OpEd Columns

You Are What You Watch (Indianapolis Star 10/16/05)

Growing up in the seventies, I’d say my teenage personality was as much a mix of my mother and father as it was a conglomeration of Arthur Fonzarelli and Johnny Fever, part Vinnie Barbarino, part Hawkeye Pierce.
I still scratch my head a lot. A lot like Chuck Barris.
Maybe I watched too much television. Or maybe I learned too much from television.
But there’s no denying television is a part of me. So are motion pictures. Thanks to seventeen viewings of The Bad News Bears as a teen, I can’t watch my son’s little league game without hearing Bizet’s Carmen.
Thanks to a 30-year addiction to Saturday Night Live, I still belch out those tired SNL water cooler one liners on occasion, I must say.
You do too.
Your language. Your wardrobe. Your swagger. How much of it do you owe to television and movies?
Probably enough to launch a line of catch phrase T-shirts or new look blue jeans. Check your closet.
It’s how we talk. It’s what we wear. It fills the minds of our children. It funds our economy. From movies to television, entertainment to information, we are what we watch.
So what are we watching this fall?
The Nielsens tell us 50 million viewers nationwide caught an episode of CSI last week. From week-to-week, it’s TV dramas and cable news talk. Not one comedy in the top ten Broadcast TV shows, not one laugh in the top ten Cable TV shows.
Are we serious, or just sick?
It’s 30 years later and Vinnie Barbarino is now Vincent the barbarian, deranged and dangerous, wanted for a series of sex crimes. Didn’t I just see Arthur Fonzarelli being interrogated on Law and Order: Criminal Intent?
In my youth, Ralph Edwards hosted This Is Your Life.” Tonight on CBS, it’s This Is Your Death. From early prime time to late local news, that’s what we’re watching this fall.
Scared yet? You should be. That’s who we are. We watch serial killers on NBC at nine. We watch them executed on the local news at eleven.
The death row execution vigil by your local TV news. You’ve seen it.
They camp outside the barbed wire of the state penitentiary. They stand in the darkness, carefully recounting the hideous crime committed. They dust off the fifteen year old footage of the grisly murders, flash interviews with sobbing siblings, countdown the final minutes before the lethal injection.
But if you want to see the actual execution (and don’t we all), you’ll have to turn to prime time TV for that. Maybe Cold Case this week. Or Law and Order: SVU. Or perhaps on Fox’s Prison Break or CBS’ Criminal Minds, two unwanted new additions to the fall menu of screaming, angry television.
Just can’t get enough of psychotic, mentally ill perpetrators duct taping the mouths of rope-bound victims? These are the stars of primetime today.
Hope you’re entertained, because you’re certainly influenced.
Renowned media analyst Dr. George Gerbner spent decades researching the effects of television violence on viewers. “Our analysis has found that exposure to violence-laden television cultivates an exaggerated sense of insecurity and mistrust, and anxiety about the mean world seen on television,” said Dr. Gerbner in the early ‘90s.
That was the nineties, before the term “crime scene investigation” was a household phrase.
Gerbner called it the “Mean World Syndrome”. In our mean world, those who watch significant amounts of television perceive the world in ways consistent with what they see on TV. They’re more anxious and fearful. They’re more likely to believe their neighborhoods are unsafe. They overestimate their risk of being victimized by crime. They assume the crime rate is on the rise, even when it’s not.
They buy tickets to see Flightplan. Fifty-million dollars worth in two weeks. Makes sense that the nation’s number one film is about the fear and paranoia of your six-year old child vanishing on an airplane.
Sound silly? My son Riley came home from pre-school the other day with a form for Dad to sign. A release allowing Riley to be videotaped during his class Halloween party. I doubt this was about royalties for national distribution of the DVD.
No, it was about the Mean World Syndrome.
Hey Ramona Room Parent, lighten up. Junior’s home room party tape isn’t going to end up in the sweaty palms of a crazed pedophile. Want to do something positive not paranoid? Change the station and change the Nielsens. Turn off CSI and turn on a sitcom.
Laugh a little.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell

<old fun informal home page>