I'll never forget something my grandmother said to me a few years ago. "I feel bad for the young people of today. The world I grew up in was so much simpler.".
Of course when she said that, I just kind of smirked and thought to myself, "Growing up before television was invented must have been boring as hell.".
When you think about how much the world changed in between 1900 and 2000... it's almost mind boggling. We have gone from horse drawn carriages and steam engine locomotives to automobiles and commercial jets in a blink of an eye on the timeline of history. Highways connecting every town in America; Airports allowing people to travel from the U.S. to Europe in under a day; Telephones enabling people to communicate instantly with people across the globe; Skyscrapers touching the sky in every major city in the world.
The really scary part is that all of this was in place before most of us were even born. How the hell did all of this get done in seventy five years when nowadays it takes at least two years to add a lane to a one mile stretch of highway?? Why did advancement slow down so much?
If you read science fiction or writers' predictions from the 1950's about what the world would be like in 2001... they seem almost far-fetched. The reality is they were just assuming that society would maintain the pace of growth that it was on. They didn't count on one major factor slowing everything down.
I'm talking about television.
Who here hasn't thought to themself, "What did people do before television came along?"...
The answer is simple... They didn't watch television.
Instead they spent their spare time reading; talking to members of their family; socializing with other families in their neighborhood; and working their asses off to try and make the world a better place for future generations.
Kids used their imagination; played sports and invented their own games with other kids in the neighborhood; and most importantly... looked at their parents as role models and treated them with respect.
Hollywood and the motion picture industry were around... but going to the movies was still just a once a week or rainy day form of entertainment for most Americans. Television acted as the Trojan horse for the entertainment industry. It was welcomed into people's homes and set up shop as a fixture in people's daily routines.
In the beginning, the television was a godsend. People could see the news and be transported around the world, from the comfort of their own living rooms. Now instead of listening to radio shows, people could see the faces and setting that went along with the voices.
Who was going to pay for this free daily information and entertainment though?
"... and now a word from our sponsors."
What better way to advertise your product to so many people at once? Businesses needed the exposure and television needed the money. It was a win-win.
At the beginning, with so few channels and limited daily programming available, businesses were competing over air time. The television industry was in the driver's seat when it came to this partnership. Newscasters were hired for their ability, not their looks. Talk show hosts had guests on to actually talk; not just plug their latest work. Families gathered around the set to watch sitcoms and laugh together.
As society advanced, television matured along with it. A nation wept upon hearing of Kennedy's assasination. The Beatles were introduced to the U.S. for the first time. The Civil Rights Movement and television brought us images of blacks and whites marching together for unity. Vietnam and the images of war were broadcast into everyone's homes. Sitcoms like All in the Family were using humor to tackle the tough issues of the day.
As the importance of television in people's daily lives grew... so did the drawbacks.
Watching television started to suck into people's time. Families talked less. Kids started pretending they were their favorite tv characters instead of making up games from scratch. People became less active. They became complacent. The world around them was good enough.
I was born in 1974. I can remember a time when television and video games were rainy day activities. I can remember playing tackle football with the other kids in my surrounding neighborhood from the time we got out of school until our Moms forced us to come in for dinner. I can remember watching The Cosby Show every Thursday, not caring if they were black, yellow, or blue... just as long as they made me laugh. I can remember anxiously waiting for the commercial break to end, to see if they rescued Baby Jessica from the well. I can remember running home from school to watch the Space Shuttle Challenger explode, after our teacher made an announcement in school earlier that day.I can remember watching MTV and being exposed to new music on a daily basis. It's hard to believe that this was only fifteen years ago.
So what has happened in the past decade or so to change television so drastically?
Too much expansion; A generation raised to brag about their remote control skills; the rise in prominence of basic cable tv; the growth of new major networks like Fox, UPN, and WB.... All of these contributed to putting advertisers in the driver's seat. The networks have to compete for sponsors now... and more importantly, they have to cater to them.
Sitcoms and dramas are rated on viewers watching... not on merit. In the past, new shows had at least a year to catch on. Now, in the fast paced business of television, people place bets on which new show will be cancelled the quickest.
With the glut of "news" stations, the competition has become fierce... and sensationalism sells. The image of Rodney King being beaten has been embedded in our brains... yet not once can I remember seeing footage of white people talking about how equally outraged we were about what happened. Racial tension sells ad space a lot more easily than racial unity. Is it any coincidence that in the past decade we have taken many steps back in racial relations in the U.S.? Blacks have created their own sub-culture out of a feeling of perennial non-acceptance by white people... and most white people our age are left shaking their heads thinking, "Don't they have any clue that the majority of us don't hate them because of something as trivial as skin color?".
Why during all of the years between Rodney King and O.J. did our president not ever address what was going on? Where were the town meetings in prime time; on every channel to discuss once and for all the underlying truth? Most whites aren't racist and most blacks aren't racist. Let's discuss our problems and hopefully move on.
Reality television has become the latest craze... showing children that reality is scheming your way to a million bucks... or being handcuffed to three dates and voting two of them off before the next day. Just because people aren't trained actors... doesn't make these shows "reality".
As an adult, I can discern through the wasteland that television has become... but what about the kids growing up today? They're more cynical than any generation that came before them... and who can blame them?
Want a perfect example...
I can remember watching and praying with my family for Baby Jessica to get rescued from the well. Will kids today hold such memories of Elian Gonzalez? More than likely, they'll remember a child, whose mother died, and whose father was fighting for his return... and a nation clamoring to send the kid back, just to get him off of our television sets.
The media likes to blame the late 90's outbreak of violence in schools on everything from video games to music. The reality is such drastic actions are the result of an intense feeling of hopelessness.
Television. What started out as a way to make the world seem a little smaller... has evolved into something that makes our world and it's problems bigger than ever.
I can't help but think, ""I feel bad for the young people of today. The world I grew up in was so much simpler.".