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(March 21, 2002, Gazette)

Tune in, buy stuff

Jeffrey PardyThe Times for the Making Lecture Series was organized three years ago to improve public understanding of the relationships between people in the world and discuss social responsibility through lectures. I checked out the last of this year’s lectures, which was entitled More Than Meets The Eye: Watching Television Watching Us, by John J. Pungente. I probably watch as much TV as the average student here at MUN, therefore I figure I’m as good a candidate as any to watch, critique, and write about a lecture on television. However, I am slightly biased. I have a T-shirt that says “Kill your television.” I curse the damn thing a couple of days for making me lethargic, as I waste an hour or two surfing through the endless barrage of crap they put on the tube. Then again, doesn’t that make me a better candidate since I’m a cynical observer when it comes to TV programming? What difference do my experiences and attitudes make when it comes to watching TV?

Apparently it makes a lot of difference. Pungente suggests that who you are and where you come from makes a lot of difference on what you see and hear. Let’s compare violent cartoons and the news, for example. I was bitter and frustrated at the fact that Ren and Stimpy was hauled off the air a number of years ago, in part due to parental advisory committees. However, compared to recent shows like South Park and Beast Wars, Ren and Stimpy seems pretty tame. These kinds of cartoons are big problems for parental discretion groups who suggest that they encourage violent behavior in their children. Parents also argue that kids have trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction, and therefore what they watch should be monitored closely.

However, when surveyed by the news program 60 Minutes, children had no problem telling the difference between shows like the Power Rangers and the news. They all gave basically the same response: one is fiction while the other is not. The two most violent types of shows, the news and sports, are actually ignored by these parental committees, which attack the wrong types of programming. Often, the news is a far more frightening and influential experience for children than watching violent cartoons or TV shows. The experience and attitudes of the adult is not the same as the experience of the child.

Another point Pugente examined is the influence of youth culture on commercialism and TV programming. He suggests that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the most moral show on the air today as it deals with growing up in a twisted society and examines issues like sex, life, death, and morals. Basically, he suggests that it is a modern morality play. I don’t know about you, but I never really got that impression when I was watching Buffy. I just figured it was good filler for guys with nothing to do, who were waiting for the next episode of Baywatch to come on. However, when I heard about the morals of shows like Dawson’s Creek, I thought about re-examining my program grading system. Dawson’s Creek sold all of its clothing rights to American Eagle, which forces the characters on the show to wear only that type of clothing. Now, instead of airing American Eagle commercials, the show is basically an hour long commercial for the company. “Hey Dawson, is that last fall’s rugby sweater? Totally cliché!” Give me a break, talk about selling out!

As for selling, I always wondered why Sprite’s commercials drive that slogan, “Image is nothing, Thirst is everything. Obey your Thirst,” into our heads. It turns out that Sprite had a marketing research company working for them that paid kids to go into chat rooms and act as average web surfers. The purpose of this was to find information that would allow Sprite to capitalize on the youth market. Apparently they found out that: 1) We hate typical, fake, boring commercials, and: 2) hip hop is the way to multi-billion dollar success. Hence you get the don’t-buy-our-product-because-someone-else-does routine and a Sprite subsidized hip-hop industry. Sprite is now one of the fastest growing soft drinks in the world. Corporate executives see young people, and in particular the billions of dollars North American youths have, as a major market to conquer. A mere five to seven major companies basically own our entire culture, and they are getting away with selling us who and what we are. You better believe that companies are selling us our generation’s fads and credos!

Is television to blame for sexual promiscuity, violence, and low grades, or are we simply passing the buck? I’m not really sure. I’m still confident that it facilitates my laziness, but I’m not too sure if I want to kill my TV anymore. The one thing Pungente stressed is that we should always be aware of what we are watching. Does this show have anything relevant to say, or is it an hour long commercial? What does this mean to me, can I relate to it? Ultimately, Pungente argues television is nothing more than a black box which is there simply to entertain us. Don’t believe everything you see on TV, and question everything, even articles on the news. This may be the only way to stave off the corporate tyrants, parental committees, and everyone else who is out to turn North American TV into an even more inane instrument of complacency than it already is.