the tides?

These questions arise because four recent books suggest that there is developing in our public debate an obsession with television that in my view distorts our understanding of our society and jeopardizes the opportunities for changing that society. These books are, in varying degrees, perceptive and obtuse; thoughtful and thoughtless; provoking and exasperating. But each of them, to one degree or another, suggests that what has happened since the advent of television has happened because of television. Were these volumes sold together, they could be included under the overarching title: "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc."

The general tone of these works can be fairly gleaned from the titles: "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," "The Plug-In Drug," "Remote Control," "The Show and Tell Machine." Television, then, is a drug; it is used to manipulate us by remote, malevolent forces; it is a machine designed to seize our minds. There is not a single helpful idea about how to make television better in any of the books, and indeed, at least three of the volumes would explicitly deny that television is reformable at all.

Frank Mankiewicz and Joel Swerdlow, in "Remote Control," devote half a page to encouraging "a more muscular" Federal Communications Commission, but proudly assert that they have no agenda for reform - as if the absence of an idea to reshape the most powerful instrument in modern American life were an asset.

In "The Show and Tell Machine," Rose Goldsen is content to tell us how malevolently effective television is in molding the consciousness of Americans.

In "The Plug-In Drug Machine," Marie Winn encourages parents to wean children from the narcotic of television, and at one point congratulates television for not making better shows for children - since her central thesis is that it is the act of watching per se, rather than the content, that harms children.

In "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," Jerry Mander "certainly cannot answer (the) question" of how the elimination should be carried out, although he has spent more than 350 frequently fascinating pages telling us that television is a clear and present danger to our health, liberty and sanity.

Indeed, after reading these books, one is tempted to identify another danger of television: that it paralyzes otherwise sensible people into complete helplessness, while at the same time stimulating them to accuse it of the most astonishing things.

Marie Winn often does her accusing with rhetorical questions. Raising the possibility that television may physically alter our brains, she writes, "Just as the lungs of a chain smoker are demonstrably different from a non-smoker's lungs, is it not possible that the brain of a 12-year-old heavy TV viewer is in specific ways different from the brain of a child who has watched little or no television?" Or later, "Is it merely a coincidence that the entry of television into the American homes brought in its wake one of the worst epidemics of juvenile violence in the nation's history?" (Is it not possible that these kinds of disguised assertions are poor substitutes for research?) Cancer and Corruption

JERRY MANDER, in a chapter devoted to speculating on the potential dangers of artificial light and to deploring the lack of hard research on the physiological effects of direct light, manages to suggest that TV watching may cause cancer - not from radiation of color television, mind you, but from the light itself. Mankiewicz and Swerdlow tell us that because New Jersey has no VHF television station, "corruption is more likely to flourish." This will surprise the several dozen former New Jersey officials who were thrown into prison by three aggressive U.S. attorneys, as well as the citizens of Philadelphia and Chicago, whose TV stations have not yet wiped out corruption in those two communities.

Mankiewicz and Swerdlow also begin "Remote Control" with a list of real-life crimes and other depredations that followed televised crimes and violence - although these authors would instantly recognize the fallacy of this argument if it were applied, say, to the supposed consequences of "dangerous" political speech. Rose Goldsen manages to include in "The Show and Tell Machine" a ringing denunciation of rock and roll music without acknowledging that this subculture was virtually banned from television until its dominance over popular music in the middle 1950s became inevitable.

None of this is to suggest that television is in any sense a healthy or liberating medium. That these books could build such remarkably heavy-handed cases against TV is a measure of the low estate in which many of us hold television. But the questions these books do not address are, in my view, at least as important as the ones they do speak to:

In what specific ways is television different from the other instruments of popular culture?

What changes in American life can fairly be ascribed to television?

What specifcially can be done to change the medium?

Most of what we see on television is rubbish. Granted. Stipulated. So are most books. So are most movies. So are most plays. So are most magazines. So are most newspapers.

There is too much gratuitous violence on television. Granted. Stipulated, although there is less physical violence on television now than at any time in its history. (Some critics have now begun to talk about psychic violence, by which they mean threatening situations or nasty looks, but there's not as much actual gunplay in prime-time network TV now in one week as there was in one Hopalong Cassidy episode in the late 1940s.) Further, the violence on television cannot begin to rival, say, a Sonny Chiba martial arts movie, or a black exploitation film, much less one of those grand "Tales From the Crypt" horror comics, which featured dismembered bodies and lovingly illustrated tales of cannibalism. (Those comics were sanitized to death in the early 1950s after a prominent psychologist blamed them for the rise in juvenile delinquency.)

Much of TV news is simplified to the point of distortion, or dispensed by Harry Hairspray-show-biz types who couldn't tell a news lead from a shopping circular. Granted. Stipulated, although there is more "soft news" in the average newspaper than on the worst local newscast. At least, I have not yet seen lotteries or comic strips on a news program, and nothing that Geraldo Rivera or Tom Snyder ever said or did can match, say, The New York Post in its "Son of Sam" frenzy for sheer journalistic ghastliness.

Television often projects poor social values. Granted, although the excessively-brutal-or-trampling-on-the-Constitution cop is increasingly a relic, and cannot be compared to the movies' "Dirty Harry" or "Freebie and the Bean." And no slick sit-com could come close to "Fun With Dick and Jane" for amoral cynicsm (it's okay to hold up record-store employes at gunpoint because big corporations give bribes: that's as close as I can come to a coherent message of that film.) Near-Total Monopoly

WHAT MAKES television so susceptible to criticism, such a source of concern and fear, is not that it does any one job worse than its forebears. I sat "hypnotized" and trance-like for 6 hours for a hundred Saturdays of my life, watching monsters and spaceships and cowboys spilling blood as if it were beer at a Texas football game. The racism and misogyny of TV's early days were more than equaled by the slick short stories of mass magazines of 40 years ago (how many nappy-haired porters shuffled and chuckled; how many woman-child housewives were tamed by a sound spanking from their out-of-patience husbands?). What makes television so frightening is that it performs all the functions that used to be scattered among different sources of information and entertainment, and it performs all these functions under the control of an almost total monopoly.

In the days before television became the dominant institution in American life, we used to get our news primarily from newspapers, supplemented by newsmagazines and photojournals such as Life. Our sit-coms and pop dramas came to us through the slick magazines, and through radio dramas and comedies and from the movies, which were seen by the average American at least once a week. The children had early evening radio, Saturday morning movies and comic books. Television has collapsed all these functions within that single box. And to a remarkable extent these functions are all performed by three networks, which are extensions of three highly profitable corporations whose own revenues, in turn, come from the most powerful corporate interests in American life.

It is this aspect of television's control over our culture that makes it so powerful, and so disturbing - not the content, which is, if anything, less offensive than the typical movie or comic book of a generation ago. (In "The Show and Tell Machine," Rose Goldsen shows a complete lack of recognition that every television sit-com and drama is directly rooted in the popular culture of the last 40 years. She seems to think that soap operas and domestic comedies all sprang full-blown from the coaxial cable. This assumption greatly diminishes the credibility of the book.)

There is no way around the advertiser-sponsored (or corporation-underwritten) network-supplied access to national television. There is no off-Broadway, no small publishing house, no offbeat newspaper or magazine, no independent film maker who every once in a while breaks through the cultural mainstream to become an important national voice. What TV concentrates, in a way that no other medium could ever hope to do, is access. Whether you want to talk politics, or sell a new product, or sing a new song or make children laugh or think, either you get the approval of NBC, CBS, ABC, or PBS, or to a substantial extent you don't do it on nationwide televisioN.

Consider the implications of this oligopoly. Does it make television different from other industries in America, some of which are exceptionally clever and malevolent concentrations of power? Of course not. It makes television an accurate reflection of the way business runs. It is organized the way the steel, auto, rubber and packaged-food industries are organized.

Norman Lear made this point in an interview with me in 1975. "Television," he said, "is criticized way out of proportion because of its visibility. It's run just like any other big industry. If cars with heavy chrome sold last year that's what GM and Ford and Chrysler are going to give you this year. If the big oil companies were selling you an additive last year, they're going to find another additive-plus this year and they're going to raise prices again. They're going to do what they can within the economic system to improve their profits and to continue giving the public what it seemed to want last year. And so with television. The public wants diversion, and if violence is what's available, that's what they'll turn on."

It is this precise point that renders television essentially unlike the sources of popular culture in the past. Jerry Mander's most fascinating arguments in "Four Arguments" center on the way in which television both reflects and assists the process of corporate concentration, but they too quickly disappear in his wholesale assault on the modern technological environment in general.

Basically, nothing we see on television is in any way, shape or form different from or worse than what any other instrument of communication has given us. The difference is the remarkable concentration of power, in the service of maximizing profits both for those who run the networks and for those who use the networks to seel us goods and services. Evaluating Changes

TO SAY THAT LIFE has changed since the introduction of television is an insight on a par with "television is a visual medium." The difficulty lies in isolating those changes with can fairly be laid to television and those which reflect much deeper changes in American life.

This exercise seems to be too much for our authors; their preference seems to be for a bald assertion that television is responsible for change in American life because it was there, and America changed, therefore, Q.E.D. (Mankiewicz and Swerdlow suggest that television triggered both the civil rights revolution and the backlash, and that irresponsibile TV reporting about busing helped destroy a "promising tool." The people of South Boston, whatever the justice or injustice of their cause, did not need television to tell them they were opposed to busing.)

Sometimes, the assertions make no sense at all, when laid beside recent history. Both Goldsen and Marie Winn are absolutely certain that television is a hypnotic, pacifying "drug," reducing children to robot-like acceptance of the status quo and to happy inclusion into the corporate-consumer frame of mind. This is an interesting notion; one wonders why the first generation of television viewers turned into the most raucous, dissident, anti-corporate generation this nation had ever seen.

Whichever Orwellian genius, whichever advertising-motivational research whiz programmed the children of the 1950s to become the young men and women of Berkeley and Columbia and Jackson State should have been drummed out of his profession and sentenced to a lifetime of "Flintstones" reruns. Similarly, the device that was supposed to turn us all into armchair spectators instead now exists side by side with an unprecedented explosion of physical fitness. And Jerry Mander's notion that television is the latest step in the modern world's separation of man and his natural sensory gifts seems puzzling in light of a widespread rediscovery of everything from backpacking to real food.

My own notion is that this obsession with the power of television can hide the fact that there is a reality "out there," independent of what we watch on television, and that the American public still knows how to find that reality, no matter how many hours of television it watches.

The younger generation of the 1960s opposed the Vietnam war because it was a stupid one, and because the draft threatened them with deain in pursuit of that war's foggy aims. The younger generation of the 1970s is far quieter because there is no war and no draft. Recognizing this reality is more important than attempting, as our authors do, to chart the mood of the younger generation on the basis of prime-time television programs.

Similarily, the decline in public trust since 1964, which Mankiewicz and Swerdlow ascribe in large measure to television (they give one paragraph to Vietnam, Watergate and CLA-FBI revelations), happened because events of the 1960s - not just the reporting of those events, but the objective reality to them - caused our trust in our institutions to be shaken. The war, the unprecedented domestic violence in our cities and on our campuses, the widening cultural rift between generations and the presence of two successive presidents who chose to lie - clumsily - to American explains a lot more than the distorted portrayal of doctors, lawyers and cops on television. (Was "Marcus Welby" more distorted than "Dr. Kildare"?) One can argue that "it was television" that showed us the war and domestic violence, but that kind of argument really confuses the messenger with the message.

Even those areas where television may be more directly responsible for the changes in American life are more complicated than these authors seem to suppose. Marie Winn suggests - fairly, I think - that television-watching has left our children with no free time, no hours to make up their own games, while learning to live with each other. But it's also true that the Age of Television arrived simultaneously with the massive suburbanization of American life, a result of the desperate hunger after World War II for an end to compulsory collective experiences, and for isolated, atomized privacy and a one-third-acre lot of one's own. That movement, in turn, left our cities increasingly poor, increasingly peopled by a cultural-racial underclass, increasingly violent. And as between suburban sterility and urban danger, the pleasures of independent play may be less appealing than late-afternoon television - especially with the movement of millions of mothers into the work force.

It seems to me undeniably true that television has produced, or has helped to produce, some important changes in the way we live. The sharp decline in reading skills among students almost certainly reflects the way in which television communicates ideas, although this need not be inevitable. One of the best chapters in "Remote Control" deals with the way some schools are using TV scripts and videotape playback to increase students' interest in, and ability at, reading. And both in "Remote Control" and in "Four Arguments" there are important reflections on the medium's influence on politics. (Mankiewicz, who played an important role in the campaigns of Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, shows how whole campaigns are bent to the demands of television, and Mander explores how - and why - products and lifeless objects are easier to "sell" than complicated ideas.)

But perhaps one of the most important ways in which television has changed America is in persuading us to become hypnotized by the putative power and pervasiveness of television itself. It brings to mind a scene from "Catch-22," where Yossarian's beleaguered pilots must embark on a perilous bombing run because the line on the map shows that Piamosa is still in enemy hands. Late at night, someone sneaks over to the map and moves the line - and the bombing run is canceled.

There seems to be an unspoken premise that we can define reality by looking at what is on television; and that therefore the way to change reality is to change what we see on television. You cannot find a political movement these days that does not list "media distortions" as a principal preoccupation. Last fall, a gay-rights task force took out an ad in Variety demanding that a gay character on "Soap" be changed to make him more proud of his sexual preference. And no less an authority than the U.S. Civil Rights Commission noted that Edith Bunker always fetched Archie a beer on "All in the Family," and that Mary Tyler Moore's character always called Lou Grant "Mr. Grant" while everyone else called him "Lou." And what are we to make of the national Parent-Teachers Association which, in a time of unprecedented illiteracy among students and crises in school security and financing, makes violence on television its number-one priority? The Heart of the Matter

WHAT ALL THIS suggests, I believe, is a failure of political will, a resignation in the face of difficulties that appear too complicated, too distant, for us to resolve. Our most intense political dramas - Vietnam, Watergate - are over. What remain are dilemmas that go to the heart of how this country works: Who has power? Who has wealth? Is it distributed fairly? How do we open up jobs and access to power for those left out? How do we meld individual freedom with a sense of family and communal obligation?

We do not have many political forces capable of even suggesting answers to these questions, because we have never felt the need to talk about the recipe when there was, or seemed to be, enough pie to go around. What television criticism represents, I am suggesting, is a way of avoiding these hard questions. Instead of organizing, or studying, or lobbying or trying to convince the public of the need for major changes in how we live, interest groups can attack the way they are portrayed on television. God knows, it's easy enough to find distortions and banalities on TV, and it's certainly easier than challenging entrenched power.

What makes this tendency even more remarkable is that, since television itself is organized along the same lines of corporate concnetration as other major blocs of our economy, there is indeed an "agenda for reform" that goes to the heart of how television is organized and that may indeed make television a far more democratic tool than is now the case. But this reform depends on identifying with some precision how we could design access to broadcasting.

Every treatise on television - my own included - makes the seminal point that in commercial television the product is not the program; the program is the bait to attract the real product sold by television networks and stations, which is the audience. The consumers of the audience, of course, are the advertisers, who buy the audience's attention.

Each of these books makes the strongest impression when probing this central fact of broadcast life. "The Show and Tell Machine" has absorbing material on how advertisers research the buying habits of children, the better to sell them products. "Remote Control" has first-rate material on the near-conspiratorial cooperation between the FCC and their "client" networks when the "family hour" doctrine was formulated. And Jerry Mander, who was a brilliant advertising strategist and later a media adviser to environment, peace and other liberal causes, has excellent material in "Four Arguments" about the incredible imbalance exemplifed by the ability of a single advertiser to buy the right to project the same image or message into the minds of millions of viewers over and over again.

Yet none of these books tells us what what we might do about the stark facts that our major instrument of entertainment and news is geared to the direct financial interest of the largest corporations in the United States, and that the possession of huge sums of money is the dominant method of access to this instrument. It is as if our Lilliputians, having discovered that Gulliver was consuming a third of the food output of the island, either declared that he should go away, or else merely reminded each other that this was indeed a huge and fearsome giant.

Commercial broadcasting, after all, is a publicly licensed, federally regulated business, with clearly established (if rarely enforced) mechanisms for denying the license to broadcast if "the public interest" is not served. The possibilities for government action to alter the nature of the controls over television are enormous. Let me suggest a few some of which are already underway:

A partial or total prohibition of advertising during those hours when young children form the bulk of the audience. The Federal Trade Commission is already considering this action.

An antitrust suit to force the networks to sell off the stations they own and operate. Right now, each of the three networks owns five VHF stations; all three own stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Should suppliers of programming also have instant control over a quarter of the American viewing population?

Another antitrust action to force the networks to drop their rule excluding free-lance news and public affairs shows. Right now, the three networks will, in almost all cases, run only news and public affairs shows that are produced by their own news departments. The ostensible reason is to protect themselves from the consequences of distorted news. The effect is yet another example of concentrating, and limiting, the flow of information. (Frank Mankiewicz helped to produce a documentary about Cuba some years back. He and his colleagues interviewed Castro, only to be blocked from a national audience by restrictive networks rules.)

A strong commitment, including financial, to the growth of cable television in all its forms. The Small Business Administration is beginning to move into the media field to encourage minorities to enter the communications industry. Cable and pay-cable represent the most practical, currently available method we have to diversify what we see on television. And the growth of pay-cable in all its forms - subscription television or program-by-program fees - is one way to create the markets for offbeat, minority-taste programming that network domination of television now hinders.

A restriction on the number of hours any licensee can use a channel. There is no reason why Channel 2 in New York must be programmed from dawn to dawn, 7 days a week, by the same corporation, particularly when a broadcast band represents a government-licensed monopoly of a terribly scarce and enormously valuable "property." There is no reason why licenses should not be shared, with different groups of suppliers alternating time periods, days of the week or weekends. A division of available broadcast time - at least until cable becomes the dominant form of receiving television signals - would by itself help make television more democratic. How to Apply Muscle?

THE QUESTION, of course, is how to apply the political muscle to make such changes. At least a few years ago, a working majority of members of Congress were tied, either directly or through law firms, to broadcast interests; these ties do not make them sympathetic to ideas which would lessen the windfall profits of station licensees.

Bringing about such changes will require the same kind of political effort required to insure the bargaining rights of labor organizations, or the voting rights of black Southerners or the employment rights of women. The fight, in other words, is political, and it can neither be won nor even waged by scrutinizing the television screen for clues to the collective unconscious or for new signs of media distortions of how we live.

The effort to make television a less cynical medium, in other words, is very much like the effort to apply public constraints on other sources of private power, be they bankers, labor union officials, oil companies or foundations. The effort requires enough will to turn off the television set and to begin recognizing, and changing, reality.

Everyone now understands that television is a tool of great power. The paradox is that the only way to really bring that power to bear is to stop pretending that the power is greater than it really is. There is a world beyond the reach of "Kojak" and "Happy Days" and Mr. Whipple; and it is in that world that the fight between private power and public accountability will be won or lost.

Reprinted by permission of the Sterling Lord Agency, Inc.