Some years ago, I fell seriously ill and had to go to a hospital, where I was fitted out with catheters and intravenous tubing on both arms and could read only with great difficulty. I tried to divert myself with an enormous book on the several generations of a distinguished southern slaveholding family that had passed through various trials during the Civil War, but the weight of the book proved so unmanageable that it constantly fell from my hands.
Television quickly became my “preferred entertainment,” as opinion surveys put it, and indeed I became immoderately drawn to particular programs and series. When I left the hospital, this obsession subsided and I hardly ever watched television. But a second hospital stay last year evoked memories of the earlier one, and I recently decided to spend a day in bed watching all the shows that I used to watch—talk shows, game shows, quiz programs, soap operas, news programs, music videos.
I awoke early, to watch the sensationalist “talk shows” of Geraldo Rivera and Sally Jessie Raphael. These shows usually take up a problem—sometimes one that is being widely discussed in the press, such as the trial of Joel Steinberg for murder, but far more often an unusual one like what to do if you discover your husband leads a second life as a transvestite. People who have undergone these experiences then exchange their views with members of the audience and a panel of “experts” on the subject at hand, who are placed on an elevated stage. One should not be encouraged to suppose that these confrontations are courteous guerres des savants, since panelists and members of the audience have been known to express themselves by throwing chairs at one another. This occurred recently on a show devoted to skinheads on Geraldo Rivera’s program: Rivera’s nose was broken in the encounter. It must be said, however, that these shows possess a kind of incorruptible vulgarity that makes them a secret pleasure to watch, however badly they may fail to come up to the standards of even the more intelligent middlebrow talk shows like Donahue.
In the wider sense of the word—a show devoted largely or exclusively to talk between people about some subject—there is indeed a diversity of “talk shows.” It struck me in the hospital that one could easily go through a twenty-hour day listening to nothing but talk shows on television. Nightline and the news program of MacNeil and Lehrer are by far the most distinguished because of their penetrating interviews, both of people in public life and of specialists on issues like the greenhouse effect or the eradication of malaria. Of course what one hears on them is far from the kind of talk one gets on Crossfire, a conversation piece on CNN in which second-rank politicians and opinion experts place themselves in the “cross fire” between the “hosts,” Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden. The latter is an ex-CIA man who once claimed to have had a part in setting up the Congress for Cultural Freedom. He says at the beginning of each program that he represents the “left” against Buchanan, a genuine right-wing adherent whose positions and arguments are usually so unreasonable that one is convinced that if Braden, who seems to think with the speed of a turtle, had a better command of political argument (and of diction: he slurs his words annoyingly), Buchanan would not have been able to acquire such a dominating position on the program. This has indeed become so strong that Braden must discuss at great length and in antagonized tones such stupid convictions of Buchanan’s as the one that AIDS is being spread deliberately by homosexuals who do not use condoms. Sometimes the show consists almost entirely of Braden and Buchanan shouting at each other.
The variety of other talk shows is very great. Much of the Johnny Carson show still consists of chat with entertainers, and now one can turn to his oleaginous new rivals Pat Sajak and Arsenio Hall, who discuss show-business news, such as how Barbra Streisand manages her romance with the television star Don Johnson, and to Omar, the Love Doctor, a self-styled “metaphysician,” who answers telephone calls. It was on one of the latter’s shows, I believe, that a man rang up to say that he was a shaman who had been taught about life by a tree. Beginning in the morning one can find several religious programs in which a snappily dressed prophet engages in an interminable colloquy with people who agree with him that God works in mysterious ways and that His work is never over—especially, it seems, in the promotion of political candidates who advocate immediate deployment of SDI, the quashing of Roe v. Wade, and a balanced budget. The political views of some of the preachers on these programs are at times so extreme that they remind one of the Thurber character who called the FBI upon learning that a certain foreign country was bigger than Texas. Emphasis on these views alternates weirdly on some of these programs with feebly sentimental expressions of repentance and religious hymns sung by bespectacled choirboys against a soft background of rock music. (On the day that I saw such a program it was suddenly interrupted by an urgent message from Doris Day about the proper treatment of dogs and cats.)
The odious Morton Downey, Jr., the son of the Irish crooner Morton Downey, and formerly a singer himself, appears late at night. Like Rivera and Raphael, he too takes up some subject or “current event”—usually one, such as a controversy over parole for a murdering rapist, that can be presented even more simplistically than it would be by Rivera or Raphael. And unlike them Downey seems to start shouting almost immediately at his invited guests like a circus barker. He calls his show “combat television” because he feels obliged to force his guests to confront one another in shouting matches about such subjects as whether our participation in the Vietnam War was a mistake or whether blacks deserve “reparations” for their work as slaves. Soon everyone is shouting at everyone else.
In this Circus Maximus the toothy Downey—who says he is “a big mouth” and often stands at a podium embossed with a drawing of a big mouth—scores easy points by entering these debates at the last minute and yelling down an opponent who is trying to sum up his views. According to a recent report,1 Downey and the “imitation artist” Mark Kostabi had a “brawl” in which they wrestled with each other during the taping of a show of Downey’s titled “Art or Garbage?”; the show’s producer later said that “the fight footage won’t air.” Downey’s act is evidently very different in content and in quality from that of Jack Paar and the other talk-show hosts of earlier television. It often seems that what is considered “talk” has changed: it has become a kind of monologue or joke telling or display of aggression, not an exchange; and one can hardly say that there has been an improvement in the language used by people who appear on talk shows. One contestant on a show I saw said: “We’re reaping the ill wind of drugs”: and she said she “aksed” something of her boss. Even among political commentators we hear such expressions as “eyeball observers” and “at the same token.”
Something vaguely disturbing and at times even repellent about the more popular talk shows occasionally becomes evident. Everyone seems to be having a good time, but no one seems to be thinking about anything. Some members of the audiences ask questions and make comments, but they are exceptions among a larger group that simply sits and applauds everything.
Among the most popular of the morning shows is that of Sally Jessie Raphael. Every day, it seems, she brings on guests of greater curiosity. On one recent show, each member of a group of hideously deformed men and women told of how they overcame the stares of “normal” people; on another show midgets and badly burned or otherwise disfigured people appeared with the same aim. They all seemed, by the way, to be writing books for major publishers.
Schopenhauer remarked that “vulgarity is, like electricity, easily distributed,”2 a thought that kept intruding during my hours watching these talk shows. On one of them, about public relations, I saw a photographer shouting to establish that he was the first to snap Liberace in his death agony as he was taken to the hospital; this evoked in another paparazzo the same point about his pictures of the dying Elvis. All such talk-show guests were greeted with thunderous applause by the studio audience, and in some cases even a standing ovation. Everyone in the audience applauds for everything now (except when they are shouting at one another); it is, I suppose, a way of keeping moving for people who find it difficult to sit still or who are bored with ideas and arguments on those rare occasions when they come up on such talk shows. It must be considered impolite in certain audiences not to applaud. I have seen audiences applaud when people say they have been married for six months; or when they are shown a film of a sea lion successfully mating with another. Audiences applaud when bereft women tell them their husbands have left them for their own daughters or revealed a drug addiction of twenty years. The people being applauded often applaud for themselves, even for their own misfortunes, as did a handicapped prostitute who had been praised for her bravery in explaining why certain men enjoyed her company. There is a device advertised on television that allows one to turn on and off the electrical appliances in one’s house, such as toasters and TV sets, by clapping a certain number of times, according to a code, so that one needn’t wait for the Sally Jessie Raphael show to start clapping and applauding through your day.
It is extraordinary to what lengths “guests” will expose their private lives on these shows. Sally, who is somewhat priggish in manner, might announce to the audience, “I want to introduce you to Janet, who was raped and sodomized by her father in a garage” (prolonged applause). I saw with an accelerating astonishment a program on the Raphael show devoted to the before-and-after condition of women who had radical operations to reduce the size of their breasts and stomach: these women were happy to show how they looked before they underwent their “procedures.”
On another occasion, a bizarre Atlantic City boardwalk performer was wheeled onto the set. She is unable to move at all except to open her mouth and has lain flat upon her stomach on a movable stretcher for many years, and actually raised children in that condition. She apparently makes a fairly sizable income from playing some sort of xylophone with her tongue, and it was indeed the size of this income that became the focus of the program, since someone from the official board that grants licenses to perform on the boardwalk rang up the show to complain at length about the woman’s failure to pay for a license required on the part of the boardwalk she used. It is worth asking why people would undergo the embarrassment and humiliation of achieving Andy Warhol’s fifteen seconds of being famous. How far we have come from William James’s admonitory prediction that the thing to avoid in modern America will be “fame.”
In the afternoon, I turned to the soap operas. Unfortunately, long unfamiliarity with the plot lines and actors of these dramas put me at a disadvantage, so that when I tried to follow some of them I found most of them unintelligible. Certainly the professional level of performance has not improved. The actors on these dramas seem to have been instructed to accompany each syllable with a gesture—an actor’s fallacy—the most frequent of which seems to be the raising of both outstretched hands to express frustration. According to the Nielsen ratings listed in the latest five or six copies of Soap Opera Digest, the popularity of particular soap operas has varied slightly, although The Young and the Restless and General Hospital seemed to have the highest ratings.
I saw a few episodes of these shows and hope never to do so again. Even if one reads the synopses of these dramas supplied by the Digest, there is hardly ever any correspondence between the excessively numerous plot lines and the frenzied action of the characters and any larger theme or purpose. The effect is that one is unable to take a substantial interest in the destinies of any of these people. For example, General Hospital, at least on the several days when I looked at it, seemed to have nothing to do with hospitals, but told a remarkably unconvincing story of a beautiful pianist who had been put in jail for a traffic violation on the night of one of her concerts. Another soap opera seemed inexplicably to take place in some sort of tropical resort, where overdressed women wearing diamonds and male fashion models with sculptured hair drank champagne and deliriously arranged to give birthday parties and several weddings. It was clear that all present had a “past,” knew each other, and were out to cheat each other at business and love. The names of the women characters struck me as so ridiculous that I actually drew up a list of some of the most striking ones: Egypt, Chelsea, Stormy, Crystal, Sable, Misty, Angel Eyes, Tiffany—one wonders why Van Cleef and Bergdorf were overlooked.
From time to time, I took my chances with the game and quiz shows, which are ceaselessly rerun on the networks in the mornings and evenings. Most of these shows are silly: I saw several of them with “legendary” contestants like Carol Channing and Lucille Ball, both of whom now regrettably resemble rotting puppets and seemed to be forced by their infirmities to help each other in and out of their seats, while competing with another couple to answer trivial questions and never getting a correct answer and sometimes not even answering the personal inquiries posed by the sweating host. The premise of another game show is that contestants try to suggest in drawings with a magic marker on a large pad such statements as “here comes the bride.”
But some of them, like Jeopardy, are games requiring considerable skill and a grasp of information. The contestants are asked to select a category and a question from it—they vary in difficulty and in payment to the contestant if he succeeds in answering it. When I played Jeopardy in the company of a friend recently, I was embarrassed to find that I failed every question in the “rocks and minerals” category. Mercifully, many of the questions in other categories were easier, even simple-minded, and I was not exposed to such embarrassment again. Such programs suggest that people are interested in mastery of facts, learning new things. That they also like to consider legal puzzles and domestic problems seems evident in trial shows like The Judge and Divorce Court. There is even a program called Kids’ Court, in which, to take a typical case, a school bully is judged by a jury of other teen-agers.
By nightfall, I was wearied by the unending repetition of the sound of news on Ted Turner’s Cable News Network and turned to a situation comedy called Diff’rent Strokes. This, too, proved a disappointment. An annoying black child, who seemed to be more knowledgeable than anyone else, was telling everyone what to do. Apparently the older son of the family had committed some sexual indiscretion. He could not face his father with this fact, so that the tiny Solomon had to tell him what to do. This all took place in a “living area,” the same room, it appeared, in which every situation comedy seems to be set, with fake Early American furniture, chintz curtains, and paintings that seemed to have been bought at what has come to be known as a “starving artist” sale—crude depictions of sunsets and clowns.
In desperation, I shifted to the pornographic channel, which features “girls” who like Jacuzzi baths and satin sheets. One is lured by the promise that they and their partners will perform the “explicit” sex that a faceless voice insistently announces is about to take place. No doubt this actually occurs in some cases, but a peculiar black dot that varies in size covers both his and her genitals in an irritating and intrusive way. One also cannot fail to be amused by the choice of music used to accompany this frenzied black-dotted activity. On the several nights on which I saw such shows, the same soft bossa nova song was used—“Corcovado”—but one night, to my astonishment, it was suddenly interrupted by what seemed to be a tattoo.
I recently read a book by Jerry Mander entitled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,3 an angry polemic, which argues that television is an addictive form of “sensory deprivation” and can cause cancer through what he calls “the ingestion of artificial light.” Mander’s best argument, it seems to me, is that television watching can impoverish our imaginations (not to mention those of our children who watch it more than we do) and can deflect attention from more valuable activities, thoughts, and imagery by its standardized programming. Perhaps so—but perhaps it can also have the opposite effect as well, by suggesting or stimulating valuable images and ideas. A few weeks ago I saw a television presentation of recent developments in physics which succeeded to a considerable degree in changing my understanding of the “modern” conception of nature.
Yet it must be admitted that most of what is shown on television is repetitive and violent and stupefying and always has been. But there are as well and always have been exceptions: when I was young I looked forward eagerly to the trials of Perry Mason and to the comedy shows of Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar; the Army McCarthy hearings were as instructive as the Watergate hearings. But we also had Leave It to Beaver and Mr. Ed, the Talking Horse. The enduring interest of The Honey-mooners and I Love Lucy—they are still being syndicated—may tell us something of the somewhat campy craving among some television audiences for the high farce they offered.
The same uneven quality of television continues to prevail, as I have suggested above. But it is pointless to speak of schemes of “eliminating” television or “reforming” it along this or that “model,” as Mander does or as do most of the contributors to John Hanhardt’s Video Culture,4 a collection of essays by writers many of whom find inspiration in the essays of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht for their view on what is happening on television today. And in any case, much has changed (admittedly in ambiguous ways) since the 1960s, when Newton Minow, then chairman of the FCC, referred to television as a “wasteland.” Educational programs for children are the standard example; by watching them instead of cartoons, children can learn about arithmetic, elementary physics, and other subjects in a way that many apparently find irresistible, however obscure the appeal of the shows may be to adults. Much else is imaginative on television—nature programs (whose excellence survives the suspicion that they have been filmed in a terrarium), physics lectures, and French lessons that are presented with great skill. Recently I have become drawn to a cartoon show about David the Gnome, who lives inside a tree root and is a doctor and counselor whose services are much valued by the mice, deer, and other animals who live near him. For transportation, he sits on the back of a fox, and enjoys advance air support from a raven.
In itself “television” is nothing but the electronic transmission of images with sound to receivers, yet despite the salutary developments in television that I have mentioned, and the greater variety of programming, most commentary on television speaks simply of “its” deleterious effects. These claims are often found, moreover, in articles in literary journals or books such as Hanhardt’s, by writers whom one suspects know little or nothing about television or have not taken the trouble to look at it very much.
Grandiloquent claims are made by these writers, but they turn out to be largely meaningless—for example, that television is inherently “addictive,” which makes no more sense to me than saying that films or classical music are inherently addictive. In an article in the Hanhardt collection entitled “Filmgoing/Videogoing: Making Distinctions” by Douglas Davis, who, according to another contributor to the collection, David Antin, created “an installation piece with the TV forced to face the wall,” it is never quite clear what distinctions are being made or whether they are important. Is it, for example, either useful or true to point out that “film performers, seen on the street, carry an aura; they can overpower us, in real life. Video performers remind their public—when seen in the street—of next-door neighbors; we reach out to shake their hands instinctively”? But surely each of these propositions is false. There are many “film performers”—I assume Davis includes the actors who appear in late-night movies on TV—whom we may never have seen on the screen (because, say, of the obscurity or unpopularity of their films) and who have no “aura”—note the pretentious borrowing of this word from Walter Benjamin—and who therefore could not “overpower” us. There are also some other actors from whom we would flee out of loathing or disrespect for their “performances.” Who could be “overpowered” by the “aura” of Chuck Connors or Phyllis Diller? To turn to Davis’s next “distinction,” who are “video performers”? Are TV stars video performers? Were the sad stars of Warhol’s films video or film performers? Do video performers really remind us of next-door neighbors? As for shaking the hand of these TV people, I once saw a man sock someone from a local station using a handheld camera to film his sunbathing wife.
At the risk of evoking hostility in the reader, I must mention another essay in the Hanhardt collection that is meant to say something interesting about television. It was only with great effort that I was able to read—read, but hardly follow adequately—beyond the first paragraph of Rosalind Krauss’s article “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”:
It was a commonplace of criticism in the 1960s that a strict application of symmetry allowed a painter “to point to the center of the canvas” and, in so doing, to invoke the internal structure of the picture-object. Thus “pointing to the center” was made to serve as one of the many blocks in that intricately constructed arch by which the criticism of the last decade sought to connect art to ethics through the “aesthetics of acknowledgement.” But what does it mean to point to the center of a TV screen?
In my view a more cogent concern is that television will swamp what we call literature and that the forms of literary life—represented by book writers, critics, reviewers—will lose the interest and prestige they now have. I expect most high-school students find it easier to watch MTV—a channel that shows mostly music videos—than to read Barchester Towers. I doubt that we can dismiss this potential dessication of interest in literature as an alarmist fantasy, as some have. But even if traditional literature and the forms of representation that keep it alive come to have only a kind of antiquarian interest, the transmission of words and images—sometimes the same ones contained today in novels or literary journals or history books—could take different forms. I was amused to see one afternoon a “news program” that purported to tell us what was taking place in the fourteenth century. The news reporters wore the costumes of the period, and spoke of the plague and rising inflation in grain prices. The announcer’s last words were: “That’s the way it was in 1396.” The entire conception was charming and instructive; regrettably I have not been able to find the program again.
No doubt watching television is deleterious—“violent” and “addictive”—for many people. For some, young and old, the very first thing they do when they return home at night is to switch on the television set; they then allow themselves to be taken over by it until they become stupefied. It is not even clear what “watching” television means in such cases—having the set on? looking at it from time to time? taking an earnest interest in a program?
No doubt, also, some parents encourage turning on the set as a kind of drug so that their small children will be occupied and keep out of their parents’ way. In any case, some of these people do not really care what they are “watching”; it could be a series about a Hawaiian detective or a quiz program. What is important is the consoling and therapeutic effect of the television program—the presence of the turned-on set. I saw this take place with the older patients in the hospital. If these people had only three channels—say the main networks—they would turn to practically anything that held the slightest interest for them; if something else caught their attention they would turn away from the set without any sign of regret. But if, on the other hand, people have one hundred channels at their disposal—as will become the norm, no doubt, when television entrepreneurs compete even more vigorously than they have for access to the air waves, and develop specialized channels such as the sports channel ESPN, the various Chinese and Japanese channels, the gay cable network channels, channels devoted to astrology or legislative sessions or shopping services or exclusively to reruns of old movies or debates between professors—they may be more selective and happier in their choice, since they could learn from or otherwise take advantage of what such varied programming could offer.
It is of course very difficult to tell exactly what people “want” to see, although the current vogue, stimulated by Mrs. Albert (“Tipper”) Gore, of blaming teen-age suicides and poor grades in young children on repeated exposure to the more violent music videos seems to me quite wrong, an insulting generalization, somehow creating the impression that all these young people had lost the power to exercise any will, were mesmerized by MTV, and did nothing but watch it as they ate hamburgers, expressing no interest in the news or other programming. (News reporting is, incidentally, appearing with greater frequency on music video stations.) The number and complexity of the images shown on MTV, by the way, could teach the networks a great deal about how to make a subject interesting to viewers; and advertisers for various products have of course already learned some of these lessons.
It is clear that they must do so sooner or later, since people find most of the ads on television a big bore, though by no means all: some Pepsi ads, which are really musical Jackson, are as popular, according to a recent survey, as many network shows, and teen-agers tape them in order to watch them again and again. Other people, however, buy expensive appliances that turn off the sound of the television when an ad appears. Most of these ads have become a ghastly form of expression in their own right and some of them seem to have attained a perfection of bad taste. In one, for example, a woman on a movie set shrieks “Claude…Claude Akins! I love your Poli-Grip ads.” Apparently the actor has nothing else to do and proceeds to give a demonstration of the superiority of Poli-Grip to several other brands of adhesive for false teeth, sprinkling Poli-Grip powder—which seems to have become his raison d’être—on what looks like a biological or medical researcher’s laboratory tray. In another ad played incessantly, a rock singer demands that we “feel the excitement.” As many times as I have heard the advertisement, I have neither felt any excitement.” nor been able to identify what product is supposed to be exciting. The most presumptuous of ads I have heard urges that “we are part of your life.” Unfortunately, I have once more not been able to identify who is a “part” of my life.
Advertisements like these have undoubtedly contributed to the abandonment of network programming by many viewers; they prefer cable network programming, which has fewer ads (although this is regrettably changing in the larger cable networks) and whose content is of a different quality—if not higher, more directed toward some specific taste. The future of television therefore depends a great deal on the attitudes of advertisers and programmers at the main networks. That there has been a decline in public interest in network programming is undeniable. But the current attitudes of the networks, at least as expressed by their leading spokesmen, are strangely mixed up. One of the more curious articles I have recently read appeared in the advertising column of The New York Times.5 It said that the networks are finally realizing that their programming is not attracting viewers as it used to. Five years ago, the networks apparently held 80 percent of the viewing audience, whereas today they control only 68 percent. This is a development that in any other business would be regarded as disastrous.
The networks have admitted, the article continued, that they are taking such steps as trying to develop their own series of programs, instead of buying them from production companies, among other ways of fighting the threat of syndication, cable, and various independent stations whose share of the market—i.e., the percentage of sets in US households that are on at a specific time—has increased dramatically. The article does not emphasize the challenge posed by video recording machines and other new technologies that allow the viewer of television to record (illegally) what they like and thereby rob the network of potential profit on reruns.
What was extraordinary about the views reported in the article was the way the network leaders combined acknowledgment of their dwindling audience with grandiose and unjustified statements about their success. Noting that the new CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove had a high rating, Laurence Tisch, the CBS chief executive, asserted that this “says to me if we give the American people what they want to watch, their main viewing will be with the networks”—that is, they will watch something if they want to watch it. A more robust expression of hope for the networks comes from Robert C. Wright, who heads NBC. According to the article, he said, “I don’t think there’s relevance to the numbers. There’s no difference between a 63 and a 55.” One would have thought there was, and that in any case the question of moment was the difference between 55 and 80.
This hard-nosed if hardly coherent concern for the “bottom line” is indeed very different from that which tries to find “the center of a TV screen.” As I have suggested, watching TV is so varied an experience that most of the questions being asked about it, such as whether it is a force for evil or for good, make no sense. A comprehensive view of the medium, it seems to me, will only come from someone who spends even more time than I did looking at it in a hospital, so long as he stays out of General Hospital.
April 13, 1989