the Public Sphere as a Televisual Market-place
Public Spheres: Journalism and the Market-place
The broadcast system of the United States, of which television
is a principal part, is commercial; it is fundamentally an advertising
medium. Although there are small or seeming exceptions to this
systematic characteristic, they are inconsequential. Television
news is considered the primary source of public information about
'world and national events' for the overwhelming majority of
Americans. Current events in the American system are packaged
in a variety of ways: in straight newscasts, in talk and discussion
shows featuring officials and experts who discuss pressing issues
of the day and in many localized discussion formats which deal
with matters of public concern, such as the alleged AIDS epidemic,
or the mounting death and damage toll from drunken drivers, or
the widespread illegal use of debilitating narcotics and addictive
Although actual policy decisions that form
as well as merely affect the public sphere may be made behind
the closed doors of government agencies and commissions,the board
rooms of major corporations, and the conferences of establishment
'think tanks' like the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage
Foundation, the publication of these policies and the persuasion,
or what Ellul has called the integrative propaganda, that ensures
their legitimacy - all this takes place in the public sphere
created by news media and particularly the dominant television
forms of news and issue coverage.
As a result, the public sphere in the United
States is overwhelmingly dominated by the cultural forms of television
and those cultural forms are in turn shaped by the political
economy of mass-production-advertising-consumption; in short,
by the commercial system of advanced capatalistic communications.
News and views, to use the cliche, are commodities, to use another
The agora, the Greek market-place,
where the few free like Plato and Socrates met to discuss the
politics of their polis, was at the narrow beginning of
the western tradition of democracy. Bacon called the received
public wisdom of his time, 'the idols of the market-place'. John
Stuart Mill conceived of the free discussion of ideas in an enlightened
public realm as 'the market-place of ideas'.
In this chapter I propose to follow this tradition
by examining how:
- new technologies of communication affect
the market-place of television;
- news and 'journalism' play a central role
in the market strategies of American television entities;
- a special cultural form of packaging news
and views in a consciously integrative propaganda form, the public
service/community campaign, shapes the public consciousness and
the public agenda: the public sphere.
Finally, I will indicate why these campaigns,
which usher in an era of unabashed 'activist television', are
an inevitable result of the political economy of the advertising
market-place, the cultural diction of mass media and the determining
conditions of advanced industrial technology.
Technology and the Public Market-place
Technology has radically altered the roles of major players in
the television world. Networks are steadily feeling the pressures
brought about by cable and satellite access, with a number of
alternative paths being opened for national distribution of programming,
their former oligopoly. At the same time, the replacement of
film with videotape and ever smaller instruments for live on-the-spot
coverage have made the production of local news much more attractive
for affiliate stations and independents, lowering the need for
'clearance' of network offerings further.
These same technologies of accessible and
affordable production have added new encouragement to local stations
to produce shows of such caliber that they can be sold to or
otherwise shared with other outlets.
However, just as the networks are less necessary
to local stations, so too are local stations less necessary to
the local television market. The technology that has helped local
broadcast stations has also enabled out-of-market 'superstations'
to beam in on many lucrative markets all over the country. Low-power
television stations and other methods of expanding the available
spectrum have been added to the multiple channels available through
cable, whose share of market has catapulted in recent years.
San Francisco, for instance, has gone from five to twenty-two
television outlets in the eighties. All of these factors are
added to the burgeoning home use of VCRs, not only for rented
videocassettes but for time-shifted viewing and commercial zapping
of broadcast fare.
The net result of all this technological innovation
is radically to reduce the market share of each outlet and to
even more seriously to undercut the revenue base of advertiser-supported
television media, whose rates are not only based on raw numbers
but increasingly on demographically targeted market segments.
A further pressure on broadcast stations,
at a time when revenue is being squeezed, is a demand from ownership
for ever higher return on investment. This obsession for maximum
profits in the immediate term is a broader disease of the entire
corporate American economy, fueled by crushing debt service created
by leveraged buy-outs. Although the effect on networks, all three
of which are now part of far larger corporate conglomerates with
a great demand for cash flow, has been widely noted, the effect
on individual stations, whether independent, affiliated with
networks, or parts of chains, is enormous.
Despite increasing deregulation, stations
remain the most highly regulated node in the many-stranded television
web. They not only are the primary responsible agents for programming
liability, they also are under pressure to serve the local community
by both the terms of the license and the public interest tradition
from the original Communications Act - an obligation not shared
by other program producers and distributors.
Enlightened management has over the years
seen the obligation of local service as the advantage of local
identification, the characteristic which a station can use as
a classic 'unique selling point' against all those other competitors
(except for other local stations, of course). This is achieved
in practice by building on traditional avenues of community involvement,
adapted to broadcasting realities.
It should be noted that 'identity' for any
medium that exists in time, rather than space, takes the form
of 'continuity'. Although the local station obviously has an
address on a real street in a real town, it is presented to its
market on screens everywhere, along with other entities from
New York, London, Tokyo, even outer space. Thus the repetitive
display over time of the station logo, the network mark, the
series 'billboard', is the fundamental tool of establishing identity,
just as scheduling is the fundmental programming tool for reaching
Since the enormous appetite of a 168-hour
broadcast week requires that most production be imported from
the tape factories that have replaced the film factory of Hollywood,
the only window the local station has to establish its continuity
is the local news window. Its news presenters are the electronic
equivalent of a magazine cover or a newspaper masthead and its
coverage of local news is the way the station is 'present' locally.
As a result, most stations have early evening
news programs that are often at least two hours long and late
news from thirty minutes to one hour. More stations are inaugurating
hour-length audience participation shows in early morning and
late afternoon, to which some even provide van or bus service.
In addition, regularly scheduled or 'special' programs, usually
on weekends or in fringe times, are focused on specific local
What sort of content characterizes these local
programs, whatever the format? In 1983, the Television Information
Office (TIO), as research arm of the television wing of the National
Association of Broadcasters (NAB), conducted a survey on precisely
this and allied questions. The sample was large and representative,
257 stations from every region, including Alaska and Hawaii,
111 of them from 47 of the top fifty markets and 60 from 37 of
the second fifty.
Local news can be divided into three parts:
hard, soft and feature. Hard news concentrates on spontaneous
events, like floods and fires, and as such cannot be part of
a planning process. Most news is, in fact, soft: planned occasions
of interest to the community.
The TIO Survey found sports was at the top
of the list, followed by ethnic festivals, local government affairs,
neighborhood and church activities, awards, Chamber of Commerce
meetings, school matters and cleanup drives. The performing arts
and any occasion that raises funds for charity, like the Special
Olympics, form the second tier. Minority activities such as local
celebrations of Martin Luther King Day came last. About 10 per
cent of such coverage was in the form of specials, in addition
to regular local news programming.
Feature news treatment consisted of discussions,
specialist-interviews and often exhortation, about crime, drug
abuse, good health practices, family conflict, education, sexual
problems, employment, the environment and consumer complaints.
Since these topics are perennial, they are recycled regularly,
sometimes in the form of a short series, or a monthly 'drive'
that orchestrates various formats, from specials to short announcements
to news segments. Although many of these topics raise heated
controversy, such as abortion or nuclear hazards, the overwhelming
tendency is to preserve an atmosphere of upbeat optimism. If
hard news is bad news, then local public affairs features tend
to be good news, or at least comforting information.
Controversy can be addressed in editorials,
which are usually one- or two-minute talking heads, the head
often that of the station manager or the public affairs director,
if there is one. Another NAB survey, with a sample of 422 stations,
found that less than one-third bother to editorialize and that
of these, less than 3 per cent will actually endorse a candidate
in a contested election. So, although the occasional station,
like KPIX-TV in San Francisco, may occasionally take an unpopular
position it believes in, most stations play it safe for fear
of alienating viewers or of triggering equal-time rebuttals from
sources that will surely alienate viewers, for whose loyalty
all this localism is expended.
Boosting the status quo cannot be left to
on-air activities. General managers, like executives of any business
that depends on public acceptance, spend a great deal of time
attending civic affairs, visiting schools, speaking at ceremonies.
The better stations make sure that their on-air talent, which
is the key to news and public affairs ratings, is visible in
the flesh for public affairs and local charities. Stations themselves
sponsor dinners for the elderly, music concerts, park and zoo
days for families, fund-raising ball games with their own employees
participating. Weather reporters are increasingly fitting a central
casting type of the all-purpose warm community person, visiting
schools and hospitals with some sort of science or health presentation.
Since all of these strategies, on- and off-air,
are often common within the same market, the competition for
ratings among local stations revolves around two intangibles:
the personalities of the talent and the perception of the station
as 'the' local station. Hiring charismatic talent is still much
of a mystical operation, with successful producers referring
to ineffable visceral cues as the determining factor. Scarcely
open to rational discussion, the star factor is thus underemphasized
in studies of programming strategy. The other factor - competitive
edge in local identification of the station as a whole - admits
to some logical planning.
The key to this planning is a special form
of one of the oldest methods of organizing a variety of forces
against a variety of obstacles in order to focus on one objective:
Flowing from a creative transformation of
an alleged weakness into a strength, the public or community
service campaign manages to mobilize all the strategies local
stations have mustered to meet their obligations to owners, advertisers,
viewers, government, and, of course, the local community in one
policy gesture. It seems almost too good to be true.
Persuasive News: the Campaign
For the last fifty years, a significant part of the study of
communications has been the study of campaigns. Communication
campaigns have been employed in three principal areas: (1) politics,
(2) public health, safety and welfare, and (3) product promotion
and corporate image enhancement.
An overwhelming amount of specific case study
has been commissioned by the customers for product promotion
and corporate image enhancement and is in fact the bulk of what
is known as market research. Media advisers and political pollsters
are performing an increasing amount of research on elections
Although government and varied public service-agencies,
from the New York Public Library to the United States Army, have
commissioned research into effects as well as other research
called 'formative' (analysis of the needs and vulnerabilities
of the target before designing the campaign), for the most part
research into American public or community service campaigns
has not been nearly as abundant. It is nowhere near as thorough,
for instance, as the research commissioned by India into the
effectiveness of its population control campaigns. The reason
for this may be that in many instances the campaign involves
a so-called 'preventive innovation' such as not taking drugs
or not starting to smoke. How does one count the number of dogs
who do not bark in the night?
Total campaigns are indeed an outrgrowth of
the long-established practice of using broadcast facilities to
get the public to do things in general. For instance, it has
been the mandated and voluntary practice of stations to provide
free air time for a given number of public-service announcements
(PSAs), most of them produced by the interested parties (like
the Post Office urging use of zip codes) or the National Association
of Broadcasters, as an aid to member stations. Currently, both
taxpayer and freely contributed dollars have provided a large
number of such announcements directed against drug abuse, which
broadcasters show without charge as their contribution to the
Reagan Administration's 'Just Say No [to Drugs]' campaign. But
this is a government campaign that uses broadcasting among other
means. Broadcasting is on board, but not in the driver's seat.
If the PSAs are orchestrated by station management into a larger
plan that uses other formats of on-air programming, plus
off-air activities, then it is a communications community campaign.
Stations often do this: the latest NAB survey indicates that
when it comes, for instance, to AIDS issues, local stations not
only show PSAs (85 per cent), use local news stories on the issue
(57 per cent), feature it on their own public affairs programs
(27.7 per cent), and locally produce their own PSAs (17.7 per
cent), they also participate in community outreach activities
off-air (22.1 per cent). It should also be noted that 23.1 per
cent of all such programming focuses on strictly local matters
that often include fund-raising for charities.
Just as the NAB does, network and group owners
often provide packages of PSAs on a given theme, the current
favorites being drug abuse, drunken driving and AIDS. Some local
stations might not have the facilities to produce acceptably
slick spots or access to national celebrities who often donate
their time to nationally distributed PSAs. But another important
reason is to protect the local station from being deluged with
requests for free time by plugging the holes with unimpeachably
'safe' spots for 'safe' causes. Saving the saved, of course,
is the essence of integrative propaganda.
Local stations also often contribute time
for fund-raising announcements from area charities. These activities
are often called campaigns, but they are not usually tied to
any organized station effort beyond themselves.
The focused orchestration of a variety of
marketing tools toward a particular goal, and one that could
gain underwriting from commercial sponsors, is one that naturally
arises in a commercial system. But nothing happens without leadership.
One of the chief American executives responsible for creating
the commercial campaign is Lawrence Fraiberg, now President of
MCA Broadcasting and formerly head of television for Group W,
or Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, which today is the only
syndicator (packager for other broadcasters) of public-service
campaigns. In an interview he recounts how the idea developed
while he was at Group W:
- [When I was] at GW I felt we should consolidate
all the dollars we were spending here and there into one focussed
program so that we had more dollars to do better programming
and do it more effectively; to promote those [public-service]
programs, to do it over at least a year and finally to find some
way to measure our impact. The worst thing you can do is dissipate
time, energy, money, anything.
- We try to pick a specific issue or problem
peculiar to a given market and make our station the champion
in that area. If we do something, I think we should own it, if
you see what I mean. We started in Boston with YOU GOTTA HAVE
ARTS right after Reagan came in and chopped the National Endowment
for Arts, then the Mass. [Massachusetts] legislature also reduced
subsidy to arts. Boston being a cultural hub had a strong identity
with arts. We started by having the company make a contribution
to the arts of 75 thousand dollars, as a basis for the campaign
so that in the end we would have a foundation of sorts for continuing
support for the arts. We owned it. Any other station who later
wanted to get involved with the arts would be confused with [W]
- My role was inspiration. The station people
focused in on it and did a fabulous job. Then they started the
Anti-Crime Team (ACT) and used the station to focus on community
activities - using car decals. Lots of off-air meetings we handled
and a lot of collateral [non-broadcast material such as posters,
stationery, outlines for local strategies, etc.]. We owned them
and continued to live with these projects and programs. The Police
Chief said the crime rate went down about 8%. Well, if it only
went down 2%, we were still doing a lot. These programs were
devices for converting members of the station staff into evangelistic
enthusiasts. Management at KDKA [in Pittsburgh] were quick to
pick up on what was going on in Boston and they got the idea.
It started from the chance event of a letter being read with
a check on the news from someone who wanted to help create food
for the poor. As a result, a flood of checks hit the station
- this led to the creation of KD's Army,[the groups of volunteers
who pitch in for station-supported programs] sending barges up
and down the river collecting food; station folk worked joyfully
seven days a week, lots of volunteers.
- Earlier on we had a market research study
which placed KDKA behind the competition, with a perception of
a cold operation. KD's Army changed all that.
The most focused campaign to date and the
one most directly tied to news is 'AIDS Lifeline'. AIDS is a
topic that inhabits a vital place in the public sphere of both
small communities and global politics. How has the 'mass media
treatment' affected the way people think and act about AIDS?
Going Public with AIDS
On 26 August 1987 the National Academy of Television Arts and
Sciences granted KPIX-TV its 1986 Community Services Award, from
a field of two hundred entrants and fifteen finalists. For the
same year, 1986, KPIX also won the Peabody Award. Both occasions
of professional kudos were in recognition of KPIX's extraordinary
local campaign effort, 'AIDS Lifeline', which started with one
spectacularly successful documentary in 1983. By 1986 it had
blossomed into a massive campaign of ten Eyewitness News special
segments, sixty-two PSAs using forty-five celebrities and a number
of sixty- and thirty-minute specials. Eight months after the
period judged, KPIX was still at it, having aired Heterosexuals
and AIDS, a live studio call-in discussion, two weeks before
the announcement of the award.
'AIDS Lifeline' is a true community campaign
focussed narrowly on a special subject but reaching and holding
the attention of the widest possible audience. It is a terrifying,
unpleasant subject that in many of its particulars impinges on
controversial political questions which raise tempers to a boil.
Not the ideal selling environment. Yet KPIX began this campaign
because it wished to be the San Francisco station and
San Francisco has in relative terms the largest gay population
in the country and without doubt, irrespective of size, the most
organized and politically active gay population in the world,
in terms of its impact on community awareness, civil services,
electioneering, and municipal hiring practices. KPIX anticipated
the AIDS 'story' as worthy of major coverage by at least a year
in the broadcast news media.
Sceptical critics can point out that although
AIDS is hardly upbeat, it wields a powerful fascination for a
mass audience, mixing the perennial dramatic themes of sex, death,
forbidden fruit and apocalyptic plague. It is thus a topic easily
open to exploitation, like that of serial murder or pornography,
on the one hand, and like that of miracle cancer cures and 'Florence
Nightingale' tear-jerkers on the other. Both facets, the terror
and the triumph, are proven box-office hits.
Whatever the courage required to begin coverage
of AIDS, the orchestrating of a campaign, one might argue, can
be totally explained in terms of sheer good business. That first
one-hour special in 1983, Our Worst Fears: The AIDS Epidemic,
turned out to be the highest-rated public affairs show in the
history of KPIX, sparking the most hotline calls to the San Francisco
AIDS Foundation since it began. After the program was repeated,
more than one million people viewed it locally, an enormous number
for public affairs in the fifth-ranked US broadcast market. This
program was broadcast by all the Group W stations and was successfully
syndicated from New York to Honolulu. Requests for videotapes
came from as far as Australia and it was ultimately shown all
over the world and domestically by over one hundred companies,
schools, local governments and service associations.
From this beginning KPIX went into an all-out
effort by 1985 called 'AIDS Lifeline': over a four-year period
(up to the announcement of the Emmy) the station presented over
1,000 news reports, not only from California, but from their
own crews filing stories from Australia, Brussels, Geneva, as
well as domestically from coast to coast. The different celebrity
PSAs were expanded to a roster of over sixty. All this time talk
shows, call-ins, additional documentaries were produced as part
of the campaign.
These on-air elements were complemented by
an unusual number of off-air activities. Not just a flyer, but
a hefty booklet about AIDS with lists of helping agencies was
published in co-operation with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation
and went into over one-half million copies in several languages.
A further co-operative effort with the Foundation and a new twist
on off-air collateral was the production of an educational videotape
about AIDS made available at local video rental stores (the Captain
Off the air, KPIX was a senior partner or
instigator of many local events, from huge walkathons to school
'safe sex' programs. KPIX made sure that its own employment practices
did not discriminate against AIDS patients in terms of workplace,
insurance, or workmates.
By 1985 WBZ-TV in Boston hooked into this
campaign and began doing its own version of the blanket coverage
and community outreach that it had applied so well to other subjects.
The national interest led KPIX to head a national co-op of ultimately
over one hundred stations which shared AIDS-related news stories
by satellite feed.
Authoritative testimony to the campaign's
local effectiveness is offered by Ron De Luca, Development Director
of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, who readily declares that
KPIX is easily the single most important outreach tool that local
AIDS helping agencies have. He points out that in San Francisco
the annual care per AIDS patient costs $75,000 less than the
national average. Although this cannot be attributed to one cause,
he believes the greater community of San Francisco, which has
responded magnificently to the special needs of the gay community,
is the major factor - volunteers have replaced paid professionals.
De Luca credits KPIX's outreach programs and awareness campaign
as indispensable in raising volunteers of various kinds to help
On 28 July 1988 the AIDS Foundation, Herth
Realty Company, radio stations KGO and KPIX sponsored 'AIDS WALK
San Francisco', which raised in the neighborhood of one million
dollars for the following local agencies: AIDS Emergency Fund,
AIDS Health Project, Asian AIDS Task Force, Black Coalition on
AIDS, Instituto Familiar de la Raza-Latino AIDS Project, Mobilization
Against AIDS, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, STOP AIDS Resource
Center, Visiting Nurses and Hospice of San Francisco. The catalogue
of sponsors and beneficiaries is a testimony to the broadness
of KPIX's community base and the integrated local nature of the
As with all such events, KPIX featured the
walk prominently on its news programs before the event and with
follow-up, and of course covered it live with the same style
of celebrity and people-on-the-street interviews, with cutaways
to prepared 'up-close-and-personal' related features. The night
before the walk, the station broadcast Talking With Teens,
a half-hour guideline for parents on the subject of talking about
AIDS, hosted by Jane Curtin, an actress starring in a popular
CBS melodrama (KPIX is a CBS affiliate). (This particular program
as aforementioned was also distributed as a rental videotape).
The style, attitude and level of discourse
in this slick video is typical of this entire campaign, and of
TV campaign 'texts' in general.
In this half-hour program, which is intended
as a serious guideline for parents who wish to protect their
children from AIDS, the word homosexual is not mentioned once.
The word 'gay' is mentioned once, in a joking manner, by an actor
portraying a straight male teenager: 'Gee, Dad, I'm not gay or
anything.' To which the father replies, 'Fine, son, but the AIDS
virus doesn't know that.'
The film begins with Curtin in an empty classroom,
thinking about her days as a teenager, when her generation didn't
have to worry about AIDS. We cut to a matronly Hispanic school
counselor who sympathizes with Curtin about the difficulty parents
have accepting that their child is a sexual being, who may well
be in the intimate hands of some stranger (to the parents).
Curtin then voices over a series of billboarded
simple statistics: that seven girls and eight boys of every ten
are sexually active as teens, that one in ten teenage girls becomes
pregnant, and that one out of seven of either sex get some sexually
transmitted disease. There is also the figure of 200,000 intravenous
drug users among all American teenagers, cited as a low estimate.
No AIDS statistics are introduced at all. But after these general
statistics there is a cut to Dr. Robert Scott, a black internist
who practices internal medicine in Oakland and specializes in
AIDS cases. He states flatly, on the heels of these statistics,
that 'The potential for getting the disease [AIDS] in that population
is going to be explosive.'
We then cut to a group of teenagers having
a discussion in school about sexual activity in general with
random references to AIDS. The discussion leader, Ms. Kim Cox,
'health educator', then says to Curtin and us, 'Sex is a natural
way of living. Unfortunately, it is becoming a common way of
After this melange of statistics and
random comments, about teen sex in general and pointed dire predictions
and statements from authority figures about AIDS, Curtin states:
'Accurate information is the best defense.' There follows a short
graphic depiction of virus invasion of the body's immune system
cells with a voice-over stating that the AIDS virus is 'very
hard to catch. It is a fragile' - and here the face behind the
voice, that of Dr. Mervyn Silverman, Director of the American
Foundation for AIDS Research, fills the screen - 'virus; it can
be destroyed by soap and water. . . Study after study shows that
you don't easily get AIDS.'
The good doctor is interrupted so that Curtin
can voice-over large billboard statements to the effect that
AIDS cannot be contracted from casual contact, which is defined
as sharing a glass of water, hugging, handshakes, even kissing,
if it is not deep open-mouth kissing. Dr. Scott reappears to
indicate that one can care for a person with AIDS and even have
skin contact with urine, feces, and vomit without being in danger,
provided one is careful.
Curtin then asks the rhetorical question,
how do you get it? Graphics return in the shape of male
and female having genital-to-genital heterosexual intercourse
while Curtin intones 'Any unprotected sexual contact, sharing
of semen and vaginal fluids with someone who has AIDS, male or
female.' There is a brief mention of sharing of needles. Dr.
Silverman returns to point out that abstinence is a sure way
to protect yourself, but short of that, a condom and a spermicide
should be used during sex, 'from beginning to end.' He points
out that one should not take drugs, but if one does, at least
do not share a needle.
This part of the video constitutes the accurate
information part. There follows the advisory examples of how
to talk to your teenage child about the problem.
First we are shown the Stone family, a white
professional middle-class couple who have lost their only son,
Michael, to AIDS. Stills of Michael reveal a strikingly handsome
young man. The parents say they knew he was sexually active,
but wish they had talked more. The Stones are an attractive and
brave couple, who are unusually articulate and frank about their
experience. We cannot help but admire and feel for them.
From this we are exposed to three little dramas
that illustrate situations in which parents may inject their
values about sexual activity and the dangers of AIDS into conversations
with their children.
The first situation takes place in a kitchen,
an affluent middle-class kitchen similar to those used for commercials
featuring kitchen products, in which a very young black girl
(who talks like a 'valley girl') has a friendly and very quick
chat with her substantial, earth-mother mom. With some embarrassment,
the girl reels off rote instructions from school on how to have
safe sex. The mom does not reveal any technical knowledge, but
rather urges her daughter to be careful and wait for someone
who has respect for her ('I am not telling you what to do, I
am telling you how I feel').
The second situation takes place in a parked
car where a divorced Dad is meeting his son. He urges the son
to be careful because of AIDS and because he should have respect
for the girls he goes with. This is the context for the remark
about being gay and its seeming irrelevance to the AIDS question.
The final scene is in the living-room, again white and middle-class,
where a young teenage girl is about to go off 'with friends'
until midnight. There is an embarrassed series of little jokes
that show the unease of all three with the topic, but it frankly
deals with the concern of the parents that their little girl
not have sex with anyone nor take drugs nor drink and drive.
In the course of the conversation, the threat of AIDS and the
need for precautions are emphasized.
Although there is not one untruth in Talking
With Teens, the film editing and comparative weight given
to different facets of the topic by graphics, authority figures
and the settings for parent-teenager interchange, are misleading.
Is the subject AIDS and how to guard against
it or how to deal with your child's first steps into sexuality?
The video never made up its mind.
Furthermore, two juxtapositions seem to be
deliberately misleading. After giving prominence to the statistic
that one in seven sexually active teenagers will contract a sexually
transmitted disease, there is a cut to a doctor who claims (we
do not know the context of the interview from which this snippet
was taken) that there is a potential for an 'explosion' of AIDS
in that population. When another authority figure is pointing
out how difficult it is to get AIDS, the sound is fighting graphics
of the AIDS virus vividly succeeding in infecting an immune system.
Immediately after the correct information of how weak the virus
is, the script jumps to the conclusion that it is casual contact
(not the virus) that is 'weak', that is, hardly likely to spread
the disease. This distortion is followed by a description of
how one does get the disease, with graphics displaying normal
heterosexual intercourse. The true parts add up to the false,
and seriously false, impression that there is a serious risk
of contracting AIDS from normal heterosexual intercourse.
As for the tone of the parent-teenager interchanges
and the sad story of Michael Stone, the clear implication is
that middle-class heterosexual non-drug users with caring affluent
parents are at serious risk of AIDS. Although we can all use
sex education and although drug abuse in the non-intravenous
forms of crack, speed, and marijuana, unwanted teen pregnancy
and sexually transmitted diseases like herpes and clamydia (which
are not laughing matters) are certainly not unknown among the
affluent, mostly white middle classes, AIDS is rare in this group.
It was rare two years ago, when the film was shown, and it remains
rare today, two years into the epidemic 'explosion'. AIDS is
on a rampage, however, among those who practice the risky behavior
of anal and oral sex promiscuously and among intravenous drug
abusers who share needles. This risky behavior is particularly
prevalent among homosexuals, who are the overwhelming majority
of victims of the disease, and drug abusers, who are beginning
to catch up with the homosexuals (as are the children of women,
mostly drug abusers, with AIDS.) Although both groups can come
from all walks of life, intravenous drug abuse accompanied by
sharing of needles is overwhelmingly a practice in racial and
economic ghettoes; put another way, such self-destructive behavior
is most often the consequence of poverty and racial discrimination.
Any kind of unprotected sex with someone who has AIDS does put
one at risk, but the question is among what populations does
one have a significant risk of meeting someone who has AIDS.
With this in mind, it would seem the choice of Jane Curtin and
the atmosphere of the safe suburban school is aiming at the wrong
Furthermore, if the threat were as serious
as one is led by innuendo to believe, the facile and fleeting
encounters in kitchen, car and living-room that are shown as
models would hardly suffice, nor would a string of such superficial
verbal joustings between embarrassed teenagers and unconfident,
unknowledgeable and tentative parents. Given the real statistics,
parents should want to know if their children are homosexual
and/or intravenous drug users, which would put them at serious
risk. Yet these questions are not addressed at all.
This video does not reach those at risk but
does reach those who can misread the message as not for them
(about AIDS) so they can ignore the rest (about parent-child
communication and sexual responsibility in general).
Like any aid to family communication and any
video that deals frankly with sex, especially in a general population
scared out of its wits by stories about AIDS, Talking with
Teens was enormously popular.
Metropolitan Life has underwritten 'AIDS Lifeline'
for Group W to the tune of one million dollars. As a result,
John Creedon, CEO of Metropolitan Life, presents the Group specials
through a brief tape made in his office, in which he declares
how important Met Life feels proper information and public education
about AIDS is. In this context he then states: 'We believe the
AIDS epidemic may be the most serious health issue facing our
nation and the world in this century.' Not malnutrition, not
toxic and radioactive pollution, not even smoking and alcoholism,
all of which either actually do or seriously threaten to, kill
far more humans? No one can make light of the seriousness of
a fatal and loathsome disease for those who have it and those
likely to get it. A large variety of cancers are such diseases.
But hyperbole and fear are not helpful. To paraphrase Jane Curtin,
accurate information is the best defense.
AIDS is a complex disease involved with all
the psychological twists and turns we associate with sex and
with sexual deviance. Its major victims are a controversial group
who have a huge political stake in distancing themselves from
a disease which might be labeled 'the gay disease', and thus
add to the motives for discrimination they already suffer. The
heart-breaking slow course of the disease and its pandora box
of secondary infections and other diseases makes AIDS a treatment
nightmare which severely taxes health resources at every level,
a factor that attracts significant interest from hospitals, insurance
companies and caring agencies in any campaign effort that might
alleviate a strain on their resources.
It pays to be aware that AIDS is among the
top three topics for all national public-service announcements
on television, in or out of Group W's 'AIDS Lifeline', a further
testimony to its mainstream relevance, if not to its marketability.
But precisely because of this relevance, as Edward Brecher and
John Langone have pointed out conclusively, the mainstream media
have seriously misreported the AIDS problem, as they did with
radon and as they often do with science and health stories.
At this point, the research community and evaluators of campaigns
in general are still stuck with the effectiveness model that
dominated all communications research until recently. Concrete
measurable effects, on the model of billiard-ball causality -
how many boxes of cereal? how many people recognize a name? -
was seen as the 'real' measure of what media do. In the same
vein, the number of volunteers or checks or generous partners
resulting from a campaign are seen as the 'real' significance
of a campaign. From a management point of view, this can hardly
change because the bottom line is the last ball on the billiard
table (to mix metaphors). From a research point of view, however,
the contemporary television public-service/community campaign
raises questions of politics and culture and thus fundamental
questions of values.
Local campaigns adapt causes to the mass culture
milieu of mainstream television programming. Syndicated public-service/community
campaigns, since they are reaching for a much wider market, adapt
causes more radically and thus must deal very carefully with
problems of adaptation. If areas like AIDS that require some
scientific understanding can cause trouble, it is even more true
in the realms of politics and religion.
Television campaigns are above all messages
of their medium, and they have more in common, in form, with
commercials and sports coverage than with church meetings or
lecture halls, to say nothing of inspiring texts read in solitude.
Different as they are, televangelists like Jerry Falwell and
Pat Robertson have far more in common with entertainers like
Johnny Carson and Phil Donahue than they do with Martin Luther
King or Mother Theresa.
Broadcasting in effect is the American Ministry
of Culture. Whatever the form, radio and particularly television
programming are the premier vehicles for American mass culture.
Increasingly, this mass culture is not just a matrix for sports
and entertainment; it has become the arena for much of politics
and religion. Whereas there are legitimate concerns for people
becoming passive couch potatoes who no longer go to church or
vote, there can also be concern for people who all too eagerly
follow calls to action and advice on how to care for their health
from those who may not be qualified to lead or advise.