TV, Technology and Change

Why is television mediocre?

By John Gay

We live in interesting times. Science tells us that the universe is expanding and winding down. Galaxies are moving away from one another at a slower and slower rate. But tell that to people on planet earth. For us, things are speeding up. We have cell phones, pagers, e-mail, portable CD players, online banking, streaming audio, channel changers, e-zines, and e-commerce. Life around us is like one big MTV video. Cut here, cut there, next shot, next life experience, rapid, rapid, rapid.

Change is inevitable, but things are changing more rapidly these days. Styles in clothing and furniture used to take on a new look every decade or so. In the early 1990s, however, a new look came every few years. Today, new styles arrive every few months or more frequently. We can't keep up with ourselves. Everything is being altered, mostly in the name of the Almighty Dollar (the worth of which is also constantly changing). New styles come about so people won't get comfortable with what they already own. Commercialism ensures that things will never remain the same.

Nothing seems to be constant. Recently it was discovered that the speed of light (the "c" in Einstein's famous E=mc2) may not be constant. In Einstein's theory, space and time were relative, but at least something--the speed of light--promised to stay true no matter what. Now we're not sure. In a sense, we can't rely on anything. It's all changeable. We're constantly changing, recreating ourselves. America is leading the way in this. The U.S. is the world's largest exporter of change. Coke and Pepsi are all over the world. The Internet is now all over the world. American movies and television shows (like MTV) are now seen all over the world. If you go to a dirt-floored hut in some third-world country, you won't find furniture or running water, but you'll see a television set hooked up to a generator and a TV antenna shooting up through the roof.

Technology makes it faster to do things, but life may be running at such a pace that we can't slow down long enough to analyze our lives. We have little time for reflection. To stop, shut off the noise, be silent for a moment and just contemplate is a crime against the reigning techno-pace. So we in America (young adults especially) find ourselves in careers we're not sure we enjoy, spend time with people we're not sure we like, and act like people we're not sure we are. We're not allowed to reflect on what might really be best for our lives. The rapid pace of life that technology affords (and the constant demand to earn more and more money) takes away the luxury of sitting still long enough to honestly think about life. (The few times we do sit still, we watch TV.)

The U.S. deficit is not the only runaway train--life has become like a runaway train. Everything is changing and commanding our allegiance to comply with that change. Everything is in constant motion and demanding us to remain in motion. It's as if technology itself and the world around us were holding the remote control, and we are what's being controlled. Increased technology gives the appearance of improving our lives, but is it really doing that?

America is exporting change, but change for the better? As a radio-television-film major in college, I learned how U.S. television shows operate. In order to garner the widest audience possible, scripts are "dumbed down." Writers and producers make sure a show's content doesn't exceed a seventh-grade education. That way (they surmise), more people will watch the show.

Therefore, the problem with TV may not be TV itself. Just as styles change to bring in more and more dollars, television shows are primarily the result of commercialism. What many consider bad TV content happens to be what makes the most money (or at least that is the theory among television execs). TV businessmen and women act not as shepherds for the betterment of our souls, but rather as high priests for bringing in dollars. The bottom line is not the edification of society, but rather the proliferation of money. It's a business after all, one which--like many businesses in this country--does not necessarily have society's best interests in mind. The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil, including the evils of mediocre (and often downright harmful) TV content.

If it ever did, television doesn't challenge us anymore. Consumerism and current marketing theory ensure that television will be somewhat "dumb." It's like, as one person put it, we're being lobotomized by TV (source: Andre in the film "My Dinner with Andre"). Even though life is speeding up (through technology), in some ways it seems to be slowing down. We might one day have flat, wall-sized TV's, but we might also have less intelligent and imaginative people. Maybe we are actually becoming dumber. Maybe we're becoming numb. "Feed me, wipe me, burp me, and don't change the channel, I like that show."

Is it the television executives' fault if shows are mediocre, or is it the fault of the American public? Some like Bob Briner in his book, Roaring Lambs (Zondervan, 1993), would argue that TV execs merely give the public what it wants. If the public doesn't like a show and it receives poor ratings, it's pulled. In this scenario the American public is the driver not the passenger.

Maybe the fault lies in both camps. If the "pastors" and "ministers" (the execs) of our major TV stations were interested in the welfare of society, they might skip over unredeemable programs even if they promised to bring in big dollars. Execs might also be on the lookout for edifying shows and storylines. On the flip side, people in society could refuse to watch shows that did not feed their souls. We could demand better programs by refusing to tune in to what's been offered. If the audience is the driver, we could at least determine what roads we wouldn't go down. And one wouldn't need a Barna report to surmise that a major portion of America's viewing public includes those who claim to be ardent followers of Jesus Christ. If Christians in America turned off their sets, might that make a difference in the content of the shows on air? Maybe, maybe not.

Briner cites another example, however, of how Christians can make a difference in what lands on TV--simply get involved.

"I do not subscribe to the theory that there is some huge secret nefarious organization with headquarters in New York and Hollywood whose goal is to use television to corrupt American society. That kind of organization, that kind of effort, that kind of plot is unnecessary. It is much simpler than that. God's people do not tell their stories. Other people do tell theirs. Television, the morally neutral medium, pumps out what is fed into it. We Christians are not feeding it the great stories of faith, brotherhood, courage, and sacrifice. We have the stories, we know them, but we tell them mostly only to each other. We need to begin using television, the television that reaches the homes of those who have not heard and who do not understand, to tell the stories to those who most need to see and hear. We need Christian television writers." (Briner, p. 103)

One might summarize Briner's stance as "become part of the solution, rather than the problem." If Christians became more involved with the content of television shows, maybe Christians would be happier with television programming in general. Briner uses another phrase to summarize his position, however--"Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." Briner criticizes so-called Christian "ministries" whose primary objective is counting the number of four-letter words in movies and television shows. This, Briner contends, is cursing the darkness, but where is anyone shining the light? Briner's vision for Christian involvement in TV is as follows:

"God's church has writers, but they are not writing for television. We need local pastors, Christian colleges, and seminaries to begin to understand this need and to bring their influence and resources to bear on it. Pastors should be sure that the young people in their congregations see writing for television as a worthy calling for Christians. Our colleges must develop much stronger writing programs generally and television writing programs specifically. We also need Christians of wealth and Christian foundations to begin to direct some of their resources to encouraging Christian writing for television." (Briner, p. 102)

Christians have indeed contributed to TV, but not with the kind of programming the American public generally deems respectable, winsome or even tolerable. Christians have had little influence on major network programming, but they have been prominent on TV. The preponderance of Christian television shows, however, involve sensationalistic preachers whose focus is to implore for money (and more money and more money). While making many Christians recoil in horror, this type of programming has also served to establish a very negative stereotype in the minds of America's non-Christian public. What is a Christian? What does it mean to be a Christian? Just turn on the TV and you'll find out.

Christians whom the public might place within normalcy are nowhere to be found on TV. The result is that Christianity--for many nonbelievers--is categorized with professional wrestling and those carnival-like talk shows. Indeed, because of the lack of authentic Christianity's presence on TV, in America the Gospel is now not our only offense. There is much more that is offensive about Christianity, largely because nonbelievers are receiving their sole information about Christianity from their television sets. Maybe Briner is right. Maybe if his vision were carried out, the Gospel would once again be our only offense. Maybe the negative stereotype would fade into black and a new one would come into focus.

It's entirely possible that Christians in America are equally responsible (along with society around them) for the poor content on television. Were we more involved in television programming, were our current presence on TV one of more excellence, were we actually not watching the things which we are complaining about--then the content of American television might be quite different. It's at least a theory to consider.

At minimum, we should probably realize that if we are not willing to offer an alternative (light a candle), we should be slower to voice criticism (curse the darkness). And we should realize--as Briner points out--that shouting against the darkness does no good. Instead, we must offer light in order to extinguish the darkness.

Briner is probably correct in stating that television is a neutral medium. Some, however, such as Michael Medved, contend that the medium itself is flawed. But television--like many forms of art and technology (TV is supposed to be a combination of the two)--is not flawed in-and-of itself. A canvas is not at fault for what is painted onto it. Likewise, the television medium is not inherently flawed but becomes so by the images, ideas and messages given through it. It might just as well be used for the edification of society's members.

Therefore, should Christians become more involved in what is shown on network programming? And does God want His people to use television for getting His Word out? These questions have answers that only God can or should give. Therefore, maybe what we need is to turn off the set for awhile, step out of the techno-pace, and now hear a word from our Sponsor.

John Gay is a graduate of Dallas Theology Seminary and the University of Texas.