IN the summer of 1938, the American essayist E. B. White first saw the flickering image on a small television screen. That fall, with characteristic prescience, he described in Harper's magazine its significance. ``I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world,'' he wrote, ``and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace, or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television -- of this I am quite sure.''
Forty-seven years later -- and exactly 50 years after broadcast television began in Berlin in 1935 -- White's dilemma is still with us.
For some, television is indeed ``a saving radiance in the sky'' -- the most wide-reaching communications medium ever developed, able to knit cultures as never before. For others, it is ``an unbearable disturbance of the general peace,'' rending the fabrics of home, school, church, the political process, and everything else it touches.
On several things, however, the two sides agree:
It is a medium of unprecedented impact -- easily capable of reaching hundreds of millions of people with the same message at the same exact moment.
It involves an industry which, in the United States last year, garnered more than $18.8 billion in estimated advertising revenues and on which American viewers spent well over 200 billion hours.
It has at its heart an object -- the television set -- so commonplace that more American homes have one than have indoor plumbing.
And it is just now undergoing profound change -- through the development of cable technology and videocassette recorders, through the shift toward governmental deregulation, and through the increasing sophistication of audiences. WHAT, broadly considered, is the impact of television on American culture?
From dozens of interviews in the past two months with broadcast executives, academic researchers, media reform proponents, government regulators, television journalists, educators, clerics, and specialists in various kinds of television production and broadcasting, these points emerge:
Although public television has a vital role to play as a balance to the networks, broadcast television remains primarily a commercial phenomenon, largely guided by financial, not aesthetic or social, criteria.
New developments -- high-definition pictures, stereo broadcasting, digital transmission -- will greatly upgrade the technical quality of TV in the next decade. But programming, barring the unforeseen, may remain pretty much as it now is.
Television, unlike print, favors movement over stillness, simplification over complexity, specificity over abstraction, personality over conceptualization, and the present over both past and future. It is at its best in moments of shared national experience -- the first walk on the moon, the funeral of Anwar Sadat, the 1984 Olympics -- and at its worst when it tries to explain complex conceptual issues.
Some of the most serious complaints against television relate to its supposed effects on children -- its portrayal of violence and sensuality, its impact on reading scores and reasoning abilities, its shortening of attention spans, its encouragement of passivity, and its commercialism. Yet it has undoubtedly helped children, especially those from minority backgrounds, to learn English, gain some basic computational skills, and broaden their experience.
Despite criticism, there is little enthusiasm for censorship, given the widely felt need to protect First Amendment freedoms.
Finally, research on the social impact of television is notoriously difficult to conduct. Because it is expensive, it is hard to find funding sources that have no vested interest in the results. And because television is so widespread, there are virtually no ``non-television communities'' to use as control groups. TELEVISION,'' laments Columbia University media guru Fred W. Friendly, ``was supposed to be a national park'' -- a great resource to be used for the public good. Instead, he says, ``It has become a money-machine.''
Citing last month's sale of an independent Los Angeles station, KTLA-TV, to the Tribune Company for $510 million -- thought to be the largest sum ever paid for a television station -- he complains that ``it's a commodity now, just like pork bellies.''
It's a point that draws wide agreement. Both critics and proponents of the peculiarly American structure of commercial television (in most other nations, television is entirely or largely supported and operated by the state) note that the financial structure of the medium, perhaps more than any other factor, shapes television's effect on American culture.
Even supporters of that structure note that the goal of commercial television is not to deliver programs to the viewer. It is to deliver viewers to advertisers -- who have been known to pay more than $1 million a minute for commercial time. The networks, says TV Guide correspondent Neil Hickey, are ``not in the news business, they're not in the entertainment business, they're not in the sports business -- they are in the time-selling business.''
George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the nation's foremost researchers on the social effects of television, agrees. ``The product is not the production,'' he says. ``The product is the delivery of the largest number of people at the least cost.''
As a result, he explains, scriptwriters and producers ``get no reward for quality.'' He adds that ``the way the institution is set up, there is no premium, there is no special reward, for quality.''
Not surprisingly, television producer Lee Rich disagrees. As executive producer of ``The Waltons'' and president of the company (Lorimar Inc.) that produced last month's CBS miniseries ``Christopher Columbus,'' he sees commercial television as the only place where substantial funds for production are available. ``I think it's overcommercialized,'' he concedes, ``but I don't know what to do about it. I think we just have to bear it, because nobody else is paying for it.''
Brian Winston, a British sociologist and former television producer, whose books ``Bad News'' and ``More Bad News'' provide detailed studies of television news, takes an even sterner view.
Mr. Winston takes issue with the notion that TV programming is ``concocted by cigar-chomping Philistines of one sort or another whose only interest is in making bucks'' -- and who must therefore be ``resisted as an alien imposition on what would otherwise be the natural good taste of the community.'' Such an attitude is an ``unreconstructed elitist view'' and ``ignorant nonsense,'' says Mr. Winston, who currently teaches film at New York University.
By its very nature, he says, television is not an elite medium, like books, but a popular one that traces its historical roots to the penny press, the fairground booth, and vaudeville. IS the quality of TV programming, then, the point? From his unique perch as president of the Public Broadcasting Service, Bruce Christensen thinks it is: ``We're not driven by the highest ratings, although we want to know people are out there. Our concern is for the quality of the program and its importance to society.''
According to dean Gerbner of the Annenberg School, however, a concern for artistic quality entirely misses the point of mass television. Television watching, for him, is not an intellectual act but ``a ritual.''
His own studies of ``heavy viewers'' -- those who watch for more than four hours a day and constitute the majority of television users -- convince him that there are profound differences between ``television culture'' and ``book culture.''
Book readers, he says, exercise great selectivity over their reading materials, and they exercise great concentration. Heavy viewers, on the other hand, absorb television ``like the wallpaper'' in more offhand ways and tend to ``watch by the clock and not by the program.''
In his view, this ``mass ritual'' is not entirely bad. Such viewers, he says, have never been in the book culture. For them, ``television is an enormous enrichment to cultural horizons,'' which brings them ``into the mainstream of our political, social, and cultural life.''
Despite all the hype of the ratings and the attention paid to heavy viewers, however, editor Les Brown of the highly regarded Channels magazine offers a different view. It may be true, he says, that ``tonight 90 million people will be watching television at 9 o'clock.''
``But 140 million people won't be watching,'' he adds, ``and that's not counted a negative vote, that's called neutral.
``It's the television junkies voting tonight for our popular culture,'' says Mr. Brown, ``and our not watching is not considered a protest.''