Gin thu neuere leuen alle monnis spechen, Ne alle the thinge that thu herest singen;
You must never believe all that men say, nor all the things you hear sung. (Alfred, 1907)
As individuals living in the twenty-first century, we are awash in a constant stream of alleged information and entertainment. Mail, newspapers, magazines, both physical and on the internet, videos, radio, movies, and, of course, our ubiquitous companion, the television, all vie for our attention. Is television good or bad for American society? To begin with, I must agree with former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who said that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families” (Keay, 1987). Like any abundant resource, the question of whether television is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how we utilize it, which I think must depend upon what kind of individuals we have been reared to be. This, and the cumulative effect that our television watching is likely to have upon us, will answer the question.
In order to explore these ideas, two television programs shall be considered, Gunsmoke, a western drama set in Dodge City, Kansas which ran from 1955 to 1975, and Good Morning America, a morning television program on the ABC network, which has run from 1975 until the present day. These particular programs have been chosen for their continuity, representing as they do over fifty-five years of continuous television programming. They have also been selected because of their popularity. Gunsmoke was the longest running most popular television western ever produced (Goldstein, 1983). It was the first of the so called “adult westerns” presenting a series of essentially unrelated episodes where the characters lived out normal lives (Harris, 1978). The series depicted fallible humans facing common moral dilemmas (Stark, 1997). Good Morning America has been one of the most popular morning television programs, running neck and neck with the Today show. GMA has one three Emmys for daytime television and has approximately six million viewers every morning. The morning television program has replaced the straight news programming of previous generations because of the appeal it has to a wider audience, which, in turn, attracts more advertising monies.
Both Gunsmoke and GMA provide entertainment for the viewer. However, along with the danger and excitement faced by a lawman in the old west, Gunsmoke also featured social crises common to man. The resolution of these scripts could not help but advocate certain moral and political opinions. For example, Gunsmoke featured episodes where people regularly drank alcohol, and where Matt and Kitty’s inferred intimate relationship was portrayed as socially and morally acceptable. It may or may not be acceptable to do such things, but one should seriously consider such matters, it seems to me, rather than rely on the conclusions of a television drama.
Along with “Pop News” and the “Play of the Day”, GMA also features stories combined with conversational commentary that cannot help but advocate certain moral and political opinions. For example, the hosts recently celebrated the marriage of Sam Champion, the gentleman who gives the weather forecast, to his gay lover. Whether this type of behavior is socially and morally acceptable is a matter of present public debate, but it is presented as a fait accompli on Good Morning America.
The problem is that our present day passive exposure to the media is practically continuous. While this is being written, the author is listening to an old mountain folksong from North Carolina called “Tempie Roll Down Your Bangs” (Jarrell, 1999).
Tempie roll down your bangs
Tempie roll down your bangs
Roll down your bangs,
and see how they hangs
Tempie roll down your bangs
Aside from being one of the rudimentary gambits in lovemaking, that of talking to a woman about her hair, it is a pretty innocuous lyric. Now imagine if the song was repeated hourly on the television and radio on all stations for weeks at a time by beautiful, smiling people. This is what happens when a commercial runs in multiple markets. Suppose it was part of an advertisement for shampoo. Market experts know that the right message repeated often enough will induce a significant number of consumers to make a decision to try the product advertised by changing their perception and feelings about the product. This is all well and good, for we know that folks have to make a living. But now, let us consider another scenario. Suppose that the message was that semiautomatic rifles were dangerous assault weapons that should not allowed in the hands of average citizens. Suppose that this message was repeated on television and radio on all stations for weeks at a time by beautiful, smiling people, as it has on Good Morning America. Again, this message may or may not be true, but it seems to me that it should receive more intellectual consideration than whether or not to buy a bottle of shampoo.
Marketing is a form of propaganda. “Edutainment” is a form of propaganda. As human beings who think and reason, we should guard our minds against accepting social and political messages at face value when watching television, and instead give each the intellectual attention that it deserves. In this way, television can truly be of benefit to society as a source of information and entertainment, rather than propaganda.
Alfred., & In Skeat, W. W. (1907). The proverbs of Alfred. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press. Pg. 35.
Bradbury, R. (1967). Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Goldstein, F. P., & Goldstein, S. (1983). Prime-time television: A pictorial history from Milton Berle to “Falcon Crest”. New York: Crown. Pg. 97.
Harris, J. S. (1978). TV guide, the first 25 years. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Jarrell, Tommy, (October 1999). “Tempie Roll Down Your Bangs.” The Legacy Of Tommy Jarrell, Vol. 3: Come And Go With Me. County Records. Music CD. http://www.amazon.com/gp/dmusic/media/sample.m3u/ref=dm_mu_dp_trk3_smpl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B001IYWWY4&CustomerID=A1ROEHHDTRX1QD&DownloadLocation=CD&catalogItemType=track
Keay, Douglas (1987). “Interview with Margaret Thatcher.” Women’s Own Magazine 31 Oct. 1987: 8+. Print.
Stark, S. D. (1997). Glued to the set: The 60 television shows and events that made us who we are today. New York: Free Press.