Author: John J. Pungente,
The following is the revised version of the text for the Nash Lecture given at Campion College, University of Regina in 1993. The revision was done for the Ignatian Lecture given at St. Jerome's College, University of Waterloo in 1996. Please note that during the lecture video excerpts were used throughout to illustrate various points.
"TV won't give us cancer, although there's plenty of evidence it makes us fat. And TV-viewing during pregnancy won't result in brain-damaged babies - but many critics say that using the tube as a baby-sitter virtually guarantees that kids grow up more aggressive, sexist and incapable of writing a sentence." 1
"What we witnessed with the death of Kennedy was the triumph of television; what we saw with his assassination, and with his funeral, was the beginning of television's dominance of our culture - for television is at it most solemnly self-serving and its mesmerising best when it is depicting the untimely deaths of the chosen and the golden. It is as witness to the butchery of heroes in their prime - and of all holy-seeming innocents - that television achieves its deplorable greatness." 2
In Vancouver a grassroots organization called The Media Foundation has taken up the cause of TV addiction, calling it the number one health issue of our time. The Foundation has prepared a TV ad campaign called "Tubeheads," with commercials showing people struggling to get TV sets off their heads.
Filmmaker Ken Burns, creator of the acclaimed documentary, The Civil War, blasted US television for offering "nearly the same thing everywhere . . . on dozens of clonelike channels. In the worst of our TV, we are addicted to personality, to the breathless embrace of celebrity, ensuring as we go a tyranny of the televised over the great mass of the un-televised." 3
In a letter to the Globe and Mail, Keith Spicer, Chairman of the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunication Commission, adds to the growing numbers blaming television for the violence in society. "For the last twenty years, there has been one overriding finding . . . the mass media are significant contributors to the aggressive behaviour and aggression-related attitudes of many children, adolescents and adults." 4
Books such as Marie Winn's The Plug-In Drug 5 and the sequel, Unplugging The Plug-In Drug 6 deal with the "dangers" of television for children. Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television 7 advocates that television is not reformable and should be eliminated forever. While Michael Medved's Hollywood Vs. America 8 argues that television, having broken faith with the public, exacerbates every serious social problem we face.
Perhaps it is time to stop the television-bashing which is so very easy to do and see what we might have missed in joining the general rush to judgement. Too often we look to the past with nostalgia, to the future with hope, and to the present with gloom. There is nothing wrong with getting excited about shows like ER, The X-Files or Picket Fences. But there is a difference, as David Bianculli points out, " . . . between seeing a medium's potential and being its cheerleader, between admiring its finest achievements and embracing everything with equal enthusiasm." 9"Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him."10
"The point of the Television Age . . . is not that television is bad. The point is that television, like any medium, is capable of great harm. . ." 11
Writing 450 years apart, St. Ignatius of Loyola , Spanish founder of the Jesuits, and Ron Powers, a USA television critic have similar opinions about television. Television in itself is neither good nor bad. What is done with the medium determines whether it is something that will help us or hurt us. Should we not take another look at television, a look that goes beyond the facile to what might be there that is meaningful and perhaps even significant? We want to do that this evening and - because of time limitations - will speak only of North American television.
II: Television and Education
In July of 1990, the number two song on the British pop charts was Luciano Pavarotti's recording of "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's opera Turandot. World Cup soccer fever was in the air and Britain stood a good chance of winning. Grandstand, the BBC television show which was broadcasting all the games, took the Pavarotti recording for its theme and created a music video using scenes from soccer games. The song caught on and suddenly thousands of young British soccer fans who never heard of Turandot were humming "Nessun Dorma". It was an educator's dream.
That example is, of course, an unusual one. There are many other ways television educates. For younger children there is Sesame Street and eve Barney. For preteens and teens there are shows like Anne of Green Gables, Road to Avonlea, Bill Nye: The Science Guy, and Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiago?. And even animated cartoons like Tiny Toon, The Animaniacs, and Sailor Moon offer a great deal of educational information.
For older audiences there are the many documentaries which inform us of everything from the issue of violence and the media on shows like Bill Moyers' Does TV Kill?, to the problems of young gays in the NFB's Out: Stories of Lesbian and Gay Youth, to Peter Raymont's recent chilling account of the rebirth of neofacism among young people, Hearts of Hate: The Battle for Young Minds.
One of the most famous educational series was PBS's, The Civil War, an 11 hour series which takes the United States' ". . . most cataclysmic act of self-definition and brings it hauntingly and wondrously alive".13 Without using a single frame of battle footage, or re-enactment or docu-drama, filmmaker Ken Burns presents American history in a way that catches us totally as it educates us. This is not a boring history lesson. It is as enthralling as television can be - and the 14 million who saw it will never forget the sights and sounds of that time. Not only we do we learn about the battles and the roles of blacks and women in the war but also about the impact of the war on the society of the time. Facts - the Union ranks contained more than 100,000 soldiers who were not yet 15; one fifth of the state of Mississippi's entire budget was spent on artificial limbs - we might want to forget are constantly brought before us.
And while we do learn from such facts and from Burns' innovative use of some 16,000 still photographs, one of the series most educative tools is the reading of letters written by soldiers on both sides. These letters show what the war really meant to the people who fought it. No viewer will forget the letter Union Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife the week before he was killed in Bull Run:
"If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by."14
History teachers in the USA were surprised to find that their students had gained a real understanding of the Civil Way from watching the series.
Television is - perhaps surprisingly - very educational in social issues. Whether it be a docu-drama like Lifestories, fiction like CBC's Princes in Exile, the five part TVOntario series about death and grieving, or any of the fine documentary and docu-drama shows on AIDS such as The Band Played On. More recently there have been powerful well written docu-dramas on child abuse, The Boys of St. Vincent, on autism in Under The Piano, on the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II in The War Between Us, and, most recently, on the growing problem of child violence in the disturbing Little Criminals which showed ordinary inner city boys, the children of struggling, white, working class families, who live secret lives as thugs, thieves and murderers.
In October, 1993, PBS presented a four part series Death: The Trip of A Lifetime. It would have been easy for the series to flirt with the maudlin or descend into the macabre but it examines death as a fact of life. One memorable scene takes place when a group of American fourth graders openly talk about death - something the majority of their elders would rather avoid. The series shows that " the only thing extraordinary about death is the fear of death." 15
While it is arguable that Beverly Hills 90210 - set in a Californian high school and college - teaches anything positive about education or teenagers, there was a long running show which did. Degrassi High (which started out as The Kids of Degrassi Street in 1979 and evolved through Degrassi Junior High) came to an end in 1991. There were a total of 96 episodes in the three series of this Canadian program. They continue to be seen - as reruns - in 50 countries around the world including the USA, China, France, Australia, Germany, England, and Israel. They have won four Gemini TV Awards and two International Emmys. Both high school and university media courses study the program.
Those who have watched the series from the beginning saw the regulars in the cast grow from 8 and 9 year olds to the 18 and 19 year olds they were when the series ended. They were not actors to begin with but children who wanted to tell their own stories on television. Over the years they continued to add to the story line and characterizations. These teens have gone through a lot: teenage pregnancy, abortion, homosexuality, drugs, leaving home, and, in the last season, sexual abuse and diagnosis of HIV positive.
We can even learn about the media from the media. By the end of the 1994-95 television season there were at least 27 series which either had media settings or main characters who worked in the media. Shows featuring TV hosts/producers/reporters/sportscasters such as Murphy Brown, Coach, A Whole New Ballgame, Home Improvement, Sisters, Martin, Hope and Gloria, Full House, The Larry Sanders Show, The Critic, Platypus Man. Shows about print journalists - Dave's World, Hearts Afire, Love and War, Lois and Clark, Living Single, Madman of the People. And about radio hosts such as Bringing up Jack, The George Wendt Show, Newsradio, and Frasier. While those who work in the media agree that these shows are not always 100% accurate, they also believe that audiences do learn a lot about what goes on behind the scenes. This is a fascination hard to resist - as the popularity of many of these shows proves.
For those who want education about the media in a more serious fashion there are three shows that look at media in a more critical manner - CBC's Undercurrents, CBC Newsworld's Media, and CITY TV's Media Television - which has proved popular in nine countries. To celebrate the 1995 centenary of film, PBS offered a ten part series on the American cinema. And CBC devoted three hours to an exploration of television's power in TVTV:The Television Revolution.
III: Television and Entertainment
"People go to the movies for the various ways they express the experience of our lives, and as a means of avoiding and postponing the pressures we feel. This latter function of art - generally referred to disparagingly as escapism - may also be considered as refreshment, and in terms of big city life and small town boredom, it may be a big factor in keeping us sane."18
- Pauline Kael, American film critic.
"No one is at risk of getting flaky or prone to indulge in yukky stuff from looking at Twin Peaks, any more than you get depressed from looking at the depressing sights on The Simpsons. That is because each is having its own particular kind of fun in identifying the chaos around us. And that doesn't make you feel crazy; it makes you laugh and, incidentally, suggests that you may be one of the sane ones."19
Pauline Kael's statement about film applies as well to television and other media. No one will deny that there is a great need in all of our lives for entertainment - the chance to unwind after a day of work. Pressures build in all of us and we need to relax. In many ways, television is the easiest form of such relaxation. And there are shows on television that are fun to watch and don't overwhelm us with the violence and sex we find so distasteful.
It would be very difficult to talk about entertainment and television without mentioning what was probably one of television's most unusual shows. The critics called Twin Peaks surrealist comedy, postmodernist humour, and the rusted-in mythology of the American dream.
Basically, Twin Peaks was a soap opera about a fictional Pacific Northwest town where the murder of Laura Palmer served as the catalyst to draw out some dark secrets. Yet there must be something more there. Daytime and evening soaps are full of such dark secrets. Something turned Twin Peaks into a phenomenon which - at its height - saw people all around North America gathering at Thursday night parties to watch the show and quote lines from the program while sharing coffee, donuts, and cherry pie. When the main mystery - Who killed Laura Palmer? - was solved, the show lost nothing of its charm for even more strange happenings began. In any other show what would have been the ending was really just the beginning.
Terrence Rafferty, film critic for The New Yorker,writes: "He (Lynch) introduces a slew of characters, establishes their tangled relationships, shows us the terrain, scatters clues to the murder, revs up a fleet of subplots, hints at an appropriate number of dark secrets and obscure motivations, throws in plenty of goofy jokes - and does it all seamlessly. He varies the tone, sometimes radically, but he never breaks the odd, hushed mood, which is as overpowering and immutable as the neutral sky. Although terrible things happen, or seem about to, in Twin Peaks, it has the air of an enchanted place, a fairy-tale wonderland. As ominous as it is, we don't really want to run away from it - we want to remain enveloped in this dreadful forest, to learn how to see in the complex darkness".22
For most television viewers, a night of entertainment consists of watching such popular sitcoms as Frasier, Home Improvement, or Friends. And a number of well written shows about the law have become popular in the late night time period - NYPD Blue, Murder One, Law and Order, and Homicide, Life On The Street. ER and Chicago Hope have reinvented the medical show for the 1990's. Without a doubt, there is no one hour on US television that is so consistently gripping and entertaining as ER.
One of the most surprising success stories has been The X-Files. The show is about a pair of FBI agents who track paranormal activities across the USA. The agents are thwarted by their bosses and by double agents and by dark unexplainable forces. From critics to the public, people across the world are drawn to this show. For some it is the atmosphere created by the show - it gives you the feeling that, at any given moment, anything can happen, that any subject can be raised, and that any terror can be visualized. For others it is the always literate, witty writing, or the fine acting, or the original concept of the show itself which can and does deal with everything from alien kidnapping to authentic instances of the stigmata.
A lot of young people believe The X-Files tells truths in fictional guises that are more real than anything on the evening news. This is quite possibly true. We live in an age where prominent figures in government, business, religion and media have all been revealed as dishonest, unprincipled and self-interested. The touch of a computer key can change the "truth" to what we want it. The X-Files tells us to trust no one and, in a most entertaining way, shows us why this is true.
IV: Television and Values
"Tens of millions of Americans now see the entertainment industry as an all-powerful enemy, an alien force that assaults our most cherished values and corrupts our children." 24
"We all have a pretty good idea of what is right and what is wrong, but deprived - as the 20th Century is - of the very-handy threat of Judgement Day, we just can't seem to find a good enough explanation for why we should do one thing and not do another. Simply saying 'Because God says so' doesn't work very well anymore."25
"It's time to quit scapegoating TV and blaming it for all out societal ills. TV is entertainment and it is big business. It doesn't exist to instruct people or inculcate them with particular values or solve their problems. Perhaps most important, it doesn't exist in a vacuum." 26
"Amid television's admittedly dramatic accounts of sex and violence, the medium is also demonstrating a wide-ranging set of positive personal values."27
In a 1979 pastoral letter, the Bishops of Australia wrote to urge the inclusion of Media Literacy - the ability to think critically about the media - in schools. They remind us that it is through education that values are passed on to children. They tell us that the three traditional agents of education - home, school, Church - have now been joined by another agent - the mass media.
Statistics show that the media occupy more of a child's waking hours than any other activity. And it is during these hours that the media offer values systems to our children. Bart Simpson once told his father Homer on The Simpsons, "It's just hard not to listen to TV - it's spent so much ore time raising us than you have."
No one doubts that the media presents values that we do not want either for ourselves or for our children. But there are also other values - personal, religious, and social - which we do want - and which are found in the media. These values are there. We just have to learn - through Media Literacy - both to see them and to teach our children to see them.
There are any number of studies which have looked at values in prime-time television. Gary W. Selnow's study shows that the personal values that are "endemic to American culture are deeply embedded in the programming material of its most favoured entertainment medium."31 In his conclusion Selnow notes:
"These values are played out in endless scenarios and in countless dialogues, and range in magnitude from subplot foundations to passing observations. They appear in many forms and are expressed by many types of characters at various levels of involvement. If the strength of a lesson grows with the frequency of its exhibition and the variance of conditions under which it is displayed, then television's lessons are remarkably coherent and congruent with the beliefs of churches, schools, and commercial institutions."32
Often, with justification, we believe that the lyrics and videos of popular songs present values totally opposed to our beliefs. Yet, there are many popular songs whose lyrics and videos are presenting us with good values. Paul Simon's Boy In The Bubble warns us to wary of modern media technology; Sting's and Bruce Coburn's songs decry the destruction of the rain forests; Chris De Burgh's writes haunting anti-war ballads; Andrew Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu has its video about the war in Northern Ireland; Neil Young's satiric This Note's For You looks at the way popular music stars sell out to promote soft drinks, beer, and cosmetics; and Phil Collin's Another Day In Paradise takes a searching look at the plight of America's homeless.
Popular music also brought the plight of the Ethiopian famine home to the young of the world. In the fall of 1984, Bob Geldof gathered together a group of British popular music stars to record Do They Know It's Christmas. The record and video raised more than $15 million dollars for the Ethiopian relief fund. This led to similar efforts in Canada (Tears Are Not Enough), the United States (We Are The World) and other countries. These efforts culminated in Live Aid, a 16 hour television show involving about 180 pop musicians in London and Philadelphia. This live musical marathon on July 13, 1985, was seen by an estimated 1.5 billion viewers in 169 countries. It raised over $110 million in donations for famine relief in Africa. It also raised the awareness of millions of young people about the situation of world hunger.
One of television's contributions to mark the 1990 World AIDS Day was the broadcast by 30 television networks around the world of Red, Hot, and Blue, a 90 minute program featuring popular music artist including U2, Annie Lennox, and k.d. laing performing their interpretations of Cole Porter songs. The videos shown dealt in various ways with AIDS. One of the most moving was k.d. laing's version of "So In Love" in which the singer is shown taking care of a woman dying of AIDS. The values of caring and compassion were very much in evidence.
And television coverage of national disasters such as the Oklaholma bombing brings before us the values of compassion and of courage in the face of unbelievable horror. It shows the power of television to bring together a nation in shock and helps to begin the process our mourning and healing.
Many television sitcoms have presented positive values. Consider the family values inherent in shows like Grace Under Fire, Ready or Not, and last year's My So Called Life; the examination of racism in Under One Roof and The Piano Lesson; or of alcoholism in The John Larroquette Show, Murphy Brown, NYBD Blue, and Grace Under Fire.
Television is often faulted for its presentation of family values. However, consider The Simpsons , an ostensibly ordinary family. White and lower middle class, Homer and Marge live in small town America with their teenage children, Bart and Lisa, and baby Maggie. Homer works at the Springfield Nuclear Plant while Marge sports a meter-high, blue-rinsed coiffure. They confront the petty problems of life - the kids' problems in school, Homer's troubles at work, Marge's lack of fulfilment.
But what has made this animated show into the controversial success that it has become, is Bart Simpson. Street-wise, world weary, with stand-up hair, bulging eyes and post-Renaissance aggression, he is "the epitome of pavement-level America".34
Many find this video family down right nasty. This family is like no other portrayed on television. But some critics see it as being closest to the reality of today's family life. It has also been seen to have a genuine sociological message. "If you buy the message that television mirrors us more than it moulds us, then suddenly its sending out an intriguing message about ourselves. We're beginning to revolt against the tube's idealized images of domestic life and, at the same time, lovingly embracing messed-up families with collars of blue."35
From 1990 to 1995, Northern Exposure was unlike anything else seen on television. A New York city doctor goes to work in Cicely, Alaska, a small town where people live according to their individual rhythms, not the normal television rhythms. A 62 year old man, one of the town's most respected citizens, marries a 19 year old woman. The local disc jockey stops his music to read War and Peace. The bush pilot is a young woman who loves losers. A young native dreams of making films like those of his idols Bergman and Fellini. And a moose wanders benignly down the main street.
In the midst of the humour and surprises that make up this well written show are some marvellous examples of positive values. In the "Seoul Mates" episode, Maurice - the mayor of the town and an ex-astronaut - is confronted with his grown son - the result of an affair with a young Korean girl. Maurice is uneasy about accepting the son because he is Korean and Maurice is a racist. The town disc jockey points out to Maurice that racism is a learned behaviour - not something natural - and that if it can be learned it can also be unlearned.
There is also an underlying religious context to many of the more successful TV shows whether is be Joel Fleischman's Judaism on Northern Exposure, the Catholicism of Frank Pembleton, John Kelly and Mike Logan in Homicide, NYPD Blue, and Law and Order, D.J's questions about religion on Roseanne, or the ethical questions faced by the doctors of ER and Chicago Hope.
Television can and does transcend the banal and ordinary. And it doing so it can entertain us, educate us, and present us with positive values. Along with critic David Bianculli, I believe that "the best way to play an active role in improving television is to seek out, acknowledge, and support its most important and impressive efforts."
V: The Magis - Media Literacy
"Television images are so real looking that they lull us into thinking that they are real, that they aren't iconic signs at all but realities. Since we see them we trust them, often failing to realize that, like all signs, they have been constructed with a certain interest behind them."37
Throughout his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola urges the retreatant towards what he calls the magis. What he means is not that one must choose between good and evil - that one will choose the good is taken for granted - but that one should choose that which is the greater good - the magis. There is a magis for all of us who live in this media world. This magis is found in Media Literacy.
In 1987, Ontario mandated the teaching of Media Literacy as part of the revised Language Arts Curriculum for junior and senior secondary students. It is the first educational body in North America to do so. And in the spring of 1995, the Language Arts Standards for the new Common Curriculum included the strands of Viewing and Representing thus ensuring that Media Literacy will be part of the curriculum for every child in every school in Ontario.
The introduction to the Ontario Media Literacy Resource Guide contains this basic definition of Media Literacy. Media Literacy is " . . . concerned with helping students develop an informed and critical understanding of the nature of the mass media, the techniques used by them, and the impact of these techniques." More specifically, it is " education which aims to increase students' understanding and enjoyment of how the media work, how they produce meaning, how they are organized, and how they construct reality. Media Literacy also aims to provide students with the ability to create media products."38
Very simply put, media literacy asks us to look carefully and to think critically.
Len Masterman, a British educator writes: "The really important and difficult task of the media teacher is to develop in pupils enough self-confidence and critical maturity to be able to apply critical judgements to media texts which they will encounter in the future. . . . The primary objective is not simply critical awareness and understanding, it is critical autonomy."39 Students leave Media Literacy classes with the ability to decode, encode, and evaluate the symbol systems that dominate their world.
As we come to understand the central position that media occupies in the cultural, religious, social and political life of our world, it is not surprising that we want to study it. What is surprising is that it has taken us so long to come to this point. The centrality of the media environment in our lives is seen in many ways. Time is one of the indicators. The average North American household watches seven and a half hours of television every day.
By the time they finish high school, the average Canadian student has spent 11,000 hours in the classroom. But the average student has also watched 15,000 hours of television, listened to 10,500 hours of popular music, seen 350,000 television commercials, and witnessed 18,000 violent television deaths. By the age of 65, the average television viewer has spent 3000 entire days watching television. This works out to 9 full years or 14 waking years of television.
The mass media offer students an alternative curriculum to what they have at school. And it is a dynamic and persuasive curriculum. The mass media offer knowledge - about people, places, history, crime, politics, events; they present role models - in fashion, eating, drinking, travelling, and relating; they help form attitudes and values - in areas such as use of power, government, relationships, gender, violence, sexuality, education, and family.
It often comes as a surprise to people to learn that the Roman Catholic Church first encouraged Media Literacy over fifty years ago. In 1936, Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical letter on "Motion Pictures" encouraging the Church to a better understanding of this important medium especially in the area of teaching the young to be critical viewers of film Since that time - and especially during the second Vatican Council - numerous church documents continue to urge Catholic schools and parishes to implement Media Literacy.
"The best way to play an active part in improving television is to seek out, acknowledge and support its most important and impressive efforts."40
Choosing to go the route of Media Literacy - choosing the magis - will not be easy nor is it going to provide instant results. Indeed it will take many years. But it is something positive. The end result will be a generation of viewers who are media literate, a generation which will include media professionals. These will be the people who can and will demand changes in television. It is through this generation that transcendent television could become the norm.