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andy_griffith_CBS-630x418When future historians look back on our era and try to make sense of how we lived our lives, one tool at their disposal will be something we take for granted: television content.  It will show the houses we lived in, the way the genders interacted, how we communicated, and how we expressed our values.  Television is the most democratic and popular art form in history and the unforgiving lens of the TV camera provides unexpected clues about our social behaviors.  But will 22nd Century historians actually be able to tell reality from fiction?

In a way, historians who study the ancient world have it easier because their limited source materials – they can look at some pottery shards, skeletal remains, maybe a piece of papyrus or a cave painting and somehow reconstruct an entire civilization.  By contrast, historians studying the 20th Century will have to sift through millions of hours of television programs.  It will be literally impossible in the future for any historian to master all the original source material on how people lived during this period.

The trouble will be figuring out what TV content reflects reality and what reflects an idealized version of reality.  What makes it even harder is that many shows do both.  A show like “Leave It To Beaver” would lead future historians to conclude that mid-century housewives cleaned the home in housedresses and pearls and then slept with their husbands in twin beds. Yet there is also a truthfulness to the show in the way it depicts a more innocent time, when kids could wander off to entertain themselves without adult supervision.  So you can’t entirely write off “Beaver’s” historical value.

But other programs are clear distortions of reality.  “The Andy Griffith Show” is in many respects an excellent series, but it in no way represents the actual life of a small-town Southern sheriff in the mid-1960s.  About a quarter of the North Carolina population was African American at that time yet Sherriff Andy Taylor’s Mayberry, NC appears to be lily white.  No prejudice here, folks.  There’s no one to be prejudiced against!

Ironically, the absence of minority characters, gay people, and working women from television in the Fifties and Sixties and their sudden appearance in the Seventies tells us more about shifting attitudes than many textbooks.  A program like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is a remarkably accurate reflection of early Seventies life, when women started to move into the workforce, but also a time of oil shortages, increased divorce, and inflation.

What “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” demonstrates is that frequently the most critically acclaimed and beloved shows provide the best depictions of an era’s Zeitgeist.  “The Office,” for example, may be told in “mockumentary” style, but it’s so true to life that it almost functions as a real documentary of middle class life in the early 21st Century.  It’s all there: the hollowing out of the workplace, corporate politics, modern gender dynamics, the rise of the Internet.

Or take “Seinfeld,” a show about nothing.  It’s actually a very accurate depiction of social mores at the end of the 20th Century. But “The Cosby Show,” which has higher aspirations, is almost as misleading about race relations as “The Andy Griffith Show” because it presented such an idealized version of the African American family in the 1980s.

So far I’ve only mentioned sitcoms as sources for social archeology and that’s because the whole purpose of the genre is to reflect back the realities of everyday life, but in a humorous way.  To laugh at a sitcom you have to believe it says something fundamentally true about the human condition.  Dramas, on the other hand, tend to reflect the extremes of life, providing an inside look at situations we usually don’t expect to be in.  (For example, which better depicts the daily life of doctors – the drama “ER” or the comedy “Scrubs”?  I would bet real money that actual doctors would vote for “Scrubs.”)

One thing I would strenuously suggest to future historians is that they avoid so-called “reality” shows.  There has never been anything further from reality than the reality genre.  Of course this not universally true.  In particular, many of the “how-to” shows (how to dress better, how to renovate your house, how to cook better) will be a gold mine for future social historians.   But in general, historians, reality competition shows or programs that purportedly show people living their daily lives are nearly pure faction.

Back to the central question: what is a future historian to believe?  Certainly ratings alone do not necessarily produce shows that accurately represent the reality of an era.  “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Happy Days” and “Two and a Half Men” are evidence of that.  Instead, look for quality.  The best shows at capturing the Zeitgeist are the ones that are the most intelligent and demand the most from their viewers.  And with luck, shows that seem smart now will still seem smart a hundred years from now.

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I never thought I would say this, but people need to watch more TV news.

Not all people.  Certainly not the folks who stay home all day ranting about what they’ve seen on Fox News and MSNBC. They should go out and get some exercise.  But people who think they’re pretty smart because they read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and maybe The Financial Times could profitably spend more time trying to understand where the other half derive its opinions.

I don’t trust telephone surveys about behavior because I think respondents lie to themselves and, consequently, to pollsters, but if the Gallup poll on where people get their news is anywhere near accurate, TV still  remains the place where most Americans go for news and information.  More than twice as many people (55%) say they get their news from television as from the Internet (21%), the runner-up.

But disparities start to emerge when other factors such as education are introduced.  Only 43% of Americans with graduate degrees get their news from television, compared to 61% who have a high school diploma or less.  In other words, the people who are most likely to set public policy, run the economy, and opine on the future of the country are operating from an entirely different knowledge base than the people they aspire to rule over.

This is not to say that that the highly educated are better informed because they get their news from the Internet or newspaper.  On the contrary.  Anyone who tries to keep up-to-date only through print is missing a big part of the story.  It’s a completely different thing to understand the news intellectually by reading about it than it is to experience it viscerally by seeing it.

This was demonstrated most recently in the aftermath of the Baltimore riots and the Charlestown church murders.  In both cases I was originally keeping current via newspapers and blogs, and it was only after I tuned in to TV that I started to understand in a profound way what was happening.  The video from the riots was shocking; the reactions to the murders were anguishing.   You just don’t get that from the printed word, either on paper or in pixels.

I am not saying that TV provides a full picture on the most important issues of the day.  Hardly.  Even in the glory days of Walter Cronkite a 30-minute newscast only produced as many spoken words as the front page of a newspaper.  Now, with shorter news segments and more “news you can use,” the content in a network news broadcast is shallower than ever before. Last Sunday, for example, I tuned into the NBC nightly news to learn the results of the Greek referendum on the EC bailout offer and the lead story was about a house porch that collapsed in North Carolina, injuring two dozen people (but no deaths). The second story was about a small plane that crashed on a beach, injuring no one.  So the actual seriousness of the news has never been lower.

“TV news” is, of course, not a monolithic entity.  There’s the high-end, blow-your-brains-out-in-boredom “PBS NewsHour.”  There are the bland mainstream nightly newscasts from the networks and CNN, which try to be neutral but can’t help but lean left.  And then there are the populist, overtly partisan offerings of Fox News, MSNBC and Comedy Central.   The information derived from these channels could not be more different.

All of these news platforms – from high-end to low-brow – function best and seem most necessary when there’s a crisis – a bombing, riot, war, natural disaster, etc. But when you really need to watch the news is when there’s NOT a crisis.  When the news shows have to go out and find stories to fill a vacuum, that’s when the national id is revealed.  You can be reading your newspaper and listening to NPR without even knowing there’s a huge national debate going on about people or issues you’ve never heard of.  These manufactured outrages, and the outrage about the outrages on rival cable networks, can tell us more than a Gallup poll about the issues and anxieties that are really on people’s minds.  And no, seeing news snippets on your Facebook feed is not really keeping up any more than watching football highlights helps you understand how a particular game was played.

I definitely wouldn’t advise restricting your news intake just to television, but if you want to be a well-informed person you need a variety of news sources that includes TV. This can be exhausting and, frankly, hard on your blood pressure given the high level of ill-temper that permeates all news platforms these days.  Yet the truth is, you cannot brag to your friends that you never watch the news and claim to be a knowledgeable citizen.   Consider a couple of hours of TV news-watching per week akin to jury duty.  It’s your civic duty.