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November 12, 2006

Review: George Gerbner and the Media Education Foundation

A few weeks ago, I wrote about watching a Media Education Foundation video called The Ad and the Ego on the evils of the advertising industry. This week, I watched another two more of their productions, this time both documentaries featuring the late researcher George Gerbner. This time, the videos focused on the commercialism and conglomeration of the major television industries and how they limit the ability of the networks to tell good stories.

While I do not agree with many of the premises of the video, there are, of course, some effective arguments made as well. I usually dislike the simple-mindedness and lack of nuance of most of the MEF offerings in their unequivocal attacks on television content, advertising, etc., but I do try to at least pick out some of the best points made in such works.

In this case, the positives:

1.) The media's power is more in bolstering and reinforcement of attitudes rather than new effects. I think this is an important point and one that bears more weight than the people who claim someone has murdered someone else because of what they saw on TV, the mimicry "effects" arguments. This seems a much more likely explanation of some negative points of mass media influence.

2.) There is a lack of representation for older female characters. I strongly agree with this, and have emphasized it in several ways in my argument for soaps not to target a particular demographic. He points out that female actresses get far less representation the older they get and that, further, the types of roles they can get are even more restricted. While I think soaps provide a good alternative in theory, as they do tend to have more older women on contract than most other shows, it is still an important point to be made. There are a great number of older viewers out there, and there should be more stories out there that depict their concerns and appeal to them. See my recent comments on legacy characters in soaps, as well as Kay Alden's, John Andersson's and others in the comments section. As for the video, they may be right; we'll reach gender equality when we see Sean Connery make love to a woman his own age."

3.) Lack of representation across economic lines. I agree that there is not a good depiction of lower economic levels, and that's why television shows about the working man have always held a special place for me, starting with The Honeymooners and All in the Family, among many others. They point out that the lower economic levels most often appear in crime shows and are thus associated with breaking the law. The statistic the MEF gave, now some years old, is that the lower 30 percent of the population are represented by 1.2 percent of television characters. That is deplorable, and I hope it has improved since then.

4.) Lack of representation across racial lines. At the time, they cited the lack of representation of Latino characters and the lack of nuanced roles for black characters. I agree again, although there has been a rise in Latino characters. While pro wrestling often participates in various racial stereotypes, researchers like Ellen Seiter has pointed out that one of the reasons wrestling has been so popular among Mexican-American households and other minorities is because it provides an interesting color divide. For instance, on Smackdown, the general manager is African-American, the world champion is African-American, one of the top contenders is African-American, along with several other African-American stars, two other top stars are Mexican-American, and there are Asian-American, Native American, Irish, British, Canadian (including French-Canadian), and Italian-American. On WWE's other two brands, there are Arab-American, Puerto Rican, Samoan, Scottish-American, Mexican-American, African-American, Canadian, French, Italian-American, and Indian characters. Again, I recognize that some of these stars are presented in stereotypical ways, but they bridge across "face" and "heel" roles and are much more diverse than most other television programs.

And, on the other side, the negatives:

1.) Television as one lump sum. Just as with advertising, their lack of nuance looking at television reeks of criticism of dime novels, comic books, film, and almost any other medium along the way. There is no discussion of the chance of artistry in television programming, as if it had no purpose other than filler for advertisers. That may be the financial power driving the industry, but that isn't why viewers watch, and it isn't why creative and intelligent people come to the industry with their programming. A lack of nuance leads to dismissing all television as trash and thus makes it harder to criticize the offenders.

2.) A small group of men are telling all our stories. You know the men...Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone, etc. These type of arguments ignore the independently produced shows that are then picked up by networks, the wide diversity of people working for these conglomerates, and any of their creative abilities. Further than that, this is one of their analogies. People used to hear stories from teachers, and now they hear them from these corporations. Their point was supposed to be that teachers were able to tell stories directly, while corporate restrictions hinder the stories told on television. However, knowing how much censorship and restriction is put in place by school boards and state educational systems, I don't see the teacher in the classroom as an unrestricted and free public storytelling space by any means, nor do I see the corporate conglomerates in the black and white terms that Gerbner and the MEF does. I'm sorry, but nothing against Sumner or Rupert, but I doubt I would enjoy a show written or directed by them.

3.) No distinguishing between the television and movie industries. I know that many conglomerates have their fingers in both of these pies, but the television and movie industries are not the same and have different approaches, problems, and revenue streams. While I know movies do air on television, a large amount of the visuals shown in these documentaries when they were talking about the television producers. I found it to be a little confusing and perhaps misleading.

4.) Heavy viewing and correlation with conservatism. They bring up reactionary values shown among heavy television viewing, but this is a strange cause-and-effect argument. Might there be other reasons that people who spend more time at home watching television would believe certain things that stretches beyond their interest in television?

Gerbner concludes one of the videos with a call to action to design a cultural and environmental system which will address how we can create an environment for our children's stories and create socializing influences that are more fair, more equitable, more just and less damaging than the one we have to day. This is somewhat of a paraphrasing, but I think it brings up a distinct difference between what I want to do and what the MEF wants to do. It's the difference between topping a system and creating something different versus working with and within the current system to create a better media environment. Of course, I believe that the approach of encouraging the system to be more responsive to fans, to take greater interest in telling greater stories, and to be more socially aware is more effective than unwaveringly attacking conglomerates and pitting oneself against them. Yet, while I don't agree with their premise, I am not unwilling to admit that Gerbner does have plenty of good points as well.

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