Just what America doesn't need — more television programs

Just what America doesn't need — more television programs
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There is no socio-cultural problem in America today for which the answer is to produce more television programming. But that’s what the nation is going to get, as big media corporations obsessively flood us with even more of the vacuous, unwholesome nonsense that already pervades viewers’ screens.

John Landgraf, chairman of FX Productions for Walt Disney Company, reported to the Television Critics Association earlier this month that 532 scripted television shows were produced last year and that more are expected this year. He lamented to the critics that the cost of producing television is increasing and the glut of shows means many won’t get much traction. Of course, actual television shows are just one piece of the visual universe competing for eyeballs these days, along with movies, YouTube posts and streaming content.

Television producers have long operated on the assumption that if they produce it, some audience will find it and watch. Sadly, that strategy has largely worked, and the medium’s early promise has been left largely unfulfilled as Americans zone out, passively devoting countless hours in front of screens. Nearly half of all television viewing is now done in isolation — often under the same roof as family members each gravitate to their own devices and content. The enormous menu of television means everybody is watching something different. Television no longer provides any cultural glue. The occasional worthwhile show is lost in a sea of mediocrity, as producers push quantity over quality.

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It is now fashionable for Americans to binge-watch for hours on end and then brag to coworkers, friends and relatives about their marathon viewing sessions. Think of the insanity of becoming sedentary and wasting time with mind-numbing electronic content, then wearing that experience as a badge of honor.

Television is largely out of ideas, retreading the old genres and plot lines. Thus, the “creative” minds producing television have resorted to infusing programs with more violence and indecent language. A study by the Parents Television Council last fall found that violence on broadcast network shows rated TV-14 has increased 150 percent in the last ten years; profanity has increased by 62 percent. And it’s not like television was so tame ten years ago.

The PTC report points to violent portrayals of dismemberment and torture, even in shows rated as suitable for kids. Naughty language which parents used to scold kids for using is now commonplace. Even though the worst of the bad words are bleeped, everybody can tell what the character just said. The PTC study looked only at over-the-air broadcast programs. Of course, shows on cable and on streaming services have much more violence and off-color language.

Producers have justified the use of violence and gross language by saying they are seeking realism. That’s a dodge, of course, to try to explain away an “art form” that fails to help Americans discover what is good in humanity, not to mention that nobody goes to television to seek reality in the first place.

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the Kennedy administration was the young attorney Newton Minow. He blasted the television industry in a 1961 address to the National Association of Broadcasters, a speech that became known as the “vast wasteland” speech. He told the assembled broadcast executives that they had “the most powerful voice in America” and that the television industry had “an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership.”

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Now, almost 60 years later, only the worst of television’s apologists would contend that America’s culture has been advanced by the overwhelming power of the medium.

The nation has been narcotized and made dependent on video drugs, leaving the us unanchored, depressed and confused. In a sense, big media is damaging America’s mental and cultural state much as big tobacco has done for years in damaging the nation’s lungs. The cultural harm of big television is every bit as bad for the nation as is the physical harm generated by big tobacco.

Undoing this societal corruption won’t be easy, but it shouldn’t be impossible. Each television consumer can start the reform by better managing their own viewing habits, starting today.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.