Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Turn It Off

I listened to this story yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Nearly a year after Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake caused a national uproar over a Super Bowl performance, American families continue to worry about what their children watch on television. NPR’s Robert Siegel visits two households that have decided to set strict limits on TV watching, and finds that the concerns run across political lines.

The two households – one labeled “liberal” and the other “conservative” with the requisite number of teen and pre-teen children – were remarkably alike in worrying about the “indecent” content on network television – sex, drugs (like ads for Levitra), and rock and roll – and coming to grips with how to handle it.

Well, not to be too simplistic about it, but I am unaware of any requirement by federal, state, or local governments to have a television in the house, nor am I aware of any requirement that everyone in the country has to watch TV. So the simple solution would be that if you don’t like what’s on TV, don’t own one.

It’s not that there’s a lack of inoffensive or “family-friendly” programming. Just a quick scan of my Comcast listing shows such safe offerings as The Hallmark Channel, PAX-TV, ABC Family, Animal Planet (unless you’re worried about seeing hippos humping), The Outdoor Channel, Golf, Food, a raft of Discovery Channels, and so forth, all in the basic cable offerings. Television remotes can be programmed to password-protect any channel the parents so deem. TV Guide shows ratings, as does each show in the upper left corner. So it’s not like there aren’t resources for parents to know what’s out there and what they want or don’t want their kids to see.

There was a discussion in this story about how the content has coarsened over the years and both families waxed nostalgic about their favorites such as “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch.” Well, there’s always TV Land, but when those shows were running in prime-time forty years ago, the TV critics were all over those programs for their vapidity – “chewing gum for the mind” was one of the more polite terms – and they begged for something more substantial and challenging. Certainly television has evolved since the 1960’s, but progress is never a bargain; you have to pay for every “Hill Street Blues,” “All in the Family,” “St. Elsewhere,” “M*A*S*H,” and “The West Wing” with crap like “Who’s Your Daddy.”

It’s not as if this is a new problem. We have generational short-term memory loss. Parental involvement with these choices has been an important part of child-rearing for a very long time; my mom tells how she used to get scolded by her mother for spending too much time listening to the radio when she was a kid, and that tradition carried on to my childhood when we had the old Magnavox black-and-white and five grainy channels. But it goes back much further than the invention of the cathode ray tube or the crystal set. If you think we have shows depicting sex, drugs, and violence today, look at what those crazy kids were up to in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s plays are full of coarse culture, evil people who get away with murder, and bathroom humor. Titus Andronicus has fratricide and cannibalism, which was an old plot line from Medea. And he was one of the more moderate writers of that time period. Read Christopher Marlowe if you want to see some death, dismemberment, and gay characters not behaving exactly like “Will & Grace.” There was rioting in the streets in 1879 after the premiere of A Doll’s House, a play by Henrik Ibsen that showed a woman daring to think for herself, although the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and George Farquhar had already depicted liberated women such as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal (1775) and Mrs. Sullen in The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707). Critics and the clergy were certain that civilization was doomed.

Underlying all of this is the argument that popular culture is more than a reflection of the society. It may show sides of life that some people may find unpleasant, but it’s a mirror of us – all of us. More often than not it’s like a funhouse mirror with distortions, but a mirror nonetheless. So if our culture has been coarsened by fart jokes on “Friends,” it’s living up to what Fred Allen once said: “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.” To blame popular culture or television for how society turns out is like blaming your refrigerator because you are overweight. Parents who use television as an electronic babysitter have deeper problems with child-rearing than whether or not horny teenaged boys are having sex on “Life As We Know It.”

Perhaps Groucho Marx said it best: “Television is very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book.”