Channel Surfing Circa 2013
We don't have cable television at my house. Thus, when I go on a trip, I like to see what I have been missing. It's also informative for me to search the local radio stations as we travel.
Radio: The first thing noticed on the radio airwaves was that it was the George Zimmerman Show. Most of the nation is still under siege by right-wing airhead blowhards, who were as obsessed over this case as were television "news" programs. According to the conservative pundits and callers that I heard: 1. Trayvon Martin was the actual aggressor; 2. George Zimmerman truly feared for his life even though Trayvon Martin was only armed with Skittles and George Zimmerman had a concealed gun; 3. The case had nothing to do with race; 4 The case bore no relation to the "Stand Your Ground" laws which have been enacted in some states, including Florida where the incident took place; 5. It was clearly a case of "self-defense" by Zimmerman; 6. "Stand Your Ground" laws are merely "common sense" and without them, citizens are not allowed to "defend themselves"; 7. Trayvon Martin was part of a thuggish African-American youth subculture and thus may very well have been up to no good.
During our travels from California to Arkansas and back, the only progressive radio show that I heard was the Randi Rhodes show in New Mexico. (I think it was being broadcast from my father's hometown, Albuquerque -- known as Albacore to my wife -- New Mexico.) States visited included Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Colorado, in that order. I found New Mexico to be the most progressive state that we visited, although I know the eastslope of the Rocky Mountains along the Denver metropolis corridor to be progressive too from our trip to that area in 2008. The rest of the area remains in the greedy grasp of Limbaughland. In fact, in some spots, Rush Limbaugh (or Sean Hannity, or whatever conservative pundit was broadcasting at the time) was on at least 4-5 stations simultaneously that I could hear.
Regarding music, which generally draws a younger crowd, the findings were more encouraging. There were a few places which had music similar to the alternative, somewhat intellectual pop I listen to in California, including a station in Arkansas, much to my surprise. (It was called "The Edge.") I noticed many stations which identified with "Iheart Radio." I am not sure what "Iheart Radio" is, and the content differed, but I usually liked those stations. Some of the music I hadn't heard before or not much (such as maybe only in Kohl's Department Store while accompanying my shopping wife) was very good I thought, and more importantly, said in progressive dog whistle language, that big changes are coming in the world, and a progressive revolution is in the offing. I mean, when even Texas born and raised American Idol queen Kelly Clarkson is singing like a revolutionary, either it's all just a big joke, or world changing events are well under way. Some music consisted of love songs by pretty sounding young women, or nice sounding young men, but the subtext, it seemed to me, was that love and relationships are the new ethos to supplant capitalism and mindless devotion to work.
Television: The first night, I discovered that television is aiming more directly for the crotch than ever before. As it happens, I stumbled upon a show where an attractive young woman was heading for an island in a boat. She described herself as being likened to a nun while growing up, and thus was nervous about taking her clothes off and meeting her partner. What?! Yes indeedy, she stripped naked (showing her backside while blotting out strategic parts of her frontside) and met her equally naked male partner, whose genitals were blotted out but the rest was visible. For those who aren't in the know, it turns out that this is the new hit show on the Discovery Channel called "Naked and Afraid." From the numerous ads I saw, each week a man and a woman are stripped of their clothing and asked to spend 3 weeks in some remote location on a survival mission. There is no sex or implied sex between them, but meeting each other in the nude and spending 3 weeks together does seem pretty extreme. If it wasn't about sex appeal, why not just have 2 naked survivalist guys romping through the woods? Perhaps in the future "dating show," a man and woman will agree to have sex with each other before even meeting, and subsequently rate each other sexually. Perhaps a woman will agree to have sex with several male "contestants," and rate them on their sexual technique -- talk about "stiff competition." I am not sure what to call the converse where a man agrees to have sex with several women, but I am guessing that there would be no shortage of men willing to do that. I hope none of this comes to pass, but I am just saying, this is where things seem to be heading if the television programmers can get away with it...
There were also shows which used sexy titles to advertise a completely non-sexual topic, such as Pawn Stars, which was about pawn shop owners, and my favorite, Top Hooker, which was a fishing competition. Aside from that, it was click... people hunting Alligators click...people wrestling Alligators or Sharks... click...people eating Alligators or Sharks...click..."Fox News" -- "George Zimmerman is an innocent victim" --- click... MSNBC "Trayvon Martin was an innocent victim of George Zimmerman" (I clearly side with MSNBC where I got to watch my media crush Alex Wagner, who is an oriental woman despite the name)...click...redneck moonshine makers and their lives on display... click...Disney Channel with some famous young stars I have never heard of... click...the Squarebob Spongepants show or whatever the name is...click...a show where people are measuring spiritual energies and talking to ghosts in "haunted places" (which I find interesting although I don't know whether they really are finding ghosts or not)...click.. the Weather Channel...click... some infotainment show allowing people to keep their knowledge of their favorite celebrities current...etc. etc. etc. You get the idea.
Here is my take as a social psychologist, on the entertainment industry. Under a capitalist system, the success of radio or television programming is based upon the ability of the show to generate revenue. Revenue is from advertising, except in the case of public programming, when it is from donations by viewers, and "sponsors." Contrast this to schooling, in which success is measured as learning. Thus, while the goal of entertainment shows is to "make money" whatever it takes, the goal of schooling is for people to learn useful skills and knowledge, including most crucially how to acquire more knowledge. When the goal is to "make money" on the other hand, success depends upon pleasing the audience, which means appealing to their needs in some way.
Needs to which programming might appeal include: 1. The human sex drive; 2. The need for self-esteem; 3. Aesthetic appeals such as music, beautiful scenery or attractive people; 4. Humor; 5. The need for bonding or empathy; 6. The drive for information and to satisfy one's curiosity. There may be other needs but those are all I can think of at the moment.
Of these needs, only the last one relates to the goal of education, which is to learn more about our Universe. Even this one has been perverted in modern media, however, in many instances (although remaining pristine in other instances). For example, many shows are about celebrities, which gives people information and satisfies their curiosity, but only about the insular and distorted world of celebrity.
The sex drive motif has traditionally been subject to the greatest amount of taboo, thus making it the need where programming executives are most tempted to delve into new areas and attempt to break down the taboos, as in the show "Naked and Afraid," which seems a blatantly manipulative show to me. Sadly, any possible taboos against fictional violence have long since been abandoned, with violence used as a tool of emotional manipulation -- being justified when perpetrated by "good guys" and usually being the result of unspeakable evil when perpetrated by "bad guys." Real violence still holds some taboos, but some of these have also been gradually worn away by the relentless assault of profit-driven media.
On the need for self-esteem, it would actually be possible for shows to present useful information and give self-administered quizzes. In fact, some educational programming does exactly that. However, this is foreign to the thinking of most people who create entertainment programming. Without such measures, the ability of media to create self-esteem is limited. One thing it can do is to appeal to pride, such as nationalism, or even the local football team. Another way to vicariously bolster self-esteem is to make the viewers feel better than other people. This is a very common ploy which I see increasingly on cable television. Thus, witness the various shows about rednecks, such as "Moonshine" makers, Alligator hunters, Honey Boo-boo, and so forth -- virtually all of whom are "white people," as are the opposite gender pairs in "Naked and Afraid." I wonder what the reaction would be to pairing a naked African-American man with a naked "White woman" on "Naked and Afraid" would be -- I am guessing that would still be a bit too taboo for programmers to risk it, but perhaps in the near future...Anyway, showing one's fellow citizens as relatively ignorant, uneducated people with major problems to deal with in life, may make those who are insecure about themselves, feel better, as does being exposed to the problems of celebrities.
Music as a tool of emotional manipulation, of course is ubiquitous in fictional programming, although there is much less of it in reality programming. On the other hand, I noticed that many shows use scenery as a tool, including "Naked and Afraid" and the various other outdoorsy shows. The use of attractive people is nearly ubiquitous, although some reality shows cannot help but feature homely looking people (which adds to the viewers' feelings of superiority or perhaps empathy). Humor is also used in programming nearly universally, even in serious shows, which usually end with an "all's-well" scenario, a joke and some laughter. Bonding and empathy are also important in attracting viewers to certain programming, and certainly is a positive thing in general. However, entertainment may once again present people in such a way that bonding takes place in the context of a distorted version of reality. People bonding with celebrities is a good example. Some disturbed people bond so strongly with a particular celebrity, that they become stalkers. Even reality shows featuring "ordinary people" may present them in a distorted fashion and thus promote false beliefs about life. This is a problem with entertainment (as opposed to ecducational) shows in general, even so-called "reality shows," as they are at best, very selective in what they show, and at worst, encourage people to believe in a false version of reality.
Anyway, I had these observations from my trip, which to me offer further confirmation of the need to break away from a profit-driven, capitalistic model as applied to entertainment. Public programming offers a great improvement in this regard over privately owned station programming, but is not a complete panacea for these problems. They still need money from donors and more insidiously, since donors are usually not sufficient, "sponsors" as well.