Common Contemporary Themes
The way most Americans think and talk about TV is remarkable. Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow's 1961 description of network television as "a vast wasteland" still is widely quoted. Hardly anyone is aware that at the end of that same year Minow was saying that when viewers on any given night could choose between a drama starring Julie Harris, a special with Yves Montand, or an exposé of a bookie joint, the networks already had led us out of the wasteland.1 Following that logic, what should we make of television today when a substantial number of viewers can choose from scores of channels?
There is a lot of moaning about what's on TV. Complaints have been steady throughout television's half century of existence. From time to time their character and tone changes but the core idea remains unaltered. We are told that we are watching the wrong programs and too many of them. "Boob tube" and "couch potato" are common terms that nobody questions. Television, however, hardly has an exclusive hold on intellectual shallowness, dishonesty, and exaggeration in our culture.
Owners of $ 2,500 TV sets routinely call them idiot boxes, with little sense of self contradiction. Several years ago I knew a student who had a bumper sticker on his car that read: "Kill Your Television." On several occasions, however, I overheard him talking with other students about what he had seen the night before on The David Letterman Show. People consistently deny that they watch as much television as they actually do. The stigma attached to saying that you like television is strong. Recently,