Friday, January 22, 2010

Re-Post: "A Case For Watching (Engaging) More TV"

I reproduce my article here, first published in "Under One Blog," a collaborative blogging project by a group of Regent-College alumni, intent to engage society more actively and more constructively.

DATE: 22 Jan 2010

Synopsis: Many Christians have consistently condemned the TV to the dungeons of evil. The question is, can we continue to do this? Can we afford to let the evil powers and principalities take over while Christians let them?

I come from a tradition that periodically demonizes the television set. Ugly names are regularly hurled at the helpless rectangular box. Derogatory labels range from ‘Idiot-box,’ ‘boob-tube,’ ‘the box,’ to more sinister ones such as the ‘devil’s chief weapon.’ My first experience with a colour television set was in 1974, where my father bought the new TV just in time for the World Cup Soccer tournament. Watching TV has been a favourite pastime for my family, despite the constant arguments that too much TV dulls the mind. I admit. There are some programs that are simply sick to the core. Others contain too much violence, vulgarity that turn a promising story into another opportunity to display artificial macho-ness. Sometimes I feel the TV lies more than its purported truth. The difference lies in how we read the director’s cut.

The current TV tax law proposal has heightened the animosity between the cable companies and the local networks. Local TV is asking the cable to pay their share for local programming. Cable companies refuse to pay, saying that any money gained by local networks simply means the end-users end up footing the bill. It strikes me as preposterous that each party speaks in such a way that they are ‘right,’ and the other is ‘wrong.’ Regardless of who you watch first, there is a nagging feeling that each of them are equally guilty of telling only their side of the story. Hence, who is correct? Depends on who you watch.

A Change of Heart
Recently I have a change of paradigm. Condemning TV itself is not going to be helpful. Yet, should we be content to tolerate some of those trash on the tube? No. Something more needs to be done. My change of heart stems from three observations. Firstly, despite the rise of the Internet, TV watching is rising, not falling. With the Vancouver Olympics next month, advertisers are gearing up for a sharp surge in viewership, especially on days when Team Canada competes in the Ice-Hockey games. Not only that, movie makers are no longer just dependent on the theatres to bring in the cash to recoup their movie-making investment. Releasing movies on the TV networks is a way to maintain revenue for old movies. For example, the Star Trek series made more money in reruns, despite its miserable returns when it was first released. Secondly, the culture around which my children is growing up in, seems headed toward more visual teaching, especially through videos on the television set. At one time, my kid excitedly comes back telling me that her teacher showed the whole class a full movie, simply because he does not feel like teaching that day. I was initially flabbergasted. However, as I think of my recent engagement with professors specializing in media, they tell me that this is a trend that is likely to increase. Thirdly, I have been asking whether it is more useful to villanize TV or to engage it. After all, TV remains one of the most used devices in any home. Yes, more people watch TV than they read books. For me, I watch more Harry Potter movies than Harry Potter books. I am not suggesting that we join the TV watching revolution simply because we cannot defeat it. I am saying that there is a more constructive way to approach TV. Instead of being passive TV watchers, which certainly dulls one’s mind and creativity, why not engage the TV and to let the producers, the TV media and the advertizers know that we can be a force not to be trifled with?

Beyond 'Viewing'  & Watching: The 7 Habits of TV Engagement
Quentin Schultze argues that there is a difference between ‘watching’ and ‘viewing’ television. The former is ‘passive and largely uncritical’ while the latter ‘requires one to look for the values and beliefs that animate television messages.’ I tend to agree, but feel that we need to move a step further from ‘viewing’ toward engagement.

One of my concerns is that it is not always that easy to make a distinction between ‘watching’ and ‘viewing.’ When my mind is tired, I just want to relax and let the television do all the talking and creating. It is only when I am relatively more awake that I can put on the thinking cap. Having said that, let me propose my idea of a 7-habits in highly Practical Engagement.

1. Advertising (Advertising Base): Write to the advertisers in the offending movie. Address it to “Customer Representative” or “Customer Relations” to state that you will not buy their product because you disagree with the values in the movie. Perhaps, if you write in to the cereal company, the beer or the ice-cream shop, they may even send you a free coupon.

2. Balance (Hear Views Fairly): It is easy to be swayed in a message by any one TV channel. Watch at least two viewpoints. I find the talk shows that gather different viewpoints really helpful, to realize the diversity of views.

3. Compliment (Positive Reinforcement): When a good movie or program is being shown, write an email to the station, or to convey a word of thanks for showing the program. Tell them specifically what are the values that you find should be repeated. You’ll be surprised that this gives producers and TV stations the incentive to look for similar programs in the future.

4. Discerning (Home-base): Every program on TV has a particular plot. Discern what it is, even the advertisements flashed. For parents, use the TV as another ‘parenting moment’ to teach our kids to watch with discernment.

5. Embrace Diversity: In an increasingly global world, choose programs that have a fair representation of as many ethnic groups as possible. I notice a gradual increase of non-white people in TV series such as 24, House, and others. Also be ready to send a message to the producers if you feel a particular show is too biased toward any one race.

6. Feedback (to TV station base): Sometimes, there are good programs that are unfortunately marred by bad language. Feedback to the producers. Tell the studios that you actively disagree with the subliminal message bent on portraying ‘vulgarity’ as reality in life. Just hearing a ‘four-letter’ word uttered does not mean that ALL places accept the vulgar word as a norm.

7. Group: This point is aimed particularly at Christians, especially those of the evangelical camp. Rather than to say that TV is evil, and then hide ourselves in the closet of separateness, it is better to be a visible salt and light to the world, and not allow the free reign of undesirable influences in Hollywood. Remember that when Christians take the movies seriously, Hollywood will learn to take Christians seriously. They need to know that Christians can be a powerful consumer group too.

The English philosopher, Edwin Burke has been widely quoted:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Let me assert that if Christians do nothing about what they see on TV, we risk letting evil control a very powerful media. We risk becoming people who do nothing, except whining and complaining quietly about the world where evil reigns on the TV. May that never happen. Christians can be good citizens and at the same time, be helpful engagers of modern media.

Written by:

Conrade Yap (MDiv, Regent-College)
22 Jan 2010

• Schultze, Quentin. "Television." The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity. Eds. R Paul Stevens and Robert Banks. Downers Grove: IVP, 1997. 1025-7.

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