Carl Horowitz

For almost as long as commercial television has existed, its critics, perhaps themselves eager for air time, have lambasted the medium as cultural corrosion.  Yet a growing body of research points to an alternative view:  Television, that bastion of free-market vulgarity, may be good for you.

The litany of offenses attributable to TV, less affectionately known as the “boob tube” and the “idiot box,” is familiar.  Television undermines our intelligence, bombards us with useless information, bores us, fosters social anomie, promotes crass consumption, and makes us servants of outside forces of centralized control.  Back in 1949, just a few years after the debut of network TV, the New York Times opined:  “When it offers a daily diet of Western pictures and vaudeville by the hour, television often seems destined to entertain the child into a state of mental paralysis.”  Prominent television critic John Crosby observed in 1958, “If television gets any blander, TV coverage is going to revert to that of radio days.”

By the dawn of the Sixties, this view had become all but official, at least among the New York cognescenti.  For a brief, shining moment during the Fifties, we were told (and to an extent, still are), America enjoyed a Golden Age of television, epitomized by minimal-action stage dramas and documentaries narrated by Edward R. Murrow.  But mired in philistinism and a desire for the almighty buck, network executives, increasingly of a Los Angeles state of mind, reverted back to form.  The quiz show scandals of the late Fifties were merely the most outward signs of a larger problem.  And with nine out of 10 households now owning at least one TV set, the problem only was going to get worse.    

The industry fired back.  “Can we legislate taste?,” asked ABC’s Leonard Goldenson.  “Can we make it a criminal offense to be mediocre?  Shall we set up a commissar of culture?”  NBC’s Robert Sarnoff issued his own rebuke, calling critics “dilettantes who bemoan the deterioration of TV since the early days.”   

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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