You may have riches and wealth untold; / Caskets of jewels and baskets of gold.
But richer than I you will never be— / For I had a mother who read to me.
Perhaps more than most I wax nostalgic for the 50’s, which was not a decade but an era that began in the late 1940’s and lasted through the early 60’s. It was the best of times for Southern California kids to grow up, especially for those of us in Pacific Palisades. On one side of our little town we had the ocean; on the other, the Santa Monica Mountains. We surfed uncrowded breaks when there were waves and hiked through unspoiled canyons when there weren’t. When we turned 16, we rode motorcycles on highways that saw little traffic or on dirt fire roads that saw none. Moreover, it was long before the illegal-alien invasion, and most legal immigrants came from Western Europe. Cars were hot rods, fights were with fists, crime was infrequent, and life was good. There is little I would change about it.
An alien invader was present, however: television. It arrived as a seemingly innocuous technological novelty but would eventually transform Americans and America in ways never imagined. My own family was slow to adopt the new technology. I was five when we got our first TV, a small box with a 12″ screen. My older sister was 11, and my older brother 18. Except for broadcasts of football games, I don’t recall my brother ever bothering to watch television in those days. My sister didn’t watch much more. I suppose I took my cue from them—sitting in front of the tube was only an occasional activity. There were too many neat things to do. I didn’t find it especially entertaining, either. We were fortunate enough to have had a mother who read to us when we were young. I think it provided the ultimate sense of security and fantasy—snuggled in bed, listening to your mom read a tale of derring-do, and creating mental images that were neither confined nor constrained by the limits of a camera. I can remember time and time again fighting sleep and pleading for Mom to read one more page.
A not-distant second were radio programs. My brother, sister, and I would pile in the same bed, and over the airwaves in the dark room came The Shadow, Boston Blackie, The Green Hornet, Red Ryder, The Six Shooter, Hopalong Cassidy, The Falcon, Nero Wolf, The Challenge of the Yukon, Philip Marlow, The Whistler, Suspense, Johnny Dollar, Dragnet, Sam Spade, and dozens of others. This, too, was the theater of the mind. There were no limitations. Your imagination knew no constraints. Moreover, there were few and only brief commercial interruptions. Most radio programs had only one sponsor. The Whistler was “brought to you by Signal Oil.” This especially struck home to us. Signal Oil was everywhere in Southern California in the 50’s. The company’s crude came from one of the greatest strikes in California history, the oil and natural gas that lay under Signal Hill, next door to Long Beach where some of our cousins lived. The long drive from the Palisades down the Coast Highway—there was no freeway then—to Long Beach took us by one yellow and black Signal Oil gas station after another. If a “gas war” was on, the price was 19.9¢ for ethyl and 16.9¢ for regular.
With television, the two one-minute commercial interruptions of a half-hour program by one sponsor became four or five, then six or seven, then seven or eight minutes of interruptions by several different advertisers. Production for television was far more expensive than that for radio, and the demand for advertising revenue increased exponentially. Somehow, people have been trained to accept regular and lengthy interruptions of programs. A half-hour show has only 22 or 23 minutes of air time. A sixty-minute football game has become a three-hour endurance contest, not for the players but for the viewers. A typical game is now regularly interrupted for two or three minutes of commercials. How anyone can sit through this, I cannot fathom.
By the mid-1950’s television had mostly replaced radio and reading as evening activities in the homes of Americans. There were still good radio programs being produced—Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar with Bob Bailey was one of them—but for the most part the best writers and actors were now working in television for money far greater than ever dreamed of in radio. To me radio and reading went together. In both, the mind and the imagination are active. Conversely, television induced a kind of hypnotic stupor and passivity. Marijuana-smoking kids sit and watch television but do not read. Neither could they follow a radio program.
Today, the television is on for more than five hours daily in the average white household in America. For black families the average is closer to seven hours. It is not by accident that SAT scores peaked in 1963 and have declined ever since, so much so that the scoring has been readjusted several times. It is also not by accident that when graduating college seniors were given standardized tests in 2003, which had been administered to high-school seniors in 1953, the college wizards of the 21st century only marginally outperformed the high-school kids of a half-century earlier.
Some look back upon the 1950’s as the golden age of television. Although there was fine work produced for television, most of it was formulaic inanity. I suspect one element in the destruction of the Western as a genre for movies was the many TV Westerns. Most of them were sanitized versions of morality plays with little or nothing to do with the real Old West. Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese were always portrayed not only as victims of white injustice but patient, persevering, humble, honorable, and stoic. They were just like the best of us—except they were perfect. The bad guys were nearly always white. The heroes were nearly always white, too, but their actions portrayed as virtuous often smacked of political correctness. These characters were, after all, creations of Hollywood writers, who frequently were leftists with political and social agendas.
Nonetheless, formulaic inanity and political correctness were not the principal problems with the new electronic beast. The medium itself was the chief offender. It sat in the living room, and increasingly in the dining room and the bedroom, and was on for hours every day and night. Reflection and critical thinking, which are concomitants of reading, were replaced with a passive absorption of whatever images flashed on the screen. Leftist political messages were a part of that, but more insidious were the ever-increasing number of commercials. From infancy Americans were now being trained, almost programmed, to become consumers. How could they not? By the early 1960’s Americans were watching several hours of advertisements each week. Since then it has only grown worse. The result is an entire population of Americans who can never have enough of what they do not need.
When my daughter was an infant, we disconnected the television. It stayed that way for 20 years. She never missed it and never asked for the latest must-have item for Christmas. For us in the 50’s, who had the fortune of having watched very little TV in our formative years, it was the same. We did not demand a dozen new toys, all with a particular brand name, or, especially for girls, designer-label clothes. Nor did we demand “snack foods” as a nightly supplement. Watching television and consuming food—not to satisfy hunger but to stave off boredom and to pacify desires stimulated by advertisements—has become a pastime. Snack foods are an industry. I remember when it was torture to have to interrupt play during summer evenings to come home to eat dinner. As soon as I gobbled down whatever my mother determined was the irreducible minimum—in a race against the setting sun—it was back out to play. We were not fat. The few who were stood out prominently and were called “fats” or “porky” or “tubby.” Most adults were lean, too. I always think of this when I see World War II documentary footage about life on the home front. A shot of workers leaving an aircraft plant at closing time comes to mind; they are lean to a man—and a woman.
I suppose, though, that it is the fat between the ears we should be most concerned about. In the 50’s we thought the greatest threat to our existence as a people and a nation came from nuclear weapons. We were in the Atomic Age. We schoolkids practiced the nuclear-attack drill, diving under our desks and curling up like a pill bug. We were also, although no one thought to acknowledge it, in the Age of Television, which was a less palpable but more insidious threat. Reasoning, abstract thinking, critical analysis, and mental computation were being replaced by emotions evoked by visual imagery. The ability to focus one’s attention for long periods of time was reduced.
Television is not the only culprit, but it is difficult to imagine today, after more than a half-century of having the beast in our homes, Americans following, with rapt attention, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Perhaps we could have in 1958, but certainly not in 2008. Each debate went on for hours, with audiences, by all reports, hanging on each word. The argumentation was often subtle, laced with references, allusion, irony, and metaphor. Yet Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were simply communicating with and trying to win the support of the folks of Illinois—farmers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths, teamsters, butchers, and the like—not an intellectual elite. Imagine one of our presidential candidates opening a debate as did Douglas at Ottawa, in the first of the rhetorical duels:
Ladies and Gentlemen: I appear before you to-day for purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself, we are present here to-day for the purpose of having a joint discussion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the State and Union, upon the principles in issue between those parties, and this vast concourse of people shows the deep feeling which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions dividing us.
Lincoln and Douglas traveled the length and breadth of Illinois to debate on seven occasions. Thousands of people gathered each time to listen and critique, often standing for hours in heat and humidity and, occasionally, in rain showers. Many understood that, although the contest was for the Senate seat from Illinois, the race had larger implications. “As I view the contest,” wrote a farmer to Lincoln, “it is no less than a contest for the advancement of the kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of Satan—a contest for an advance or a retrograde in civilization—and the fate of Douglas or Lincoln is comparatively a trifle.”
Today, television directors keep the average length of a shot on network programs under four seconds. The eye, unlike the mind, is quickly satisfied. Images produce emotional responses. Analysis is suspended. This has always been excused by claiming that most television programing aims for nothing more than “entertainment.” That is exactly the problem I have with the medium, with what television has done to the American mind. It seems that many Americans find such banality entertaining. They do not demand more intellectual stimulation. They do not crave more. They do not need more.
In 1957 Ken Nordine released an album titled Word Jazz. It remains a brilliant, insightful, and innovative work—and very funny. One of the cuts on the album was about a television viewer who had become addicted to the medium, staring at the screen day and night. He had become a videite. Within minutes of turning off the tube, he experienced the onset of withdrawal symptoms. They finally became so painful that he reached for the knob, and, with the twist of the wrist and the hum of the TV warming up, he felt relief. Nordine’s comedic sketch was kidding on the square. Television is a narcotic. The DEA should consider classifying it as a Schedule III drug.
Nonetheless, the greatest problem is not the endless hours the average American spends in front of the tube—it is the consequence of those hours of viewing. I think most television programming reduces the ability of people to think logically and critically. Moreover, the conditioning of Americans to television watching and, ultimately, the creation of videites forces the rest of society to act like television. Church services, especially in many of the megachurches, resemble a television broadcast. Screens drop down, images appear, lights flash, ministers perform. I suppose Television Age preachers feel they have to deliver the Word in such a manner. They have an hour or two on Sunday to compete with and undo the more than 35 hours of television each parishioner has watched during the week. Since these services now look like television, perhaps the competition has long since ended. Theology, ritual, the Sacraments, dogma, and tradition have given way to showbiz.
Even printed matter now resembles television. USA Today has a far greater circulation than any other newspaper in America. Its secret to success: paragraph-length stories, photos, color, graphics, and everything else to stimulate the senses and reduce the need for attention span. Meanwhile, general newspaper circulation in the United States has steadily declined from a peak of 63 million during the early 1980’s. With a population now estimated at 300 million, daily newspaper circulation is 50 million. In 1950, with a population half of today’s, daily newspaper circulation was 55 million. We were a nation of readers.
Writing in the late 1940’s, George Orwell feared that future authoritarian regimes would ban books and censor printed matter. He assumed that people would still be reading when Big Brother’s totalitarian hammer crashed down upon the presses and government revisionists began rewriting history. It seems there will be no need for this. The Winston Smiths of the future will not be able to read or to read enough to analyze and reflect upon anything of substance. Their opinions will be the product of emotions manufactured by televised images and clever soundbites, rather than something derived from critical thinking and sober judgment. When TV arrived in our homes in the 50’s, little did we suspect that the technological novelty would lead to this.