Telecult—Our Real Religion

Television as a form of religion.

Kenneth Curtis, Ph.D., is general man ager of Gate way Films in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.


I CAN VIVIDLY remember the time some thirty years ago at about age 6 when I incurred my parents' wrath for sneaking into a bar. I had huddled in the back to catch a glimpse of the incomparable new invention—the television set, at that time a small round screen within a very big box—and the bar had the only set anyone knew about.

Equally strong in my memory is the time, at about age 10, when my parents took me to one of their friends' house on a Friday night so I could see the Red Sox play the Yankees on television, an experience to me of such ecstasy and marvel I lay awake all night replaying the game in my mind.

That first introduction to television and the sense of fascination, suspense—indeed, almost a suspicion that one was approaching the edge of the supernatural—could only be found today in a pretwentieth-century remote culture. The television set is no longer a novelty or luxury or wonder; it has be come a standard piece in the furnishing of the American home (replacing the dining table as the center of the family), and is regarded as a foremost necessity, with more homes in our country now having television sets than have flush toilets. But though the sense of super natural awe has disappeared, television has swept and changed our lives as surely as a revival.

For the past fifteen years I have en joyed the opportunity to relate to this medium in various ways. I have been a program producer, a talk-show host, a researcher, and a seller to the industry of feature films. I have done my doctoral dissertation on the study of television and its commercials, and I am a teacher of media at both the graduate and undergraduate levels—not to mention a consumer and parent of young consumers. This intimate exposure has brought me to the passionate conclusion that television has assumed a far greater role in our lives than we may think, that it is a momentous and unprecedented force in shaping our future, and that as Christian believers we have an urgent obligation to understand and respond to it in the light of Scripture.

We need to be aware, of course, that every society inevitably develops cultural institutions. These serve a primary role in defining reality, shaping values, influencing attitudes and guiding lifestyles. In our society the cultural institutions that have performed these functions have primarily been the home, the church, and the school. Television must now be reckoned as a cultural institution, as well. It has become, in many ways, a parent, a teacher, and a priest, and it has reoriented and changed the formative roles of the home, school, and church.

Some have gone so far as to claim that television has now assumed the role of a new religion for the North American people. For example, George Gerbner, a prominent communications researcher, says, "It is a religion beyond the dreams of emperors and priests because its ministrations are subsidized by a levy on the price of all goods and are invited to entertain in every home in the land."

Jeffrey Schrank, a media educator, picks up the same theme in a lighter vein, claiming that television has re placed religion as the opiate of the masses, and that "celebrities are its priests, the network its denominations, the ratings its morality, TV sets and antennae its shrines, regular viewing its worship, and programs its rituals. This theory would explain the practice of so much repetition on TV in commercials, series, and reruns—we have a need for ritualistic repetition."

I have often thought of the key days of the television year as High Holy Days of a religious calendar: the start of the new season, the holiday specials, the Super Bowl, the quadrennial political conventions, and the soap opera mythology.

We all suspect that television has assumed a critical role in our lives, but research is still too primitive to deter mine what that role is and what effects it ultimately will have.

We do know that television has brought the powerful benefits of world wide communication, especially with satellite technology. Medical advice can be given from a thousand miles away. The globe has become a village—some feel the Vietnam war was briefer be cause of the public awareness of it through television. And, of course, we are daily conscious of its entertainment and education. This is where Christian discernment is most needed, and I will return to that aspect shortly.

But, first, let us review a few facts about television.

In its short life span of say, twenty-five years, television has achieved almost total penetration of U.S. homes. In 1950 less than 10 per cent had sets; by 1966 94 per cent had them, and today over 99 per cent of American homes have one or more television sets.

This almost-universal penetration of the nation has captured viewer interest and time involvement to such an extent that television has become the primary source of leisure- and recreational-time activity. The average household TV usage per day has climbed steadily over the past decade. The set is now turned on an average of six hours and fourteen minutes per day in the typical American household.

With this kind of viewer commitment, top-rated national shows draw audiences in excess of 40 million people. Indeed, if a prime-time network show draws less than 20 million viewers, its future is in jeopardy. TV Guide has the largest circulation of any United States magazine, with some 19 million. Jesus fed and spoke to gatherings, the Gospels tell us, of five thousand. Today's television programmer, who feeds the mind and imagination, could not be bothered with so small an audience.

Unlike the print revolution, almost everyone can partake of television to some degree. There is no video illiteracy.

The social functions of television suggest, again, its religious character. They extend and perhaps intensify the influence of all the mass media. In a classic study (Lazarfeld and Merton) these social functions include:

Status conferral. The media bestow prestige, enhance authority, and confer status on issues, people, organizations, and movements. What would it mean for a TV crew to show up at a meeting you are attending?

The enforcement of social norms. What society deems acceptable is reaffirmed; the deviant is put down. As Harvey Cox says, "The media culture becomes a kind of touchstone for one's own worth and even one's own perceptions. . . . People begin to distrust their own ideas and impulses if they are not corroborated by the media. The signals begin to prescribe not only what is good and true but what is real."

Narcotizing dysfunction. A vast sup ply of media output, rather than energizing and producing action, tends to cause passivity and inertia, or as suggested earlier, television may be the new opiate, or narcotic, of the masses.

We cannot understand television in our country if we overlook that it reflects the priorities of its ownership by a small and concentrated group. These broadcasters will claim they are chiefly devoted to using the public airwaves for our best interests, but the overriding criterion of profit actually informs all decisions and policies. Any broadcasting executive who lapses in his grasp of this reality is easily and quickly replaced, for the stakes are high. The television industry's profit this year, on a gross of $6 billion, will be close to $1 billion.

Television's source of income, namely commercial advertising, has a deter mining influence on programming policy and planning, and it exercises an irresistible "informal" control over the medium. He who pays the piper still has something to say about the tune.

What effect does television have on its viewers? A person's life consists of many interests, inputs, and relationships, all of which are to some degree stored in the conscious and unconscious. We do not have the means to measure accurately the effects of TV, though we might draw conclusions from the $6 billion investment by TV advertising this year.

In an experiment in West Germany, where people were deprived of television, something similar to withdrawal symptoms was observed. In another in stance, the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter reports that an Army base deprived of imported U.S. programming witnessed a dramatic rise in the divorce rate among married servicemen.

Of course, we may think television is entertainment or distraction, but all communication is purposeful. Television is education. The process of selection of what is presented, the many subtle nuances—all combine to give an impression of what life is like, what is important, what behavior is worthy of copying, what attitudes are desirable, how problems are solved, and how people interact. Television is an incessant, effective, and ever-present teacher about life.

If this is true, alert Christians must ask, "What is the TV curriculum?"

Let's look at one area as a primary example, the commercials. To the commercials are given the loudest, most far-reaching voice ever enjoyed by a communicator. They are based and designed on the most thorough and sophisticated research into the motivation of the human personality that has been conducted anywhere under scientific procedures, and they are produced with the most capable, expert talent avail able. They have the luxury of often repeating themselves over long periods of time.

After two years of detailed research into their content, I have concluded the commercials represent an insidious assault on the Christian view of life.

Jesus taught us that our life does not consist of the abundance of things possessed. The commercials, when taken as a whole and seen cumulatively, reply that one's life consists precisely in the abundance of things we possess.

The Scriptures exhort that what is within us counts, that God looks on the heart. The commercials instruct us that what is "without" is the key to meaning. They go so far, if we look at them care fully, as to tell us what it means to be human, masculine, feminine, happy, lovable, and successful. In short, they define for a mass audience what is the "good life," but it may be closer to what the Bible calls the "broad way."

Even Biblical images turn up and are exploited in commercials. "Datsun saves." "You're in good hands with All state." Coke is "the real thing," and it "adds life" with overtones of a sacra mental meal as the basis of fellowship. And consider how the meanings of "miracle," "love," and "divine" have been trivialized by the commercial copy writers. In the Middle Ages, evil was dramatized as the seven deadly sins. To day the Alka-Seltzer commercials have practically elevated one of the former deadly sins, gluttony, to the level of a social grace.

And, finally, we should be aware of how the commercials depict reality. Women are still stereotyped; the aged, obscured and underrepresented; the poor, nonexistent. For the setting of a product, the ad agencies most often picture "noticeable affluence." We all think it is normal to be rich. The Kerner Report Concerning Civil Disorders in the late sixties credited television with provoking discontent, inflaming the mate rial appetites of the urban poor.

The drug companies invested $313 million in a recent year in television advertising. Their ads cultivate the idea that distress, discomfort, or anxiety in various forms are solved by substances. The formula is: problem plus pill equals instantaneous solution.

Where is there an equally compelling and powerful voice in our society that urges us to deal with problems in terms of the way we live, our habits, diet, attitudes, and spiritual relationship?

In all of these examples, I am not suggesting that advertisers are anti- Christian conspirators. They are merely trying to survive in a fiercely competitive arena and sell a product. But in the process they are selling a view of life, and they do it in our homes, where people are relaxed, nondefensive, and receptive.

Seeing that the television culture allures us with an outlook in conflict with the Christian one reminds us of a permanent conflict. Paul exhorted believers of all ages not to be conformed to the world, but to identify what is deceptive and not of God. We face nothing new as we deal with the ubiquitous television image and its commercial substructure. But we do face the old confrontations in a particularly beguiling contemporary guise. What shall be our response?

It would be presumptuous to offer easy answers. The television medium is here to stay. I can think of some basic approaches.

Demythologizing Television

First of all, we must see what television is. We must "demythologize" it. Television has assumed a more authoritative and believable role than print, even in its brief life span. But what is on television got there only because some one or a group of people decided it should be there, choosing among many other options. These man-made choices and creations need to be continually scrutinized. We need to ask:

What is really being said and shown here?

Where are these ideas coming from?

Why is the material presented as it is?

How shall I respond to this material in terms of my basic beliefs?

When such critical evaluation be comes a natural and instinctive part of our viewing, we will be in the position to watch TV independently, less susceptible to the subtle conditioning the medium is capable of producing.

Second, we have an obligation within the Christian community to influence what other people bring to their viewing experience. Studies have demonstrated that what people bring to their TV viewing affects what they perceive and how they translate it into their behavior. Here the church is uniquely capable by virtue of its gospel message to make people feel worthwhile; God's love provides the best inner resources to meet the deadening, dehumanizing blasts of the saturated communications environment.

Then we may need to take direct steps in our own home to regulate our viewing. A physician friend became aware of the hold television had on him and his family, and he physically "cut the cord"—he took scissors and cut the power Off. A few weeks later he allowed each member of the family to select an hour and a half a week; each one could watch his own choices and another's in addition. This rationing limited the diet of the family, and they found a new world of conversation, reading, and other family activities.

Families should discuss and evaluate in their homes the message television is sending. This will be an active response, instead of a passive one.

Finally, let's not underestimate our influence as citizens and consumers. If we give our opinion, the FCC, the networks, the advertisers, and the stations will listen to us. We have legal rights under the broadcasting statutes. Let's use them.

The view of life that the Scriptures give us is fully adequate for a techno logical age. In fact the symbols, images, and vision of reality we find in the Bible are far more satisfying than the empty symbols, images, and visions of reality that come through the electronic religion. Our challenge now is to be faithful stewards of the living Word—not escaping from the media, but influencing it. As they say in advertising jargon. "The market is there. Now where are we going to 'position' ourselves?"

Reprinted by permission of Eternity Magazine, Copyright 1977, Evangelical Ministries, 1716 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, I Pa. 19103.

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Kenneth Curtis, Ph.D., is general man ager of Gate way Films in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

June 1977

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