Video Values: Questions for the Reflective Viewer


This article originally appeared in Issue# 40-41

"There's trouble right here in River City...why, the boys are out back of the corn crib reading Capt'n Billy's Whiz Bang."
– a line from The Music Man

It is no longer enough to look with studied criticism at the content of media and ask questions about its effects.

The advent of each new technology in history has produced changes beyond the anticipation of its inventors, dreams of its investors or hopes of those who sought to possess it. The television set was brought into the home for entertainment. In the last 35 years it has come to displace, or accompany, seven hours a day of activity in the average home.

On the way to that statistic TV has changed our furniture arrangements, eating habits, language, political process. public agendas, and the nature of questions about the birds and the bees."

When you flip the channel, where and why do YOU stop?

The small, bluish screen of yesteryear has shrunk to the wrist, expanded to wall size, gone color and attached itself to the typewriter. It has, by turns, been an instrument of family cohesion and division.

Over the last few years the communications industry has been tracking a new phenomenon — the takeoff of the home video-cassette market. Now in 40 percent of TV homes, the little boxes are outselling cable and vastly altering the forces that govern network programming. movie production and cable system hookup.

Media commentator Tony Schwartz called the VCR's growing popularity "the most important development in telecommunications since the printing press."

Many VCR owners tend to be media junkies, which may account for the unexpected acceleration of multi-VCR households. Once installed, their power of scheduling and content may inspire major changes in family viewing patterns.

A Time magazine article described a family with eight VCRs. Even the baby has a video camera trained on her crib as a monitor. Her antics can be videotaped at the touch of a button, and if she starts crying she can be immediately soothed by a tape of Sesame Street.

Such extensive use may be extreme, but it's still a far cry from the days when you could visit a friend's home and with relative familiarity turn on the TV, use the telephone or even adjust the oven. Today our homes are becoming technological islands where only the family members know how to operate all the new computerized entertainment, information and labor-saving devices.

No Ready Answers

In the midst of all the newness, some familiar questions tease the fringes of our consciousness — what are these new devices doing to me, to my family? Most commonly the questions relate to the content of media, particularly television, but increasingly, they must be asked of video games, video cassettes, music videos and "adult television" on satellites, cable and tapes.

The themes of the last few decades of analysis continue, with complaints of too much advertising, sex, or violence — or too little good news, good music, good drama. Less often raised are questions of what it means to become a multiple-set family, what has happened to negotiation around family viewing, perhaps with a bowl of popcorn, now that each member of the family views his or her own set?

We don't have to look far to be reminded of the increasing pace of technological development. Cover stories, feature stories, special reports and advertising in our old media (print, radio, and television) coax us into acquiring the devices of the new media. In addition to the VCR we are teased by computers, pocket pagers, answering machines, CD players and more. Mail order catalogs offer a high-priced, high-tech playground for the child of the television age, come of age. Even the familiar, time-honored catalogs of Sears and Wards have high-tech sections and supplements.

Every generation in history has taken delight in pointing out that things are changing at an unheard-of pace. In truth, until the major revolutions of agriculture, industry, transportation and communication, things stayed much the same from century to century. With the development of electronic communication the diffusion of technology throughout society has increased at a rapidly accelerating rate, aided and abetted by Madison Avenue and our desire to have the new, now.

The change of epochs was noted by an older man attending a Television Awareness Training workshop in the Midwest a number of years ago. After a discussion of the relation of advertising and entertainment in TV programming, he said, Its just like the old medicine wagon that came to town. You got to see the entertainment and then there was the pitch for the product. The only difference today is we have to buy the wagon."

How do our personal value systems affect our use of the new media technology and our selection of content?

Nowadays, you might even say that we buy the wagon, and then go out looking for the tonic to fill it.

How do our personal value systems affect our use of the new media technology and our selection of content? We need a dual focus in this quest of discovery with a commitment to understanding, intentionality and choice. It is helpful to look at aspects of the interaction between communication media and values.

Processing Our Values

First, and most familiar, is the question "What are the systems and structures of media (both technology and content) and how are we used by them?"

In our society, each innovation is introduced primarily for return on investment. The disciplines of science or the arts create the new. Production and marketing systems, interacting with economics and psychology (and sometimes government regulation) evolve marketing plans based on analysis of potential customers. While the advertisement may extol the utility of the product, or virtue of content, the intent is to sell as much as possible. This intention introduces subtle manipulation such as the marketing of home computers by seeking to make parents feel guilty if they do not have one for the children, or the suggestion that you will not be a valued person if you do not have the latest technological marvel.

Second, and more difficult, is the question of how we use media. What values underlie the selections we make? Our patterns are plainly in front of us, be it an evening of network TV, cable or video, skimming a magazine, or spending time on the family computer.

The curious thing is how unaware we tend to be of how we make our selections. We cannot read, view or listen to even a small fraction of what is available, so throughout our lives we attend to those things we somehow determine that we need.

The Video Mirror

We meet ourselves when we seriously reflect on the new media technology we choose for our lives and homes.

In the early days of television I knew a man whose religious group, and he himself, were widely known for their work for world peace. One evening I found him at home watching boxing, a common program at that time. From his body language it was quite obvious that this man of peace was in the ring doing battle with one or another of the contenders.

What are the systems and structures of media and how are we used by them?

Conflicted responses are not unique to our transactions with media. They are a part of life. However, in no other area of life are our transactions so carefully studied with the intention of increasing our consumption of either device or content.

To some extent the advertisers are having trouble keeping up with us, as we use our new power to fast-forward through video-taped commercials or reduce hours of sports programming to a few minutes of action highlights. If the television generation was raised to expect a conflict resolution and happy ending every 30 minutes, will today's video kids spend their lives looking for the fast-forward button?

As we accelerate our lives to respond to the tempo of innovation, it pays to take a closer look at our motivations.

Reviewing Our Motives

Most books about the place of television and other media in our lives have a running theme of what They are doing to Us. Rarely is the question asked, "What is our motivation when we purchase new media technology and begin consuming the content it provides?"

The former analysis is relatively easy, fascinating and important to do. Young people and adults take to critical viewing skills exercises quite eagerly, and become adept at taking television commercials or programs apart.

It is a rare exercise, process, or discipline that asks us to look within to our roots an subconscious to understand our transactions with image and device. For their part the manufacturers and producers have far clearer understandings and expectations of how we will respond to their wares. Large budgets are devoted to researching our hidden motivation.

Experiencing Our Values

One positive step we can take is to become more careful observers of our transactions with media.

Many people report that sometimes they just want to watch television, not a specific program but just television. It is common to scan the channels, pausing briefly to sample, seeking the least objectionable program." Be aware the next time you do it. When do you choose to pause longer — a dramatic moment? An attractive person? Fine acting? A chase - scene? A fight? What personal selectivity factor was involved — was it a childhood image? Sexuality? An appreciation of art? An unresolved anger?

Among the powerful human feelings that can influence our selections are the desire to be loved, the wish to be in control, the fear of not being accepted as well as the quest for pleasure, new experiences, and new resources for living.

Another exercise is to develop a continuum or comparison between your values and those of the medium. Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and label one side." My basic values." On the other side put. "What this media technology or content promises."

List your values first. They might include cooperation. helping others, seeing people as each having unique worth, problem solving through peacemaking, care for the environment, wisdom, patience, sexuality as a natural gift and self respect

Opposite them list the appeals of new media technology or content that strike a responsive chord in you. Don't be surprised if there are some discontinuities or even conflicts in the two columns. We are complex individuals and billions have been spent learning how to reach us at every possible level.

The aim of these exercises is to become conscious of your role in the transaction with media and values, to discover your own selectivity factors and then to make intentional choices based on your new understandings.

This is not to ignore the accountability of the creators of technological dreams. On the contrary, it recognizes that to criticize "them" without looking within is to ignore the reality that we are frequently willing participants because our needs are so well known.

The accuracy of our critique of the system will be better informed by our reflection on our own participation.

Author Bio: 

Rev. George Conklin is an award-winning media and computer consultant. He has served as associate professor of communications at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California, and has conducted seminars on technology/values and use of media in many locations in Asia, the Pacific islands, Africa and the Middle East. He is currently co-developer of Worldwide Faith News and serves as Project Director.