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De Mars Studies 'Wasteland'
Years ago television was called a "vast wasteland." Today people are perhaps even more concerned about the effect of television programs on our youth.
While there are no certain answers to these concerns, a new book by Tony De Mars, visiting assistant professor in radio/television at Sam Houston State University, may help explain why television seems to have changed, and what this means.
The book is "Modeling Behavior from Images of Reality in Television Narratives." Its promotional claim is that "readers will gain a broad understanding of the concerns for television effects, and be able to judge the potential of television narratives to influence socialization and acculturation.
"The study shows that television narratives have the ability to create meanings which reinforce or refute dominant ideas and myths of the society. Examines such shows as Beavis and Butt-Head; Family Matters; Home Improvement; Jenny Jones; Married With Children; Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; Oprah; Roseanne; Sally Jesse Raphael; South Park, and The Simpsons."
De Mars answered several questions relating to his research.
Q. Has TV programming changed, and why?
"The book points out that when only three major networks dominated content, they could afford to be conservative, because even being in third place meant getting 20-25 percent of the total U. S. population. Now, with Fox, Warner, UPN, all the cable networks, etc., a lot more voices get to be heard in the content, and previously taboo topics and ideas get presented and rewarded as appropriate."
Q. Are the shows you examined--Beavis and Butt-Head, The Simpsons, etc., that different from the Ozzie and Harriet-era shows, and has society changed that much?
"Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, etc., had the dominant view of the white/Anglo male who had power over information in the 1950s and early '60s--and created the meaning that reinforced maintaining that power. Today's programs create different meanings, but still conform to maintaining the power of those who control information distribution. Meanings being reinforced have not changed; what meanings are presented and embraced have. Research still is split regarding the true effects of those changes."
Q. Should TV programming show society as it is, warts and all, and do such depictions affect the way we behave?
"It really is the age-old debate of does art imitate life or do people imitate art. Research shows that TV shows (just like movies, popular music, etc.) do sometimes have some effects on some people. But social science dynamics as they are, that's about as precise as it gets."
Q. Is this something we need to worry about? A lot of people do. Is the quality of TV programming ruining our kids?
""The main point is that people DO worry about how society is and often blame television. This book tries to show the range of discussion about the debate and show what role ideas presented in TV programs may have."
Q. What do you try to teach your students relating to this situation? They're the people who are going to be producing the next generation of entertainment. Do they have an obligation to show leadership and try to use the media as an enlightened force or should they just "go with the flow" and learn how to be successful?
"I do talk about how powerful media messages can be and responsibilities and ethics people in control of the content should have. I make it clear to students that broadcasting is a business and done for profit--which affects some of those decisions. And I try to get across an idea in their minds to try not to just focus on making money as the motivation for doing things."
Q. Anything you'd care to add?
"It's probably worth noting that the book is priced to sell primarily to research libraries and not in the mainstream literary market, but if anyone were interested they could find it by doing an author search at Amazon.com, and could go to mellenbooks.com and get it for a 20 percent discount of the retail price."
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