Many social critics now correlate, as does James T. Laney, “the … change of behavior so visible and audible across the land” with the coming to adulthood of the children of a mass-media age (see Laney, “The New Morality and the Religious Communities,” Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, Jan., 1970).

Television’s impact, they say, goes far to account for the widening revolt against traditional moral and religious views. With prime time projected mainly for commercial reward, network programs reflect no composite values. One recalls the remark of Yama, the god of death, in Robert Zelasny’s Lord of Light (Mercury, 1967): “Lying? Who asked you to lie about anything? Quote them the Sermon on the Mount if you want. Or something from Popul Voh, or the Iliad. I don’t care what you say. Just stir them up a bit, soothe them a little. That’s all I ask.”

It was the ancient Sophists for whom dramatic impact meant more than truth, and it is dramatic impact in which television specializes.

More than thirty years ago Pitirim A. Sorokin warned against the flowering of “commercial amusement” that is “more and more divorced from truly cultural values and turns into an empty art known euphemistically as ‘art for art’s sake,’ at once amoral, nonreligious, and nonsocial, and often antimoral, antireligious and antisocial” (The Crisis of Our Age, Dutton, 1942, p. 19).

We live near the climax of such a generation, one in which the mass media have abetted the saturation of modern society with sexual motifs. By depicting borderline decency and sin itself with great technical artistry, periodically exalting the prostitute-actress among the captivating personalities of our day, and routinely intruding sexually permissive and multi-divorced entertainment idols into the living room, the media have left an indelible imprint on cultural and social life. One critic’s verdict that the American television audience thinks more and more with its testes and ovaries is doubtless a harsh exaggeration, but it is not entirely pointless. No civilization in history has so openly published to itself and to the world its cultural mediocrity, its moral shallowness, the emptiness of its alienated spirit, and the paucity of public conscience, despite its superlative excellence in technological and scientific endeavor.

In an essay entitled “The 1960s: Radicalism in Theology and Ethics,” Sydney Ahlstrom remarked: “That the ‘television generation’ now coming of age and going to college in unprecedented numbers is unsatisfied by the ‘old-time religion’ does not strike me as accidental” (Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, Jan. 1970, p. 13, n. 28). Ahlstrom’s comment does not anticipate the Jesus movement, but he rightly notes that the mass media popularized the major themes of Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City and also of death-of-God and demythology literature. “In dialoguing the ‘new morality,’ ” says Ahlstrom, “they often exploited a new permissiveness by dealing frankly with long-forbidden subjects” (ibid., p. 5).

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Television in 1973 justified as social realism the showing of such films as Patton, Love Story, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For all its social commentary, the last named with a few deletions became adult network programming just six years after it was tagged as raw and rough and just short of “condemned.” It retained on television eight uses of “God” as an expletive, fifteen uses of “damn” and eight of “hell,” and four uses of the phrase “hump the hostess.” Network policy here seems to be one of walking only a scant step or two above the moral slums. One commentator predicts that by 1977 TV-viewers, possibly watching Last Tango in Paris in their living rooms, will look back on the 1973 era as an age of innocence.

Nobody puts the overall goal of television more bluntly than Les Brown, head of Variety’s TV and radio section: “Programs come into being to attract an audience. Not to feed their minds, or to elevate them morally or spiritually but to deliver them to an advertiser …” (Television: The Business Behind the Box, Harcourt, Brace, Janovich, 1971). The media thus hone the sensate perspective that captures the imagination of more and more people, and give point to Marcuse’s somewhat exaggerated complaint that they have “created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form” (An Essay on Liberation).

The role of religion on television has meanwhile been undergoing significant change, as interest shifts from the biblical centralities to modern aberrations such as exorcism and the occult. Most religious broadcasting occurs during the Sunday “ghetto,” either early in the morning or late at night. As television becomes largely an entertainment medium, management considers religious programming less and less appropriate, and few evangelical programs are sufficiently creative to break through this station and audience prejudice into prime time.

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The television combination of religion, comedy, and sex can only cheapen spiritual realities and moral sensitivities; a churchman appearing on a comedy program, and trying to inject a serious note into a stream of bawdy humor, or attempting to balance the ludicrous with a bit of ecclesiastical dash, is no less incongruous than a comedian who appends a closing spiritual blessing to fleshly exhibitionism. Except for educational channels most television programming is a scramble of entertainment and commercials, and theology has not yet found its stride on educational stations.

Telecasting has its noteworthy exceptions to the gawdy and garish, and they are to be commended. Learning courses such as “Sunrise Semester” are often outstanding. Not a few special documentary network programs provide luminous background information on world and special events, and local stations originate documentary programs of high quality from time to time. One must concede that the best film fare has been shown along with the worst. Moreover, Edwin Newman’s interview features have added to NBC’s cultural values, Walter Cronkite’s interviews on the political scene have often been remarkably informative, and in its nightly newscast by Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner ABC still does a stalwart job in the battle among the network giants.

British television has long programmed a cultural channel around the clock along with the popular alternatives. Government ownership and control is a high price to pay for worthy programming, even if the absence of commercials would give some sanity to television listening. But unworthy programming is an unsatisfactory course for free enterprise to take if it hopes long to escape demoralization and depravity and/or political pressures.

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