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Television past and present - a discussion




Stuart Fernie




I think I am in danger of becoming a grumpy old man!


I make very little effort to watch many of today's TV programmes - I much prefer to put on a DVD of my own choosing. This, of course, does not mean that I don't catch snippets of today's programmes as my children watch them. I have seen enough to ask them frequently why they watch such rubbish! I find myself thinking and occasionally using terms such as, "morally bankrupt", "shallow", "hollow", or even "emotionally indulgent and devoid of content"!



I have been invited to watch "comedies" which I am assured are hilarious, and I may snigger twice. The strange thing is that the youngsters who made the invitation have hardly laughed themselves, yet they pronounce the programme/film "brilliant"!


It seems to me that many of today's programmes focus on performance and style rather than content and substance. Obviously there are notable exceptions, but by and large good drama is being replaced with game shows, soaps and "reality" TV shows. I suppose they are cheaper and more easily produced, and are more accessible to the public.



Some game shows no longer require any particular skill or knowledge to succeed - it is left to pure luck!


Soap operas may occasionally talk to an issue worthy of social comment, but for the most part they consist of little more than manipulative emotional engagement and indulgence. Conflict between characters is set up to provide audience titillation rather than serve a purpose.


Characters frequently don't get their "just desserts" and all their arguments appear to be given equal moral validity, giving the impression of acceptability and moral ambiguity.



Something similar can be said of reality TV. The very fact that a programme is produced and broadcast adds weight and authority to the inane utterances of the participants, many of whom are examples of a victory of confidence over ability. The fact that they are given air time on national (and international) TV has brought about a certain blurring of the delineation between confidence and worth.


The gaining of celebrity has become an ambition in itself, and appears to have been confused with the notion of worthiness.


Is this a true reflection of our society? Does art copy life, or is life starting to copy art? I don't believe there is a straightforward answer to that question - surely it is a mixture of the two. However, if this is the case, surely TV should shoulder its share of responsibility and offer an intelligent, reasoned and lucid argument for values such as respect (for the self as well as for others), honesty, justice and compassion? Many producers will say that they are doing exactly that, while offering two sides of an argument, but the point is often lost amidst the waves of emotion and melodrama created for the show - style and performance at the expense of content and substance as TV sinks ever deeper into an existential morass of moral ambiguity.



I may be looking back through rose-coloured spectacles, but I can remember when heroes and storylines offered role-models, principle and hope, and not necessarily in the form of some white knight - it could be in the shape of the brow-beaten but principled Frank Marker in "Public Eye", or ex-con Callan whose talents are used by the British secret service. Though hardly very attractive figures, these characters were immensely popular and provided an intelligent (yet entertaining and engaging) look at life and society's problems.




In my youth there were many series in which the hero/heroine did not kneel to authority, but behaved with integrity, offering a positive way forward when faced with difficult situations. Their adventures were frequently laced with humour (often self-deprecating) which made the show even more appealing, and this seemed to find its way into a generally lighter approach to life.


Children's shows followed a similar pattern, encouraging reflection, social interaction, independence, consideration and respect.




It seems to me that producers today continue to focus on style rather than content. Even some of the best and most popular of today's series are based on "how" rather than "why". CSI and House are intelligent, very engaging and successful, and focus on science as mystery and solution rather than dramatic conflict (whose "lessons" may be applicable to the audience).




Inviting writers and producers to produce material which is more "morally aware" is not as reactionary as it may appear. TV has long been considered a tool for education as well as entertainment. I am merely suggesting that writers and producers should recognise their responsibility for the influence they undoubtedly exercise on young minds, and produce material which is challenging but which offers a positive way forward.


My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some interest.


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