Saturday, September 12, 2009

Television Then and Now

In 1961 the Chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, called TV a “vast wasteland.” After asking his audience to sit in front of the TV set for one whole day, Minow said, “You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endless commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."
I thought we could see if progress has been made in cleaning up the “wasteland” by comparing the types of shows that were popular during Newt’s era with the popular types from the 2008 – 2009 season.
In order to conserve space, I have broken the top 25 shows from the two eras into categories. The number of shows in each category for the two periods is shown in the following tables:
In both periods sitcoms reigned as the favorite. 1961’s second place Westerns do not appear in the 2008 table, but the Supernatural and Forensics/Crime tied for second and third place. Cartoons increased from one to three shows.
I am not surprised at the popularity of shows in the Forensics/Crime category; at least they have some basis in science and reality. But the Supernatural! And Cartoons! For grownups? Give me a break.
I do not wish to suggest that there are no good shows on TV. PBS, the History Channel and the Discovery Channel air some excellent shows, although the Discovery Channel has been delving into ghost stories seemingly without looking too deeply for natural explanations. And studies have shown that even though accompanied by a disclaimer, a huge number of people accept these stories as fact! Amazing. But as Newt said, good shows on the major networks happen only rarely.
It would also be enlightening to look briefly at the TV advertising between the two periods. In the 1960s, cigarettes and liquor commercials were both shown on TV, and have been replaced by erectile dysfunction and contraceptives commercials in the 21st century. What an improvement(?)
In the 1960s it was taboo for men and women to be depicted as having a sex life; today it appears that they do not have much else. This is particularly true for some of the cable networks, which were not around in 1961. I believe that the depiction of sex is OK as long as it makes sense within a normal story line, but when many of the story lines primarily concern sex, it seems just a wee bit over the top.
Words denoting certain body parts, as well as Anglo Saxon four letter words were taboo in 1961; today the major networks allow words such as damn, hell, and in certain contexts, penis and vagina. But again primarily on the cable networks, George Carlin’s famous seven words not allowed on TV are not only common, they seem to be preferred.
Anyway, so much for progress. I am sure that Newt is disappointed at the direction things have taken. We all should be. Either the vast wasteland has grown vaster, or I have become an old prude. Or both.

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