``A magazine of serious thought about television, for people who read? Not many years ago that would have seemed an absurd idea,'' observed Les Brown in 1981, when he founded Channels of Communications: The Critical Review of the Electronic Media. For years, intelligent people tried to dissociate themselves from ``the idiot box.'' In the '80s, however, I expect there are few intelligent people who do not give television serious thought. Most of us are aware that whether we watch it or not, television affects our lives. Its impact on our political processes, our educational climate, our patterns of work, play, and consumption has been duly noted.
But how should we approach television: as art? business? technology? Television, although we tend to think of it as shallow, is a complicated medium to analyze. Although we can discuss most books without mentioning or even understanding the publishing industry, an intelligent analysis of television demands a study of systems, ratings, advertising, and scheduling -- all of which influence the actual content of the programs we get.
Nor can television criticism ignore technology. Whereas in most cases new technologies do not affect the content of our books, in television, technologies do influence the nature of our programs. For example, the limited number of broadcast bands available in television led to the mass programming that developed. Cable and the videocassette recorder (VCR), with their less limited and more individualized capabilities, can potentially lead to a more democratic kind of television, one that permits a wider range of shows for smaller groups of people.
Channels magazine looks at television from every angle, and always with a view to the public interest. Edited by Les Brown, former television critic of the New York Times and Variety, Channels critiques what is on the screen and monitors developments in the telecommunications industry. In both roles, the magazine is interpretive -- neither a guide to current programming nor a technical publication, but a magazine of ideas and commentary.
In its role as critic, Channels combines an insider's knowledge of the field with an outsider's detachment. A recent article, ``Toys Are Programs Too,'' showed how advertising has increased its presence within children's programs, where brand-name toys actually star as characters. Another, called ``Arabs -- TV's Villains of Choice,'' looked at the excessive number of negative portrayals of Arabs in recent television shows.
Avoiding purely technical descriptions, Channels observes new technologies as it observes the old television: with a view to the final product and as an aspect of public affairs. The focus is on issues: what the technologies do, what they mean for viewers and for society, their promise, their potential dangers, and their costs. The question here is not what is the best model VCR to buy, but the long-term impact of each technology -- and such policy issues as whether it should be regulated and by whom.
Television, long our most passive medium, increasingly involves our participation. We opt for cable, we purchase particular channels; we buy a VCR or subscribe to pay-per-view. This element of choice gives us a chance to shape the new media. But whether we shape them to serve us better than present-day television depends in part on how well we understand them. A magazine could not be more timely than Channels, which brings to the television field what it has often lacked and what we have always needed: a critical intelligence and an intelligent conscience.
A regular monthly column in the Book Review.