If a reasonably intelligent person were to read carefully through the latest “Fall Preview” of TV Guide, by far the most popular magazine in America, he would probably have a difficult time taking seriously most of the new offerings. Redd Foxx describes his new variety program, for only one example, with the following: “’I’m going to do anything that can possibly be different from what’s been done before,’ he says. ’I’ll be doing skits, bits, obnoxious things. I might play “Romeo and Juliet” with a gorilla.’” “The show will be aimed at adults,” TV Guide replies glibly. Michael J. Arlen, acutely aware of the difficulties of dealing with such deliberate nonsense, nevertheless takes television, its form and content, seriously. In a collection of twenty-one critical essays published originally in the New Yorker between September, 1974, and December, 1975, Arlen uncovers the significance of television, the meanings that lie deep beyond the meretricious, banal, and outright sappy shimmering and flickering surfaces that play on the millions of Zeniths and Sonys throughout the land. In doing so, he performs a great service to those who wish to understand the cultural and sociological and even psychological effects of the medium that enthralls or deadens but nonetheless captures anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the nation on any viewing night.
In his truly fine introduction to the collection, Arlen synthesizes the overriding themes of the rest of the essays and indicates very forcefully his point of view. Here he contradicts the defenses and counterattacks created by television producers and executive directors to fend off the too-few critical assaults on the medium. Against the networks’ allegation that television is a neutral and passive communications link that portrays life realistically and gives the people what they want, Arlen asserts that to many of its viewers television is really an active, shaping authority. The networks obviously have great power, and by the very forms and processes of television production, they shape and limit what we hear, see, and understand of the world. Between sixty-five and seventy million people get their daily information about the world, country, and local area solely through television news. Also, news programming consists essentially of selecting stories, framing them, and then editing and transmitting what the audience sees and hears. Because of these two facts, television can neither reject its own role as active authority nor depict an ultimately objective reality to its audience as it claims. In brief, “The television set transmits its version of our Yeas and its version of their rebuttal: our Nays ... television does have a role and ... it is virtually impossible for this role to be matter-of-fact or neutral.” And to counter the assertion that television simply gives its audience what it desires, Arlen offers the theory that “if a reader cannot, in advance, conceive of Moby Dick on his own, how should he ask the culture somehow to provide such a work?”
What Arlen presents in his collection, in short, is a thinking person’s guide to comprehending the significance of a medium that most thinking people allege they do not want to waste their time with, yet often escape to for entertainment, news, or sports. The View from Highway 1, immensely readable and sensible, provides those viewers with an insightful analysis of materials too fleeting to promote easy investigation. Arlen’s task is one of clarification: making coherent sense out of Tom Snyder’s hostile but ultimately aloof interviewing techniques, ferreting out the truth beneath the surfaces of such insanities as the commercials which blare “Ring around the collar,” probing the truly serious failings of network news. Nicholas Johnson, former head of the Federal Communications Commission, said in 1969, “Television is one of the most powerful forces man has ever unleashed upon himself. The quality of human life may depend enormously upon our contributions to comprehend and control that force.” Michael J. Arlen, through The View from Highway 1 and an earlier collection of critical essays entitled Living-Room War (1967), makes his contribution to the effort formalized by Johnson.
One of the most striking qualities of television programming is its remarkable...
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