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Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 1999 /14 Teves, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Media century began with unity but ends with isolation --
LOOKING BACK on the last hundred years, what is the single most significant change in the way that ordinary people live their lives?

To answer that question, you need look no further than the television set in your living room. Over the course of a lifetime, an average American will spend more time watching that TV than in any other waking hour activity-giving top priority in his brief span on this planet to a diversion that didn't exist even 100 years ago. Today, our obsession with mass media begins in infancy - some 20 years before full-time work usually commences-and continues in retirement years, long after employment has ceased. A normal American spends more time in the course of a life watching the tube than in working at all the jobs he has ever held, combined.

This radical change in everyday reality has shaped some of the most powerful forces of this century-so that the best designation for the last hundred years might be the Media Century. Motion pictures arrived at the very beginning of this era, and with the advent of radio less than twenty years later, and television at mid-century, the ceaselessly expanding entertainment industry penetrated every home. Now these distinctive 20th century technologies seem poised to give way to new, more interactive (and potentially isolating) means of amusement delivered by computers.

The media century began by breaking barriers, but ironically it has concluded my making them.

In the first half of the 1900's, mass media-primarily movies and radio - played a powerful role in bringing people together from every social class and every corner of the globe, creating history's first truly universal culture. Charlie Chaplin won recognition and affection everywhere-in part because the silent, purely visual nature of early films transcended all language barriers. An impoverished immigrant street sweeper and a captain of industry might have nothing else in common, but could well share a passionate admiration for Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford.

Halfway through the twentieth century, however, significant alterations in the delivery of popular culture tempered its unifying impact and began to exert an opposite, polarizing influence. Most importantly, television replaced movies as the dominant form of popular entertainment: instead of bringing people together for public experiences at motion picture palaces, the new medium kept people at home, transfixed in their own living rooms.

In order to compete with the tube, movies tried to offer an "edge" that TV couldn't provide, and in the mid -'60's began emphasizing more violent, sexual, and risky material. In 1965, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the mass audience crowd-pleaser "The Sound of Music"; a mere four years later, that Oscar went to the X-rated "Midnight Cowboy." Instead of uniting Americans of all ages and income groups, Hollywood increasingly cultivated a younger, hipper audience-leaving many potential patrons feeling angry and alienated.

Finally in the '80's came the fragmentation of the television audience, with the all-powerful networks challenged by countless cable alternatives. In place of "broadcasting," today's industry focuses on "narrow casting"-reaching for a specialized niche audience. In days gone by, workplace colleagues could gather by the water cooler to discuss a universally viewed episode of "I Love Lucy." But today, fans of "Felicity" may hardly speak the same language as the audience for "Touched by An Angel."

Instead of promoting a sense of community, no matter how superficial, mass media at century's end help to generate the isolation and loneliness that afflict so many Americans. With computers promising new, even more individualized means of delivering home entertainment this process gives every promise of intensifying. Even with unprecedented interactivity, images on a screen provide only a feeble substitute for face to face communication.

Remember that the average individual now devotes 28 hours a week to a diversion (television) utterly unknown a century ago, but the decline in work hours hasn't been nearly enough to make that time available. Even if we accept the optimistic notion that the typical work week has gone down ten hours in a hundred years, how do we make room for the balance of the new 18 hours (and often much more) we spend on the tube, videos, and movies?

That time comes from relationships-with family members, friends and neighbors. As we move into new media of entertainment and spend added chunks of life on the Internet, those old-fashioned human connections occupy an even lower priority. Consider that a typical citizen works eight hours each workday, sleeps eight hours each night, and watches television four hours daily. This leaves a grand total of only four hours for every other endeavor-including commuting, eating, exercising, house cleaning, community groups and all private relationships.

The once-unifying force of popular entertainment already seems to fray our sense of wholeness and belonging, as well as our links with those who should count most for us, and the shape of the immediate future suggests that the situation may only get worse.

In response, it makes little sense to decry technologies, new or old---entertainment innovations will march relentlessly forward whether we welcome them or not.

The deeper need is to place those changes in a more mature and responsible context. Just because video games offer new realism and thrills, or digital TV provides a far more dazzling reproduction of reality, doesn't mean that we must invest more time savoring these technical triumphs. All the new choices in mass media should encourage us to consider the most important choice of all-to turn back to face-to-face interpersonal interaction and to limit the time we give to electronic substitutes.

In the new millenium the big question will be whether we own and control the media of entertainment, or whether we allow those media to own and control us.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 110 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


12/15/99:The "battle in Seattle" as a '60's flashback --- only on the surface
12/01/99: Delusion and denial
11/16/99: Good reason for chaotic state of American values
11/03/99: Religion is unfairly blamed for the world's wars
10/06/99: Hollywood again makes drug use seem hip
08/25/99: NAACP attacks the wrong TV target
08/16/99: Government declares we're in a post-marriage age?

©1999, Michael Medved