Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

The way TV was meant to be

Aae7193603 When NBC’s David Sarnoff broadcast the first television signal from the 1939 World’s Fair, he and the other pioneers of this new medium had high hopes that it would be an enormously positive force for mankind. 

In the late 1940s, television became commercially available.  The best and the brightest came to the exciting new medium from the worlds of radio, print journalism and entertainment.  In some respects, the “Golden Age” of television was, in reality, it’s peak.  Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Edward R. Murrow’s See it Now, variety shows with Jack Benny and “Uncle Milton,” Playhouse 90, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, musical offerings from Bernstein and Toscanini.

It didn’t take long for the quality to go down the drain.  In 1961, then-FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow gave a now-famous speech decrying the state of television in 1961.  One phrase in particular from the following paragraph of the speech has become a part of the vernacular and will forever be identified with the medium:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

That wasteland has grown exponentially in it’s vastness over the last four decades.  Minnow spoke of “your station” because in 1961 there were three networks, but in most markets, there were only one or two viable stations whose signal you could reliably receive.  He could not have imagined television in 2007, with mindless drivel on 100 or more channels!

Sievers_georgiades540 Every now and then you see something that makes you think, “This is what television should be all about.” A moment when television unites us in examining and dealing with an issue that touches all of our lives. One of those moments happened tonight with the premiere of Ted Koppel’s documentary Living With Cancer on the Discovery Channel.

For us, as for most people, this is a subject that hits close to home.  In the last ten years, we have lost three central figures in our lives to breast cancer: Fonda’s mother Annie, my cousin Gwen, and our dear friend Jean Tutor.  We are not unique.  There isn’t a person reading this who has not lost a family member or good friend to this horrible disease. 

Living With Cancer took us on the cancer journey with Lance Armstrong, Elizabeth Edwards, and Koppel’s best friend Leroy Sievers.  The bulk of the program focused on Sievers’ roller coaster battle with brain, lung and bone cancer.  It followed him through 16 months of treatment and was interspersed with his ongoing commentaries for NPR and his blog.

This program was television at it’s absolute best.  It made me laugh and cry.  It made me remember the losing battles Annie, Gwen, and Jean waged with the disease, and the toll that each of those losses has taken on those of us left behind.  Most of all, it made me care.

If you didn’t see this program, it will be airing again on the Discovery Channel in the days and weeks ahead.  The Town Hall meeting portion ran long, but the program itself is riveting.  I highly recommend you make it a point to see it.

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