TV, TV everywhere

This year you can buy a TV to put in your pocket. Next year you can buy one to put on your wrist. With a big, big TV to come home to at night, no one need go for an instant without the video version of life.

Is this the pinnacle to which modern civilization has been leading?

Every day gives more meaning to one of artist Nam June Paik's wry works: a small reproduction of Rodin's classic sculpture, ''The Thinker,'' with its totally absorbed gaze fixed on - what? - a tiny TV screen.

This is a thinker? Well, it ought to be. Not to represent the best minds of a generation, in the poet's phrase, being dulled by the tube. But to remind both broadcasters and viewers that what is on the tube has to have a great deal of thought now if its already pervasive presence is to become even more so.

Some thought is being given. It is wisely adding broader research to the familiar efforts to probe the effects on young viewers of violence in TV news and ''entertainment.'' Recently Newsweek devoted major coverage to the work of George Gerbner, a specialist on the social impact of TV. He has found heavy viewers (more than four hours a day) to have an impression of the world closer to what TV purveys than to actuality. Since these viewers account for more than 30 percent of the US population, the whole country has to be concerned about the extent to which they react in society on the basis of TV distortions. The latter apply to images of manhood and womanhood, the elderly, racial minorities, jobs.

To take but one specific, crime occurs on the TV screen about 10 times more often than off it. Whatever emulation this causes - and tragic instances have been cited - it is seen as potentially conditioning people to think of themselves as victims. A Gerbner survey found many more heavy-viewing city dwellers fearful about crime than light viewers.

Concern about TV's distortions began long ago. For example, this page was noting in the '60s that black Americans were all but invisible on the living-room screen, whether in entertainment or commercials. Now they are visible but often in demeaning ways.

History is in part a record of humanity shaping its environment - or being shaped by it. The public can take steps now to keep from being dominated by the artificial environment of TV.

The on-off switch is one key. By selecting from TV's store of quality programming and rejecting the dross, viewers would send broadcasters a potent message.

But, as TV becomes as ever-present as wallpaper or wristwatch, other efforts must be made. These could include provisions for access to television not based wholly on money. Access could be increasingly assured to the various segments of society in the way some newspapers over the years have tried to counter distortions by letting more sides have their say, perhaps with the assistance of ombudsmen. Thus researchers of the future might find that TV's overall content, with due allowance for make-believe, was not misleading viewers into false fears about or dangerous simplifications of the world around them.

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