Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-3-5952 5780

+61-4-1349 7828

Mar 2009 # 1

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Back to Editorials 2009

TV or Bust

Have you ever had one of those months where its suddenly the end and you are hard pressed to recall what you did over the last 30 or so days? If so, welcome to the brave new world of disasters, terrors, wars, gluts, downturns, failures, frauds and fiscal miscreants. How are we meant to keep up?

According to the producers and programmers employed by our TV networks, we aren't. They tell us we (that is the unwashed viewing public) don't want tough, thoughtful, insightful programs after a hard day at the coal face. We want 'light' entertainment.

By this they mean programs like “The Worlds Ugliest Dancing Star” and “Celebrity Renovation Nightmare Video Hits” or maybe “Big Nanny Losers”. You get the picture. The TV execs are saying that we need more pap and less good information.

They dress this up saying that audiences are now “sophisticated consumers of media” and we are “discerning” and pick and choose. Top among our choices, the execs tell us, are programs that were once accused of 'dumbing us down'. The TV execs say this claim is hogwash and rather than dumbing us down, they tell us the programs they present play an important part in keeping us sane and relaxed.

“Light entertainment” is the order of the day not only for TV but for radio and many newspapers and magazines. No longer is the aim of the producers and publishers to enlighten and educate, it seems the pendulum has swung fully to the side of 'entertainment' … if you call seeing people humiliated and degraded on programs like “Funniest Home Videos” or “Aussie Tarts in London” entertainment.

The “Productivity Commission” is an organisation established by our government to reduce everything from forests and beaches to the airwaves and mothering to a dollar value. Over the years they have produced many reports in relation to broadcasting in which they refer to the “value” of the available broadcast spectrum and how the economics of dividing it up should be realised.

While in a couple of the reports they do refer to the social utility of the airwaves, the overwhelming focus is on how much they are worth. This, to me, is to miss the entire point. Like a forest has no value to a speculator until it is reduced to wood chips, timber framing or dining settings, the social value of the airwaves has been usurped by the amount of value that can be extracted by the lease holders of the spectrum.

TV has increased the social distance between us by making us more fearful, anxious and afraid of those we consider “others”. In a recent TV magazine editorial one commentator raised a very good distinction between the way a fictional program presented its villains and the way a so called 'reality' program did.

In the first the personality was played up. In the second it was the stereotypes. The first pretended to be nothing more that light entertainment while the second pretended to be 'real life'. At least the first one was honest. The second is nothing more than scaremongering and stereotyping.

The blurring of the line between 'reality' and fiction is closed as far as our TV producers and programmers is concerned. They tell us we want 'reality' dressed up as entertainment and 'entertainment' denuded of any reality. We are told that the TV of the future will be more about 'lifestyle' and 'light' programming because we want to “escape”. Escape to where exactly?

The technical boffins who created the technology, like most boffins, were probably more interested in solving the technical problems than examining the impact of the devices they invented. Like technicians everywhere, they saw an interesting challenge and tried to find the most elegant and effective way of overcoming it.

On the other hand the investors are more interested in the way the technology can be deployed and how much money it can bring in. They don't care about how it works so much as how many people will want one. Their concerns are driven by very limited definitions of 'value' and words like 'responsibility' have long been replaced by 'risk management'.

In the modern world of media there is a war going on. A war between them and us. They want us to believe that there is nothing we can do to change the future and that the forces lurking beyond our front door are virtually unassailable. We need to hunker down and scurry about. We need to be busy 'producing' and looking out for number one. Anyone or anything that challenges us has to excised and ignored. What a terrible future they have planned for us. But there is an alternative.

The airwaves are a public resource. The government and its various departments and commissions admit that. They tell us they need to administer that resource in an effective and responsible manner. Yet, rather than chase the real villains we get fed a media diet of hearing how this or that group are upset over some minor moral outrage. I mean, how many did actually see the “Big Brother” turkey-slapping incident? If the moral right was watching, the real question is, 'who gave them permission to tell us what we can and can't watch?'

Now, I'm not defending the incident or its perpetrators and no, I haven't watched it on UTube. If the airwaves and broadcast spectrum are a precious and limited resource, surely its about time we asked our politicians what their policy on how that resource is used is. I mean, if “Neighbours” was ever meant to 'tackle serious issues' then it would make places like Wadeye look like model communities.

Don't get me wrong I like to get lost in a good TV program as much as the next person. But more and more often I have to go beyond the free to airs to find it (and I'm not talking about pay TV either). The disasters, terrors, wars, gluts, downturns, failures, frauds and fiscal miscreants are really out there. They do exist and in various ways could and sometimes do threaten us. What we are not being told is how we can respond in ways that not only limit their impact but how we can lessen the chance of them harming us.

What is missing are the tools that will assist us in identifying the real threats and dangers. TV could be a key to building a better future and more open and inclusive societies. It was recognised a long time ago that the media has power. Power to not necessarily make us think in particular ways but in particular what to think about. At present what we are being told to think about are matters that are, in the bigger scheme of things, trivial or unimportant.

That said, maybe what we need to do is to avoid as much as we can lending our support the mainstream and find ways in which we can engage with the alternative media and become not just passive receivers but actively engaged as media producers and discerning consumers of high quality, well considered and good programs.

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