Friday, January 27, 2006

Good night, and good luck

I went last night to see Good Night, And Good Luck, George Clooney's extraordinary film about Edward R. Murrow's fight against Senator Joseph McCarthy. The film begins and ends with an address Murrow made to colleague in the broadcasting industry five years after McCarthy was finally brought down. A few lines from that speech really resonated with me: "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can only do so to an extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

I love this passage because it expresses a fundamental frustration I have with television's 24/7 crap-a-thon, or rather for the justification programmers give: "Hey, we're only giving the people what they want." I think this is defeatist and condescending. Underselling the intelligence of audiences becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Murrow addresses this sentiment, having suggested that "exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation," far from being an exercise in futility, would find far more traction with the viewing public than many believe: "To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only replay: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost."

Sing it, Ed.


Lesley said...

I think it's what has happened to society more than what has happened to programming. Managers of stations/networks etc. are now required to "sell" their programming. Whether it's through news or entertainment. It's all about advertising dollars, money spent vs. money in, and what they THINK the general public wants. You can see it most evident in the fall when so many networks unleash their new fall programming and they've either built upon, or copied completely the success of the other networks they are in direct competition with.

It's gotten to the point where you can't find anything that is actually neutral, out only to inform, or someone who has a direct honesty that isn't willing to be cowed by something like advertising dollars. I see it in my line of work because we have to get the right information out to people, so that they are informed and better prepared to know what is going on in their community. Instead, they have their local politicians on the airwaves and the local papers that they read religiously telling them things that aren't true because it means that the community watches their shows and reads their papers and votes for specific politicians.

It's a sad statement that people are now manipulated by the mighty dollar, rather than the truth. But the general masses who create this type of situation are the ones who won't understand what truth is and how to find it. Rather, we have to search it for ourselves and decide whether we want to be entertained or if we want to be given the truth.

Clarence (jer) said...

Chris - Hear, hear. The proof (and excuse a moment of patriotism) was in the quality AND mainstream popularity of British television, c.1965-1980 (I understand these were the CBC's golden years as well, under the stewardship of Sydney Newman and his ilk). We even referred to the BBC as "Aunty Beeb", and it rewarded our affection with something edifying for everyone. ITV wasn't bad either, and Channel 4 took up the creative baton in the early 80s. Nowadays, of course, most British telly is at least as crap as anyone else's (and often worse). I confess (and you can likely tell) that I find the dumbing-down of UK telly particularly depressing. Pet peeves, a propos: shots that last a few nanoseconds and then cut (in order, presumably, to keep the viewer's attention by inducing vertigo), and split-screen trailers that render the credits illegible and the music inaudible. I-get-so-CROSS!!!