Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Empty Eye

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Empty Eye

Article excerpt

Modern society inundates its citizens not only with a Niagara of words, but also, these days, with a torrent of pictures. Television spews out both words and pictures in dizzying quantity and variety: movies, talk shows, cartoons, dramatic programs, comedies, variety shows, children's shows, sporting events, news programs, political advertisements, and incessant commercial messages. What began with a few channels in each city has become, in many areas, a smorgasbord of a dozen channels or more, in two or three languages, some offering nonstop news, others nonstop sports, even some with nonstop advertising. Since the 1950s, this new combination of visual and verbal information, with its immediacy and affective power as well as its hypnotizing banality, has become an integral part of our lives. About 98 percent of American homes have a television, with its empty eye staring out on the inhabitants more than seven hours a day.

Distinctions between types of programming that once were clear have become blurred. News programs, entertainment programs, and commercials have become more alike as competition for the public's attention has become more intense. Many commercials consist of vignettes, told in a kind of visual shorthand that creates dramatic suspense, which is released when characters buy or consume the product being advertised.

Dramatic programs like "Dynasty" and "Miami Vice" resemble long ads for high-fashion clothing, fancy cars, and expensive real estate. Many game shows appear to be little more than an excuse to display new products, with contestants competing breathlessly to acquire them. Political campaigns stage events that are covered by news organizations; then the campaigns recycle the news footage into political ads. Then, news organizations file reports about those political ads.

Close on the heels of "happy talk" news -- an attempt to make news more entertaining -- comes "infotainment," consisting of shows dressed up in a news-program format that are little more than segments from forthcoming movies and interviews with actors and singers. "Reality television" also uses the news format for crime stories and gossip once the exclusive province of supermarket tabloids.

"Seeing is Believing"

What does television tell its viewers about the world? Beyond the data explicitly offered -- "Toyota-thon year-end sales extravaganza, through Sunday only" -- "a severe storm headed our way, details at 11:00" -- what are television's characteristics themselves contributing to the way we think about the world?

Not so long ago, some people believed that if a piece of information were printed in a book, it must be "true." Such an attitude still prevails with respect to television because, as everyone "knows," "seeing is believing." I actually overheard one shopper in a store telling another about a product, "Sure, it works. Haven't you seen it on TV?" Television's ability to suggest that we are actually experiencing the events depicted, or at least seeing them accurately, is the source of its greatest power. Television dramatic shows, like movies and theatrical productions, depend on viewers' suspending their disbelief and identifying with characters portrayed, without saying, "Wait a minute -- people can't really beam themselves through space," or "That isn't really the court of Henry VIII; it's a studio soundstage somewhere in Southern California." Although most people understand that there are differences between fictional television, advertising, and nonfiction or "news" programs, it is worthwhile examining just how each conveys its representations of reality, so we can understand how -- and whether -- to "believe" what we "see."

The power of television news to capture the public's attention became apparent in the 1960s. In 1963, the nation was gripped by horror and grief at the assassination of President Kennedy; the event and its aftermath kept the nation riveted to television screens for days. …

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