Television not always an 'idiot box'

Published 12:35 am Wednesday, October 2, 2002

By By ROBERT BLANKENSHIP - Managing Editor
Often times, we have all found ourselves sitting in front of the tube, rhythmically hitting the channel button on our remotes, searching for the perfect television program for that exact moment. All too often that search yields no results. In fact, it usually ends with a long breath and a disappointing click of the power button.
With all the mediocre and lowest common denominator programming being offered today, it's amazing how many of us still sign up for cable and satellite service. It's fortunate for these businesses that people have to watch sports and keep up with national and world events on a minute-by-minute status.
But, speaking as a person who grew up staring at such television classics as "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "The A-Team," it is somewhat redeeming when you're able to find something truly wonderful to watch. I had that experience last week when I happened across a re-running of Ken Burns' documentary of "The Civil War."
From the siege of Fort Sumter to Pickett's charge at Gettysburg, the documentary took viewers to the 1860s through photos, letters from soldiers and interviews with experts.
I'm sure many people watched the series, if not last week then during its original run several years ago. It is a long series, which meant I had to miss pieces and portions through the week. But, when I was able to watch, I was completely enthralled and amazed. I couldn't help but wonder what our society would be like if there was more programming of that nature on television.
The Public Broadcasting System, whose programming to me stretches too far toward the high brow at some times while at other times digressing toward downright hokiness, serves its audience well as far as providing alternatives to the same-old network series and cable trash.
Television is a misused tool. There is so much potential to help teach and enlighten a vast audience of people. The big question is: Is it television executives or the viewing audience who is at fault for today's programming? While it is not the most popular thing to say, I do believe it is the audience who dictates programming. After all, they (which includes parents) have the ability to turn the television off.
The problem is that too many viewers feel that have to be entertained at all times. There is a misconception that when the television clicks on, the brain clicks off. Few people would rather learn about the geographic wonders of the Himilayan Mountains than see who is sleeping with whom on some trashy nighttime drama. I do believe that if more people turned from these shows to watch "NOVA" on PBS or "Biography" on A&E, you would see more educational programming on the networks as well.
Perhaps, we are seeing that. Over the past 20 years, the big three networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - have lost 40 percent of their audience, presumably to cable channels. Problem is, many of these viewers have turned to more provocative programs like "The Sopranos" on HBO. Instead of copycatting the educational-type programs from A&E, Discovery and The History Channel, the networks have loaded onto the smut bandwagon, because of the high ratings they have received on cable.
I don't mean to say that television cannot be entertaining and that we should only watch shows that provide educational value. I would certainly be lying if I said that was all I watch. I watch too many baseball games and, when I had HBO, did enjoy watching "The Sopranos." On weekday evenings I might be found on the recliner watching "Everybody Loves Raymond" or "Frazier."
But, watching "The Civil War" reminded me that television can be better. It reminded me that television provides the unique ability to enlighten while it entertains. I think it has the power to make this a better society.
Perhaps we should all make a commitment to, at least once a week, watch a program that teaches us about another part of the world or places us in the middle of one of history's great events. Better yet, we could turn off the tube and read a book or spend real time with our families.