The TV divide

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FIFTY-one years ago, in 1961, then US Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton Minow, one of the youngest appointees of then US President John F. Kennedy, described US commercial television as “a vast wasteland” in a speech before a convention of the US National Association of Broadcasters.

“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better,” said Minow. “But when television is bad, nothing is worse.”

Minow went on to cite what was wrong with US television. He invited his listeners to watch TV for a day without a book, a magazine, or a newspaper.

“Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

“You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few.”

Minow was arguing for the use of television for public interest through programs that would educate citizens on political, social and other issues. His views were described as elitist — which assumes that only the educated, the wealthy and the powerful are interested in serious matters while the vast majority of the TV audience is interested only in trivia and mindless entertainment.

Still active today at the age of 86, Minow’s views haven’t changed much, despite cable TV and the growth in the number of US networks. (There were only three US networks in 1961.)

“Television news today too often concentrates on controversy and looks for extremes, which only lowers our level of civilized discourse,” Minow told an interviewer last year. “They underestimate the intelligence of viewers.”

Whether in 1961 and today, he might as well have been speaking of the current state of Philippine television. If Philippine TV does anything with some consistency, it is in its gross underestimation of the intelligence of the majority of its viewers — those Filipinos who, in this poor country, overwhelmingly consist of poor folk.

There’s a great divide in Philippine television, which uniformly consists of a mix so patently divided along class lines most Filipinos, who’re not programmed for anything remotely related to scientific analysis, naturally miss it.

The “serious” programs, mostly talk shows in English on cable, are meant for professionals and other denizens of the “thinking class,” if there’s such a thing in this never-never land. The trivial, mind-numbing, exploitative and plain idiotic, such as the noontime programs and at least one early evening show thanks to one enterprising TV channel, target common folk, meaning the poor and powerless, to whose worst instincts (such as for a quick buck, or, to put it in local terms, a quick peso) they appeal daily via free TV and in Filipino.

But both program types do share one thing: they reinforce the widespread bias that English is the language of quality and even excellence, and Filipino and local languages that of mediocrity and stupidity.

But they do worse. The serious programs’ focus on expert analysis, most of them admittedly intelligent, informed, and perceptive, contrasts sharply with the studied idiocy of the game, noontime and early evening entertainment shows. The difference creates a knowledge divide so obvious it seems intended to keep the relatively well informed on the one hand and the uninformed on the other not only divided, but also in their respective states of knowledge and ignorance.

The networks have argued for decades that trivia and escape are what the great majority of their public wants. This stubborn belief in the inherent stupidity of the mass audience persists despite the results of research that show that the mass audience is hungry for real information, whether it’s on rising prices, education, employment, or other matters relevant to their lives.

Minow’s view that the networks underestimate the public’s intelligence is as true of Philippine as well as US TV. The common assumption is that the majority of the TV public can understand only so much, and that, the media being commercial enterprises, pandering to the public’s supposedly limited wants is what rates enough to insure the networks’ profitability.

Not that US television, meanwhile, has changed much since 1961 — at least not in terms of programming. Despite the proliferation of cable channels, for example, and the resulting claims by such defenders of commercial TV as the advertising industry that unlike in 1961, nowadays the TV audience has more choices, much of US TV is still the unremitting bore Minow said it was in 1961.

The choices available for viewing are actually limited. Over Philippine cable, which overwhelmingly airs US programs, viewers can choose among dance competitions, personal and home make-over shows, police and crime series, cartoon networks, the daytime soaps, comedies, talk shows, fashions, and celebrity and gossip programs. For news they have the programs by such US networks as CNN, ABC and CBS to choose from.

As in 1961, there are today programs that can be described as relevant and enjoyable even in the vast wasteland. But as in 1961, they are the exceptions rather than the rule, and in fact target the relatively sophisticated among the audience. The choices for ordinary folk — those who can’t be in the same room as anyone who watches “The Good Wife” or “Mad Men” — appear unlimited, but are actually the opposite for their sameness.

The so-called reality programs have templates so uniform they look as if they were written by the same people; to choose among them is to choose among twiddle-duh, twiddle- dum and twiddle-dee. The dance and singing competitions are uniformly presided over by panels of former or near-celebrity judges who, after a performance, intone virtually the same inane clichés about the performers. All follow a predictable template, and convey a common message: that success and wealth are there for the taking even for the underclass of capitalist society.

Meanwhile, the news programs, while seemingly varied, share the same view of events and the world, in validation of Noam Chomsky’s observation that US media may be privately owned, but might as well be part of a US government Information Ministry for the sameness of their emphases and interpretation of events, whether in the US or the rest of the planet.

Television today, whether of the US or the Philippine variety, isn’t about choices. It’s about keeping people in their place by keeping them ignorant. It’s not about change; it’s about keeping the world the way it is.

(BusinessWorld)

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