Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Sunday, November 14, 2004
 
Time for New Television?

Robert Stribley has a nice post meditating on the idea that television could and should decrease the information gap in our nation.

Stribley wrote, "I hear people arguing again and again on the subject of homosexuality and they are unaware of the science, they employ absurd stereotypes in their arguments, and they resort to quoting the Bible to support their points." I agree. Whether it's about homosexuality, the way science works, foreign affairs, or the finances of our Republic, Americans just aren't very well informed.
Red vs. Blue analyses aside, this ignorance affects all of us.

Stribley: "Additionally, and please pardon this venture in fantasyland, but I really wish the TV networks would participate in educating the public about these issues, too." I agree. Television has a uniquely strong potential to address misconceptions. It's not just some "snobbish" desire to correct the abysmal ignorance of people who disagree with me--there are plenty of things I don't understand and would probably like to know, and I know that good TV could efficiently explain them to me. TV's got four major points in its favor:
1) It's easily available.
2) It's audiovisual, and that's how humans think.
3) You can watch TV while you're folding the laundry.
4) TV can be a group activity.

What are some of the problems stopping TV from tapping into its vast power and providing compelling, persuasive information? There is no mandate for it to do this, despite the fact that the bandwidth of the airwaves belongs to the public and is merely licensed to corporation. Let's not even begin complaining about the FCC, because clearly Michael Powell isn't going to help us out anytime soon. As Stribley points out, Powell's far more concerned with Janet Jackson's nipple than any substantial concerns about broadcasting policy. So the incentive has to be monetary, and as competition gets stiffer and stiffer for television ad dollars, targetting an audience that might enjoy being informed even if it doesn't seem like it will now could be lucrative. But a network would have to be absolutely dedicated to truthfulness and substance, as an innate part of their brand and market share, not just an ethical ideal.

Another problem that Stribley addresses is the objectivity faux balance treatment: "Of course, if a network did air such a show, they feel obliged to make it "fair and balanced," which is the new code for "present both sides of the story equally, despite how indefensible one side is compared to the other." I don't want *that sort* of contrived balance. I want falsehood balanced with truth. I want superstition balanced with myth-busting." I find this interesting in light of Public Editor Daniel Okrent's column in today's New York Times about objectivity: Okrent sees the ridiculousness of citing balancing quotes from experts whose credibility ultimately relies on the judgement of the very reporters trying not to have an opinion. But I think Okrent is missing the real crying need his audience has. He wants reporters to insert their own opinions instead of quoting surrogates; I want them to insert their own higly specialized skills of logical analysis and fact checking. To take a page from Jon Stewart: We don't need people (reporters or experts) trying to one-up with incredibly clever snipes and psychological profiles; we need debates centered around facts.

Stribley's final point is perhaps the most important: "On PBS, some show like FrontLine might do it. And a few hundred thousand people across America will nod along approvingly to the program while everyone else is watching The OC." I don't know the numbers, and while I'm sure PBS viewership is higher, his point remains. Such television has to be broadly compelling and entertaining without being dumb. MTV doesn't really cut it; see an old Snarkmarket post on the bafflingly information-free GOTV spots. It also has to maintain a tone of fairness (not the same evenness!) and appeal to more than the already faithful choir. Guerrilla News Network & Indymedia both showcase all kinds of interesting information, but I'm not convinced their stories are getting where they need to go. It's hard to find a balance between avoiding inoffensive blandness and not being tiringly in-your-face, but it has to be done. I think it can be done with a sense of constantly active engagement.

One of the things I learned in doing physics was that when you're trying to maintain a balance between two extremes, feedback is helpful. One of the things I learned while learning and teaching physics is that if you're trying to convey information, an active, participating audience is really helpful. Over at The Participant, Joe Stange constantly considers these issues, and recently he posted Hot Group Action: "It's still asymmetrical. But at least the audience isn't entirely passive anymore. There's more action. It makes things a lot more interesting.." Television that actively includes its audience in its production might overcome a lot of the barriers listed above. . .and tap into some of the strengths I listed before all the problems.

A lot of these thoughts have been bounding around in my head as I've recently applied to INdTV; keep an eye on them to see if any of these ideas come to life.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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