Monday, July 11, 2005

"The Goodness of TV"

“The Goodness of TV”

Peter Thomas* - Australia
peter@signispacific.org

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* Core Member of Asian Communication Network (ACN)
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At the Monte Carlo Television Festival, June 27 – July 2, 2005 it was a delight to celebrate the very best of television from around the world. In my role as a jury member, judging the best television drama feature film, I felt a sense of pride that this truly great medium was producing quality drama with consistently high production values. As a media practitioner of over 30 years, working in print, radio and television, I am cautiously optimistic rather than relentlessly critical about the state of media content. This often puts me at odds with those who tirelessly crusade for change without acknowledging the high-quality that might already exist. That is not to say that I am not an advocate for improved quality, some media regulation to protect children, the preservation of public broadcasting and protection of local media ownership rules. As a content provider, a producer, a writer, a director, I am generally concerned with the aesthetics of media, particularly television. It is from this sympathetic point-of-view that I was delighted to read, “Everything I Know I Learned from TV”, a new book by Mark Rowland. (Random House, London 2005). Rowland, an unrepentant coach-potato is Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy at the University of Herefordshire in England. He uses his favorite TV programs, “Seinfeld”, “The Simpsons”, “Sex in the City”, “The Sopranos”, “Friends”, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” and “Frasier” to explain the great questions of philosophy as they effect our lives. It seems that the only qualifications you require to join in this philosophical discussion are a sofa, a sense of humor and an enquiring mind.
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The philosophy discussed is basic, even foundational. The essential question posed in Rowland’s book is: How do you decide between what is a good and moral life? “The Simpson’s” disagree over the right way to live with the philosophers Nietzsche and Epicurus on hand to take sides. What is the meaning of happiness and how is it obtained is a theme revisited time and time again. Aristotle fights Descartes for the heart and mind of ‘Sex in the City’s’ Carrie Bradshaw. Can a person do a bad thing? Kant and Socrates pay a call on Tony Soprano and his criminal mob from the series ‘The Sopranos’ to talk moral philosophy. Where does love and friendship begin? Rachel and Ross from “Friends” ask Plato about the philosophy of emotions and wonder if they’re just good friends. Is the pursuit of self-knowledge a good thing? Socrates helps Niles and Frasier Crane and their dad, from the series ‘Frasier’, deal with the relative merit of the examined and unexamined life. And so it goes on.

Twenty-five years ago I became a trainer for ‘Television Awareness Training’, a program to assist parents and teachers to discriminate between good and bad TV. During and following each session I was constantly amazed that the questions asked were not so much about TV but rather the moral dilemmas faced by parents in coping with the choices posed by modernity. Television was generally a scapegoat for all that was wrong with modern culture. It was a convenient whipping-horse for a society confused by choice. Plato claimed that in all of us there are three distinct parts: reason, spirit and appetite and our personality can only be healthy if the combination is right. It’s unlikely that TV is going to upset the balance except in those extreme cases of immature or dysfunctional personalities or in the case of small children before the age of reason. Today lots of media training programs and media ‘education’ curricula seem trite and embarrassing, as many of us have developed a sense that for the most part people are reasonably intelligent, and at the very least insightful enough to know when they are watching ersatz images playing themselves out on a little box that bears little or no relation to reality. There will always be those right-inclined curmudgeons still insisting that TV is basically evil and that viewers require their redemptive teaching and censorship to bring salvation or liberation.

If you subscribe to the belief that TV is our culture then Mark Rowland’s book is not for you. If you position TV as part of our culture then you will enjoy his lively belief that stimulating philosophical ideas are found in even the most popular, and dare I say it, the most banal of programs.

The Monte Carlo Television Festival is an affirmation that imaginative production, like goodness, may triumph over the trite and superficial. Whilst some might consider Mark Rowlands, and for that matter my views, eccentric if not extreme, I deliberately choose to counter views that seek to disparage television rather than particular programs. A little philosophy, literally the love of wisdom and the study of the nature of being and our relation to the universe, is easily found on TV. Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am” is convincingly more important than “It must be real, it’s on TV.”

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Peter Thomas - Australia
peter@signispacific.org