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The Five Myths of Television Power; or, Why the Medium is Not the Message.

In THE FIVE MYTHS OF TELEVISION POWER, Or, Why the Medium Is Not The Message (Simon & Schuster, 255 p.) Douglas Davis undertakes the daunting task of disproving what the overwhelming number of people in this country accept as gospel -- that television, which has become an integral part of virtually every American home, has a profound impact on every aspect of life in the United States.

He presents his arguments with cogent logic and the persuasive force of a philosopher-observer and yet, despite the verbiage and the intellectual twists and turns, he fails to convince, partly because his own arguments at times seem simply manufactured to bolster his case.

For instance, citing the networks' loss of audience and the viewers' tendency to go browsing among the many channels, he notes the failure of the Nielsen ratings to provide an accurate picture of the millions who do (or don't) watch, partly because they are fed up with network television today.

And so Davis asks: "If television manages and controls our destiny, why do we reject its core commercial function? In our resistance we may be shaking a societal myth" which, given the prevailing numbers game, is a somewhat far-fetched proposition.

He says viewers are far more independent than they are given credit for, and this particularly applies to children who, he maintains, are not as addicted to the small screen as the prevailing "myth" that TV controls uninformed minds.

Many years ago, Marshall McLuhan coined his famous "the medium is the message" slogan. Davis strongly disagrees. "Those who cede the TV God demonic powers cede him precisely the arrogance and authority he needs," he writes, and he goes on elsewhere: "Our over-wrought perception of TV's hold on our minds has largely diluted the intensity of our educational system where courses have been adjusted to a supposedly passive clientele and vulgarized our political campaigns."

And Davis goes further. "As these myths are dissected, we may also discover why a medium so rich in promise has failed to please the bulk of its audience," he writes, arguing that the ultimate power lies in the eye and the mind of the individual viewer, "not on the other side of the screen."

The book tackles the five "myths" individually -- TV Controls Our Voting, TV Has Destroyed Our Students, TV Is (Our) Reality, TV has turned us into Couch Potatoes, and We Love TV. In each case, Davis argues persuasively, and with the help of a plethora of pertinent -- and sometimes not so pertinent -- quotes that public perception is wrong, and harmful. It's not an easy book to read and to digest, despite the richly documented research, the vast number of quotes and the passionate tone.

Apart from his attempt to puncture the "myths" about TV, Davis is a harsh critic of television's irrelevance to modern life and, as he sees it, the medium's failure to live up to its responsibilities. We do not all love television, he maintains, and "television as we know it does not make our world. Rather, it is our world .... that increasingly remakes, remolds and finally destroys TV life, not TV, drives the world."

"Our perception of the world does not begin to match its reality, or direction," charges Davis. "Television provides people with less than their expanding body of knowledge deserves."

And as for politics on TV, "the moment a political spot hits the screen, the viewer either suspends belief, deserts affection, narrows his focus, or zaps away," he states, without actually citing surveys to document this flat assertion. That's something he does quite often throughout the book and which tends to somewhat undermine his own credibility. Things aren't necessarily the way Davis says they are, simply because he says so.

Many will not be able to take Davis' arguments seriously, regardless of how well he presents them. Considering the number of hours families spend in front of television, it's hard to accept that the medium does not mold and direct their minds in addition to offering (often mindless) entertainment. It is equally hard to go along with the theory that our political system has not been affected by TV, and the theory of the declining audience diminishing the impact of the medium simply in terms of numbers, is just too convenient. Still, Davis has written a challenging book, which draws much of its strength from his own conviction and the razor blade-sharp criticism of a medium which he clearly feels has betrayed both its audience and itself.
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Author:Hift, Fred
Publication:Video Age International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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