VIDEOCULTURE 2. At home with the video revolution

FOR Joan, it's a typical spring Thursday in this mid-American suburb. Coming home from work about 4:45 p.m. with her fourth-grader son, Josh, she lets the dog out and sets down her groceries. Josh crosses the living room, flicks on the TV, and settles down to a robot cartoon. It's the beginning of what will become, that evening, nearly a seven-hour stretch for the family television set. Not that it will always be watched -- nor, even when watched, will it always be watched attentively. But, like 95 million other Americans this evening, she and her family will be an active part of the nation's video culture -- a culture which, in 1984, found an estimated 193 million television sets in use in American homes.

Her husband, Mark, will watch part of the local news at 5:30, interrupting it to chat with their high-school-age daughter, Elaine, when she arrives home. Their dinner, beginning with a rerun of ``All in the Family,'' will end during the network news. For the next hour they will be in and out of the room, leaving the set tuned to a magazine program with segments on African wildlife, inner-city auto theft, and a punk fashion-designer-turned-author.

They'll gather again at 8 p.m. for an animated discussion about whether to watch ``The Bill Cosby Show'' (Elaine's vote), ``Magnum, P.I.'' (Josh's favorite), or a movie Joan saw advertised the night before. As a compromise, they'll switch among the channels during the commercials, picking up bits of each show.

The evening passes; phone calls come and go; Joan sends Josh off to bed, and leaves for 20 minutes to tuck him in; Mark opens his briefcase and pays some bills. Elaine, her homework finished, comes back for a few innings of baseball. She heads for bed as ``Hill Street Blues'' begins -- during which, in and around the action, Mark and Joan finally tell each other about their respective days. As Joan gets ready for bed, Mark gets caught up in a half-hour PBS business show, finally switching off the set at 11:45, midway through ``Nightline.'' ACCORDING to the statistics, it's an average evening. But what does it tell us about the impact of television on American society?

Is this family subject to what Jerry Mander, in ``Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,'' calls the ``artificial unusualness'' of a medium that has ``mesmerized'' them?

Are they the ``lowest common denominator'' of American taste, in the grip of what Todd Gitlin, in ``Inside Prime Time,'' describes as a ``trashiness'' in programming so debased that ``mediocrity would be too kind a word''?

Or are they, as Tony Schwartz suggests in ``Media: The Second God,'' beginning to ``use the media in the interests of man'' by benefiting from broad new channels of information and a breadth of contact with the world never before available?

And are they practicing what SRI researchers describe as ``visiospatial processing'' -- the capacity for ``simultaneously filtering and processing vast amounts of data in a wide variety of forms,'' markedly different from the ``serial processing'' needed for absorbing information through print?

One thing is certain: this family is engaging in a form of behavior that 50 years ago was unthinkable. Even 25 years ago, when Mark and Joan were growing up, it was different: Then, the TV had a place of honor, and the family gathered quietly in front of it to watch carefully pre-selected programs.

What are we to make of this change? ONE way to understand the change is to see it in its historical context -- as the latest development in a train of centuries-old changes in man's patterns of communicating.

The change from an oral to a written language, and then from writing to print and from print to broadcast, may appear to be fairly neutral developments. After all, the important thing is the message, not the delivery system, right?

Wrong, say a number of scholars working in the field of communication theory. To them, changing the means of delivery changes the nature of the messages themselves.

It's a point made popular, if not perfectly understandable, by Marshall McLuhan's famous observation that ``the medium is the message.'' McLuhan's speculations in ``Understanding Media,'' published in 1964, encouraged a new generation of scholars to examine the ways that a particular medium (speech, books, newspapers, the telegraph, the radio, movies, television) shapes the kinds of messages it delivers.

Since then, media theorists have tended to agree on two points: that Gutenberg's 15th-century development of the printing press ushered in the world's first major communications revolution; and that, with the appearance of television, we are in the midst of the second great revolution. HOW significant is this movement from an oral culture to a print culture and, finally, to a video culture? Hugely so, say many scholars, who trace the development as follows:

Oral cultures. Before Gutenberg, the primary means of communication was speech -- which, by its very nature, demands certain conditions. It requires an audience (even if only one other person) gathered into the same place and time as the speaker. It demands reserves of memory in both speakers and hearers. And it suggests a sense of participation in an activity, an event.

``Without writing, words as such have no visual presence,'' writes Walter J. Ong in ``Orality and Literacy.'' ``They are occurrences, events.'' Sound, he notes, ``exists only when it is going out of existence.''

Most messages in a pre-print culture, then, are shaped by the requirements of a medium that provides no permanence except in memory. So the messages naturally come to depend on verbal formulas and mnemonic devices. They are highly redundant, even repetitive. They are often weighted with clich'es. Moreover, they are not usually shaped into long, subtle, analytical arguments with many subordinate points: The memory simply can't organize that kind of information very well.

Print culture. With the spread of printing comes an entirely different set of demands on the message. No longer does an audience need to gather at one place and time: Reading is a solitary, quiet occupation that can happen miles away and years apart from the writer. No longer is formulaic speech so all-important: Extended logical analysis is finally possible.

The result, paradoxically, is a medium of communication both broader and more restrictive than speech. ``The complex, step-by-step nature of print,'' writes Joshua Meyrowitz in his recently published ``No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior,'' ``allows for the development of extended and connected descriptions and analyses.'' But, he adds, it also ``tends to create sharp divisions between those who have access to a given information-system and those who are restricted from it.''

That ``access'' is literacy. It is achievable only through the intricate, time-consuming process of learning to read -- a process that absorbs much of the energy of childhood education. But in an oral culture, there is no distinction of literate from illiterate -- and therefore, as Meyrowitz observes, little to distinguish childhood from adulthood. What adults know, he says, children also know.

Meyrowitz even argues that childhood itself -- as a distinct period between infancy and adulthood, in which the child is excluded from the ``privacy'' of the adult world -- is an invention of the print culture. That theme is argued in detail by New York University professor Neil Postman. ``A child evolves toward adulthood,'' writes Postman in ``The Disappearance of Childhood,'' ``by acquiring the sort of intellect we expect of a good reader: a vigorous sense of individuality, the capacity to think logically and sequentially, the capacity to distance oneself from symbols, the capacity to manipulate high orders of abstraction, the capacity to defer gratification.

``And, of course, the capacity for extraordinary feats of self-control.''

Video culture. Until the development of television, the electric and electronic media were still word-centered. With television came a wholly new development: The use of the moving image for mass communication. And with that development, as many scholars have noted, came a return to some of the conditions of the oral culture.

Once again, messages were ``events'' to be absorbed in a group (if only in a living room), rather than concepts to be pondered in silence. Once more, the successful message involved redundancy and formula. Once more, the extended rational argument proved ill-suited to the medium.

Critics of television go a step further. The very qualities that (they say) the video culture tends to destroy -- individuality, logical and sequential thought, abstract conceptualizing, deferral of gratification, and self-control -- are the very ones Postman attributes largely to a print-oriented education. Postman, in fact, speaks of contemporary society as the ``childless age,'' in which children behave essentially as ``miniature adults'' -- a shift in behavior which he lays at television's door. Meyrowitz notes two other distinctions that have broken down under the impact of video: that between male and female (since women, seeing the man's world in great detail, can no longer so readily be segregated within the home), and that between leaders and followers (since the close-range camera shows us the humanness and the flaws of leaders once placed on pedestals). HOW does all this relate to our mid-American family?

In nearly every way imaginable.

If young Josh is like 40 percent of his fellow fourth-graders, he watches (according to a recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress) five hours or more of television a day. Time spent watching television, note many educators, is time spent not doing something else -- for example, practicing reading. By his eighth grade year, he'll come face to face with another fact: Students who watch less than two hours of TV a day read better than those who watch more.

If Elaine is like her friends, she will have logged 16,000 hours of television upon graduation from high school -- more time than she will have spent in classes. She will have seen something approaching 500,000 commercials. Her own tastes in music, clothes, habits of behavior, and forms of speech may not have been shaped directly by television -- she may have too much built-in skepticism and ``sales resistance.'' But the tastes of her peers will have been influenced -- and they, in turn, will contribute largely to shaping her tastes.

If Joan and Mark are like many viewers of television, they may find that, whether they like it or not, they are accepting a certain ``heavy viewer'' view of the world. Studies by George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, suggest that those who watch more than four hours of television a day begin to fall into the ``mean world'' trap: They tend to view the world as a ``meaner'' and more unpleasant place than those who watch less.

Furthermore, despite their ideological and political backgrounds, the attitudes of heavy viewers typically seem to have more in common with the attitudes of other heavy viewers than with the views of whatever party they come from.

Mark and Joan may pride themselves on their individuality. But they are more a part of the ebbs and flows of mass culture than they realize. WHY? What are Mark and Joan seeing in all those hours of television viewing?

``There's a stable cast of about 300 people that the average viewer sees'' each week, says Gerbner. ``Of these 300 people there are 44 in law enforcement; 12 doctors; about 23 criminals; 6 lawyers; 3 judges. . . . Stars and series come and go, but this cast becomes very stable.''

What he calls ``the world of prime time'' is strikingly at odds with reality. The studies he has conducted over the last 15 years with his Cultural Indicators Group (Larry Gross, Michael Morgan, and Nancy Signorielli), bolstered by other scholars' studies of television content, add up to a curious picture of the world. In that TV world, Gerbner and other researchers have found that:

Men outnumber women at least 3 to 1.

On the TV screen there are significantly smaller proportions of young people, old people, blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities than in the US population at large.

While blue-collar or service work occupies 67 percent of the American work force, it engages only 10 percent of television's characters -- since, after all, 70 percent of television's characters are middle class.

Crime is at least 10 times as prevalent on TV as in the real world (there are an average of five violent acts per prime-time hour), but 90 percent of the crimes are solved.

Meanwhile, prime-time programming has peculiar views of certain groups. Arabs, it seems, are among television's favorite ``baddies,'' while doctors, says Ms. Signorielli, are ``the true gods on television [who] can do very little wrong.''

Prime time also shows, year by year, an escalating use of innuendo concerning sexual relations -- although homosexuality is still largely avoided. As for drinking, a 1983 study published in the Journal of Drug Education found that prime time's preferred drink was alcohol, that the incidence of drinking on TV was increasing, that it was generally glamorized, and that heavy drinking was rarely shown to have any detrimental consequences.

Even driving habits pass through a curious warp in prime time. A 1983 study in the Journal of Communication found substantial amounts of ``irregular driving'' -- squealing brakes, speeding, screeching tires, and property damage. Death and physical injury were infrequent, however, and legal penalties rare.

As with all research, there are, of course, dissenting views.

``In many ways, we're not so different from those people who put together the Gutenberg Bible,'' says Syracuse University scholar George Comstock, whose massive ``Television and Human Behavior'' is one of the most widely cited books in the field.

He admits that television introduced an effect similar to that of the printing press, but on ``a slightly lesser scale.'' What creates changes, he says, is not so much the technology as ``human consciousness.''

From his office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, media researcher W. Russell Neuman agrees. Describing himself as part of the ``minimal effects school,'' he says that ``the mass media generally don't seem to make much of a difference'' in social patterns.

In the scholarly community, he says, ``Nobody's looking at a big enough piece'' to be able to make broad, sweeping comments about television's effects. Every study of negative effects, he says, can be countered with studies showing something else.

On one point, however, there is widespread concern: the question of whether violence on television promotes violence in society. Professor Comstock, who has followed the research for years, concludes, ``I think there's no doubt that the evidence indicates that media violence facilitates or encourages aggressiveness and anti-social behavior in real life.''

``Television has never caused a murder,'' he adds, ``but it may have precipitated a particular kind of murder by suggesting how one could be committed.''

Mark and Joan are not about to commit murder. But they may be worried about what many Americans see as an increasing thirst for the sensational on television -- including violence.

Should violence, they ask themselves, be regulated on entertainment programming? If so, should it also be regulated on news shows? How different are the effects of news and entertainment? What impact does television news have on the political process?

1844: Samuel F.B. Morse sends the words ``What God hath wrought'' by electric telegraph from Washington to Baltimore. 1901: Guglielmo Marconi inauguates ``wireless'' transmission by sending the letter ''S'' across the Atlantic. 1935: First reular television broadcast service begun in Berlin, Germany; Sir Issac Shoenberg demonstrates electronic television system that becomes basis for BBC television. 1940: First network television program in the US broadcast Feb. 1 by National Broadcasting Company (NBC). 1954: Color broadcasting begins in US. 1958: Number of television sets in use in US passes 50 million mark. 1964: First public satellite broadcast carries opening ceremonies of Tokyo Olympics to US viewers. 1975: Sony introduces Betamax, the first widely popular video cassette recorder. 1981: Cable reaches more than 25 percent of US television households. 30{et

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