THE young woman's face is a picture of giggling fright. Strapped into a rocket-like contraption by a smiling fairground attendant, she is whisked to the top of a tall tower and cantilevered out over a vertical track. Then, suddenly, she is dropped. The camera, in a long shot across broad lawns and a bumper-car course, follows her through a moment of free fall -- until, a few seconds later, the track she is riding curves out to the horizontal and brings her rig to a halt. Wobbly, but relieved, she steps out.
A rock video? An amusement park commercial? No, it's a segment from an educational television program on the physics of falling objects -- part of a 60-part series titled ``The Mechanical Universe,'' produced by the California Institute of Technology and the Southern California Consortium. Scheduled for release next fall, it is funded by the three-year-old Annenberg/CPB Project -- a $150 million grant given over 15 years by the Annenberg School of Communications to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to develop college-level courses.
Like many educational-television programs, this lively production features close-ups, instant replays, slow-motion shots, freeze-frames, and computer graphics -- the very things television does far better than ``live'' laboratory demonstrations. Striving for relevance, it even ventures into dramatization, showing Galileo writing at his desk with a quill pen and Leibnitz bickering with Newton over calculus.
But it also raises, inadvertently, some of the central questions now being asked by researchers about the role of television in education:
By constantly shifting from segment to segment, does this program (and others like it) reinforce the viewer's shortened attention span -- which, say many observers, is one of the most serious shortcomings of students of the television generation?
Can it deliver, in its slick ``Sesame Street''-like moments of dancing mathematical notations, an adequate explanation of differential equations -- which, according to the program, is important to an understanding of the law of falling bodies?
Do its dramatizations probe ideas, or do they replace a concern for concepts with a focus on historical personalities?
``The fact is that television is a very dense medium,'' admits Mara Mayor, director of Annenberg/CPB Project, adding that ``it is a teaching tool if you can slow it down.'' But given viewer expectations of television as a medium of quickness and slickness, can it be slowed sufficiently to teach without becoming boring? BEHIND these questions lies one of the most troublesome issues surrounding modern American television: its relationship to education. As the nation puzzles over the impact of television, the concern over its effect on children clearly ranks at or near the top of its worries. Why? The reasons are threefold.
The first concerns censorship. The idea that material intended for children should be censored is at least as old as Plato, who advocated the idea. But in America, given First Amendment protections, censorship has always been a knotty problem.
With television, the problem becomes even knottier. Children from age two upward, researchers find, are regularly tapping into television without parental guidance: After all, they don't even need to know how to read to understand the messages.
Second, research is difficult to conduct. Since television is such a comparatively new medium, few long-term studies have traced its effects over time. And there are so few nontelevision communities left in Western society that establishing a control group (to see how children behave without television) is virtually impossible.
Third, the American population is about evenly split between those who are part of ``the television generation'' -- those who began watching television before they learned to read -- and an older generation. University of New Hampshire researcher Joshua Meyrowitz puts the birthdate of the ``first TV children'' at 1949. Explaining his choice, he notes that children born that year were four years old in 1953 -- the first year that at least half the United States households with children under five years old had television sets.
Most television programming and most research into its effects are still being conducted by a generation which did not grow up with the medium -- and absorbed by a generation which did. WHAT effects, then, does television have on children? Among the most sobering research findings are the following:
Children who are heavy television watchers (usually defined as four hours a day) typically do worse in school than light watchers -- although some scholars have found that low-IQ students actually seem to be helped in some subjects by television.
Television depresses reading skills. Syracuse University scholar George Comstock, after reviewing research, observes, ``I think that [television] has interfered with the ability of a number of children to learn to read.'' Reading, he explains, ``is an activity that's generally hard for a child to learn and . . . children will watch the tube instead of practicing [reading].''
Television does not encourage an expansion of language skills. In a 1983 article in Journal of Reading, researcher Michael Liberman analyzed the scripts of eight television shows favored by teen-agers. Sentence length, he found, ranged on average from five to seven words -- compared with a 22-word average in contemporary American nonfiction.
Television reinforces violent behavior. Helen J. Featherstone, in a comprehensive review of research on children and television in the April 1985 Harvard Education Letter, concludes that ``aggressive children gravitate toward violent shows, where they find legitimations of their worst impulses.'' Research by George Gerbner confirms that more than three-quarters of the teen-agers he studied -- espe- cially those who were heavy viewers -- hugely overestimated the nation's crime rate.
Children are strongly influenced by commercials. Below age eight, most children do not understand that commercials are designed to sell something. Recent research, reports Ms. Featherstone, ``confirms the fear that commercials foster materialism.'' In addition, children who are heavy viewers are more apt to worry about getting sick -- and express more faith in advertised remedies to cure them.
Children's television-watching divides along social, ethnic, and gender lines. A survey reported last month by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that ``Black students watch more TV than Hispanic students, who, in turn watch more than White students; children of parents with less education watch more; and, at the fourth-grade level, boys watch more TV than girls do.'' If, as other research shows, heavy viewing is associated with poor academic performance, these findings are particularly sobering: They suggest that television may reinforce divisions between rich and poor, black and white, and male and female. BUT even those findings are open to serious question. W. Russell Neuman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a self-described member of the ``minimal effects'' school, worries that many researchers are simply ``making good money selling books to people who already are outraged by the existence of television.'' He notes, too, that most research has looked for negative effects. Recently, however, he says researchers have begun looking for -- and finding -- ``prosocial'' effects. He cites the ability of the children's television show, ``Mr. Roger's Neighborhood,'' to teach ``sharing behavior.''
Patricia Marks Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA, also notes some beneficial effects. She draws a distinction between ``parallel processing, in which a person takes in multiple pieces of information simultaneously, and serial processing, in which a person processes one item at a time.'' One positive effect of watching television, she writes in her book ``Mind and Media,'' may be that it ``cultivates parallel processing.''
There remains some concern that television creates the ``aliterate'' -- whom Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin, in his recently published ``Books in our Future,'' defines as ``a person who can read but does not.'' Yet according to book-industry statistics, US expenditures on books rose nearly 50 percent between 1979 and 1983, while the number of bookstores jumped 66 percent between 1973 and 1984, and the number of titles published rose from 38,053 in 1972 to 53,380 in 1983.
Less comforting are the demographics of book-reading. ``Aliterates'' still account for some 44 percent of the population. And the increase in book-readers, reports Boorstin, is largely the result of the movement of the ``baby-boom'' population into the ``prime reading years'' of ages 30 to 39 -- while book reading in the under-21 group, and in the over-65 group, has declined. IN California,'' reports Professor Greenfield, ``there is a group called the Couch Potatoes. . . . They take their name from their favorite place for vegetating in front of the TV set, and from a vegetable with many eyes.''
This self-consciously facetious group raises a highly serious point: Is television a ``passive'' medium that induces passivity in viewers?
Opinions vary. To some, television invites mind-dulling immersion, lulling the viewer into a soporific state where the lines between fact and fantasy blur. Some observers applaud it as a means of removing tension. ``The true purpose of television,'' writes Jib Fowles in ``Television Viewers vs. Media Snobs,'' ``is to remove mental debris from the minds of the viewers. The medium can be seen as the sanitation man of the psyche.''
To others -- especially those concerned about violence on television -- the medium does not lull but excite. The fact that the eye must actively process 525 separate lines of electronic information into a single picture is, they say, proof that television watching is a tremendously energetic activity.
So can television teach?
Donald R. McNeil, Provost of the American Open University (an independent study branch of the New York Institute of Technology that relies heavily on electronic instruction), says that, after years of work with educational television, ``I really came to the conclusion that video is not the way to educate.''
Television courses, he says, are fine as ``an enhancement or an embellishment.'' But he adds that ``most of the telecourses that we have do not in themselves transmit the substance of the material.''
Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, shares these reservations. Nowadays, she says, ``Children are not being taught to think, because they are not being taught to express themselves.
``I think that television is part of the reason that that is happening,'' she says, since ``you don't learn to think visually.''
But William T. Reed, vice-president for Educational Services at PBS, sees television as a bridge between visual and literary forms. ``Television has been around [only] 30 years,'' he says, ``and we're just beginning to experiment.''
How important are those experiments? Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and author of several influential studies on education, notes that the present electronic revolution is ``as consequential as the industrial revolution one hundred years ago.''
``If we use [the new technologies] right,'' he says, ``we could have the best-educated generation within a decade.''
ONE of the more controversial products of the television age is the so-called ``electronic church.'' Unlike the television programs offered by the ``mainline'' churches, these slickly produced and widely distributed religious programs -- including the Rev. Jerry Falwell's ``Old Time Gospel Hour,'' parts of Pat Robertson's ``700 Club,'' and scores of others -- frequently feature charismatic preaching. They often invite viewer response and financial contributions through a toll-free telephone number. According to a 1984 survey done by the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania for the National Council of Churches and the National Religious Broadcasters, an estimated 13.3 million people (6.2 percent of the viewing audience) watch at least 15 minutes of religious programming a week.
The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a cable channel, claims to have more than 29 million households in every market in the country wired up to its 24-hours-a-day mix of religious fare, old movies, television reruns, original programming, and expanding news service. Four years ago, says CBN spokesman Earl Weirich, when CBN decided to move away from wall-to-wall religious programming, ``the thing that seemed to be missing most from television was good family entertainment.'' He says that current CBN programming (about 30 percent of which, he estimates, is religious programming) reflects ``mostly the upbeat, wholesome, profamily, prosocial values'' found in everything from ``classic comedies and westerns'' to next fall's rerunning of the Carol Burnett Show.
Who are the viewers for religious programming? According to the Annenberg report, they tend to be female and non-white -- and less well educated, older, and poorer than the average American. Many, apparently, are shut-ins -- although only 14 percent of them said that their viewing was a ``substitute for going to church.'' And most of them already agree with what they are hearing: Viewing, according to the report, ``appears to be . . . a confirmation of a set of religious beliefs,'' and the programs appear to reinforce already established beliefs rather than inculcate new ones.
What were these viewers watching? The ``electronic ministries,'' which produce more talk shows than church services, feature many more men than women. The researchers found that blue-collar workers, the unemployed, the retired, and housewives are ``practically invisible'' on the programs. Prominent topics for discussion include abortion, pornography, and homosexuality -- always mentioned negatively. Only one in a hundred participants claims to be a healer.
Why the popularity? Radio and television evangelist David Breese, president of Christian Destiny Inc., in Hillsboro, Kan., attributes it to a hungering for ``Biblical authority'' and to ``an enormous thirst for the moral, spiritual, Biblical, and prophetic aspects of the news.''
But Everett C. Parker, long-time director of communications for the United Church of Christ, argues that, rather than ``bringing people to Christ,'' the electronic church is a ``hard sell'' that is ``carefully crafted for an audience of white, affluent churchgoers.''
He also worries that a television ``ministry,'' which may be thousands of miles from the viewer's household, can never truly minister to that household in times of need.
William F. Fore, head of the Communications Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York, agrees. ``I think the electronic church does a great disservice,'' he says.
``They are selling [the viewers] something which is bogus -- a kind of God who can be manipulated by people,'' he says. ``So they parade handsome, beautiful people on the television screen, and imply that if you just get their brand of religion you too will be handsome and beautiful.''
Religion, he says, ``never promises that.''
Nevertheless, the impact of television ministries is clearly growing. Spokesmen for Moral Majority, the conservative fundamentalist group headed by the Rev. Mr. Falwell, say that it and other similar groups brought as many as 3 million new voters to the polls last year.
And a 1,285-page paraphrase of the Bible titled ``The Book,'' underwritten by CBN, has sold well over a million copies since publication last August. It is being promoted by a $10 million advertising campaign -- reportedly the largest single promotion of a book in the history of publishing.
SINCE 1981, music videos -- short visual segments accompany- ing popular songs -- have swept the nation. That year saw the birth of MTV, the first all-music video channel, which now reaches more than 26 million homes by cable and has spawned more than 200 imitators.
Some observers see music videos as the only genuinely new form of television programming in years, and praise them for their innovative use of cinematography, symbolism, and compression. Others see them as nothing more than an outgrowth of surrealist high-fashion photography blended with television commercials, designed simply to sell records.
``Let's recognize,'' says Dean George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communications, ``that the most powerful educational process of any culture is that which it calls entertainment.'' Educators worry that rock videos, designed to be as sensational and as visually exciting as possible, often skate as close as they can to pornography, and portray a hard-edged, violent view of the world that exploits racial and gender stereotypes.
They also worry that, by showing a warped view of society's rules and norms, they produce in children a distorted view of ``who can do what to whom with what kinds of punishments and what kinds of rewards,'' as William F. Fore of the National Council of Churches says.
Earlier this year, MTV backed away from some of its more violent ``heavy metal'' rock videos. Critics, however, contend that little has really changed.