Book Reviews -- Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously by David Bianculli

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DAVID BIANCULLI. Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. New York: Continuun, 1992. 315 pages. $24.95.

David Bianculli's Teleliteracy is above all else a provocative book with an incessantly stated thesis--that knowledge of television programming is a serious form of cultural literacy. As an emphatically argued defense of the medium of television, the books succeeds. But as a text of historic scholarship it is uneven at best. The problem is not that Bianculli does not know his television history; he does. Every chapter is filled with a dozen or more examples that underscore his claims. Yet too much of the history is presented in the form of overstatement--flippantly summarized anecdotes, sarcastic and punning prods, patchy quotes. In short, in attempting to voice TV's staunchest defense, he often sounds like an irritating commercial.

Bianculli assumes his readers all mistrust and even dislike television for conventional reasons: the violence portrayed, the time taken away from reading, the divisive effects on family, the vapid content of programming. He uses familiarity rather uncritically as a synonym for literacy and so argues that, despite these attitudes toward television, his readers are more "teleliterate" than textually literate. He takes it as his task, therefore, to debunk the conventional wisdom about TV and heighten reader's awareness of the best of television programming. He does debunk many myths about TV and violence, reading, and family, depending both upon published sources and the experience of his own family for support. Yet with only a few notable exceptions, including his thoughtful interpretation of the importance of Ken Burn's PBS documentary "The Civil War," he does not succeed in making the best of television come alive on the page to appear as the important, artful, even learned event that it can be. He also barely scratches the surface of the issue of how television will interact with educational computing in the future.

Bianculli defines teleliteracy as "fluency in the language and content of TV" and asks readers to take a self test that supposedly contrasts a knowledge of classic materials with that of television programming. While making a case for the quality of TV, Bianculli compares readers' familiarity with The Brothers Karamazov with their recognition of "The Flying Nun" television series. Many of the comparisons are similarly fallacious ones. He equates identifying the chronology of Aristophanes authorship of The Birds, The Frogs, and Lysistrata, with recollecting Beatrice Arthur's appearances in "All in the Family," "The Golden Girls," and "Maude. …