Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Television Generation

Television is a relatively new invention, and the first generation raised on it, is now just retiring.

Television has been in existence, as a technology, since the 1930's.  The British had experimental sets before the war, and the Nazis actually televised the Berlin Olympics.  Early Cathode Ray Tube factories were quickly converted to wartime radar set production.

After the war, production ramped up fairly quickly, and the public lined up to buy.  By the 1950's, there was nearly one in every home, or so it seemed.  Sets were expensive, and a new form of debt - consumer financing - was being used to sell them.

And television sold everything from televisions to cars, to soap, in a new media that was even more persuasive than the old.  Color television ushered in a era of bright, new products, packaged in day-glo colors that showed off well on the RGB screens.  Suddenly, buying plain old soap flakes or even Lux, made no sense at all, when you could have Tide in a neon-orange and yellow packaging.

Of course, not everything about television was new - much carried over from Radio, at least initially, including many of the programs.  Radio, of course, was the first experiment in something called broad-casting, an invention of a young Russian immigrant named David Sarnoff, who founded the RCA corporation, and a media empire, based on the simple idea that radio should not be a point-to-point communication system (like the Internet is today, or at least used to be) but a means for a few powerful loud voices to broadcast their messages to a passive group of millions.  A radio receiver could not talk back - only listen.

Before Radio, people didn't have much in the way of media.  Perhaps the Victrola.  But many people read.  And oddly enough, as our civilization has advanced, our reading level has correspondingly declined, almost in a linear fashion.  Look back at the works of Shakespeare, which today many folks would find impossible to read or follow, without Cliff notes.  Or take early American novels, like Moby Dick - a complex set of stories, sub-plots, deviations and themes, using an unapologetic vocabulary and requiring real concentration to read.

By the 1920's - the Radio era, we had Hemingway, with his simple, direct style of prose, which could have come from the simple and direct script of a radio announcer.  And today?  We have airport paperbacks which can be readily rewritten as scripts for explosion movies.  Or books written by political candidates or people who crash-landed planes (a trend since the 1930's, if you think about Profiles in Courage, or We).

But television was different than radio, as it provided more sensory input in the form of colorful and compelling images.  And the advertisements were more compelling, as well.  Television came into being at the same time our debt society really started to take off, and perhaps this is more than coincidence.  Buying things "on time" accelerated after World War II, and our war economy was replaced by the "consumer economy" we have until today.  And demand for all of this was fueled by the TeeVee.

The idea of buying and borrowing, over scrimping and saving really came into being, and the television provided us with an endless stream of normative cues to reinforce these messages.  No product, too great or too small, eluded the television marketing machine.  Look at a corn flakes box from 1940 sometime, and it appears as drab and generic as its radio era.  Then look at the cereals marketed in the 1960's, with their colorful cartoon characters, sugary contents, loud colored packaging, and mass-market appeal.

We grew up on this stuff, and since it was in the house the day we were born, we tended not to question it.  Consumption was a given, and the only thing up for debate was which brand name product you were going to align yourself to.  Were you a Count Chocula kind of kid, or Frankenberry?    Or maybe you were kicking it back, old school, with Captain Crunch.

Our lives would be better, things would be greater, and we would be the envy of the neighborhood if we only had the right collection of consumer goods in our homes and parked in our driveways.  And we bought into this, not only because we were kids, but because even adults were buying into it.  And as we grew up, we continued to buy, more and more, as we knew nothing else.

And even people who perceived themselves as anti-materialists just went out and bought a different roster of goods.  As it turned out, that crowd was a just a different demographic marketing niche - you could sell them Volvos, Subarus, or a Prius, and anything with a "Green" label attached to it.

And it has been a great big experiment - and one that no one thinks about.  The idea of having car loans (or worse, leases) all the time, and borrowing money for every purchase - even food - was not really something people thought about or did, back in 1940 and before.  The Credit Card came of age with the TeeVee, and the idea of having perpetual debt, in the form of a 30-year mortgage, did as well.

We became a nation of debtors and viewers.  Passive consumers of goods and media.  But never creators, actors, speakers, thinkers, or innovators.  We were just the audience, for whoever was the "Star" this week, and we applauded their acts or their products.   Whether it was Madonna or Steve Jobs, we worshiped them from afar and bought their products, aligning ourselves to a brand loyalty.

So, it has been about 60 years since television started to dominate our media.  Daily papers are on the way out, weakened by the grip of TeeVee and then killed off in a coupe de grace by the Internet.  And it has been an interesting ride, to say the least.

An army of people are approaching retirement with little or nothing saved for the inevitable.  Many have already retired - with nothing - and are struggling to understand how they got here and what they are going to do.  My postings about park models, retiring overseas, and retiring on $1500 a month - as well as how much you need to retire, garner regular hits.

And many of these people are confused and angry.  After all, they only did what the television told them to do.  They became a Ford or Chevy man, traded-in every few years, and paid for it all with car loans.  And they shopped for the insurance based on brand awareness and the jingle of the insurance company, which assured you, you were in "good hands" - even if they were rifling your pocket.

In short, they followed all the normative cues on television, which they assumed were instructions from some higher power as to how to live.  They bought, they consumed, they borrowed, and now they are broke, and it has to be someone else's fault, as they did nothing "wrong".

And in perverse way, they are "right" - that is, if you were to assume that the messages the television sells are right.  But of course, the television lies, and lies often, often through lies of omission.

So, this angry mob demands change, and to get it, they listen to the television, which calls elections like horse-races, and breathlessly reports the latest accusations and counter-accusations between candidates.  Romney calls Obama disgusting for "lying" about his "tenure" at Bain Capital, which until recently, I was not aware was a company that Mittt Romney didn't just "work at" but owned outright.   Yes, it is conceivable that you could own a company and have no idea what goes on there.  At least according to the television.

It will be interesting to see how this next generation plays out, being raised on the Internet.  I was at a State Park the other day, and the ranger had her 3-year-old son in her lap, and he was surfing the web - I kid you not.  Today, the Internet and smart phones will be as ubiquitous to them as the television was to us.  And with the way the Internet is being co-opted through social networking into a massive marketing machine, I am not sure the outcome will be any different.  You will just decide to "like" Captain Crunch, instead of Boo-berry, and your brand loyalties and preferences will be logged and posted, for everyone to see, and the data marketers to harvest.

And perhaps another generation will be persuaded to squander and not save, to spend and consume, instead of building real wealth.  And we will end up right back where we started.

Perhaps.  But I think in every generation, there are a small number who see through this sort of smokescreen that society creates - the distractors that prevent you from realizing what is really going on behind the curtain.