I’ve been reading a lot of books from the sixties and seventies at my local college library. One thing strikes me is how hostile most of these books were to the very notion of TV. It’s compared to a one-eyed monster often, and its viewers are considered borderline morons. To many critics the only proper use of TV was for news and information. Why? And more specifically, why was TV held to a different standard than magazines, movies, or radio?
I assume you read some Bradbury, and his crank-like objections to TV in Fahrenheit 451?
Because TV was according to Newton Minnow, the namesake of the SS Minnow on Gilligan’s Island and chairman of the FCC, “a vast wasteland”. Of course it was pretty easy to criticize a new media form, and pretty easy for effete snobs to consider themselves better than the common folk who watched TV.
Well, just watch some TV from that era! With few exceptions it’s all pretty awful. However, IMO it was just because TV was still a new medium then. I would say it took until at least the 80s before there was a fair amount of quality shows airing. Today, shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), Lost, The Shield, 24, The Office etc. are now the rule not the exception (not counting reality shows which are mostly still crap). In fact I think TV these days is better than the movie industry (which are all either remakes, video games, or comic book characters!)
Different media work differently. The ‘same’ material in different forms doesn’t have the same effect.
Critics in the '60s didn’t go far enough, maybe. Even “news and information” content tends to get trivialized on TV. Check out Neil Postman’s writing from the '80s (excerpt).
It wasn’t just the variety or quality of shows. Back in the 60s we had three networks, one local independent channel, and one educational channel (that eventually became PBS). There was no such thing as a VCR or DVD or DVR or streaming media. There was no internet. You watched what the networks wanted to show you, and you watched it at the time it was broadcast, or you missed it. Or you might catch it again next summer when there was nothing to watch but reruns. The big excitement every fall was the new TV season, with new series, and new shows of old favorite series. Families planned their lives around which shows were on at what times on what evenings.
It really was pretty damned insidious when you think about it…
I’m a little hard-pressed to think of a sitcom that wasn’t solidly stupid before The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Seriously, what’s a pre-1970 sitcom that was written for actual grown-ups?
What surprises me is how anti-internet criticism never took off in the same way.
The crux of Newton Minnow’s complaint was that by the early 1960s, TV had mostly squandered its potential. Only ten years before, TV was regularly broadcasting operas, classic comedy from people like Sid Caesar, hard-hitting news programs by Edward R. Murrow, and live drama from hot new writers like Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. However, most of that was gone or on the way out at the time of Minnow’s speech. In their place, were formulaic Westerns, doctor shows, and sitcoms all recycling the same tired material over and over. Nearly everything had been turned into a bland gruel and anyone who offered anything different or challenging often faced the risk of being slapped down by nervous TV execs, money-obsessed sponsors, nitpicking censors, and apathetic viewers.
Also, it’s important to remember that by the 1960s, the other major visual medium of the 20th century–motion pictures–was shaking off the shackles of the Hays Code and taking on subject matter that was still taboo on television during the decade. As a result, there was the attitude that true creativity could never flower in a mass-medium like TV which was overseen by the FCC’s censors and, because it had to be everything to everyone, couldn’t risk alienating any particular interest group who would not only refuse to watch a controversial program but boycott its sponsors.
The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres, I Love Lucy, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Phil Silvers Show were all pretty decent shows. They might not have dealt with controversial issues like sitcoms in the 70s but they were well written and entertaining.
That’s because the internet started out as a nerd thing, and while nerds have been accused of many things, being stupid isn’t one of them.
Some recommended reading: Harlan Ellison wrote a column for (I think) the LA Free Press called “The Glass Teat” that explained in detail why he had a problem with television in the late 60s. It was collected into two books, although with his screwy publishing history, I have no idea whether The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat are in print now or not.
The Dick Van Dyke Show** was a lot better than you seem to remember.
We have grown up with television so we compare it to computer entertainment or film entertainment or whatnot. Back in the 60s people hadn’t grown up with it so they were comparing it to what constant home entertainment replaced: leaving the house for social activities and community involvement. You can measure the withdrawal in things like voting turnout. It is only since the television age that half of Americans don’t bother to vote.
I think it’s because atleast with reading mainstream books you pick up a long the way helpful things like the way sentences and paragraphs are constructed, learning new vocabulary by reading it and seeing how it’s spelled. Not to mention there’s the barrage of product placement being sold to you at every commercial break to reinforce the materialism as a top priority.
Most homes I go into the TV is the centerpiece of the living room but rarely do I see books anywhere. Maybe some tabloid magazines though.
NDP makes some key points. While “The Golden Age of Television” of the 1950s is probably overrated, programs like drama, live opera and classical music, etc did exist and were reduced in quantity a decade later. More people were able to afford TV sets and let’s face it: the great masses prefer “The Flying Nun” to “Hamlet” and “Lawrence Welk” to “Beethoven”.
There was probably a lot of fear in anti-tv writers. TV put a lot of newspapers out of work and also some prominent magazines such as “Life”, “Look” and “Saturday Evening Post”. The number of movies were reduced and it took until the late 1960s to loosen morality codes, leaving movies to try to compete with huge spectacular productions like “Cleopatra” and “Ben Hur”. I also think there were a number who just preferred what the imagination of radio could do versus television.
I remember when Jack Benny died, one NY Times writer said he preferred his radio show because you could imagine his broken down car as opposed to seeing one on tv
Andy Griffith was a decent show, if a little country-bumpkiny in its setting. I never watched reruns of Phil Silvers. But I’m sorry, Green Acres, I Love Lucy & The Beverly Hillbillies are all prime examples of “the vast wasteland”! As someone else mentioned I would pick The Dick Van Dyke Show as being probably the only quality, sophisticated sitcom of the 60s. And the *only *thing earlier than that would be the original, first, ‘classic 39’ run of The Honeymooners.
But there has been a lot of criticism of video games that is very similar to the criticism of TV.
The 60’s hippy beliefs were anti-technology and anti-mainstream culture.
Was watching cheesy westerns and soap operas on the TV really that different from listening to cheesy westerns and soap operas on the radio?