Television: 'One Vast Ubiquitous Library'

By Duke, Paul | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Television: 'One Vast Ubiquitous Library'


Duke, Paul, The Virginia Quarterly Review


All across America on the morning of Oct. 14, 1999, the front pages of newspapers blared with headlines about an important development in Washington. The U.S. Senate had rejected the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty designed to prevent the spread of the world's most awesome weapons.

The stories proclaimed it a critically historic vote. The New York Times said it evoked memories of the Senate's turndown of the Versailles treaty after World War I, an action that preordained the failure of the newly formed League of Nations and sabotaged collective efforts to stave off another global conflict in the 1930's. Other papers noted that it was the first time since World War II that the United States had refused to endorse an arms control agreement. The press dispatches unanimously agreed that partisan politics had fueled the debate and played a big part in dooming the treaty, whose defeat was a devastating setback for President Clinton.

Despite these solemn pronouncements, the morning television news programs chose to dwell on another story about the decision of a Boulder, Colo., grand jury to forego handing down any indictments in the JonBenet Ramsey child slaying case. Even though it was mostly a matter of no news making news-the Times placed the story on page 14-the television editors decided that viewers would be more interested in the latest turn in an investigation that had held the nation's attention for many months. NBC's Today Show dismissed the Senate vote with a few lines while devoting its opening half hour to the Ramsey report.

The episode said much about television's new values and the relentless pursuit of higher audience ratings. It obviously reflected the decline and deterioration in the standards of news programs with their obsession for crime and the sensational. The Ramsey case fit the bill perfectly with its tantalizing elements of a child beauty queen mysteriously slain in her home and the parents among the major suspects. Night after night the television magazine programs and the cable system talk shows dwelled on the murder, endlessly reviewing the details and speculating about the guilt of the mother and father. NBC's Geraldo Rivera even staged a mock trial which rendered a guilty verdict.

This kind of marathon and maniacal coverage underscored a general dumbing-down of television programming as the medium increasingly and often shamelessly plays to America's less estimable impulses. But there is a deeper portent. By presenting so much that is inconsequential and commonplace, television is becoming a metaphor for what many see as a more widespread slippage in society's standards. In this sense, it seems well on its way to fulfilling the prophecy voiced four decades ago by the legendary commentator Edward R. Murrow when he said: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

The more enlightened course was widely predicted when the first primitive pictures were transmitted at the 1939 New York World's Fair (although the British Broadcasting Corp. had got the initial jump with its limited showing of the coronation parade of King George VI from London's Hyde Park in 1937). The broadcasting breakthrough was seen as heralding a marvelous new technological age that would propel America down enriching new avenues of education and entertainment. An intoxicating and bountiful new world seemed on the horizon.

By the early 1940's the National Broadcasting Co., the Columbia Broadcasting System, and the fledgling Dumont network were all telecasting. By the end of the decade there were 50 stations operating across the country and one million sets in use. Two years later the number had reached ten million and by 1960 it had skyrocketed to 50 million.

The medium's rapid advancement revolutionized life styles everywhere. …

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