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Rudnik > Static on the Television Set

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The Hollow Content of American Reality TV Hits Home in Valdosta


Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor:

Postwar Americans saw rapid changes in their lifestyles. The oft-championed “greatest generation,” born in the 1920s, coming of age during the global depression of the 1930s, and doing their part in the war effort of the 1940s, came to find the late-1940s and 1950s as a time of immense domestic prosperity. They bought single-family homes in the suburbs; Fords, Chevys, Lincolns, and maybe even a Cadillac; and for the first time mass consumer goods. Indeed, this was the era where the television began to outpace the radio as the predominant means of entertainment. We were entering the television age.

The late-1940s until the early-1960s are frequently referred to as the “golden age of television.” From radio signals transmitted to and from large antennas, moving pictures flashed across the milky grey television sets of midcentury suburbanites. What did they watch?

The early networks broadcasted content firmly grounded in high cultural sensibilities. Perhaps a jazz ensemble from the Rainbow Room at 30 Rockefeller Center, a prerecorded telecast of a Shakespearean drama, a New York Philharmonic score conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall, or an in-depth Sunday morning discussion on American foreign policy in Eastern Europe from NBC’s “Meet the Press” in Washington—this was television in its infancy, in its golden age. in its infancy television served a niche of wealthy urban and suburbanites who would rather listen to classical music and debate the great issues of their time than abscond to the ephemeral low, pop culture of the day.

Following a long evolution of the television business model and fundamental shifts in American culture, this is no longer the case. Network executives felt that to maximize profit, appealing to the lowest common denominator, rather than the highest, was a way to guarantee financial solvency. The formula is rather simple: TV makes money from advertising, the more viewers, the more the networks can charge for advertising space. The Super Bowl is a perfect example for this. The number of viewers watching the NFL’s premier, annual matchup is virtually ineffable, unfathomable. For this, the networks and the NFL can demand millions of dollars for 30 second Super Bowl advertising spots. It’s simple, television connects programming with viewers, and advertisers with consumers—a “win-win.”

On October 15, 1958, famed and respected newsman Edward R. Murrow delivered a now-praised address to the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) annual industry gala. Murrow, known for his celebrated commentary and editorials against the Senate-McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, argued that Americans were (and are) “complacent, indifferent and insulated.” In his view, would it be so terrible “that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up and complain?”

Murrow concludes his searing indictment by reminding us that the television “can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”

In a world marked with (frankly, poorly written) books and movies like Fifty Shades of Grey, or the prospect of VH1 producing a Valdosta-based reality TV show, “Hot GRITS,” we should ask what this says of our culture, our society, all of us.

To be clear, viewers don’t flock to “reality TV” to watch the best in us; no, on the contrary, they watch to mock the worst in us. For reality is far from genuine, authentic, true to form. Valdosta will be portrayed to the rest of America (and perhaps the world) as a caricature, a misrepresentation, supposedly typifying “true” southern life. As Taylor-Johnson’s film adaptation of James’s Fifty Shades of Grey presents us with what can only be described as completely absurd fantasy and melodrama for the emotionally and sexually naïve, reality TV bastardizes the colloquial to draw in viewers like human cattle—to sell advertising by through pointed laughter and mockery.

In a world where we market to the very lowest in ourselves, where television fame is generated not by the skill as an artist and the cunning of an actor, but as a living parody, a real-life lampoon, this should give us great pause.

Murrow was right. We are absolutely “complacent, indifferent and insulated.” We then, ironically, have the entertainment we deserve—that of the worst sort. We’re not worthy of Murrow’s vision of the television, the motion picture theater, the radio, or their successor, the net. Let us remember that the television can “teach, it can illuminate; and even it can inspire.”

But in today’s age of trite, egoistic, profligate, thoughtless cable content, the television is truly “nothing but wires and lights in a box”; merely an empty shell of a place where philosophy, culture, values, and more once found their ways into our homes and hearts.

Now there is only static flickering on the tube.

rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University.  Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop.  Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector.  He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science.  Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at narudnik@valdosta.edu.  Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.