Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration. . . .
—T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
Television will not go away; it is embedded in the culture now, like frozen lasagna, golf carts, and sociology departments. Those who would deny that it has been a boon to individuals in their private lives can be brushed aside; there is simply no question that television has answered the most desperate of human needs, the need for escape from boredom, escape from self. For those multitudes who cannot escape through their work or their reading or the experience of art, television has been about as close as they could hope to come to a heaven on earth.
But men do not live as individuals: they are sustained by each other in a society. Television has been so pervasive a presence in American society that one cannot imagine what American life would be like without it. Still, some influences can be claimed for it on no better authority than obviousness and observation:
• People go out less at night. The diminishing need for places to congregate has been a contributing factor in the flight to the suburbs and the decay of the city. The fact that the home has become the prime locus of entertainment has changed the nature of home and family in ways nobody has yet been bright enough to explore. Among the real differences between today’s young and the young of previous generations is the fact that as children today’s young shared more of their parents’ entertainment—and less of every other aspect of their parents’ lives—than the young of any previous generation in any social class except the very rich.
• People have acquired a new kind of relationship with large numbers of total strangers who come into their homes on a picture tube. Every television entertainer (this includes newsmen) has had the experience of being greeted on the street by people he does not know at all, who then suddenly withdraw on the realization that this person who was indeed in their home cannot know he has been there. In America the fact that many of these visitors have been black is a social event of prime importance but sometimes ambiguous meaning. Several surveys have strongly indicated that blacks themselves believe television to be the American institution that cares most about what happens to them and is most on their side: certainly blacks have been more prominent on television—in sports, entertainment, and public-affairs programs—than anywhere else in society. But the effects of the entertainment programs have probably been far more positive than the effects of the most well-meaning (especially the most well-meaning) public-affairs shows. The inescapable bias of news qua news has too often impaled black Americans as a class in the butterfly case of trouble, interesting trouble, on the short-time horizon. The experience of color on color television has been most important, and sometimes most disturbing, for blacks themselves. “If you live in a black community,” Albert Murray wrote recently, commenting on what he called the Minority Psyche Fallacy, “the world looks black.” True once; but no longer.
Politically, the common statement that the constant presence of an electronic specter has made “image” substitute for reality is as simpleminded as the earlier insistence that television somehow revealed “the truth” about people. No political figure today has the “image” that a Warren G. Harding or Andrew Jackson or Caesar Augustus commanded in times prior to television. But the feeling of familiarity is new.
• The work of establishing a unified culture in a country the size of a continent has been accomplished (apparently in the Soviet Union as well as in the United States), completing a job the national magazines began three generations ago (and thereby making the mass magazine obsolete in terms of social function). This final Americanization of the community has greatly weakened in fact the particular institutions of a heterogeneous society (the Sokol, the Knights of Columbus, the trade-union meeting hall, the DAR, the neighborhood political club, the KKK). As a prime mover in the downgrading of local phenomena and the elevation of national phenomena in the consciousness of ordinary people, television has contributed to the feeling of “powerlessness” that does afflict fair numbers of Americans.
• The speed and ease of introduction of novelty has biased both consumption and production toward new—or arguably new—products; the nature of television advertising has biased industrial research toward the creation of products that yield a demonstrable, surface improvement. But the idea that television advertising is itself a major cultural influence (apart from the pressure for maximum audience that advertising creates) cannot be seriously supported in the 1970’s. All the stigmata of Americanization, from snack bars on superhighways to dishwashers to supermarkets to snotty kids, have come rapidly to Europe despite the much slighter presence of television advertising there. The triumphant ad campaigns of the 1950’s, which built new markets for detergents and headache remedies and life insurance and hair sprays and air travel and other estimable economic goods, were not to be found in the latter 1960’s; advertising on television like advertising in print had become part of the wallpaper for most people most of the time, proving, probably, that one can become conditioned to anything.
No doubt television advertising continues to sell merchandise, probably at unit costs lower than those attributable to other general-audience media, and its pervasiveness makes it an indispensable tool for forcing new products onto already crowded shelves in the stores. Moreover, because the arrival of quality inexpensive videotape equipment enabled local stations to make professional-looking advertising for local retailers at about the same time that the 1970 recession pushed down the price of advertising minutes, food chains and department stores have begun to do price-oriented broadcast advertising, taking the money out of their newspaper budgets. This advertising has been effective in drawing customers into the stores, and as a class it grew rapidly even in the recession years 1970 and 1971. During this decade, local television will probably cripple the big metropolitan newspapers as network television in the 1950’s and 1960’s crippled Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and Look. Painfully little attention has been paid to this erosion of support for the newspapers, which are in fact the only possible medium for the expression of diversity to the entire community. Typically, as in the recent case involving Boston’s WHDH-TV, the Federal Communications Commission picked precisely the wrong moment to move against newspaper ownership of television facilities: for the 1970’s, it would have been much wiser public policy to encourage the ownership of local stations by local papers.
While it remains true that a man who advertised a cancer cure on television could sell a lot of snake oil (which means that some regulation is always going to be necessary), ordinary advertising for ordinary products ought not to be taken as seriously as most academic critics seem to take it. At present, it seems more significant in shifting market shares from one brand to another than in encouraging increases in total consumption of any product. In 1971 cigarette advertising was ruled off the air completely—and sales of cigarettes in the United States increased. Continuing to argue that the tube makes people buy what they would otherwise shun, as J. K. Galbraith does, is like spinning prayer wheels: it may get you good marks but it doesn’t help you understand what’s going on.
• The universal instant availability of entertainment geared to a national professional standard has severely reduced the demand for entertainment pitched to regional or local standards. “The trouble with show business today,” Jack Benny told Tom Sloan of the BBC, “is that there is nowhere to go to find out how bad you can be.” In sports, television killed off the minor leagues; in the cities, it killed off the night clubs. It has seriously diminished the demand for touring companies of all Broadway shows other than those that offer a look at the pubic hair of actors and actresses. (The increasing nudity in films is also a by-product of television, because that’s what television can’t offer.) Here, of course, television merely continues and accelerates a trend begun by the talking picture and the phonograph record. Certainly in proportion to the population and maybe in absolute numbers, there are fewer people making a living in America today as entertainers and artists—though those few who do make a living probably live a good deal better than their forebears.
Television itself, in America, has been extremely inhospitable to all artistic effort that is designed to remain in the memory. It is more than possible—though far from certain—that television will end up diminishing the pool of trained talent from which significant artists can be drawn, and that any reduction in this pool produces a reduction in the number of artists. Setting out on an artistic career is a bad gamble at best; if there are to be rewards only for big winners, some who could have made important contributions may be rational enough to decide that the risks are too great. Whatever the social values of amateurism, the fact is that significant contributions to an art form can be made only by those who dedicate to it full time and energy. A diminution of their numbers would threaten “the quality of life.”
• Increasing proportions of people have received increasing proportions of what they think they know from the vicarious experiences of television. This, too, extends and accelerates a trend, which John Dewey was the first to remark more than seventy years ago. Civilization is a coin with two sides; people who live in cities know a great deal less about the natural world than people who live on farms; thus, Dewey argued, education in the cities should be careful to provide as much experience as possible, even at some sacrifice of abstract reasoning. The growth of electronic media, especially television, has vastly expanded the extent to which people learn (or think they learn) at second hand, without employing the trial-and-error, reward-and-punishment, successive approximation processes which are the basic human equipment for learning. Moreover, the apparent data base is shared by young and old, and neither group has experienced much of what it thinks it knows.
When Spiro Agnew was grandly denouncing the young, the New York Times reacted angrily in an editorial acclaiming the new generation as “the best-informed in history”—but all that was really meant by the praise was that the young talked about the same currently fashionable ideas and stories that bemused their elders. To the extent that the conflict between generations in the 1960’s was exacerbated by differences in perception, the cause was not a great difference in experience between the two groups (which has always been the case and never makes the real trouble: people tend to honor each other’s different experiences) but a great similarity in the vicarious experience which had become the base of knowledge for both. Of knowledge, but not of wisdom; for the consciousness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, and the media mask the consciousness of ignorance.
We touch here, daintily, on the McLuhan problem. Much of what McLuhan has written is simply ignorant and wrong (especially the widely accepted argument that sequence is obsolete: the heart of the television experience is remote control of the viewer’s time, and the fundament of the computer, McLuhan’s other example, is the rigorously sequential flow chart). The urgent statement that the medium is the message means no more (probably much less) than the old saw that the style is the man. The hopelessness of the “hot” and “cool” stuff as tools for analysis should be obvious to anyone with a minimally sophisticated mind. But McLuhan’s instinct that something new has happened with the introduction of television—a widely shared instinct, accounting for his sales and reputation—cannot be dismissed quite so easily.
The viewing experience does seem more of-a-piece than the reading experience—that is, the differences between reading a newspaper and reading a novel seem greater than the differences between looking at a televised movie and looking at a documentary. This homogenization of what ought by rights to be different experiences is the strangeness of television. The prattle about media and messages hides the truth, because it reduces complex experience to simple statement and because it falsely proclaims that other media have similar characteristics. They do not. Content changed the nature of the radio experience drastically: the Philharmonic, Jack Benny, The Shadow, and Elmer Davis offered very different experiences indeed. And the content of television is nearly as varied as that of radio in the 1940’s (there is much less good music)—but everybody feels that somehow it’s “all the same.”
A possible explanation of this almost universal attitude is that different radio programs demanded very different levels of attention. A few were really absorbing; most could be heard while doing the dishes or school homework or while daydreaming; some could be satisfactory background for reading a book. But watching television is an activity that excludes doing anything else except eating and knitting. The requisite minimum level of attention is fairly high. At the same time, unlike films or plays in a properly designed theater, televised pictures do not absorb the peripheral vision; and it may be that the attainable maximum level of attention is fairly low. At best, the spread between minimum and maximum is much reduced from that experienced in the use of other media.
In such an atmosphere individuality must carry greater burdens than it can manage. Thus people and issues burn themselves out with unprecedented speed. Worst of all, perhaps, television becomes ineffective at performing what has always been seen as the most important social and political role of any medium: powerful at creating celebrity, it cannot legitimate leadership or attitude. There is a spurious equality of stimuli. It should not be forgotten, of course, that radio gave legitimacy to some queer and dangerous characters, among them Adolf Hitler, Father Coughlin, and Huey Long. (“I’m not going to have anything very important to say for the first few minutes, so you can call up your friends and neighbors and tell them that Huey P. Long is talking at you—United States Senator from Louisiana.”) The normative quality of television—the tendency of initially impressive personalities or ideas to wear out quickly—probably limits the damage as well as the good that can be done through the use of the medium. But the subject is worth much greater attention than it has yet received.
• Men, women, and children have all been given the notion that life can be entertaining all the time. As Daniel Boorstin pointed out in The Image, “There was a time when the reader of an unexciting newspaper would remark, ‘How dull is the world today!’ Nowadays he says, ‘What a dull newspaper!’” A great deal of current societal misfortune that is investigated under political and psychological headings more probably traces to this pervasive attitude. In England, where people pay for their television service with a set tax, the matter may be stated directly: “What I want is a funny program at 6 p.m. each day while I am eating my evening meal,” a man wrote to the BBC. “I pay you six pounds a year.” Similarly, John Leonard of the New York Times Book Review demands a news service that will make him scream (though he doesn’t want a news service that might make him chuckle). Most comment about the contents of the medium is suffused with a fear of being thrown back on other resources, by which one can achieve only with effort, or maybe not at all, the pleasures gained from television. A very high fraction of the world’s population—probably as much as a quarter of it—has become addicted to the box. It is a phenomenon of unmeasured but clearly major importance in the conduct of all the world’s business.
How a society, and its agencies of government, should deal with television addiction is an extraordinarily difficult question. Even in this age of affirmative action, law is much more effective at keeping people and businesses from doing things thought undesirable than it is at making them do what public policy wants them to do. The Communications Act of 1934 specifically prohibits the Federal Communications Commission from telling broadcasters what programs they should carry, though not every Commissioner seems impressed with this section of the law. (“The Act forbids me to interfere in programming,” Rosel Hyde liked to say when he was Chairman, “but it seems not to forbid some of my colleagues.”) The requirement that stations operate to serve “public convenience, interest, and necessity” is a pet Congressional phrase rather brainlessly moved over from the Transportation Act of 1920. There, Judge Henry Friendly once noted, it “conveyed a fair degree of meaning [because] the issue was whether new or duplicating railroad construction should be authorized or an existing line abandoned”; in the Communications Act “the standard was almost drained of meaning . . . [because] the issue was almost never the need for broadcasting service but rather who should render it.”
Yet for all the folly of a standard of “public convenience, interest, or necessity,” something must be done about an area of enterprise where competition left to itself will tend to standardize product in an unfortunate way. To overcome the homogenizing qualities of the medium requires a content so strongly different from normal programming that it probably can appeal only to minorities too small to carry the costs of production under an advertiser-supported system, or any other democratically controlled system. A degree of aristocratic intervention is clearly indicated.
At bottom, the societal problem is also the problem that directly faces the private entrepreneurs of the broadcasting system: how to allocate the revenues. The question is made much more difficult by the fact that, in the words of the BBC’s Huw Wheldon, “It is programs that make policy and not policy that makes programs.” Nobody seriously wants the government involved in making programs, and nobody who has even a nodding acquaintance with television programming in Eastern Europe will want programs made to express policy. Still, there are some attractive ideas for government intervention in the determination of what goes on the air.
For one thing, the time given to commercials, and the number of commercial interruptions, can be restricted. E. William Henry, while Chairman of the FCC, tried to write into regulations the National Association of Broadcasters’ voluntary code on maximum commercial minutes, but Congressional friends of the broadcasters made strong objection. Henry’s authority in Washington derived mostly from his personal friendship with the Kennedys, and after Johnson’s accession he no longer had the clout to do anything about this quite modest suggestion. If restriction on the number of minutes would reduce income too far, results as valuable might be achieved by restricting the number of interruptions. The European state broadcasting systems require the grouping of commercials in “pods” at specified hours. These pods in fact get heavy viewing (RAI in Italy helps assure the viewing by supplying a running gag of ten-second cartoon bursts—comic characters watching a tennis match or dodging traffic or missing a golf ball—which interrupt the string of commercials; a perfect way to deal with the problem). In any event, four breaks an hour for commercial messages (the British ITA rules call for three) would seem a reasonable maximum to impose on broadcasters who are using scarce frequency spectrum for a token annual fee.
Advertising to children should certainly be stopped: despicable as an idea, it rarely improves in execution. No harm is done by convincing a college girl that she will be sexier if she brushes her teeth with Ultra-Brite, and some good may be done by selling a housewife on the analgesic virtues of Anacin: belief in the efficacy of a harmless pill helps the pill work, and is a great deal cheaper than psychoanalysis, both for the individual and for society. But establishing the difference between reality and fantasy is one of the central tasks of childhood, and advertising gets in the way. Bruno Bettelheim warned some years ago that children can “lose the ability to learn from reality because life experiences are more complicated than the ones they see on the screen. . . . This being seduced into passivity and discouraged about facing life actively on one’s own is the real danger of TV.” Advertising, always as uncomplicated and as memorable as its creators can make it, multiplies the danger.
Of course, there must be television for children, especially on Saturday morning. Demanding that the networks and stations supply such programming without compensation will not produce much to look at, and the best solution would probably be a government fund to sustain the production of children’s shows. Assuming an average cost of $80,000 an hour and two reruns for each hour, $10 million (three-tenths of 1 per cent of the 1971-72 federal subsidy to the public schools) would pay the program costs of filling every network’s schedule from eight in the morning to one in the afternoon every Saturday. Though one shudders at the thought of who would in fact wind up on the board allocating the money and what most of it would be spent to produce, a certain number of talented people could probably force their way to the trough. Networks as well as independent packagers could be made eligible for production grants, and it isn’t hard to imagine incentive systems (like a renewed grant for the right to use again, in another season, particularly prized programs from previous years). There would still be competition, and probably there should still be ratings (by narrowly-specified age groups, one hopes); but there might equally be a sense that someone real is watching, and there might not be as much pandering as presently goes on.
Another good proposal for government intervention would involve the licensing of networks. The license should extend for fairly long periods (the British model for the ITA “contractors” is seven years), and be renewable only on proof of minimum performance. There is no rhyme or reason to the present system whereby stations are licensed and held responsible for programs disseminated by networks which are not licensed. It is true that the FCC acts as though it had regulatory power over the networks, because the networks make their money on the stations they own; challenges to what the network does can easily be directed to these stations. But the exercise of demanding program proposals from stations which will get all their significant programming from a network has been a demeaning experience for everyone involved. Worse, it has allowed the networks to be increasingly irresponsible in their search for maximum audience.
One must tread here with great care. The charge that television is intellectually inconsequential comes with ill grace from a literary and academic community that regards Norman Mailer as a giant and Marshall McLuhan as an insightful guide and R. D. Laing as a profound philosopher—a community that made The Greening of America the most talked-about book of its season. When FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson says that “television is the candy the child molester gives your child,” one is dealing with paranoia, not with policy. Much of the hostility to the networks derives from deep-seated needs of critics who must believe in a great conspiracy that keeps other people from being just like themselves; and some of it is motivated by the critics’ desire to keep lesser breeds from having too good a time. (This is not an unusual attitude on the Left, where entertainment has replaced religion as the perceived opiate of the masses; as long ago as the 1920’s, Thomas Mann’s Settembrini cynically warned that “Music is politically suspect.”) But if there is to be any audience at all for serious programming, the nation needs the networks: “The beautiful and to many people obscene thing about the networks,” Richard Jencks said while president of the CBS Broadcast Group, “is that we bring our own audience. We go to the carny tent with our crowd. Our show on the health crisis draws twenty million people, while the same show on educational television would draw half a million.”
The risks that a network runs when it programs a more ambitious hour are much greater than most critics realize. Television viewing is a little like cigarette purchasing: people have brands and brand loyalties. A viewer driven off a channel of a Wednesday night because what appears there is too heavy for him after a day’s work (or, worse yet, too poorly done: those who aim their sights high are likely to miss completely) may permanently switch his Wednesday brand. “The audience for a special,” Frank Stanton said in the early 1960’s, when his network had rather more of them, “is in large part people who came to see something else. Typically, it’s a smaller audience than you would get for your usual programming.” Confidential studies at CBS indicate that advertising for a forthcoming public-affairs show will reduce its audience. “But,” Stanton added, “if you threw out the bad specials, I’d bet my bottom dollar the audience would be higher.”
To the extent that the government demands a greater quantity of more ambitious programming from a network, it guarantees a high proportion of bad specials, and an average audience for non-standard fare even lower than what such programs receive today. Nevertheless, some such constraints must be imposed, on the network level, where the resources exist to make successful effort possible. The sort of arrangement John Doerfer pushed on the networks when he was Chairman of the FCC could certainly be revived: each network should be required to provide an hour a week of nonfiction programming in prime time, for the benefit of the small minority who would watch—and also, more important, for the benefit of the men producing the program, to enable them to hone skills of reportage and assembly.
Even more necessary is an hour—maybe ninety minutes—a week from each network for what Gary Steiner calls “heavy entertainment.” Now that there is a functioning National Endowment for the Arts, there is no longer any difficulty in creating an operating definition of heavy entertainment: it is a program put on by a group subsidized by NEA. In return for their access to the channel the networks can be ordered to devote their facilities periodically to extending the audience for the publicly supported performing arts. In return for their government subsidy, the performing groups can be ordered to make programs available to the networks at minimal charge (and to permit a limited number of rebroadcasts at a small additional charge). Here again, the benefits flow two ways—to an audience most of whom would never otherwise have the chance to see the serious artistic work being financed by their tax dollars, and to the performers occasionally pushed out of their holes in the ground and forced to think about how to please what will be, even at low ratings, much larger audiences than they have ever known before. Moreover, the networks remain really quite free from government control, because the choice among groups will be extremely large. This is not a matter of court- or commission-imposed “access”: the network programmers’ professional skills of selection are still employed—but on a more exalted level.
Commercial minutes could be sold during the natural breaks in such programs, but the networks would doubtless incur losses. Some of these could be passed on to the stronger affiliated stations by requiring those in larger markets to accept such programs without payment for their time; much of the rest could be absorbed by abolishing the recent “Westinghouse rule” limiting network feed, which has produced no programming of importance and has meant financial loss at nearly all stations in markets below the top thirty. And what net costs might be incurred would at least be related to the social responsibilities of broadcasting.
Though everybody in the industry has the shakes and the foundations keep pretending they know something not perceptible to the naked eye, it is unlikely in the extreme that the television audience is going to be “fragmented” by new technology. The notion that video cassettes are going to sell like phonograph records has to be wrong: the overwhelming majority of phonograph records sold are used by their purchasers to give an aural background to other activities, while television absorbs the time. Except for local sports, there is no source of viable programming to lure people to use the multiple channels of “the wired city.” Two-thirds of the nation’s television sets can receive six channels off the air right now, and the networks command more than 90 per cent of the prime-time audience; in fact, their proportion of the total audience for the night-time hours they were all on the air rose slightly in fall 1971, despite substantial advertising for the Public Broadcasting System and a steady growth in the number of independent stations on the air.
Experience in Canada (where cable television complete with nonbroadcast channels reaches two-thirds of the homes in cities like Vancouver and London, Ontario) has proved that there is simply no audience for the sort of amateur programming envisaged by the academic sponsors of the great phony issue of “access to media.” There are various values in multiple channels, specifically for education and for ancillary medical and commercial services, generally in times of community crisis. But access to audience must be earned, with talent. There is something bittersweet funny about the sight of all the ardent young lawyers and graduate students and junior executives at the foundations, none of whom can write a song anyone would sing or a book anyone would read or a play anyone would act—none of whom holds a position which gives his thought significance in the lives of others or could gather twenty-five people to hear him speak at a meeting—“demanding” access to the great audience of an entertainment medium. There is no point in arguing with these people—they will have to find out for themselves—but there is no reason to take them seriously, either.
Pay TV would make a major difference here, and eventually would produce programming for minority tastes, though small-audience material would stand at the end of a long, long queue. But unless the advertiser-supported system comes to collapse in the toils of increasing costs or the Puritan war against cheerful consumption, the political obstacles to a pay system are likely to be impassable. “Radio and television,” says Sol Taishoff, founder and still spiritual father of Broadcasting magazine, “are the only things the American people get for nothing.” Economists can quibble about this, but that’s certainly the way most people perceive it; and few of them are going to believe the pay-TV promoters’ claims of all sorts of new goodies waiting behind the cash box—for the excellent reason that the claims are mostly false. The Ford Foundation may live in a hothouse (as indeed it does, in the most stunning piece of architectural symbolism in America) but everyone else must live in a cold, hard world.
Is there nothing more?
“It often seems to me,” Richard Hoggart wrote in The Uses of Literacy, “that many of the people who do know something of the process described here have too easy a tolerance toward it. There are many who feel that they ‘know all the arguments about cultural debasement,’ and yet can take it all remarkably easily. Sometimes they confess to a rather pleasant ability to go culturally slumming, to ‘enjoy looking at the s—t now and again.’ I wonder how often this ease arises from the fact that, though they may know all the arguments, they do not really know the material, are not closely and consistently acquainted with the mass-produced entertainment which daily visits most people. In this way it is possible to live in a sort of clever man’s paradise, without any real notion of the force of the assault outside.”
But there is another side to the story. Though I can think of exceptions—expecially in the synthetic and manipulated counter-culture—I usually find when I take a look at popular entertainment that what seems to me the highest order of talent in the field has risen to the top. Most of the entertainers who have lasted any length of time in television—Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, even (gulp!) Milton Berle—have possessed skills greater than those of most of their less successful competitors. Barbra Streisand is by every criterion I know one hell of a singer. In England, where all the episodes in a comedy series are written by the same hands, popularity comes over and over again to the work of certain individuals, and it can’t be an accident. If in fact the structure of “mass-produced entertainment” rewards the higher orders of popular talent—if there is no Gresham’s Law in entertainment—what remains of Hoggart’s indictment?
Hoggart is concerned, as most people are, about what will happen in the future to people like himself. He worries about the loss of what he is willing to call a “saving remnant” in the working class—that portion of the young who are looking for a less instinctive, more civilized life than their parents have known. They can be seduced from these goals, Hoggart feels, by the spurious attractions of mass-produced entertainment—and in this context the high quality of talent involved in the entertainment is at best irrelevant, at worst an even more persuasive snake in the grass.
Unlike the Nicholas Johnsons and Harry Skornias and Thomas P. F. Hovings, who are in the afflatus business, Hoggart cares deeply about the audience; it gives his work a power that the others cannot generate. But despite the immense public attention paid to the young who have turned out as Hoggart predicted fifteen years ago (victims of “the wish to have things both ways, to do as we want and accept no consequences”), the saving remnant seems as large as ever. The adolescent whose desire for a comprehended life survives the distaste and distemper of his peer group will not be turned aside by the much less powerful forces of mass-produced entertainment. And there is no evidence whatever to back the belief—hope would be a better word—that mass entertainment can stimulate such ambitions in those who have not acquired them from genetic inheritance or family nurture. School can do it, through the example of a teacher or a friend; but television cannot.
Fretting about the average level of television is like complaining about old age, an activity satisfying only to the speaker at the moment of speaking. All the English-language theater worth preserving since Gammer Gurton’s Needle would not fill 5 per cent of the time the networks have to program each year. Yet it is equally true that, over time, a society cannot rely on life, on moon landings and assassinations, to provide its triumphs and tragedies. The really important criticism of television, especially in America, is that it has not sought tragedy or triumph in artifice and invention, and that the people connected with it have failed consistently in the obligation (which they share with the rest of us) to do the best they can.
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