What Clinton and Dole Didn't Say: How to Fix TV's Vulture Culture

V-chip technology won't remedy the broadcast mentality whose only values are numbers and dollars

PRESIDENT Clinton has now commendably decided to identify commercial television as a prime issue. At a conference on Family and Media in Nashville, he endorsed the debatable idea of installing so-called ''V-chip'' technology in television sets to help parents filter out violence. The chip might be more usefully installed in the brains of the Mediarchs who trash the airwaves.

On the V-chip he separated himself from Republicans - as he also did on two other points: He gave public broadcasting unstinting support, and he correctly defined the nexus of the issue - ''If we're going to change the American culture, we have to somehow change the media culture.''

Clinton, Dole dodge

But, if he's to be totally honest, Mr. Clinton will have to tell us what he means by ''somehow.'' So far, on the highly exploitable business of culture and values, Clinton, like Sen. Bob Dole, is unwilling to do that.

America's media industries are producing ''nightmares of depravity'' leading to ''the debasing of America (Dole).''

''The cumulative impact of this banalization of sex and violence in the popular culture is a net negative for America (Clinton).''

What neither will say is that it's the value system of today's commercial industry that is debasing American cultural life. It's a system that reduces such qualities as creative excellence, originality, talent, and worth to hard numbers - ratings, profits, cost-per-thousand, box office, ''ears and eyeballs.''

It's the numbers that determine what Culture Inc. will or will not let us have - from gangsta rap and animal-house movies to body-bag news on radio-TV, from the books we'll never read to the stories and songs we'll never hear.

As America's powerful ''third parent,'' in Jesse Jackson's phrase, the media-industrial complex has pushed its numbers game onto us - from bestseller and ''top 10'' lists to politics by pollstering.

''My job,'' says Preston Beckman, NBC's senior vice president of planning and scheduling, ''is to get the highest ratings possible ... I don't want to sound cheap or anything, but this is a business about buying into success and reducing the cost of failure.''

Pop music manager Cliff Burnstein explained to The New York Times how his business works: ''You can go in and make an album for next to nothing and if it ... catches on, you're totally in Fat City. This is totally a money machine.''

What's wrong with journalism? ''For competitive reasons,'' says Rick Kaplan, the executive producer of ABC's ''World News Tonight,'' ''we are stuck with spectaculars like O. J. We have lost our priorities.''

Columnist George Will, the avatar of right-think, spoke for the industry when he told university students: ''TV exists to sell soft drinks, tires, and beer.''

In a saner time, we might have accounted TV's value, not simply by how it diverted and amused us, but by what it taught us, how it enriched our lives - connecting American homes, including remote rural ones, to the music that Americans of all ages play and sing, our art and our history, our fine poetry and drama and folk tales.

After O. J., the next O. J.

But, by industry standards, these are for ''elites'' and have no value. ''60 Minutes'' is valued, not because its stories are told well and teach us things, but because it drew a 12.9 rating last week, putting it high in the top 10. The TV show ''Brooklyn Bridge'' told meaningful stories too, but it's long gone. It didn't draw. No value there. The 5 million or so viewers that PBS attracts to its documentaries hold no value for the commercial industry, which is only interested in case lots of 10 million or more.

Culture is simply a production sector whose output is to be added into the gross national product and the balance of trade. We celebritize as we commodify. O. J. Simpson will soon have to be replaced by a newer model.

How much do we value our kids?

Advertising researchers account them to be worth $700 billion. That's what's being spent on spots in commercial kidvid this year, a 30 percent increase over 1990. The system values kids not because they're progeny, but because they serve the ''third parent'' as ''little consumers.'' So much for family values.

Those who glorify untrammelled, unregulated competition in the ideas business, as in soap, cereal, and candy bars, need to review their holy mantra about diversity and choice in a value system run solely by the numbers. In fact, even as the channels and cineplexes are multiplying, the choices they offer are becoming abysmally narrow.

Appetite beats out taste

Sociologist Todd Gitlin of the University of California has said what Dole and Clinton will not: ''The maximization of box office is not conducive to what is euphemistically and nostalgically called the marketplace of ideas.'' Unfortunately Gitlin's views aren't box-office.

Mass TV argues: We only give our audience what it wants. In ''The Sane Society,'' psychoanalyst and social commentator Erich Fromm supplied an answer: It's easy to exploit the natural hungers and appetites we were born with. But it's our consciences that refine our tastes, tell us what to avoid and what to cultivate. Consciences must be educated. ''Conscience,'' Fromm wrote, ''requires the guidance of men and principles which develop only during the growth of culture.''

Culture Inc., driven by private interest, specializes in pandering to our systemic hungers. But we also need to start insisting that it be partnered with a stronger and more vibrant Public Ltd., which feeds the national soul.

Felix Rohatyn, senior partner in Lazard Freres, the leading New York investment banking house in the mass communications sector, says: ''Though I believe the marketplace knows best most of the time, I am skeptical that it should always be the ultimate arbiter of economic action, and I am more than willing to interfere with it when it becomes a distorting rather than a benign influence.''

And there you have the central issue of American values.

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