What's on the Tube?

by Martin Overby

People love stories. Young or old, lets hear another story! They even enjoy the same story retold, changed slightly each time. Think of the movies -- what genre do you choose -- comedy, adventure, love stories, westerns? In modern society, entertainment's importance is obvious, but what about its influence?

We know the old axiom, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy", and couldn't agree more fully. Play or entertainment are a natural part of man's need for rest and relaxation. When we read a book or go to a movie, what are we looking for? Perhaps a glimpse into a life outside our own. We set aside our temporal lives and participate as an observer in another life. The stories' characters are exposed to situations and we emphatise with them in their emotions. The thrill, mirth or sadness we imagine from the story remain tied to the entertainment itself. If the phone rings while reading a book, our involvement pauses and we suspend the action. After the phone call we 'get back into it', and our temporal life is suspended. The two lives shouldn't mix, the movie we watch doesn't cross over and become our temporal experience, but suppose it did? Would what you watch fit in your life?

We've been repeatedly shocked lately with American school kids hunting and shooting classmates and we wonder where it has come from. Our first speculation is that those kids picked up the violence from TV. But how does this happen? TV doesn't instruct in methods of violence. It displays acts of violence rapidly and frequently adding excitement to drama. It's difficult to argue against that whilst allowing boxing to continue as an Olympic sport. A problem develops when the quantity of TV viewing reaches modern levels. We've probably heard the statistics that the television is on in most US homes for almost 7 hours a day. If people watched 7 hours of uninterrupted violence daily and weren't affected somehow by that, they would be worthy of study. Yet there isn't that much violence continuously on TV. A more subtle effect is the displacement of reality that occurs in order to keep the characters alive and active. Both Rambo and Arnie have more lives than a lucky cat. They seem to be able to get up and go again after horrific circumstances. A real bullet makes you weak and helpless -- unlike our heroes. So our perception of the vulnerability and frailty of humans is definitely undermined. Those school kids might not have grasped the finality and gravity of their behavior or else they didn't care. It is possible they wanted to have an experience regardless of the subsequent cost.

Another drift away from reality is Jerry Springer, the media ratings phenomenon of the moment and his popular daytime expos, of regular peoples' lives. We are assured at the outset that everything we will see is real--no actors, and no fiction. Real people with real bad problems (adultery, race hatred, homosexuality) making a public mess out of private tragedy. Jerry's program on TV is a series about shameless people who generally resort to physical fighting and vulgarity in front of the audience as their lives are unpacked for all to see. This popular show is so desperately tragic. Humanity seems to be reaching back to its lowest moments e.g.. the Roman gladiatorial games, where human death was a form of mass entertainment. We may be surprised at that last thought, but the consumer demand is always for something new and different to drive our insatiable imaginations -- and that's what captures the TV ratings. It is alarming to think what children who watch Springer's show will think of as normal by the time they reach adulthood. If we sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind...

Our Daily News is perhaps a safe area where we wouldn't expect anything too controversial, or unviewable. Journalists have codes of practice whereby they are ethically if not legally accountable to publish news that has been reliably gathered and verified as factual. Yet pressure for the scoop, and the media ratings battle to be the first to publish has only grown stronger in our instantaneous CNN news society (e.g. whether watching the Gulf War live or the OJ murder trial TV channel). There are cases where media research or speculation has outpaced police investigations, and the civil rights of defendants are violated. Defendants correctly claim public prejudice and mistrial, or solid evidence becomes inadmissible, making our justice system an expensive farce. Society's confidence in civil government is eroding from the rash judgments made because of media pressure.

So how do the stories we hear fit into our lives? The content seemingly slips into the fiber of our lives --whether we wish it or not. If our beliefs in the sancity of life, privacy, or justice are quietly slipping, then we have cause for concern. If we let slip a hasty slanderous comment, or are entertained by violence, we need to reflect ourselves upon the effects the media has upon us. We often forget that we have a choice and a responsibility to decide what we expose ourselves to.

We do want a realistic picture of the world, and we hope for entertainment that is re-creative. Considering the volume and intensity of the media in today's hyper-society, it seems we need to be personally vigilant in testing the fidelity of all we see and hear. Our minds are shaped by the minds we come in contact with, simply put in the Proverbs " He who walks with wise men becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm." RSV Proverbs 13:20

Return to Table of Contents