Sunday, March 24, 2013

99 Channels and Nothin's On

“Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” by Jerry Mander, 1978

Tired of your local cable provider?   Wondering why you change channels constantly?  Can’t find much to watch?  Shows you used to watch seem stupid?  Not loving commercials?  Crappy ‘genius’ cop shows finally too much?  (see review of cop shows, “Bad boys, bad boys” below.)  Perhaps you are experiencing the dreaded symptoms of … dung…television withdrawal!

Jerry Mander (yes, his real name) would understand.  This is a guy who used to work in advertising in San Francisco in the 1960s and early 70s, running his own firm, and ended up a proponent of Native American lifestyles and radical causes like environmentalism.  He is far from the stereotype of advertising executives as portrayed by those Mad Men mannequins swilling martinis during lunch.  Odds are Mad Men the TV show will never show his trajectory out of the industry, which only shows you the hidden meta-message of Mad Men's existence. 

Mander grabs every conceivable argument lying around in 1975 and 1978 to show that Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the wonders of the medium were doltish. 

Mander lays out his case for television as A, propaganda; B, brainwashing, brain-disabling and hypnotic; C, basically an advertising-delivery system; D, physically dangerous; E, anti-democratic; F, invisibly pervasive; G, addictive; H, profitable; I, un-reformable; J, isolating; K, an unreal experience; L, narrowly two-dimensional; M, shot through jump cuts to minimize the actual boredom contained within TV programs, and N, prone to creating geeks and geek trivia.  (Wait, that is not in his book…)

As you can see, there are more than 4 reasons, but Mander has grouped all these points into 4 separate sections, and goes into many aspects in detail.  His main point, which he argues against liberals who think television can be improved, is that television, as a medium, is not neutral, and can never be neutral.  It, by its very nature, works as a deadening eye in every household, no different than Orwell’s 1984.  This book was written before video and DVDs, the explosion in cable, and then the spread of TV onto the internet and shitty little screens on ostensible smart phones.   These seem to create a bit more control for the user, and break-down somewhat the centrality of control.  Yet behind nearly all the media in the U.S. is still 7 massive entertainment complexes – News Corp; Walt Disney; Viacom; Sony; Time-Warner; NBC-Universal and perhaps CBS comes in as the little brother.  So behind the riot of ostensible diversity?  Oligopoly, which should be the name of a board game. 

Mander at times extends his analysis to film and by association, long-form television, but does not really concentrate on that area.

The liberal argument about neutrality is that public networks like PBS or BBC and tiny local cable shows balance the 270 channels of dreck.  PBS itself is now a site for advertising by subtle corporate methods.  Its news programming is little different from corporate programming, just slightly less loud about saying the very same thing.  Occasionally there is a good show, but these cannot compete with the majority of stations.  HBO is the leader in quality long-form programming, but is too expensive for most of the population.  Cable stations that used to have promise, like the History channel and the National Geographic channel, far too frequently now fall into trivial sensationalism. 

As a former advertising executive, Mander understands that advertising is not some accidental or idiotic by-product of capitalism, but essential to creating demands for goods that would not other wise be bought.  (see review of “Propaganda” by Edward Bernays, below)  If you have toured enough stores recently, you know that nearly every store, everywhere, is over-stocked with crap that no one is buying.  That is where advertising comes in, on TV, on the internet, everywhere.  Advertising is the real voice of our capitalist age, not the accidental gibberish of a strange relative. It is the capitalist solution to overproduction.  As J.B. Foster put it in “The Endless Crisis” (also reviewed below), capitalism uses advertising as a substitute for price competition in an oligarchic situation. 

Now we are forced to pay for cable, and then forced to watch ads too.  Remember the old days when TV was ‘free’?  No more.  Of course, according to Jerry Mander, it was never free – except for the people who controlled it. Perhaps one day television will be seen, like tobacco, children’s cereals and smoking, as an unhealthy addiction.  But that will not happen in this society. Capitalism actually needs television and its offshoots as its main form of political control.  It does, quite simply, push the ‘line’ into our heads on an hourly basis – either obvious political points or more subtle cultural points that are nevertheless political too. 

Read also, Neil Postman’s, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and Huxley’s “Brave New World” for more on this subject.   The former centers on how the media becomes a narcotic, shaping our lives in the process.  Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. 

And I bought it in Mayday’s used book section.
Red Frog
March 24, 2013

1 comment:

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