Amusing Ourselves to Death, Part 6: Let Me Entertain You
Neil Postman’s Chapter Six, “The Age of Show Business,” is a telling analysis of the effects of television on a cultural scale, made by someone who may be said to be somewhat objective in that he does not have a “religious,” and therefore to some, irrational, reason for opposing television. Postman starts with no holds barred:
Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it. If television is a continuation of anything, it is of a tradition begun by the telegraph and photograph in the mid-nineteenth century, not by the printing press in the fifteenth. (page 84 [emphasis added])
Postman’s analysis of and objections to television run deeper than mere objections to content. He analyzes and attacks the world view underlying the entire phenomenon, tracing the consequences into our culture.
American television, in other words, is devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment….But what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience….Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. (page 86-87 [emphasis added])
Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. But television demands a performing art…. (page 90 [emphasis added])
The above is why commentary and analysis in television shows are usually so shallow. Postman goes on to show us why this is so.
The single most important fact about television is that people watch it, which is why it is called ‘television.’ And what they watch, and like to watch, are moving pictures – millions of them, of short duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.” (page 92 [emphasis added])
Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore – and this is the critical point – how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. As typography once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, education, law and other important social matters, television now takes command. In courtrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, board rooms, churches and even airplanes, Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials. For the message of television as metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.” (page 92-93 [emphasis added])