Books: Readings

September 30, 1992 5 min read
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In Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously, the New York Post critic David Bianculli defends TV as a positive influence--and a legitimate subject for scholarly research. Viewers should judge the medium in context, Mr. Bianculli advises, and, in the following excerpt, he shows how this might especially benefit students:

Television has developed to the point where it deserves respect, and serious examination as an art form. When David Zurawik [TV critic for the Baltimore Sun] says he would like to do his doctoral dissertation on the notion of the hero in prime time--taking Joseph Campbell’s ideas of the mythic journey and applying them to such shows as “The Fugitive,’' “Kung Fu,’' and “Star Trek’'--he’s not “blowing smoke.’' He’s interested in trying to track how television has done its part, like fairy tales and classic literature, to satisfy certain needs and explore certain themes. He’s not only looking at television, but looking at it seriously, and wants others to do the same.

“The more traditional ‘book culture’ intellectual community in this country,’' Mr. Zurawik says, “is very reluctant to accept certain truths about television as a cultural force. ‘Doogie Howser, M.D.’ and ‘The Wonder Years'--those sorts of shows are what the coming-of-age novels like Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn used to be for the book culture ... The first episode of ‘Doogie Howser’ ends with him sitting down at that computer, writing in his diary something like, ‘Lost my first patient today. Kissed my first girl. Life will never be the same.’ Life and death, juxtaposed sort of in the same sentence--that’s exactly what John Donne and the metaphysical poets did, but because a guy named Doogie wrote it on TV, a professor might mock it.’'

But if more high school and college classes opened their doors and minds to television, those teachers might discover a threefold benefit in talking about TV with students.

First, as [the Syracuse University media-studies professor] Robert Thompson has suggested, teaching television is a way to develop students’ critical skills in other subject areas, a tactic that can be used at the high-school level as well. John Merrow, host of The Learning Channel’s “Learning Matters’’ and former education correspondent for “The MacNeill/Lehrer Newshour,’' writes, “Students assigned to watch and anaylze ‘The Cosby Show,’ ‘thirtysomething,’ and other series can easily transfer those skills and interest to To Kill a Mockingbird and Our Town.’' It’s not a case of “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,’' but a case of allowing students to build on their self-motivated knowledge and passions.

Second, students should study TV, scholastically as well as at home, to appreciate more fully its nuances and deceptions, its worth, and it’s frequent unworthiness. Advertising techniques, political propaganziding, distortion of fact in so-called docudramas--all of these should be examined closely, as should television’s more commendable activities and achievements.

“To say that the communications media are central to the functioning of our society is to state the obvious,’' says Everett E. Dennis of the Gannett Foundation Media Center. “However, American undergraduate education almost completely ignores the study of mass communications.’'

As Peter Orlik notes in Critiquing, “Recently, print literacy has grudgingly had to share the spotlight with computer literacy, but media literacy remains an unrecognized and unmet need despite the fact that the graduates of our school systems collectively will spend much more time with the software of radio/television than with that of computers.’'

Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously, by David Bianculli. Copyright 1992 by David Bianculli. Reprinted by permission of The Continuum Publishing Company.

Although powerful in their own right, the media are vulnerable to special-interest influence, as Joel Spring shows in Images of American Life: A History of Ideological Management in Schools, Movies, Radio, and Television. Below, he describes a positive instance of such influence:

In 1988, Jay Winsten, the assistant dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and founder of the Harvard Alcohol Project, announced a cooperative effort with television networks “to model a new social norm by reaching 240 to 250 million Americans, working through news organizations, public-service announcements, and the entertainment media.’' The principal thrust of the project [wa]s the use of entertainment television to shape behavior regarding the use of alcohol. ...

In this example, the use of entertainment for public education is designed to encourage the use of designated drivers who will not drink and who will assume responsibility for taking home friends who have been drinking. Harris Katleman, president of the television division of 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation, announced that any party or tavern scene in programs produced by his studio would include a mention of designated drivers: “If you’re doing a scene in ‘L.A. Law’ where the characters are in a bar and one of them says, ‘Have a drink,’ another will respond, ‘No, I’m the designated driver.’ ''

Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC and now president of G.T.G. Entertainment Inc., described the importance of entertainment as a form of public education. As one of the leaders of the Alcohol Project, Mr. Tinker is reported as saying, “You couldn’t have enough billboards or skywriting or newspapers to equal the impact of a star like Michael J. Fox talking about designated drivers on one episode of ‘Family Ties,’ '' a popular NBC series.

Interestingly, the use of entertainment programs to change the public’s behavior was labeled a success by Jay A. Winsten. One year after the beginning of the Alcohol Project, Mr. Winsten reported a 1989 Gallup poll in which 72 percent of respondents reported using a designated driver. This figure was compared to 62 percent who answered the same way in 1988 when the campaign used only public-service advertisements. Supposedly, the difference between the two figures proved the superiority of changing behavior by sneaking social messages into entertainment as opposed to straightforward advertising. The New York Times television reporter, Bill Carter, wrote, “The sweeping nature of the designated-driver campaign raises questions about how easily the power of such underlying television messages could be abused.’'

Images of American Life: A History of Ideological Management in Schools, Movies, Radio, and Television, by Joel Spring. Copyright 1992. Reprinted by permission of the State University of New York. All rights reserved.

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 1992 edition of Education Week as Books: Readings


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