Nordell: We're taping here with big, fat microphones in front of us -- almost part of the media we're talking about today. Remember Marshall McLuhan and his ``the medium is the message'' and whether we are affected in what we say by the very fact that we're talking into microphones? Unger: I think we're dealing not so much with television as a medium these days; it is an environment. And it's something that you cannot shut off by simply turning the set off, just as you cannot shut off air pollution by closing the windows. Television is much more than just a communication or entertainment medium. It's become an integral part of everybody's environment. Sterritt: It's not just radio and television and film and so forth, either. Years ago [composer] John Cage wrote about driving down some familiar road and suddenly seeing a whole bunch of pay telephones and suddenly realizing that he could stop right there and talk to anybody, anywhere, in the entire world. And he said: ``Think how much this changes one's thinking about where one is, about one's sense of place. I'm not only here. I'm also potentially in contact with people anywhere.'' Bunce: I've noticed -- and many other people have -- that TV becomes not only an environment but a kind of ritual. Many prime-time viewers don't turn on the set to watch a particular show, but to watch ``television'' itself, no matter what's on. Unger: Yes, but I think that's one of the most negative aspects of television. It is why we all have to be working on making people much more selective in their viewing. Sterritt: That's just what the new technology is allowing them more and more. I remember, when VCRs were just being talked about, a friend of mine saying something that I thought was very funny at the time. He said, ``You know, in a few years, you're on vacation or you have a day off and you flip on your TV in the middle of the morning and there's nothing on but `Concentration,' a silly game show. So instead of having to watch it, you'll just take out your `Citizen Kane' cassette.'' Nordell: Now we have all these possibilities. How do we choose? What should we choose? Unger: I heard of a very unusual system of training children to be selective about television. And that was to allow the child to look at TV Guide at the start of the week and circle all the programs he wished to see. Then make all the shows that he circled required viewing. By the second week the child was circling fewer shows. And by the end of the month the child was being very selective, because he did not want to be stuck with his own poor choices. Bunce: With cassettes you're dealing with individual tastes, including children. In a video store a parent can get a cassette that will serve younger children and another that might be to their own tastes. The teen-ager might get a music video of some kind. Nordell: What about music videos and MTV and what it is doing, or undoing, now that it is celebrating its fifth anniversary? There are, of course, symphonies and so forth on TV. But I suppose, in terms of quantity, the pop and rock on MTV has been the big music commodity. Bunce: That's certainly true of video stores. In the last survey, music videos jumped approximately 50 percent in demand over the previous year. Sterritt: The regular MTV cable service is apparently not doing as well as it was awhile back. Unger: In great decline. I think there's a panic about it. Sterritt: What I think is interesting about MTV is that it's shown that today's young audiences are willing to accept a kind of non-narrative, almost abstract kind of visual art. Unger: But David, it's a kind of a mindless viewing. And I don't think it's a positive factor. Sterritt: But the potential for real work to be done within that format is there, along with the excess. Unger: Is anybody doing really fine videos for MTV that are being shown regularly? Or are they doing the lowest-common-denominator ones? Sterritt: There are several reputable American movie directors who have brought their talent, their visual styles to MTV. Some museums are recognizing the music video as a new and valid form of art. Nordell: I ran into a rather erudite survey of adolescents and why they watch MTV. The scholars were interested that so many said they watch music videos to understand the songs better. It raised a question that's always been raised about TV and young people: Does the fact of its being there in front of you close off your own imagination? Unger: I think if they're looking to videos for explanation of songs, they're doomed not to find it that way. Sterritt: I agree. Bunce: Some of the objections to the videos lie in the stereotyped images of women. Sterritt: Most of it's junk, I agree. Unger: Maybe they can understand the enunciation better on video! You can see the lips move. Sterritt: Way back in the 1950s, when television was becoming very common, it was argued that TV was going to close off people's imaginations, that it didn't force you to use your mind's eye. And I think there's a lot to that. The counterargument, during the '50s and '60s, was that the viewers -- especially impressionable young people -- would become much more visually sophisticated. They'd be able to deal with more complex imagery, switching from one subject to another. MTV might indicate there was some truth to that. Unger: I don't agree. I think that there's a need to move away from the short-attention-span kind of entertainment that MTV symbolizes. Bunce: Except that it does have -- as I think David is suggesting -- a fascinating departure from the typical entertainment format that we're used to, with its carefully chronicled plot line. It has broken away from that style and is going into free association of all kinds of imagery. It's the substance of music videos that's the problem. Unger: That's right. I'm tired of the things that you are looking forward to. I would like to go back to the old days of a good story told well. Bunce: There's more and more room for all kinds of these expressions. Just as the study of history traditionally has been able to extend an individual's memory back by the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years, and thus presumably enrich his present experience, so I think television and the other electronic media today allow a great extension of experience in the present world. And just as history can be distorted terribly, so can the media. Sterritt: I'm not putting down storytelling, and I'm not putting down narrative . . . . Unger: We have the storyteller vs. the image. Sterritt: No, not at all. I'm talking now about the possibilities for both video and film as visual art forms. There are painters and sculptors who have from time to time moved over into filmmaking, and more and more into videomaking. They're not necessarily interested in telling stories, any more than in their paintings or their sculptures. They're interested in visual explorations. Nordell: Speaking of somewhat unusual shows, is there any hint that audiences are becoming a little more demanding or a little more open? I hear that in this show called ``Moonlighting'' [which has now received the most nominations for TV's Emmy Awards next month] they are planning an episode written in iambic pentameter that will be a version of ``The Taming of the Shrew.'' Unger: ``Moonlighting'' does very unusual things. Very often it will have its leads step out of character and talk about the show. They will say, ``Isn't this a stupid line?'' Bunce: As a matter of fact, that was one of the favorite devices in the days of variety television. It was a way of saving terrible little situation comedy routines in which the performer would mug at the audience to make fun of the routine he or she was doing. I've sensed an increase today, in some situation comedies and adventure shows, of the social and emotional credibility of the characters, even if they're rather outlandish ones. There is something a little closer to the naturalistic atmosphere in certain movies. Unger: And also interesting concepts. ``Family Ties,'' with the reactionary son who looks down his nose at his liberal parents, is a kind of an interesting switch; [there are] ``Kate and Allie,'' in which two divorced mothers live together to make a family unit for their children, and ``Cagney and Lacey,'' which focuses on how women can work together effectively. Bunce: However, this naturalism is coupled, strangely enough, with an increase in a kind of cartoonish violence. So it's going in both directions. Nordell: But are there some, you might say, cultural environmentalists who are trying to save the good parts of our electronic environment -- going back to your phrase, Arthur, the environment we can't escape? Unger: Yes, I think we are finding them, but they're on public broadcasting, mostly. I think there are very few of those shows on commercial television -- shows like ``The Brain,'' ``Civilization and the Jews,'' ``Nature.'' Those are all on public television. When you ask commercial network executives why they aren't doing certain kinds of shows these days, which are obviously not mass-audience shows, they will say, ``Well, that's a public television kind of show. That's not our kind of show.'' If you ask them, ``Well why aren't you financially supporting public television if they're relieving you of the responsibility of doing those shows?'' they have no answer for that. Sterritt: It's easy to overlook that area. But to speak of the movies, there is a very large community of dedicated documentary filmmakers and independent narrative filmmakers who deal with subjects that they find of burning social, cultural, moral importance.
Their films rarely make it to our neighborhood movie houses. But every year, at about the same time as the New York Film Festival, there is at the American Museum of Natural History the annual Margaret Mead Film Festival, which serves as just one reminder of these films. Nordell: I heard the word radio mentioned a while ago. There seems to be a little bit of a return to some of the drama, narrative, documentary, that seem to have been lost when radio turned to a steady diet of music and news. Bunce: It takes a bit of searching. Radio is a quiet byway of the popular media. But if you look hard enough -- or listen hard enough -- you can hear programs like ``Kids America,'' which is a wonderfully engaging show. It explores lots of subjects -- from funny things to extremely sensitive areas that relate to the kids who phone in.
And there is a populist, artistic brand of programs like the very popular ``Prairie Home Companion.'' Although ``Children's Radio Theater'' is not a regular show, it offers astonishingly fine productions, and sometimes it airs scripts that young people have written that have been selected from many entrants.
In fact, there are many things going on that not only tap the imagination in the unique way that radio is able to do but also explore subjects you probably would not find on television. Unger: Today radio is almost exclusively a one-on-one medium. People who listen to it are either alone in their car or listening with a Walkman. Television has become the group-entertainment medium.
How bad American TV finances good British TV. How movies and television are becoming more -- and less -- the same. These are two of the points in another conversation among these writers in today's Arts & Leisure section.