December 17, 1996
Copyright the Toronto Globe and Mail

By John Haslett Cuff

"The real meaning of Christmas" and some genuinely Christian values are projected in prime-time television series such as Third Rock from the Sun, Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. That'saccording to Rev. John Pungente, a leading proponent of media literacy.

The head of Toronto's Jesuit Communication Project said that this past weekend's episodes of both Xena and Hercules "centred on the winter solstice, and had extremely Christian messages, ending up with their characters following a mysterious star and being led to the birth of a child."

Pungente believes that, ideally, families should turn off their sets during Christmas and spend this important time together. But otherwise he encourages them to watch TV together and share their thoughts and feelings about it on a regular basis. He is seriously opposed to all those Christian groups and zealots who would ban most of the prime-time fare because of its allegedly distorted values.

He disagrees strongly with a recent report from the U.S.-based Kaiser Family Foundation, which was published in this newspaper and which claimed that the so-called family hour is inundating children with sex.

"For the most part, sex is handled extremely well on prime-time TV. It is rarely overt or titillating, and there is often much to be learned from watching shows such as Home Improvement and Dave's World and the way in which they deal with sexual topics with their children."

As a member of the esteemed order of Jesuits since 1957, Pungente first heard the "call" in 1962 when the Vatican Council emphasized the importance of media literacy and education. Since then he has been tireless in carrying this message into the late 20th century; a sort of multimedia missionary venturing forth in person and in cyberspace to raise awareness of the power and the content of television.

Laudably, one of the Project's biggest supporters is the Chum/City group that owns CITY-TV, MuchMusic and Bravo! The company was crucial in the creation of the Project's wonderfully instructive video series Scanning Television, which has already sold 1,500 copies in a country with only 2,000 high schools. According to Pungente, Chum/City has pledged to fund fully 50 per cent of the Project's annual budget if they are granted a broadcast licence in Vancouver, an application that is pending.

If some other broadcasters, such as YTV, CTV, Vision, Discovery and the Life Network were truly committed to informing their audiences, they might also consider supporting the Project. It's currently in danger of folding or relocating from Toronto, where Pungente and his media library have been assisting teachers, parents and children to "decode" television and media for years.

Pungente, who has a masters degree in film and came of age in the early sixties when Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and Godard were the film masters, has a central message for families: "Watch, listen, learn, analyze." Foremost, he advises parents to watch the television programs their children like and then watch with them. In the process, parents should ask their children a series of questions designed to help them understand what is going on and what messages are being conveyed, such as: Do you like it? Why? How is the show going to end? How does the show make you feel? Could this really happen? How would you solve the problem?

"What's wrong with TV is us," Pungente observes. "We watch it passively and let it wash over us. There's more danger in that uncritical passivity than in the portrayals of sex and violence." It is a mistake to think television is inherently evil or destructive or to merely emphasize its obviously negative qualities--such as violence in sports and news programs. "TV is central to our lives in a way that no other medium is, and if we want better television we have to pay attention and support the truly good shows," he said.

Television, contrary to the whining of Christian fundamentalists and right-wing politicos, is perhaps the most important purveyor of Christian values and ideas.


Submitted by John Pungente