Teaching TV 101 in High School

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright September 1997, August 2002

Marty and I were having a bull session at my house, and the topic of the vast wasteland, TV, came up. After going through the usual platitudes about how disappointing TV was as an education medium, compared to its success as an entertainment medium, we started to talk about why this was so.

Two ideas came up:

Note that in this discussion I mean both TV and newer forms of video communication as well.

Idea Density

TV producing is a lot of work compared to writing. To fill up a page of paper with typewritten text takes an idea and about two thousand keystrokes. This means that once an idea creator reaches even moderate typing speeds, hammering out the idea becomes the major effort in filling up the page, not the typing. Producing a page of text is so simple that it's easy for the imagination to run wild.

Give this same typewritten page to a TV producer, and it becomes roughly a minute of show time. To make that minute of show time will require coordinating dozens of people and tons of equipment.

This means that the idea is a major part of the writing process, but only a minor part of the TV show creation process. If a TV show gets idea heavy (as in, too much of the production effort is spent on the idea), then it will be uncomfortable to watch. Viewers, critics, and other producers will complain that production values are not up to par.

Idea density is a big difference between communicating by writing and communicating by TV. Idea density is different in all kinds of communications mediums. For instance, it's different between radio and TV, and that's why advertisements promoting advertising on radio often emphasize how imaginative radio can be.

Teaching How to Watch

Watching TV for entertainment is instinctive; watching TV for other reasons, such as education, requires training. TV is a mass media. Even in its 500 channel cable incarnation, it is a media for the masses, so to change what TV is watched for is going to require mass education. We should be teaching TV watching in our schools.

Why do we teach reading and writing in school? We teach them as tools for communication. If a person is going to traffic in ideas in a literate society, that person needs to read and write. Why should we be teaching TV? If a person is going to traffic in ideas in a TV-literate society, that person needs to become TV-literate. We should teach how to watch TV and how to produce TV. This should not be a "chess club" activity -- these should be mainstream classes, right beside English classes.

In TV watching, viewers should be taught how to appreciate various producing techniques and how to feedback their feelings to producers and broadcasters.

Beyond Sound Bite News

There are a couple shortcomings about current TV that I attribute to poorly educated viewers. First, the short attention span of TV presentations. Sound bite news is popular with producers because it's quick and easy to edit. When viewers demand "pictures at ten", they are demanding sound bite news. Sound bite news is easy, and viewers should know just how easy. They should learn this in school. They should also learn that there are other formats, formats that require more off-screen preparation, but can present complex ideas better. They should learn and experiment, and then demand a wider range of formats from producers. We teach students to write as well as read; we should teach students to produce, as well as watch, TV.

Beyond Familiar Faces

TV gives us high-technology relatives. TV personalities are in our homes every day, so there's a strong instinct for us to think of them as relatives, rather than strangers. The result of this is that TV anchors and regular reporters gain enormous credibility with viewers simply because they are on TV a lot. This is a weakness: TV commentators have spans of competence, just as we all do. They can't be experts in everything, but there's an instinct on the part of viewers to treat them as know-it-all relatives.

This means that it's difficult for non-familiar faces to be treated with credibility, even if their credentials are superior. The stranger on TV is not believed, even if the stranger is well-informed and presents information well.

This tendency to trust a familiar face is an instinct, much as fear of strangers is an instinct. If fear of strangers is worthy of unlearning, so is accepting familiar faces on TV as the most trustworthy. TV 101 in school should teach other ways of judging credibility, such as analytical thinking about what the person is saying and listening to alternative points of view.

TV is a major part of our society. We should recognize this by training our children to be good viewers of TV. If we raise the standards of our viewers, the producers will instinctively follow, and we will see much better TV.


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