How Well Does Television Handle Social Issues?


This article was edited from her speech to the 1986 conference of the Communications Network in Philanthropy of the American Council on Philanthropy.

This article originally appeared in Issue# 40-41

Ever since Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, accused television of being a 'vast wasteland," media analysts have debated whether television indeed has any redeeming social value.

Television has changed considerably since Minow's statement, and many formerly taboo subjects are now treated openly, even on prime-time. Compared to the insipid content of the early days of television, today's programming is often bold and provocative, with society the better for millions of viewers having experienced the anguish of marriage to a man who is violently abusive (The Burning Bed), the tragic consequences of incest (Something About Amelia), or the potential devastation of nuclear war (The Day After). Nevertheless, Minow's assessment still haunts us.

Norman Lear is generally credited with having stimulated the shift to "socially relevant" television programming. His lovable bigot. Archie Bunker, paved the way in the early seventies not only to a new kind of television comedy, but to programming that could cover controversial issues of personal and social significance Maude's abortion, Edith's rape. Meathead's anti-war activism.

With the advent of "ensemble shows" like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, continuing dramatic series began to incorporate more gritty realism into plots and characters. Now not only do physicians treat disease in others, on St. Elsewhere they become patients themselves, Cops not only confront crime in the streets, but Mary Beth Lacey has her house robbed and her colleague Izbecki buys illegal drugs to ease the lingering death of his much-loved mother. On such programs viewers see the intricacy of human suffering and the complexity of values decisions, as well as the complications of relationships among characters whose values and backgrounds differ — sometimes even clash.

However, it is in the long-form features — the made-for-television movies and mini-series — where social issues have been handled most effectively. Although many laugh at the disease of the week" syndrome, still, done with passion and compassion, a two-hour (or more) drama has the time and the talent (along with the budget) to create a dramatic experience that can be both profound and challenging for the viewer.

Learning to Cope

I believe, in fact, that many extraordinary television productions have served at least to set the national agenda regarding many confusing social issues. No one can know or understand all the causes of teenage suicide or the mysterious progress of Alzheimer's disease. Yet both can touch lives suddenly and tragically. For many adult Americans, prime-time television is the only "continuing education" available to learn to cope with contemporary crises. Entertainment programs may or may not be profound. But they are socially useful for many millions of people.

I am, however, drawn to a deeper question — and a deeper reflection. It has to do with what kinds of issues are handled, even the ones that are handled "well." I do not have to be a sociologist to see that there are basically two kinds of problems confronting us or any society:

  • Personal-social problems are primarily person-centered, that is, they consist of extraordinary circumstances that affect individuals or individual units of society - usually, crises in relationships or health. Every year the list gets longer but includes rape, spouse abuse, missing children, teen suicide, anorexia, cancer, AIDS, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, etc.
  • Such problems — although personal in nature — become problems for society as a whole when the sheer quantity of persons affected challenges our ability to provide both understanding and assistance to those involved.
  • Social-political issues include those more global concerns which can, indeed, affect individuals, but which individuals - by themselves - cannot begin to handle: the arms race, the impact of the world debt, racism-and sexism, the effects of colonialism in developing nations, homelessness, and so on.
  • To confront these kinds of issues requires commitment by individuals, institutions and governments; they also generally call into question the established social, political, cultural and economic structures of society.

Now a survey of television of the 80s indicates that the social issues that television generally handles are primarily the ones that fall under the personal-social category. This is easily rationalized since the very nature of these issues makes them coverable as somebody's story. Defenders of television are quick to remind one that this is so and will always be so, because television is a business and its task is not to create a social conscience in the viewing public, but to deliver an audience to its advertisers. To maximize this potential, television needs entertainment, and entertainment, if it is to hold the attention of the audience, requires a story about people caught up in conflict, adventure or romance that moves in clear dramatic progress from beginning to middle to end. Stories, it is true, are the very stuff of television.

"All television is educational."
- Nicholas Johnson

And it is also true that millions and millions of people form their vision of social reality primarily by the kinds of stories they see day after day on television.

Despite protestations that television "just entertains," even the public knows it does more than that. In the past months, media leaders have acknowledged responsibility for media's role in a major social problem: drug use. Film and television representatives have voluntarily agreed to monitor more carefully the images they present of drug use and abuse. In doing so, the industry admitted that it knows it has power to do more than create laughs and sell automobiles. Television is one of the mirrors by which Americans view themselves and their society. By watching and listening over months and years, one learns to act - with a conscience or without.

Not that we haven't occasionally seen entertaining stories that incorporated a larger worldview. There was, after all, The Day After. M*A*S*H offered profound episodes on the futility of war and, most recently, Cagney and Lacey confronted the dilemma of apartheid when the team was assigned to protect a South African marathon runner.

But it is not enough.

It is not enough because by experiencing only a world of personal-social problems, TV viewers are left with a false sense of the relative importance of the issues facing our society and each of us as members of that society, and as inhabitants of the planet. It is not enough because focusing primarily on individuals overcoming personal obstacles distorts the truth of the real world where there are forces beyond the living room — or bedroom — that are conspiring toward massive economic and political exploitation and, even, global annihilation.

Some will argue that, given the entertainment role of prime-time television, serious global issues are best left to PBS documentaries, the news, history books or perhaps as the subject of critically acclaimed theatrical films — Testament for example, or Missing or Platoon.

The fact that serious films often find their way to prime-time television a few years later serves to underscore the real reason behind this argument — television is, by its very nature, timid.

Following the Leader

Gary David Goldberg relates how he once pitched an idea for a network series about a group of press people stationed in Vietnam. It would have had the usual motley crew of characters and poignant but pointed drama, perhaps not unlike the highly popular M*A*S*H. But he proposed the series in the late 1970s, and the network turned it down flat. The reality of Vietnam was still too near, he was told.

M*A*S*H is clearly the most exceptional series on the issues of war and peace. Still, the setting was the Korean War — long before most current U.S. TV watchers were born. In the worldview of commercial television in the l970s it was acceptable to do a series set in Korea, but not in Vietnam. In Korea, remember, we didn't suffer the same losses. Because television — as a business more than an art form — is integrally intertwined with the capitalist economy, to challenge the economic and political system that glues capitalism together is potentially to bite the very hand that feeds it. It is not only easier then, but politically safer, to commission a two-hour movie on AIDS or even incest than one on the destruction of indigenous cultures in the Third World resulting from the aggressive marketing of consumer products to countries that can barely build and sustain a subsistence economy.

As members of the human family, we must not be lulled into complacency by easy public service issues — whether on television or in everyday life. Frankly, I believe that the most significant values question facing us today is not one of personal sexuality but rather economic justice: What kind of world do we create when the rich just get richer while the poor don't count? Unless television can make clear the economic, cultural and political meanings behind social conditions, then all of its docudramas and socially relevant sitcoms will be "like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals."

Of course, the reply from the creative community will be that this is "not anybody's story." But I just cannot believe that somewhere in Hollywood there is not a drama waiting to be written — or that possibly already has been written but is sitting on the shelf — about the questions someone is feeling about their part in contributing to the economic exploitation of, for instance, women factory workers in the Orient by the same multinational corporations that are the biggest advertisers on U.S. network television.

I doubt, however, that it will ever get on prime-time.

And until it does, I don't think we can really talk about how "well" television handles the social issues of our day.

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).