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Commerical Media: Then vs Now (Hint: Now is pretty bad )

I grew up on 1970′s television. I can probably re-enact every Gilligan’s Island plot and can quote the Brady Bunch at will (I guess; no one’s asked me in a while).

I watched hours and hours and hours of television.

And here I am, 41 years old and a somewhat well-adjusted member of society. So what’s my deal with the endless rants about smashing the TV?

Here’s the thing: There was a difference between commercial entertainment then and the media monstrosity we’ve got now. A big difference. Spending hours at the mercy of mellow 70′s passive entertainment – on maybe five different channels, tops – is admittedly troubling, and may be the reason I never became a lawyer, let’s say. Ultimately not the best way to spend a childhood (God knows).

But: Spending hours and hours (and hours) with hyper-realistic, psychologically manipulative, adult-oriented, sexualized, super-violent, and emotionally intrusive material – across 500 channels or whatever – is a whole different thing. And that’s what we’ve got today. In the 70′s watching too much television was a troubling social concern. Today it really does threaten our democracy.

Of course, we can’t look back at newsreels from the 50s without cracking up at the horn-rimmed, slicked-hair squares bemoaning the “dangers of rock ‘n roll”. Turns out Elvis wasn’t the end of civilization as we knew it, after all.

But it’s a whole new ballgame today. Just consider the sneering, nasty tone of commercial entertainment, which alone is enough to make us want to toss the thing in the closet and run to the nearest library. That’s even before we consider the disinformation that passes for “news” (70% of Americans blamed Iraq for 9/11 – enough said) or the consumerist blatherings that spin us into thinking that a fulfilled life is defined by a pursuit for self-gratification. And I’m just getting started.

Popular culture can be – and has been – truly great, and even great art. But when it exists as part of a pre-conceived marketing plan, it’s manipulative junk. More and more of today’s commercial entertainment – which after all comes by way of a shrinking handful of media conglomerates – carries a “hidden agenda”. It’s getting harder to know what’s really being sold with the entertainment we’re getting, with viral videos of “amateurs” that turn out to be music label plants on YouTube, or “news” shows that do in-depth “features” of films produced by another department of the television network. Or military “experts” who appear objective but are planted, pro-war messengers instead.

Democracy remains the best form of social arrangement we’ve got. But just as businesses need well-defined property laws or a well-run postal system in order to operate best, democracies require a well-informed public that can make thoughtful, wise decisions. Otherwise, who knows what might happen? We could end up with a president we want to share a beer with instead of a well-qualified leader. Shudder. Just imagine what might happen in a world like that.

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April 30, 2008   |  Filed Under Living Now   |    Permalink


1 acallidryas { 04.30.08 at 6:41 pm }

Thanks for the shoutout!

I think that part of the problem with commercial media today, vs. yesterday, is just the vast amount of time to be filled. You’re going to have to throw things together quickly. And the amount of competition has led to a race to the bottom, of who can be the most disgusting, cruel, and base. It’s also limited what chances people are allowed to take, instead of the encouraging more creative programming to fill those hours. Plus, shows aren’t given a chance. Before, they were given time to find their footing, instead of being canned after four episodes. Not that Donna Reed and Johnny Quest were the pinnacle of artistic entertainment, mind you, but overall I think shows were a little less, hm, antisocial, let’s say.

Secondly, before, people would get ideas for shows, and they’d have to go out and find sponsors in order to make the show. But the point was to create something entertaining. Now, I almost feel that the entire point of commercial media is, well, to be commercial. To sell us things and lifestyles, as another medium of the advertising industry, and the show is simply the platform.

And I have to say, while I was frustrated with my parents at the time, now I’m downright glad that my memories are not taken up with memories of Who’s the Boss.

2 Eric { 05.01.08 at 2:01 am }

Well said. And thanks for saying it!

3 neuralgourmet { 09.08.08 at 4:39 am }

I think another major difference between television in the 1970s and television today are the values and morals portrayed. Just look at some of the hit shows of the 1970s… Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H, All In The Family, Maude, WKRP… They all promoted positive, liberal values of tolerance, responsibility, peace, feminism. While these were not their primary messages the writers and producers of these shows managed to slip them in and do it without being preachy. You also had homespun, preachy, moralistic shows like The Waltons that often included delightfully subversive messages. For instance, does anyone remember when the Grandpa and the Walton clan stood up the Federal agents?

Now the most popular shows are talent contests that admit to very little in the way of values and police procedurals where the main values presented are those of homogeneity, conformity and reverence for authority (all the crimes on the various CSIs are committed by and happen to people who are somehow decadent or nonconforming).

4 Eric { 09.08.08 at 5:16 am }

Neural –

There’s no doubt that 70′s TV reflected a more politically aware, socially responsible era. And you’re right – the subtext in today’s “entertainment” needs to be both recognized AND pointed out.

Thanks for doing so!


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