What TV Could Do

Copyright © by Len Holman, 8/20/10


  In 1961 (a VERY long time ago!) Newton  N. Minow, the chairman of the FCC, called TV a “vast wasteland,” saying that when TV was good, nothing was better, but when it was bad, nothing was worse.   He went on to critique the banality and vapidity of television as it was then.  So what’s changed?  To Minnow, TV was a vast wasteland, but it’s really only half-vast.  It presents us with so-called entertainment which is puerile, foolish, unbelievable, and just plain awful.  It also provides us with live coverage of important events, investigative reporting on social and political issues, and some great movies.  What is doesn’t do, on balance, is help us become a better, more tolerant, more understanding society.

  There are comedies, for instance, which have gay characters, and comedies which have black characters and comedies which have Muslim characters, but they are more cartoons than anything resembling real life.  TV rarely shows us what life in this country COULD be, what it SHOULD be if we gave respect and dignity to everyone, and treated our neighbors as humans worthy of respect.  Of course, if we did that now, we’d only have about two channels of TV, and all the talking heads who rant with evil intention would have to get real jobs.  But TV could finally show us what it promised long ago.  I have some modest examples.

1)  A drama in which no black person—token or not—in the ensemble cast dies.

2)   A comedy in which a Muslim woman is married to a born-again Christian, and the trials and tribulations of their atheist children adjusting in a high school filled with Mormons in wheelchairs.

3)  A reality show where a single mother tries to feed her family on minimum wage.

4)   A comedy in which a U.S. Senator loses his health insurance and then finds he needs prostate surgery.

5)      A science-fiction movie where visitors from Earth crash-land on a planet where being straight is aberrant and being gay is the norm.

6)    A Mel Brooks movie where God is a transvestite, sent to Earth to save humanity, only to find Himself in a Chicago holding cell with three white pimps and a hooker with a heart of charcoal, who is not working her way through college.

7)    A documentary which investigates the bureaucratic decisions Homeland Security makes, such as putting babies in strollers on the no-fly list.

8)    A news program in which the interviewer MAKES the guest answer real questions, and not make a campaign speech.  When the interviewee storms off in outrage, the show replays the exit scene over and over, reminding viewers that the congressman or senator will be up for re-election soon.

  “Friends” was a big hit, but remember:  no wheelchairs, gay people, black people—only white, young beautiful people.  Where are all the heavy-set people on TV?  “The Biggest Loser” appeals to our sense of superiority:  “Man, look how fat THAT guy is!”  And it preys on those who want to lose weight, with appropriate close-ups of their frustrated tears, their anguish, their heartbreak when one of them steps on the scales—all in the name of entertainment. Great fun. Tyler Perry has done well with “Madea” and his other shows, but he is a niche unto himself, and try as he might, he speaks to mostly Black audiences.  “The Cosby Show” was very mainstream, and very popular with white audiences, showing people with dark pigmentation acting like, talking like, being like, white people.  It was also popular with black people who could see the potential benefits of being white.  CNN has run a series showing both white and black kids choosing—from cartoon children with skin hues ranging from white all the way to black—which kids are mean or good or well-liked, etc.  Big shock:  even the black children chose the lighter-skinned pictures as being “better.”  CNN has black anchors and Latino anchors, and at least tries to show us that diversity isn’t a dirty word, that it’s not code for “not as good as the rest of us.”

  Of course, advertisers are just as bad at picturing the Outside as unnaturally as mainline TV shows.  There are times when the viewer must think he or she is living in the 50s, with mothers obsessed with getting their kids school clothes that look like they were acquired from a dumpster, then showing the kids smiling on the way to their first day of school, or mom showing her poor dolt of a husband where the Yoplait is, or mom obsessed with smell—that her house should smell like the Mediterranean rather than a place where actual people live.  Men don’t fare much better, being portrayed as idiot-children who must be directed by their offspring and are constantly outsmarted by simple tools.  And almost every person in every ad appears to be able-bodied, sighted, straight, and white.  Advertising could show something entirely different, as McDonald’s did several years ago.

  McDonald’s ran ads for a while I thought were revolutionary, wonderfully inclusive, and well-produced.  They showed various people, people one sees in everyday life—if you look hard enough you can see them today—ordering stuff at Mickey D’s, laughing and smiling and looking and acting…well, regular.  There were black people and deaf people and people in wheelchairs, all living the American dream of clogging their arteries.  Those ads didn’t run long, but they were a very brief glimpse into a world we could see every night on the tube, a world where reality can be shown, enhanced, and re-ordered to produce the gradual acceptance by the viewer that not only his or her view is the “right” one.

  The Web is guilty, too.  You can find a site dedicated any interest which appeals to even the tiniest sliver of any population, like Left-handed Lesbian Mud Wrestling, and that’s a problem because such a fractured, compound images of American society allows anyone with pre-set biases to go directly to where they are comfortable and which reinforces their already-formed prejudices and cements their schematic picture of the world.  We are no longer one nation in this internet age, but a separated collection of different views, each with an outlet, each with an audience, each equal in vehemence—no matter how nutsy or bigoted or inaccurate the view expressed.

  But even in this multiple-choice electronic age, TV—in the form of traditional channels or satellite or cable—still commands our attention, and TV is woeful when it comes to a diverse view of a diverse world.  Diversity is demanded of universities because, it is said, it educates and prepares students for the heteropopulous world they will encounter when they leave school and get out in the real world.  But most of those students won’t find a diverse world.  They will hang with their own kind, and feel comfortable doing it, and the entertainment they choose will not show them much difference from the interior of their socially-indoctrinated minds. If TV showed “normality” as diverse as it really is, then maybe we wouldn’t be so angry and frightened because a woman in Detroit wants to wear a veil to work; there wouldn’t be that momentary, pregnant silence in an Oklahoma restaurant when a white woman walks in, hand-in-hand with her black date; there wouldn’t be a crush of tourists with cameras in San Francisco’s Castro district taking pictures of the deviants to show to the folks back home.  If TV made an effort, we might have a chance at righting some wrongs and readjusting our view of the land in which we live.


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