Home Education Magazine
March-April 1999 - Articles
Taming the Tube
Television Access and Literacy
The purpose of television is to sell soap, says my daughter's karate instructor, and in a larger sense he is right. The notion that the TV is neutral technology for communication, an objective lens on the world, is in this day frighteningly naive. If you think otherwise, consider for a moment your response to news programs that might be sponsored by clearly biased organizations like pro-choice or right-to-life groups, or how dependable would you feel was a business/economics program underwritten by the AFL-CIO or the Teamsters every night. Whatever you might think of those imagined sponsors, their control of the news program you listen to might make you uncomfortable. But, such control of programming is just what is going on through the corporate sponsorship of television. Programming is not sold to sponsors, their audience is. We and our children are a product, packaged by the media and sold to their advertisers. Television is selling our children.
We need not even consider the more obvious harm done by the 18,000 televised murders and 800 suicides witnessed by a child who has reached the age of 18. A more subtle and pervasive distortion of reality comes from television having become the main source of information for most people. Even if we didn't object to programming as a product of multinational corporations, rather than families, and even if we raised no objection or critical question about its main purpose, to sell something; still we would be forced to confront the fact that the conventions of the medium limit the imagination.
The medium itself distorts the world, as some things "work" on television and some things don't. Stories of individuals, for example, generate emotional involvement, drama, much more easily than stories about groups. So, television-delivered history emphasizes the importance of leaders, rather than the subtlety of historical forces and ideas. Framing and the need for emotional content require the news to be dramatized. Stories have neat endings, unlike the real world where we actually live. Having 22 minutes to tell a story between commercials means that simpleminded conventions, like bad guys with foreign accents, are convenient in a script. This is only to say that television as the purveyor of culture and information at least limits, if not grossly distorts its viewers' understanding of the world. And, these distortions invariably buttress the message of the multinational corporations, that consumerism will make us and our children free and happy.
For most homeschoolers, I would imagine that this is not new information. Many of us don't even own a television, while others struggle with how to use the machine to remain master of it, as Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty says. My family, indeed, does not own a television, but this is a weak resistance considering the influence of my daughter's peers, most of whom are products of the market. Even by hiding, we will not have protected our kids from the influence of the family-destroying consumerism at the heart of television. You don't need a TV to feel and understand the relationships within popular culture. The broad effect of media in our lives makes it practically impossible to avoid the consumer world woven by television. Even for those of us who have no TV, we must find some way to face, for example, the interrelationship among Disney movies, toys, marketing icons, and fast food.
I could, as my mother says, talk myself blue in the face, trying to enlighten my daughter to the trickery of kids meals, but I think the outcome would be questionable. Indeed, the dilemma comes down to the consuming culture having more resources than our family for luring my child into collecting all 101 plastic Dalmatians at the expense of hundreds of dollars in "Happy" meals. Neither do I feel that common sense is innate, for I believe that just left to her own devices, my daughter would follow the suggestions of advertising to make her life "happy." As Einstein is reported to have said, common sense is that layer of prejudice laid down before the age of eighteen. And in the culture we are in, common sense is being manufactured by ad campaigns.
What is there to do about all this? The mere size of the problem is paralyzing, and however much one might argue that, after all, it is a free country, money is talking here not just ideas. Like the fella said, the press is free for those who own one.
The only defense available to our family is media literacy. My daughter will live in this world created by the media, so it is essential that she understand how that two-dimensional world influences her. Rather than being a child of the television, she must learn to be critical of the enviable fantasies by which it would market her. She must be armed against this sea of baubles with the tools to be critical of the culture and of the media that manufacture it. So, we've done the closest thing to buying a press, we produce television shows.
To be literate about television is to know that programming is the result of choices made by producers, managers and sponsors. Nothing teaches the limitations and distortions of the medium as much as producing a show, for in doing so the producer herself must make the choices required by the medium to slice life into segments. And in learning to make choices, the producer is forced to consider the purpose of what she is doing. In other words, as my daughter learns to produce television she learns the ideology of programming. That is critical thinking.
Indeed, for many people the suggestion that they produce television might dredge up the feelings of hopelessness and paralysis that are engendered by the mere size of the media problem we face. The means, however, are available to those who live in any community that has cable television. The federal regulation of the cable industry that took place in the 1970's required that local communities have access to cablecast, that people have a right to use public access stations. These are local television studios whose programming is generated by citizens in the community. Your local access station should provide you with equipment and studio facilities and instruction on a first-come first-serve basis. This finds various expression in communities across the country, but the bottom line is that if you have cable in your community, you and your children can learn to produce programming for free.
I knew none of this when I first walked by the offices of our community access station with two homeschoolers, both nine years old. We started talking about how we might make a movie about homeschooling as a way to counteract the ignorance and bad will of most mainstream press. When we went into the station to talk about our idea, we found that such things were not so simple as we had imagined. That is, we would have to learn how to use the equipment, become members of the station, and take some classes. As in most things, a simple thought had brought us a new world to explore.
The first classes to take at your local access station is field, or portable, production. You are taught there how to use a camcorder and microphones as well as how to edit. Tianli and I took this course together, the goal of which is to demonstrate a proficiency in using the equipment and station facilities by making a three-minute certification tape.
Our first tape was, of course, about kids. We took the portable equipment to a play group we were part of, and Tianli interviewed kids while I worked the camera. She just asked them what they thought could change in the world to make things better for kids. After getting the raw footage and permission from parents, we spent some hours in an editing suite putting together images and sound along with music. We came out with a five-minute program called "Kids' View," which aired for two weeks on the local cable. Since we have no television, we went to friends' houses to see ourselves and the film. We also brought VHS copies to family members. This whole process was very rewarding to both Tianli and me. More importantly, we began to understand what it was we had to learn.
Our choice of subject is what brought us through, as the children speaking on camera were themselves compelling. The camera lens, however, was not the visual sponge we had assumed it to be. It did not see things the way we saw them. The point we thought we were making was not clear to the viewer. And, while we were satisfied with our own work, we could see clearly our great need for technical improvement.
We then hit the streets with a camcorder. We went to political and community events, and we found that having a mike gave us a special place in which we could ask questions and be recognized as "media people." This was satisfying and enhanced my daughter's confidence in speaking and acting in public. To stand in a group with a camcorder is to have a place that automatically overcomes the condescension and trivialization visited upon children in adult settings. The camera gave her function and importance. People would answer her questions and ask her opinion.
We began spending a lot of time at the station editing. This time has had the ancillary benefit of exposing Tianli to a lot of people who take her seriously and a number of strong women who have become role models and mentors as well as friends. She found that learning the technical skills of editing was a challenge, though not as difficult as learning the piano, say.
Our time at the station expanded beyond our initial goals, to a view of local access as community service. This led to our taking on other projects, and we began to read the news on a weekly program for the visually impaired. Every Friday morning, we sit in front of a live camera and read the local news for an hour. This has resulted in an interest in local and regional politics for Tianli that would otherwise come as a dusty, disembodied civics lesson. Community politics has come alive to her as she meets local politicians and as her awareness of audience grows. People call the show with comments and questions, and many people actually stop her on the street to say hello and tell her what a good job she is doing. These events have bolstered her confidence, not to mention her reading ability.
As her awareness of audience has grown, so has her interest in expression. This awareness of audience and its link to expression is similar to, and I would argue enhances, the writing process. Writing begins with a somewhat vague idea, which for the experienced writer is an area of exploration that branches and expands as she writes it. The inexperienced writer will try to close off that branching as being "tangents, to but the experienced writer knows that an initial thought will become something else, revealing even to the writer herself. In other words, "topics" become full-blown, complicated ideas.
The analogy to writing works throughout the process of television production. Production follows the creative process of composition. A producer must assemble and evaluate detail, as well as consider point-of-view and audience. Every show requires her to explore a topic, revise her formulations, and edit her rough copy into a "final draft." This does not substitute for writing, but her experience helps a great deal when Tianli is actually faced with a writing project.
After our first production, Tianli came up with a number of topics for exploration, and she settled on interviewing car mechanics about what they did. As she explored this intention, she began to expand her thoughts to consider who she was speaking to and why. The result was a monthly program, "Women at Work," where she interviews women in jobs historically restricted to men. She is now actively exploring women's roles in society and has become quite sensitive to the portrayal of women in the media.
After her experience in portable production, she then wanted to explore production in the studio. Creating reality on the set is a graphic lesson in media literacy. Studio production differs from portable work in that, rather than selecting from a range of subjects and objects already present, reality must be manufactured on the set. In the studio all assumptions about television being an objective lens on the world are undermined by the actual need for the producer and director to hoodwink the view suspending her disbelief.
Learning to create a realistic representation of the world involved our taking another free class on studio production. Here we learned to manipulate a number of processes. Instead of one camera and a mike, we now were working with three cameras, an audio system, an edit deck, lighting, and computer graphics. As Tianli grew in confidence using the equipment, her enthusiasm for studio production caught wind. The complexity of the process required more focus and practice than portable production, but she threw herself into learning each part in the studio. She volunteered to help in a studio shoot whenever the chance arose, and she has come to the point at which she has learned to direct a show.
A director is responsible for the execution of the whole show, and she must decide about lighting, graphics, set and camera placement, among other things. She must tell camera operators what to do, and she must solve a thousand possible problems as they arise. Tianli approaches this all with relish.
Directing is no small boost for her own esteem and self confidence either. She has now begun to host her own live talk show, "Kids Talk Back," with call-in listeners who really like the idea of kids talking back. She even talks to her audience about the trickery of media, the use of special effects, for instance, how kids are cheated by their gullibility to technology.
My daughter has become an active audience of media, proud of her ability to see programming in terms of form, content, and technical process. By making TV, she is deconstructing TV. Is this sense, teaching kids to defang the beast is giving them a more useful tool than refusing them access.
Children can learn to make connections between programming and commercials and the assumed audience of a show. After watching an ad, Tianli will often say that the producers must be aiming this show at women, for example. She is more aware of product placement in programming, and she is, best of all, conscious of the inherently boring nature of the medium. It is, finally, much more exciting to make television than to watch it.
I had dreaded taking my daughter to see "Spice World," because of its portrayal of girl-power as an ability to purchase and its idealization of pre-adolescent sexuality. Tianli demonstrated her critical tools, however, when I finally gave in and watched it with her. She saw the movie correctly as an elaborate advertisement for shoes, dresses and make-up. She expressed her disgust at the Spice Girls ideology of weakness, in spite of her admiration for some technical devices in the movie. But, what was most gratifying to me was her understanding of the plot as ironic, in the sense that profit-driven men do indeed control the real-life group and their image.
I know that I cannot successfully stand in opposition to the television, for its tricks and blandishments are more effective than parental wisdom or authority. Not having the power to end it, we parents can, nevertheless, arm our children with a set of critical tools to undermine the workings of television in their lives. They can learn that what they see is not objective reality; it is not all true; it serves someone's purpose; and it is fabricated with the goal of affecting its viewers thoughts and behavior.
Producing television gives a child (anyone really) the critical tools and perspective for disarming and controlling its mind-warping function. Instead of being taken in by commercial advertisement for toys, a child-producer will point out how the ad was made, where the technical tricks are, and how it attempts to cheat the gullible. Moreover, as an unschooler, I have found television production a teaching vehicle for many "subjects," such as writing, math, geography, economics, politics, and reading.
That parents get involved in local access is essential here. Some community access stations, of course, are less democratic in practice than others. This only means that you should get involved with the board of directors and become an active presence in the studio, with your child. Volunteers are always needed for production and cablecasting. Sometimes, for lack of volunteers, a station may just have a bulletin board of local events, but you can get involved with that station to help create programming, especially programming for kids.
High production standards are not the point in this work. Rather, learning and gaining experience, as well as expression of disparate ideas is the primary work of local access stations. Most stations will be happy to provide cablecast time for children's programming, and your child can start by just reading stories on the air.
In addition to the need for media literacy, we must also inform the public. The image that homeschooling has in the mass media is directly related to schools as training camps for passive consumers. The image of homeschooling is not going to get a fair hearing in the media because kids who don't go to school miss the obedience training. This makes homeschooling a direct threat to marketing, the main business of media.
We can, however, inform our communities that homeschooling is a valid alternative to dominant media notions of what is natural and normal in child rearing, education and lifestyle. A small group of homeschooling parents can make a big difference in this regard. I have been producing a weekly program called "The Homeschool Alternative," on which I have been doing nothing more than interview homeschoolers I know. My target audience is those parents who have begun to question the effect of schooling on their children, perhaps the mother who has just been told that her child is not fitting in or has been acting out. Such a project is a good way to network and meet new people, as well as to provide a counterpoint to mainstream media's misrepresentation of homeschooling. With some involvement in our community access stations we can both make our children media literate and effect a strategy to master the tube.
©1999, Jim Dunn
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