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Is television still a wasteland?

By John Silveira

Issue #81 • May/June, 2003

"...sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air...and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland." Newton Minnow, former Chairman of the FCC in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, May 9, 1961.

 
I own a TV. But, other than to watch an occasional rented movie, I hadn't turned it on in years. I mean many years. There was no reason to. I didn't have cable, or a satellite dish, or even a TV antenna. (Do antennas even work anymore?) It wasn't that I was too broke to afford cable. I just agreed with Newton Minnow, that television is a wasteland—though I didn't think it was a government function to make it "better." Some friends told me I was better off without it. But there were a few others who said I was missing stuff—good stuff.

Good stuff on TV? No way. I'd seen it and it stunk.

Then I moved into a new place and the landlord mentioned there was still a live cable hookup. And because it was the minimum set up—no box or anything, there was no telling when they'd get around to turning it off, so I had cable until they did. Thus it was that one fateful night I decided to hook it up and...

...the first thing I noticed, after many years away, is that many of the commercials are actually pretty good. I know I never felt that way before. But now, I realized, a lot of thought goes into making them. More, it seems, than goes into most of the programs. I guess it makes sense when you think about it. They've got to grab your attention when you want to head for the refrigerator or take a bathroom break, and they've got to keep your attention even though you're going to see them again and again. That's what makes them both effective and irritating, their relentless repetition.

The next thing I noticed was the number of channels. I'd heard talk about them. There are hundreds. And that's where it gets interesting. I still thought of TV as ABC, NBC, CBS, and PBS, with a few local stations thrown in.

Not now. Suddenly, there's the History Channel, History International, the Science Channel, Discovery Wings...The list goes on. The first two weeks I found myself, night after night, sitting slack-jawed in front of the TV. There are things on TV I didn't even know existed.

I saw a program about the history of advertising, a documentary on Henry Ford, the history of concrete (that's right, concrete, and I'll bet you didn't know how important that bland grey stuff is to civilization), the arch—from ancient times to the present, the history and construction of forts, levers (another discovery civilization couldn't exist without), chain gangs (they're coming back), Ivan the Terrible (he deserved the moniker), the Boer War, the Roman Empire, Greek civilization, a detailed explanation of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—what they were, where they were, who built them, their fates, etc.

On the XY Factor I watched a documentary on the treatment of French women, following the liberation of France during WWII, who were suspected of "consorting" with the Germans. It bothered me because I hate to see women mistreated for any reason. Then I reminded myself these were the French, the same people who beheaded Lavoisier, arguably the greatest chemist of all time, only because he was a landlord. I shrugged.

I find I have to filter out propagandist points of view, both left and right, from some programs. Still, the information and analysis are priceless and it's often prompted me to go out on the Net to pursue subjects further, and I've even ordered books to follow up on some subjects.

And Animal Planet, did I tell you about Animal Planet? One program after another on animals: bats (did you know that until the advent of man, bats were the only mammals indigenous to New Zealand?), tarantulas (did you know there are tarantulas big enough to feed on mice?), Arctic wildlife (do you know how polar bears catch seals?).

Other than watching the Super Bowl and one episode of The Simpsons I haven't watched network television. I've never seen a "reality" show (the true reality shows are on the History Channel, Discovery Wings, et al.). ABC, CBS, and NBC are, as near as I can tell, still the wasteland Minnow spoke of. I don't know what he thinks of television today, but anyone with access to cable who can't get an education—that's entertaining—is spending too much time watching sitcoms, sports shows, game shows, etc. Best of all, there's no tuition—other than cable costs, and no homework, no exams. You just have to endure the ads.

Where do they come from? A lot of these programs are produced here while others are from the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Otherwise, I don't know who funds them or what inspires (or possesses) someone to make them. But I'm ever so grateful. PBS cries for government funding lest educational TV go away, but these channels don't need government funding. And PBS isn't nearly as good as the History Channel.

It's a huge, fascinating planet—it's a marvelous universe—and someone's out there shooting it with a camera and adding narration to it.

Anyone who says television is a wasteland today either doesn't have cable or is simply too lazy to surf through the channels to where the real excitement and the interesting stories are. Not getting an education from it is like spending four years at a college boozing, partying, and sleeping late, then wondering why you never learned anything.




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