Title: Hal vs. Hal
Author: Harold G. Parker, III & Harold T. Pratt, IV
subtitle: Television Matters
American poet Carl Sandburg called TV the “idiot-box.” This is the only thing I learned in 5th grade. Now I think Carl Sandburg is an idiot-box. However, the fact remains that television is a thing oft-maligned from every quarter. Calling it coarse, vulgar, shallow, dumbed-down, stultifying, corrupt, hyper-violent, hyper-sexualized, etc., people find in television the signal and engine of contemporary depravity. TV has become a declinist hobbyhorse for the nudniks at the Parents’ Television Council and like-minded organizations to lament the downfall of culture and compare us to Rome and shit. According to professional quisling Dinesh D’Souza, author of the recent book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and its Responsibility for 9/11, it’s TV that made the Moors bomb us.
I refuse to let TV be slandered any more. It’s time we all gave TV some credit for being pretty great. If it tends to come under unusual censure, it’s because people detect in television the mirroring of the flaws of an age. In the words of Lucille Bluth, “They create a monster, and then they call you one.” Its defects are our own – the vulgarity, insipidity, superficiality, cloacal-obsession, yes; but so are its virtues – the world-eroding sarcasm, restive ingenuity, basic optimism, and inexhaustible esprit.
Anyway, so I’m putting it to you: is there value in television? Or is it all just crap? How contend ye?
It’s valuable crap. Guano, if you will. Whatever artistic or cultural value there is in TV is present as a vehicle for advertisements.
I mean, for instance, pop music has had a pretty consistent cycle of underground-gets-big-gets-crappy-gets-replaced for as long as one can identify pop music as such- but where’s indie TV? Who would watch lo-fi TV when there’s 24 or The Office (disclaimer, I only watch those two shows)? I suppose this is sort of HBO’s niche, but not really. Rome has better production values than anything else I’ve ever seen on the small screen, and it boggles the mind to consider the salaries of characters in The Sopranos or Sex and the City.
So, if I agree with you that TV is nothing if not a physical manifestation of the mores of the age (what isn’t? Especially in an age of materialism!), I’m reluctant to assign it ‘value.’ Not because it can’t be valuable, but because the value is only in the interaction of the viewers with one another. Do I care that Andy’s cell-phone is in the office ceiling? No, but I would totally do that if I worked with a douche bag. I don’t really care if Jack Bauer dies next week (they really ought to keep Kiefer Sutherland’s contract extensions more secret); I like it when me and my 24 friends are sitting in my room, finishing a Triumph growler and playing our semi-elaborate, actually just drink-whenever-crazy-shit-happens game.
If modernity is disenchantment and the devaluation of the individual in the face of progress, then TV is both a sign of the age, and a salve, a reprieve more engrossing than music (if inferior), and less demanding (and expensive!) than the cinema. Now, whether we all deserve a reprieve, or if that isn’t just enabling the crowds on their way to Gehenna, I don’t know. Do producers have a moral imperative to consider the effect of their product on their viewer? How fatuous and amusing is the prohibition on tobacco advertisement, and the ubiquity of alcohol?
While I think it’s important to never lose sight of the profits-imperative when talking about television, I also think the “vehicle for advertisements” explanation of the cultural value resident in television is only slightly less absurd than explaining Agamemnon as a prize-winning vehicle. The Wire, for one, has cultural value independent of all moneymaking concerns. In fact, I wonder if advertising even “works” in the narrow sense of provoking purchase of the thing advertised. I can’t think of any good or service I’ve ever bought because I saw an ad for it on TV.
Rather, it seems like the point of the average commercial is more along the lines of “brand-building” – a nebulous attempt to raise one’s cultural stock by trading on the perceived exchange value of the scheduled program; however, said program’s exchange value ultimately devolves upon the perceived exchange values of its enlisted advertisers. To steal a page from Adorno and Baudrillard, everything has become an advertisement for itself, a ploy to get its exchange value up relative to other cultural goods, to flaunt whatever’s hot in a vain attempt at osmosis. Culture has become one big incestuous tangle of mutual implication. Witness the endless self-promotion of the networks and the virtual disappearance of musical videos from MTV. Nowhere is the desperation of exchange value more evident than on pop radio stations claiming to play “all today’s hits.” What could that phrase even mean?
You bring up a really great point regarding the group viewing of television fundamentally altering its character. That is so true – all of my best TV memories have been watching something with a bunch of other people. If you wanna be all intellectual about it, the group atmosphere of joking and incisive commentary allows room for abstraction and critique. But more importantly, it saves bad television from itself. The quality of the show is immaterial. Anything is watcheable if you’re watching it with the right people. What kind of person watches Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy alone? What would the point be?
One last thing: I seriously despise the anti-tobacco zealots who got cigarette ads taken off the air. I would laugh if they all developed lung cancer (OK, not really). They must have the strange conceit that temptation can be excised from the world if only you scrub the temple-walls long and hard enough. Down with the sterilization of public life! Banish nicotine Jack….
by the blood of christ,
I tend to over-value ads. My dad’s in the industry, you see, so I’ve always had a heightened appreciation for them. Done well, they’re really amazing things, and while I partially share your suspicion of brand building (mostly because so much of it is done so poorly) it’s objectively true that it works. Madison Ave. is a $150 billion-a-year industry for a reason. Anyways, I imagine when 60 robots will do everything, all we’ll do, really, is make ads to sell things to the other people making ads, and occasionally get killed by terrorists who hate freedom and commercials. I may watch 24 too much.
I think it’s terribly telling that there are no tobacco ads on TV, and yet one can find tobacco being smoked on TV with exceedingly little effort. After all, as the believer in ads, I’m also a big believer in the value of product placement and most of the time, when you find cigarettes on TV, the person smoking them is pretty smoking, too. It’s wonderful free advertising for the industry.
My point is that, even outside of the ads, TV acts as an ad for something. Are your favorite post-modernists (is Adorno post-modern? Does post-modern even mean anything vis- à-vis the Frankfurt School?) right that everything, TV included, is an ad? No, I don’t think so, what is going to a jazz club selling me, or reading Philip Roth? There is still a distinction between art and ad.
I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know TV falls on the ad side. Maybe not all the time (I’ve never seen The Wire. I’ve been told I’m a bad person for this reason), but often enough that I’m willing to say that TV is advertising, and the exceptions are just that. You can’t defend something for its exceptions, especially when the exceptions are not only atypical, but constitutionally different. TV is made for advertising- commercial breaks, fixed program lengths, plot-arcs forced to fit in that length. And of course art can happily exist in even the most painfully restricted forms, but it’s inhabiting a form which is inhibiting. So why bother with it?
Or, in the spirit of the age, why not just wait for the DVD, pretend it’s a really long movie, and do a neat end-run that Thorpe would be proud of around the hawkers in the temple? Or TiVo, or YouTube? Actually, don’t. The death of TV presages the birth of the final media, which subsumes all of our present forms, unifies their delivery, and, since ads work, means that ads are everywhere. And then I’ll have to hate my streaming e-book of Hesse for having Aflac ads.