Whump-poing! As phony as the charge of the Ajax white knight, but with an aim just as sure, the onslaught of the new television season slams America in the pit of the stomach. Men of science (see them marching in white coats) have given TV power … power … power to blast you out of the kitchen and drop you in a programmed channel.
There you will sit for hours, avoiding twenty million other Americans by watching the same programs. Saturation is about complete. More than 90 per cent of American households have television sets, and the average set runs for five or six hours every day. Never were so many joined in one cult at one time; never did the common act of so many mean so little. Americans do not really work together, live together, or pray together; they only escape together.
The tube is still one-way. TV scans live audiences in the thousands at its sports spectaculars, but it cannot zoom in on the loners and Adams families in the millions who sit and watch at home. But the viewers are never forgotten. Audience-measurement experts count the hands that twist the dials. From the samplings of National Arbitron (or Trendex or Nielsen ratings) they will tell the sponsors how many people are learning that hexomonia is stronger than dirt. They do it with formulas—sure to impress the makers of hexomonia. Artists may avoid formulas, but industrialists love them; commercial television is an industry. Critical praise won’t save a single show doomed by this month’s Nielsen rating.
It takes a formula to beat a formula. To determine what millions will watch, find out what they are watching and give them more. The medium is still too costly for gambling on fresh approaches: will Jesse James stake everything on the cards to top the gambler in the back room? You bet your boots he will, and so will “Paul Bryan” running for his life on another channel the same night. The producer won’t gamble with a hero who won’t gamble!
The only thing safer than applying the formula is copying the way another show with a high rating has already applied the formula. No one is supposed to miss the family resemblance between the Cartwrights of Bonanza (NBC) and the Barkleys of The Big Valley (ABC). The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (NBC) began as a copy of movie spy James Bond and has ushered into the Bondage a new version of Amos Burke—Secret Agent (ABC); a female counterpart, Honey West (ABC); and an integrated spy team in I Spy (NBC). The Wild, Wild West (CBS) puts the secret agent to work for Ulysses S. Grant, but with a railroad carload of preatomic gimmicks. Since the original Bond series was a slap-happy caricature of the sexy spy story and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. spoofs Bond, the next step was predictable. Get Smart! (NBC) spoofs the spy-spoofs and at last the TV audience is laughing. Smart, of course, is the spy. His shoe-telephone rings in a symphony concert; he stumbles out to a closet to answer it, locks himself in, shoots out the lock to escape, and emerges at last from the unequal struggle with Mr. Big, the midget-sized villain, to utter a memorable closing line. As the crook blows himself and his ship to pieces with a charge of Inthermo aimed at the Statue of Liberty, Smart sighs, “If only he could have turned his evil genius into … niceness!”
A few doses of such parody could be amusing; McHale’s Navy has managed to stay funny for almost half the time it has been on the air. Yet the spectacle of TV running in circles after its tail grows tedious, even when the dizzy hound is in color.
The new shows offer little hope of a change in pace or formula. “Turn on the ACTION,” as the ads demand, and you have tuned in on Formula One: E = SV2 (Escape equals sex times the square of violence). The action shows may be spiced with sex, but violence carries the wallop. The scene is indifferent: war, the West, espionage, the underworld—any battleground will do, except, of course, one that would involve the viewers too directly: Viet Nam and race riots must be avoided.
Why all the violence? Is the mass audience masochistic? Do coddled Americans want to be punched in the stomach or nailed in a barrel?
The answer seems to be simpler. It’s almost impossible to stop watching a fight, particularly if you are identified with one of the combatants. I know. I had expected a headache when I accepted a week of watching for this article. What I got was a stomach-ache as I took classic clobberings with Robert Horton of Shenandoah, Lee Majors of The Big Valley, Ivan Dixon of I Spy, and half the cast of Laredo. The worst was the vicious cruelty suggested in a beating administered to Roy Thinnes of The Long. Hot Summer by the old residents of Frenchmen’s Bend, allegedly in Faulkner country.
But while you are being kicked in the stomach you can’t stop looking. You will therefore stay in the channel and hear about the underarm deodorant that pays for this illusion of mayhem.
And next week? The millions come back for more, because life seems to gain in meaning when you watch a man fight for it.
Of course not all the action shows use the formula the same way. Combat, a veteran series, avoids gimmicks and works for human drama. Somewhere near the opposite end of the scale is Amos Burke, where violence is flippant and meaningless and sex is thrown into the limit of the NAB code and the ABC network censorship. Laredo, one of the new shows, has a built-in bantering tone; two of the principals kid their hapless hero-comrade and the script. But the banter was curdled in sudden, incongruous slaughter at the end of the first show when the bogus Indian “Lazyfoot” was hit with a knife in the back. The bored scriptwriter seemed to have forgotten that the formula still uses human life—and death.
Enough violence? Then turn on the FUN. Formula Two states that entertainment equals stars (E = S). Stars may be stacked in ranks, as in variety shows, or given individual settings as in Jackie Gleason’s wry pantomimes.
Variety shows like Hullabaloo present a surrealistic version of old vaudeville. Stars in outlandish costumes writhe with the mike: “Ah gah choo, babe!” Sudden seizures of expression crack the face mask above the rocking pelvis. Again, a strange detachment. Is this a satire? Are the performers mocking the act?
The viewer who wants reassurance will flip to a different sort of fun—the situation comedy. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, based on Jean Kerr’s book, brings some fresh ideas and an English sheep dog to the domestic comedy pattern. Gidgel is the normal teen-ager implausibly billed as a “surf bunny,” but the second program had the interesting thesis that lascivious dances are innocent for the high school crowd but spell trouble for grown-ups. Mona McClushey is a slight vehicle for the talents of Juliet Prowse. She plays a movie actress married to an Air Force sergeant who wants to be the head of his house.
My Mother, the Car is a formula derived from crossing Bewitched with Mr. Ed, the talking horse. Mother is reincarnated as a 1928 Porter. The show is as silly as the idea. It is not, however, the silliest new series. That award goes to Lost in Space. This program loads a rocket ship with a fantastic payload: the space family Robinson, an evil scientist, a robot, and all the blinking lights and whirring noises in the studio. The rocket goes into “hyperdrive” and escapes the galaxy. Very good. TV follows it. Very bad.
Such is the “New Year” of TV: blossoming with color, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It includes technical triumphs, skilled performances, talented people, but it does not look at life—it looks away. The “Big” new programs do not answer the big questions; they scarcely dare ask them. The old morality play of the good guys and the bad guys is still a formula for Westerns, but it is losing to the Loner with blood on his hands, the Fugitive fleeing unjust retribution, and Shenandoah, man of lost identity, seeking what he fears to find.
The religious figure appears only as the fanatic seeking vengeance of Jesse James, or the confused preacher whose pacifism is a hazard on the frontier. The most meaningful questions of the new season, overplayed though they are, may be found in Run for Your Life. A man whose months are numbered sees life differently. The threat of death is “a hand erasing all life’s equations and writing new ones.”
To the Christian Church the greatest threat of television is not its incitement to violence or lust but its banality. Christians are watching when they ought to be praying. A recent study of TV audience attitudes showed that most people feel guilty about the time they waste. The editor asks. “Why these Calvinistic hesitations about televiewing, in contrast with the self-satisfaction associated with reading?”Gary A. Steiner, The People Look at Television (New York: Knopf, 1963, p. 59).
Tell him, somebody.
Now for our concluding commercial: Don’t miss A Charlie Brown Christmas, Thursday, December 9. 7:30–8:00 P.M. EST, on CBS.
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