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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Island America

March 1st, 2006

BY JOEL HESS

I wonder how many of the contributors to this month’s All-Television Issue of Black Lamb will write about the immense inanity of American TV, or mention Newt Minow’s oft-repeated quotation about television’s being a vast wasteland. In the forty-some years since the former FCC chairman made that astute observation, the landscape has only grown vaster, what with three new broadcast networks and hundreds of cable choices, and more barren. I am not about to enumerate americatv.jpgthe myriad ways this is so — most of Black Lamb’s readers, simply by nature of your being readers, are surely painfully aware of the dilemma, and one need only briefly consider Paris Hilton to confirm it. (I am convinced, incidentally, that Paris is the Zsa Zsa Gabor of this decade: a talentless blonde bimbo who is famous for being famous. At least Zsa Zsa was amusing on talk shows.) But there is one aspect of this question I would like to bring up, since it indicates to me a serious fault with American society. And, frankly, it drives me to distraction, especially since returning recently from Europe.

Spend twenty-four hours sometime viewing American TV. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, or what part of the country, or what channel(s) you choose. Notice anything? It’s likely that in those twenty-four hours you will not see a single second about anything outside the U.S.

Not on sitcoms, not on sports broadcasts, not on reality shows, not even on the news. And, unless you’re watching Spanish-language TV in cities with significant Latino markets, you won’t hear a word of anything but English. Even a report on Iraq will involve only how it affects Americans, not what’s happening to Iraqis. It’s as if we’re in the middle of a huge ocean and the rest of the world simply doesn’t exist, or exists merely as a backdrop for Americans.

Contrast this to Europe. In Madrid and Barcelona, from which I recently returned, television carries not only stations in English, French, German, and other languages, but also programming from other countries on the local-language channels. While I was there, new channels were reporting as much on rioting in France and developments in Iraq as they were on the big local new story, the birth of a new Spanish princess. I didn’t see enough to comment on the quality of Spanish TV in general, but at least their kids are going to be aware that people live in other countries of the world.

Where are our kids going to learn this? Certainly not on the tube. With rare exceptions — the Food Channel, for example, with shows like Iron Chef, and, of course, the Travel Channel — no one ever needs a passport. In fact, in the entire history of network TV, I can think of only four sitcoms or dramas set in a real country outside the borders of the U.S.: in a trio of shows set in war zones (Hogan’s Heroes, M*A*S*H, and China Beach) and an execrable sitcom, Café Americain (no accent marks!), which starred the terminally perky Valerie Bertinelli as an American expatriate in Paris and lasted just one season. (I’m not counting shows that are set in fantasy places — Star Trek, The Flintstones, Fantasy Island — which are generally just America transplanted somewhere else.) Even the few shows that show foreign climes rarely show actual foreigners. Survivor features Americans struggling to survive in exotic locales with nary an Indonesian or Marquesan in sight; smiling The Price Is Right models show screaming, frumpy housewife contestants posters of the dream vacation to the sandy beaches of Tahiti, and no one ever gets an unfortunate glimpse of an inconvenient foreigner.

As I write this, the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy are about a month away. This is a truly international sporting event, and one in which American athletes traditionally don’t fare particularly well. But it’s not hard to predict that you’ll never know that from U.S. television coverage. On TV you’ll surely be seeing American athletes almost exclusively, skiing and skating and luging, interspersed with warm-and-fuzzy closeups on how this skater’s mother overcame cancer or that skier conquered stuttering. Meanwhile, if you’re a phenomenal athlete from South Korea or Austria, you’ll be lucky to get mentioned, and then only if you’re competing against an American. It’s a travesty.

Is it any wonder that the average American on the street is woefully ignorant of world geography? Television’s not exclusively responsible, of course; the schools certainly bear much of the blame — too many have given up teaching geography, civics, and world cultures altogether. But television is, for better or worse, central to our contemporary culture, and its failure to educate and inform is scandalous. Should we really be surprised when people swallow uncritically such ludicrous assertions as the idea that the Iraqi people, inheritors of a 5,000-year-old history of stubborn independence, would greet American invaders with flowers and hugs of gratitude? Given the critical impact of television on American culture, the increasing interdependence of the global economy, and the fact that the networks have for decades gotten a free pass in using public airwaves, this insularity, amounting to isolationism, is nothing short of shameful. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Hess | Link to this Entry

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