Cruel and Unusual?

  When Edward Bello committed his most recent crime, he expected to go to prison. Instead the judge sentenced him to nine months with no television. He said he wanted "to create a condition of silent introspection" in order to induce Bello to change his behavior. Bello's lawyers were outraged. They're appealing on the grounds that making Bello keep his seven TV sets turned off is "cruel and unusual punishment" -- and thus violates the Constitution. Oh, brother, now I've heard everything. When our Founders outlawed cruel and unusual punishment, they were thinking of things like floggings and amputations. Forcing someone to watch mind-rotting entertainment might also qualify, but equating a ban on TV with torture is a sad sign that television has become far too important in our culture -- important and destructive. TV critic Michael Medved says the problem with TV isn't just the programming: The problem is the medium itself. Medved notes that families began falling apart around 1960 -- the time the first generation raised on TV hit adolescence. These kids grew up on the wholesome sitcoms of the 1950s. Yet by 1965 the family, by every measure, had undergone massive deterioration. The principal cause, Medved says, "was that most . . . influential of all American institutions: television." Medved argues that television encourages attributes that are "deadly to the survival of marriages and families." For example, TV encourages impatience by showing programs that solve every imaginable problem in thirty minutes. "And the whole point of commercials," Medved adds, "is to make you want things and to want them now." Both of these elements undermine the quality of endurance necessary for family life. Television also promotes depression. The focus of TV news is relentlessly negative, Medved observes. If a father works three jobs to support his kids, that's not news. But if the same father shoots his children, we watch the gory details on dozens of stations for days. Finally, TV leads to selfishness because it creates what Medved calls "the syndrome of entitlement" -- the sense that we're all entitled to "ceaseless arrays of ecstatic pleasures" -- just like the characters on "Friends" or "Ally McBeal." Programs like these teach that if some aspects of our lives -- like our marriages -- are not endlessly exciting, we ought to replace them. In short, Medved concludes, television undermines those attributes most necessary for family survival: patience, sacrifice, optimism, and deferred gratification. And he's right. We ought to take a good look, not just at what we watch, but how long we watch. Next week is national TV Turnoff Week, in which Americans are encouraged to hide the remote and find other things to do. Why not figure out how much time your family spends watching TV every week -- and then spend that time doing things like reading aloud, going for walks, or volunteering in your community. Your kids may initially view it as cruel and unusual punishment, but, in time, they'll achieve something far more important than learning what happens on their favorite sitcom: They'll be strengthening their family ties.   For further reading and information: Learn more about "Turn Off TV Week," April 22-28, by visiting Adbusters and TV Turnoff Network. "Cruel and unusual punishment," editorial, The Cincinnati Post, 8 March 2002. Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (Harper Collins, 1993).
The mission of the Parents Television Council is to bring America's demand for positive, family-oriented television programming to the entertainment industry. Learn more by visiting its website.


Chuck Colson


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