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Media types should tune in to trust

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Funny thing about teaching: Sometimes it's the instructor who learns the most.

I found this out while co-teaching a course at Eckerd College, leading students through a tricky topic: TV and American culture.

Tell people that TV is both catalyst and reflection of American society and they'll likely agree. Who hasn't spent a little time speculating about the connection between big ratings for Survivor or Seinfeld and our own increasingly mean-spirited and absurd civilization?

But tackling the subject in detail for eight weeks taught me something about a subject we media types _ especially in TV _ spend far too little time contemplating.

Trust. And what happens when the public loses it for media outlets.

At first, I had to teach folks in Eckerd's Program for Experienced Learners some hard truths about the TV business. I started with my own, made-up statistic: More than 95 percent of all TV shows exist for one reason _ to make money.

They're not about enlightenment, creative vision, new concepts, artistic expression or anything else. If the Peacock, Alphabet and Tiffany networks don't make bucks for their corporate masters, the lights go out.

This is something many viewers already know in a vague, abstract way _ just as they know that politicians sometimes lie or that super chef Emeril Lagasse really doesn't deserve his own prime time TV comedy.

But pull back the curtain to get specific, and that's when the cynicism mounts. I noted, for example, that NBC's The West Wing is a hit show not just because it does well in the ratings and is TV's best-written program, but also because its audience is the richest of any network show, with a median income of $70,000.

We saw how success in network TV isn't really about what audiences like. Instead, it's about drawing a crowd of viewers whom advertisers like _ which really means catering to a bunch of insular, upper-middle-class, Madison Avenue-based New Yorkers.

You see, advertisers want a TV environment that helps them sell soap and socks. That's the real reason you'll never see a challenging show like HBO's The Sopranos or Six Feet Under on network television; those shows are about pleasing viewers with complex, unorthodox entertainment _ not selling stuff.

We saw videotaped comments from a writer for All in the Family, who admitted that TV never really sets society's pace; it mostly follows just behind what audiences can accept, even while trying to look cutting-edge and groundbreaking.

Because these students were far too busy for much couch potato time, we spent a lot of class time just watching TV.

Clips of Amos N' Andy showed how incredibly talented black performers could be trapped in a show that was both funny and horribly stereotypical. We also learned the difference between buffoonish "coon" characters (think Jimmie "J.J." Walker on Good Times) and sexless, selfless "mammy" characters full of earthy wisdom and an inexplicable caring for the white stars of their shows (Whoopi Goldberg in every other movie she's made; her cocky con man character in Ghost was both coon and mammy).

The opening credits of Ally McBeal offered visceral proof of TV's double standard for beauty among men and women. A sample: shots of beauties such as Calista Flockhart and Lisa Nicole Carson followed by pug-faced Greg Germann (ugh!).

But students' greatest venom was saved for local TV news. The way anchors are chosen to reflect a middle-class nuclear family (older man as dad, younger woman as mom, nerdy weather guy and sports dude as snarky siblings); the between-story "happy talk" in which anchors editorialize on what they've just reported; the similarity of newscasts from city to city, courtesy of consultants who recommend the same format to stations across the country.

Want to know why local broadcasters are slowly losing their news audience year to year? Check out this quote from a student, posted to a Web site bulletin board where we shared observations about each lesson:

"I think what disturbs me most is how dishonest all (TV news) is," this student wrote. "Content seems wholly determined by corporate interests. How many plugs for network entertainment show up as "news'? You get a TV movie about anorexia followed by news coverage of a teen battling the illness. I do not believe any of it can be called journalism."

Halfway through the course, I had to take action, lest the students' healthy skepticism deteriorate into cynicism.

So we watched The Sopranos, The Larry Sanders Show and Michael Moore's TV version of his in-your-face documentaries, The Awful Truth. We talked about visionary producers such as The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, Hill Street Blues' Steven Bochco and All in the Family's Norman Lear.

We saw how Lucille Ball bucked the system to get her Cuban bandleader husband as her co-star (and co-producer) in one of TV's first and best sitcoms, and how she pioneered the form of videotaping episodes before a live audience and brought pregnancy to a television comedy for the first time.

We had to remember: Sometimes, TV really is art. And it tells us more about ourselves than we can imagine.

As one of my best students put it: "American culture evolved (and is still evolving) into something new because of the technology of TV. We don't simply have America plus TV . . . the way our discourse has changed, the qualities we look for in people . . . all have been changed by the medium of TV _ not only because of the content, but by (the way) we've arranged our lives around it."

As I begin wading through the morass of new programming the TV networks will serve up in the fall _ mostly glitzy concoctions designed to pull the right kind of viewers together for deep-pocketed advertisers _ it's worth remembering the lessons of my class.

Namely, that despite all the talk of reality TV excesses, sexism, a lack of diversity, growing clutter on screen, biased news reports and silly sitcoms, the public still mostly trusts us media types _ especially those of us on television.

Now it's up to us to earn that trust before discerning consumers figure out they've got something better to do with their time.

To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at