What can we do about poor TV programming?

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“What can we do about poor TV programming?” Ensign, Oct. 1981, 24–25

My family and I are often disappointed when we turn on the television these days. There are so many mediocre shows, so much trivia, violence, and obscenity. What can we do about poor TV programming?

Bruce L. Christensen, general manager of KUED-TV and KUER-FM, and high councilor in the Salt Lake Mt. Olympus Stake. Those of us who work in television often hear people express strong feelings about problems they think are presented to society through television: “TV corrupts children’s minds.” “It wastes valuable time.” “It teaches violence, sexual immorality, and intemperance.” “It is destroying the family.”

Because television is my profession, I sometimes feel like a tax collector defending the tax system when I state my thought that the physical instrument in itself is not the cause of either our societal or familial problems. As Edward R. Murrow once said:

“A communications system is totally neutral. It has no conscience, no principle, no morality. It has only a history. It will broadcast filth or inspiration with equal facility. It will speak the truth as loudly as it will speak falsehood. It is, in sum, no more or less than the men and women who use it.” (“Lights and Titles in a Box,” speech given to the Radio Television News Directors Association, Chicago, Ill., 15 Oct. 1958, reprinted in Documents of American Broadcasting, 3rd ed., ed. Frank J. Kahn, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1978, pp. 251–61.)

Television technology does have enormous social influence. But I think we make a mistake when we condemn the messenger because of the message. It would be foolish, for example, to open a newspaper to the obituaries and then criticize the paper for being depressing. The key is to be discriminating in what we choose to watch—and this would be true of any medium.

We must recognize that television does not and cannot always offer something that everyone will agree is worth watching, and, indeed, there is much that is mindless and banal on the television. Television provides so many different kinds of entertainment and instruction to so many different levels of tastes that we must be selective. The problem comes in assuming that there will be something worth watching regardless of the time of day or the day of the week. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Those who have grown up on a farm or ranch know that a horse will eat all the oats it can get at, even if it kills the animal. It knows no self-discipline at the trough. And many people are often the same when it comes to television viewing. They turn on the TV and watch whatever happens to be on—for hours at a time. When they don’t like a program that comes on, they may say, “See what’s on the other channel.” Thus, they become conditioned to watching whatever they find least offensive rather than choosing only productions that are worthwhile and ignoring the rest.

The basis for television viewing must be self-discipline. Our minds will be less flabby if we are sparing and selective in our choices.

Some suggestions for disciplined television viewing might include:

1. Watch television with a purpose. Watch to be taught, entertained, or informed—but know what you want to see before turning on the set. (Do you do any differently in your reading habits? Or do you read anything and everything indiscriminately?)

2. Use a program guide to help with the selection of programs. This helps avoid “channel jumping” and allows you to plan other activities.

3. Firmly limit the number of hours of television viewing in your home. Set daily and weekly maximums. This helps enforce the need to be selective in viewing.

4. Use television to stimulate other activities. A trip to the museum, bird refuge, ballet, concert, or library can have its genesis in selective television viewing.

5. Teach children to be discriminating in their program choices. Sit with them as they analyze the program guide, and discuss the good and bad points of programs they may want to watch.

6. Never use television to babysit or merely to keep yourself or children occupied. Such use trains individuals to watch without a specific purpose.

7. Never watch TV during a family meal. Television should not invade this important hour when the family can and should talk to each other.

Disciplined viewing will lead to TV literacy, which is the intelligent, thoughtful, and selective use of a medium that has had, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on our lives. Again, quoting from Edward R. Murrow: “Television can teach, it can illuminate, yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely lights and wires in a box.” (See Fred R. Friendly, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control, New York: Vintage Books, 1967, p. ix.)

Once we begin to exercise disciplined viewing, we are ready for the next step: expressing to the programmers our preferences. When you see a program that you especially enjoy or feel to be a worthwhile broadcast, write to the station, network, and sponsor and let them know. Do the same for objectionable programs.

It has been my experience that people take time to write only when they are angry. Few people inform programmers the kinds of programs they want to watch or specify what they would like to see. Although you might feel a stronger motivation to write letters about undesirable programs, positive letters that thank sponsors, networks, and stations for quality programs may ultimately have more influence. With these steps you can use the technology of television with discipline and discretion instead of permitting it to become a negative influence in your home.