Douglas Davis
Douglas Davis
The Five Myths of Television Power: Or, Why the Medium is Not the Message
ISBN: 0671739638
The Five Myths of Television Power
Mr. Davis talked about the research behind his book, The Five Myths of Television Power, or Why the Medium Is Not the Message, published by Simon and Schuster. He explained his exploration into the attitudes preserving the five commonly held assumptions about Americans and television, including the myth that political and social views are shaped by television, and the myth that Americans love television.
TRANSCRIPT
The Five Myths of Television Power
Program Air Date: May 30, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Douglas Davis, can you name the five myths of television power?
DOUGLAS DAVIS (Author, "The Five Myths of Television Power Or, Why the Medium Is Not the Message"): Of course, the major myth is the one we all talk about, and that is that TV dominates our political decision-making. The second myth, which is one I suppose that agonizes people the most, and that is that TV is reducing our kids, our students, into mindless illiterates. The third myth, which is a little more complicated and more fun, is, we often hear that we, the public, prefer this made-up reality that network television has been giving us for some years, to the real reality, which I believe is totally false, of course. The fourth myth is actually the easiest one to refute, and that is that we have all become couch potatoes; that we watch so much television that we are flabby, physically if not intellectually. The last myth, which is in some ways the silliest, but the most interesting chapter for me to write because it was so difficult; that is, we love TV. You hear that over and over again, that Americans have a love affair with their television set. It's said by Americans, it's said by the French, it's said by the Japanese.
LAMB: Where do all these myths come from?
DAVIS: Well, they're all around us. Everywhere you turn, you hear it. The analyses of the last election campaign over and over again focus upon style, and we're now being told that James Carville and his allies invented a whole new style of campaigning; that is, going for alternative media, going for late-night talk shows, as Perot more or less christened "Larry King Live!" and made that an important style, overlooking the substance of the campaign, overlooking the real events, overlooking the possibility that you and I can tell the difference between style and reality and, in fact, that it's one of the most basic human desires.

If I meet a man on the road -- I don't care whether I'm college educated or not -- and he comes up and tries to sell me something, immediately I'm trying to tell whether this is real or not. The myth overlooks that basic drive and desire in people to sort of separate the means of presentation from the content. So, my argument in the book -- and I think here again, every now and then you can hear it from some of our wiser political commentators -- is that this last campaign was about substance, but it was about real issues and real fears that people had and that that's what drove the campaign, that's what drove Carville's response to what the voters wanted, that's what led him and that's what led Clinton and that's what led Perot to deluge the voters with facts and to talk to them over long, extended time periods rather than just little sound bites. In other words, I think that the campaign was driven by the people, by the needs of the people and the issues, and the media style was strictly secondary.
LAMB: Can you script a candidate by using television in a way that will impact the voter?
DAVIS: Oh, God. Of course, I lust to do that. I lust to be sitting somewhere on a big pile of gold. There are all sorts of people in this town and in New York who make their living answering questions like that, and answering with great authority. I've written a couple about bits for Newsday and for the New York Times since I wrote the book, in which I talk about aspects of this. At one point I found myself saying if you want to win campaigns now, you've got to be interactive. You've got to get away from mediation. You've got to go directly to the voter because the voter's too smart. We're so vastly better educated and so much more sophisticated than we were in the early days of television, for example, upon which most of the myths and most of the campaigning rules are based, that if you don't get out of this condescension-mediation situation and start talking to them directly and hearing back from them, they're not going to vote for you.

So, I did find myself saying that's the new style. The new style is interaction. But I hope that I also said, wait a minute. Don't think of it as a style because a lot of things about the past campaign made it necessary to interact with people -- the issues that we were facing, for example -- and the next campaign might be different. In other words, I'm against this. The book is for substance and against style. Obviously style comes out of substance. Style came out of the Carville campaign and the Perot campaign, but it was driven by the subject matter.
LAMB: Whose idea was the cover, and what is it saying?
DAVIS: That's a very good question. We had some tussling about the cover. The publisher and my editor and my agent were all charmed by it, and I guess I'm charmed by it, too. I'm not quite sure what it means. I talk a little bit in the book about changing lifestyles with regard to sexual practices and habits, and I tried to argue, for example, that the way we behave in our lifestyles now is much looser and freer than the supposedly decadent lifestyle that's being imposed upon us by prime time TV or by "Murphy Brown," for example. And maybe there's a little play with that in the title, the eye and the wink. I'm not sure. I would have preferred it just to say The Five Myths of Television Power, but I'm only an author.
LAMB: How did you get into this stuff in the first place?
DAVIS: That's a big question. I was born in this city. I came from a very naive background. I was the second person in my family to go to college, and I guess the first to get an advanced degree. I talk a little bit about this in the prologue. We were not particularly well endowed financially.
LAMB: What did your parents do?
DAVIS: My father died very early. My mother later remarried and then divorced and raised me almost entirely on her own. That's one of the reasons why I was the last kid on the block to get a TV set. But coming from a background like that, and through various events that I describe in the introduction, I had to go to college somehow. Because the background was so naive, I decided I wanted to study everything. When I went to American University here and then later to Rutgers for a graduate degree, I just studied everything. I was at one point every kind of major, from studio art to radio and television to political science to English literature to art history. I studied everything because I thought that's what you were supposed to be. You were supposed to be well rounded, and it wasn't until very much later that I realized that I was living in a nation of specialists, and specialization is still, for some reason, though that's beginning to change slightly, what we prize the most.

I'd always loved writing as far back as I could remember and drawing, and I just continued to practice these skills because I loved doing them, and then somewhere along the way, to my great surprise, people began to pay me to write -- quite astonishing -- and now they're paying me to write books, which is even more astonishing, and then, you know, they began to buy the works of art that I was making. Much of this happened as a surprise. My involvement with the media -- the writing and also the criticism and the work in media -- came when I was in my 30s and happened quite by accident.
LAMB: Where were you?
DAVIS: I was in New York. I was working for Newsweek, and I was writing about everything, mostly the arts. I became very much interested in the theories of [Marshall] McLuhan, which with I disagreed, and I began to develop a counter-theory on lots of levels. It took a long time before I finally found a publisher who would let me put it into book form.
LAMB: Right at the bottom of the cover it says, "The Five Myths of Television Power, Or Why The Medium Is Not The Message." What does "the medium is the message" mean, and who invented it?
DAVIS: McLuhan. Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher, social scientist, very early decided to turn his attention to media and saw the imposition of media upon the human race as a determining factor, very much as Marx saw the imposition of various economic standards upon us as a kind of single factor. I think McLuhan overlooked a couple of things in a phrase like, "the medium is the message."
LAMB: By the way, what year did he write that?
DAVIS: My memory is the '50s. "Understanding Media" impacted upon me in the '60s, but I think it was published before. I don't know the exact year.
LAMB: And that was an exact phrase, "the medium is the message?"
DAVIS: "The medium is the message."
LAMB: What did that actually mean, though?
DAVIS: It means that to lots of people, particularly those who propagate and serve the myth, that the mere appearance of an image or an argument on a television screen is the equivalent of persuasion. We heard this a lot. It backs up the enormous prices that networks demand for just 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds of time. It supports the billions of dollars that our political candidates spend buying time on television. It lurked behind all the predictions, which I'm sure you remember as well as I do, that the great police states of Eastern Europe would never fall because they had control of the media. Stalin took over and religiously and relentlessly organized the media and censored it. And in all of these cases that I'm describing, beginning with McLuhan and that phrase, "the medium is the message," what is being overlooked is the cantankerousness of the human spirit, of you and me and that quality in us that I was trying to describe at the beginning.

We do resist being oversold -- we all do -- and I think the collapse of the police states in Eastern Europe in 1989, 1990 and 1991 and still going on to some extent, is yet another example that the medium is not the message; that the message is the medium, or better yet, the viewer is the medium because it is the way we perceive what is shown to us on television that cuts the mustard; that is, that makes the difference. As we change, as the viewers change, as they become better educated and more sophisticated as they travel more, that certainly has happened to the America that I've grown up in. It's certainly happened in Eastern Europe. Russia is very different. The Russians are a very different people now than they were in 1917. Those old shibboleths just don't work.
LAMB: There is a statistic that you repeat in here. I think it's 50 million television ads a year at a cost of $21 billion. Is that right?
DAVIS: I plead innocent, at least to that. I don't remember coming up with that figure. I wouldn't deny it. It sounds about right to me. Some of the figures that I am more certain about is, that every four years we spent a billion dollars on buying television time. Our candidates spend a billion dollars. In contested House and Senate races, two-thirds of the budget goes for buying television. Now, I think that's absolutely lunatic. A number of studies have been done to show that more than half of those who spend more money on television in contested campaigns lose, so if that doesn't tell you something, I don't know what does. In this last campaign Bush and Perot spent enormous amounts of money on TV time. Clinton spent a lot too, but I think it was one, two between Bush and Perot who finished two, three.
LAMB: On Page 31 it says, "Each year approximately 50 million commercials are designed and aired in the United States at a cost of more than $21 billion."
DAVIS: I'm very impressed by that. I must have been quoting someone else.
LAMB: There is, I think, a footnote in there. What are your own television habits?
DAVIS: I once wrote an article called "Confessions of a C-SPAN Addict." I am a C-SPAN addict, like many people; more people than you might think. I have it on almost all the time. I'm a David Letterman fan. I watch David Letterman a lot. Because I have a 10-year-old daughter who is in love with "Beverly Hills 90210" and I have to stay in touch with the sitcom, I watch "90210" sparingly from time to time. Public affairs, of course, I watch as much as I can, and the news. I'm a real news hound. From time to time high culture makes its way onto certain channels that I can get to, like Arts & Entertainment or old revival movies, and I watch them there. I expect that this latter part of my viewing habits will be increased as I am able to get access to more and more channels.
LAMB: Where do you live?
DAVIS: New York, but I do a lot of teaching and so I travel around a lot. I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles. I'm writing a book about my classes at UCLA, which were going on during the Rodney King tape, and also during the Gulf War, and I was able to learn something about how young people actually view these events. I spend a lot of time in Moscow. I'm working on a satellite television collaboration between PBS, the Guggenheim Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery and Russian TV, and I've been working on that off and on, I guess, for four or five years. And I've done a lot of writing about the second Russian revolution, as I saw it, which had a lot to do with media, of course.
LAMB: Are there things you just won't watch?
DAVIS: It's not so much that I won't watch stuff, it's that I'm one human being. I have a limited amount of time, and I naturally go where my interests are. I have to admit that there are certain kinds of styles of television that I like and that I prefer over other styles. One of the reasons I like C-SPAN is that it's unmediated, closer to life. It's like the Rodney King tape. It's like the CNN coverage of the Gulf War, which at its best was completely unmediated. When TV is live and doing what it alone can do, can be there and give you a presence in the midst of an event that's unfolding, I'm more attracted to it than when it's canned.
LAMB: Let me ask you about unmediated television, which we do here at C-SPAN. It's fairly well known that there's not a huge audience for it. We don't have Nielsens here, but CNN doesn't get huge audiences. They get a couple of million people watching it. Why do you think people watch it? Why do they watch mediated television so much more than they do unmediated television?
DAVIS: First of all, the chart lines are all in the other direction. The chart lines are moving toward unmediated television, away from mediated television. It's going to take a long time before the gross numbers begin to match up, but the direction is all in favor of unmediated TV. I think the instinct in the last campaign that Perot had and that the Clinton campaign had, to try to talk directly to the viewers and take questions back, was right on the money because, again, as I said before, we're very different people now than we were 20 years ago or 30 years ago. We're very sophisticated and we know a lot, and so we don't want someone declaiming to us. I think that at his best, Clinton's style in these two-way dialogs is exactly right for the moment, though again I would argue that the style is required by the content. In the process of answering this question I'm afraid I've forgotten the question. Maybe you could repeat it.
LAMB: I'm talking about in the old days the unmediated television didn't get that many viewers, and it still doesn't get that many viewers. Mediated television -- or packaged television -- by and large is where people go.
DAVIS: I would like to politely disagree with you. It's a very complicated point, and it has a lot to do with -- I suppose one analogy would be, often it is said that a certain book only reached 5,000 readers in its first printing or 10,000 readers, so therefore it is inherently inferior to Book Y which reaches 100,000. But we all know that books that sold almost no copies at the beginning have changed the shape of history. If we think of Das Kapital, for example, not too many people read Das Kapital when it came out, but it made a point that resonated. I would say that C-SPAN and CNN are making certain points about the proper kind of relationship we enjoy with television. The issue is not entirely how many people are watching C-SPAN or CNN, though those numbers are going up all the time. The question is what kind of cultural impact are you making upon this whole field? It seems to me on that level that's the analogy to a small book, small sale, affecting history whereas a bestseller doesn't. I don't think that many of the sitcoms, for example, that are on NBC, CBS, ABC, with the possible exception of "Murphy Brown," are going to have anything to do with the history of media, whereas C-SPAN and CNN will.
LAMB: You have a whole scenario in here that you paint with your daughter and her friend and to do television and computers. Explain that.
DAVIS: They've become somewhat famous, Victoria and Arthur. I get questions about them when I'm on these talk shows about the book, from around the country. But the anecdote about them, which catches them at a moment when they turn away from the PBS canned presentation of "Carmen Sandiego" and ask me to turn on the computer terminal so that they can play with the interactive program of "Carmen Sandiego" that's on a floppy disk and I just stuck it into my Macintosh, is, I think, instructive because it shows you that kids are not dying to be passive. They're dying to be active in the same way that the TV viewer is increasingly proving to us that he or she wants to be active. I think there's a great lesson in that, and I think also that educators ought to pay some attention to it, and are beginning to.

The combination of the computer and the television set, which we're seeing increased all the time, does allow through the keyboard an element of active play between the mind of a child and the image for the text on the screen that's extremely valuable and leads to a certain kind of literacy. I talk about the development of a certain visual-verbal literacy which is in our children now. There are some very interesting studies. I hope you don't mind if I'm going on about this. After all, this is C-SPAN. There have been some very interesting studies which contradict -- the book is filled with contrarian thoughts, fortunately or unfortunately, and one of them is about this whole issue of whether our kids are getting stupider and dumber because of the electronic overload. I think there are many reasons why the scores are going down, a lot of them social and economic and linguistic and not to do with anything else, but also it has to do with an inability of our educators to adjust to this new intelligence, which I believe that Victoria and Arthur and lots of kids that I've watched represent.

From a very early age they're quite trained in eye movements. They also, particularly if they come from a family that reads and writes a lot as ours do, have a certain verbal literacy, some traditional verbal literacy. The problem is that the schools are doggedly attempting to perfect them in the old mode of literacy, and the kids that come into school now, the pre-school kids when they hit kindergarten and hit the first grade, come packed with so much visual and verbal information which is combined in different ways for the school curriculum to respect and energize. I think that's one of the great problems we have, and I'd like to restate it now to make it simpler and perhaps even crazier. Rather than having to deal with children who aren't smart enough, our school system is not as smart as the kids that are coming into it now, and that's the big problem.

We don't know how to deal with this visual-verbal literacy that children are bringing in, and I just conclude this by talking about a few studies which I quote in the book. IQ testing has gone on with kids between the age of 3 and 5, and lo and behold, children now at that age level have much higher IQs than the same studies done 20 years ago. The IQ remains high until they get into the conventional school system at which point they drop, and the reason is that we don't know how to adjust to this new form of intelligence. I've been trying to suggest both in the book and in our discussion that this relationship between the computer and television and the keyboard is certainly one way to do it.
LAMB: If someone just tuned us in and they want to know what we're talking about, it's the book that looks like this that's about the five myths of television power. Myth one is TV controls our voting.
DAVIS: Absolutely not.
LAMB: No impact on it at all?
DAVIS: Oh, no -- heavens no.
LAMB: So is the operative word "control?"
DAVIS: Yes. It does not control. Of course, television is an influence. For good reasons and bad reasons it's an influence. All media influence us. All conduits of information, all personal experience, our economic needs, our perception of events, all of these things influence our voting, but not just TV alone.
LAMB: Does anybody turn on television and see an anchorperson say something, and say, "Yes, I agree now that I've heard Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather say that?"
DAVIS: Let me respond with a question. Who do you know who would say yes to that? Ask your grandmother. Ask your friends. Does TV decide your voting? Who decides it? What kind of information do you honor? Just ask that question. In these call-in shows people are calling in all the time and they're talking about how everybody else is brainwashed by television, and I always say, "What about you? Are you brainwashed?" "Oh, not me."
LAMB: Myth two, TV has destroyed our students. Has it had any negative impact on our students?
DAVIS: Yes, but indirectly. I think that the perception that, let's say, 20,000 hours -- this is what's often said. American students watch 20,000 hours of television, and by the time they get out of high school they've only attended 15,000 hours of classroom. You know, it's like dealing with any god or any myth. What a ridiculous assertion that is! Just stop and think about it for a moment. Do you mean to tell me that there is an equivalent between the hours at the end of the day when our kids are playing around the television set -- anybody who's had kids knows how kids deal with TV. Sometimes they look at it and sometimes they don't, particularly at the end of the day when they're tired and just playing and so forth. Is that the same as being in a classroom and having a teacher instruct you in a subject that you've got to pass to get out of school? No. There is no qualitative way in which you can see an analogy between those two things, so that's just one way in which that myth is vastly overstated and wrong.
LAMB: Myth three, TV is our reality.
DAVIS: Absolutely, again, wrong. I cite to you Dan Quayle who thought he had a good thing going when he attacked the whole concept of single motherhood, single parenthood, out of wedlock. I realize I'm contradicting myself by quoting these figures now, which I don't believe, but how many people watched that birth? Thirty-eight million. Then in the fall, by the time Murphy Brown responded to Dan Quayle, obviously a lot of people had pointed out to the vice president that, I think it's something like one-third of all American homes have single parents now, so that he was striking a solar plexus blow at a lifestyle that is being imposed by us upon television, not the reverse. TV is recognizing the fact that this is the way a lot of Americans live, and so on that occasion when Murphy Brown answered Dan Quayle, I think the Nielsen figure was 44 million, which was more than watched the Republican convention on its last final day.
LAMB: Myth four, TV pacifies us. We are couch potatoes.
DAVIS: False. That's the easiest to disprove. Since television came into my living room, since TV appeared in the United States, the number of per capita hours we spend buying books, going to the theater, traveling, going out to restaurants, jogging, swimming, playing tennis has jumped quantum times.
LAMB: What about this seven-hours-a-day figure that we watch too much?
DAVIS: We'll come to that. One could argue that TV is driving us out of the house, not that it's keeping us there. No, in this society we're much more active and better educated, and we're much more aggressive in terms of going after what we want than we were before the advent of television. TV didn't have anything to do with it. It had to do with education, leisure time, affluence, all those things that we all know about. The same thing has happened to the Russians.
LAMB: The figure we see all the time, that there is seven hours-plus a day that the television set is on in the house and it keeps going up every year, and in some foreign countries it's half that.
DAVIS: Yes, well, those numbers are based upon the Nielsen samples. The Nielsen sample, as every serious student of polling and statistics will tell you, is highly biased. It's a small sample of people. You've got to ask yourself right away, who would allow his TV set to be surveilled, in effect? Already we've got probably heavy TV viewers that are becoming part of the Nielsen sample. Secondly, all those figures tell you is that the TV set is on. It doesn't tell you whether people are watching it or whether they like what they're seeing. By the way, that seven-hour-and-twenty-minute figure is a composite. Half of it is supposedly watched by adults, and half of it is supposedly watched by kids. Kids are notoriously difficult to poll and study.
LAMB: What impact has the old zapper had on television viewing?
DAVIS: A fantastic influence. According to Nielsen itself, approximately 60 percent of us zap out commercials or change the channel as soon as they come on. If this doesn't prove that the TV audience is active and not passive, I don't know what does.
LAMB: Myth five, we love TV.
DAVIS: Yes, well, I think that's a perversion of the word love. I spent a lot of time in graduate school, actually, studying the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, and love to me is a very elevated concept. I'm just joking, of course. It's a misuse of the word, though you hear it often. I argue in that chapter a lot of things. I'm making a lot of points. I am attempting to knock down the supposed supreme authenticity of the Nielsen numbers. I'm citing a number of scandals that have taken place with regard to those numbers, but I also talk about the fact that according to many, many of the people who are studied and polled, we actually hate TV. Now, when I say we hate TV, I don't mean that we want to throw it out of the house because obviously we all have lots of TV sets. It's just that often people say that they regret the amount of time they spend watching television and they dislike it and don't trust it as a credible source of information. It doesn't mean that some parts of it they don't subscribe to. But I think it's as equally reasonable to say that we hate television as that we love it.
LAMB: Have you always had these five myths, or when you sat down to write this book did you decide you wanted five myths and you developed them?
DAVIS: I had to domesticate the subject. I couldn't just talk about a myth. This all began with an op-ed I wrote for the New York Times in 1988 and there was quite an extraordinary reaction to it, so various people suggested that I should turn it into a book. When I began thinking about it in book length, I realized that it couldn't be just one myth; that I had to begin to make some distinction, and that's what I'm trying to do here. I could easily have picked, I suppose, seven or three, but five seemed to me right, and these are the five myths that, separately phrased, you hear from lots of sources.
LAMB: Do I get the impression you're taking on two academics, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Neil Postman?
DAVIS: Well, not taking them on. I greatly admire them, you understand, and I'm sure that our tastes are probably similar in terms of what we watch. I think that they're doing us all, in the cause of enlightenment, a disservice by claiming that television has such injurious impact upon us. It overlooks the ability of people to resist. There is a great deal of resistance in the human soul. It's often said that if you repeat something over and over and over again, you'll sell it. Well, a lot of studies tell us that you're also as likely to drive people away. What I say in the book about spending all this time to buy television time, I say that some candidates are shooting themselves in the foot by doing that. You can go into people's homes too many times, and so you have to be rather careful, it seems to me, and think not about these broad media shibboleths but about the kind of person you're trying to reach and motivate to go to the polls. I think you have to treat him or her with a great deal of respect.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the three candidates from the last election. Is there anything George Bush could have done using television that would have gotten him elected again?
DAVIS: I thought it was an abysmally managed campaign from the standpoint of the media strategy. I'm trying to think of the very brilliant Republican media strategist who agrees with me about it?
LAMB: Roger Ailes?
DAVIS: No, not Roger Ailes. The reverse. The man who worked for Perot for a while and then quit.
LAMB: Ed Rollins?
DAVIS: Yes. He said the problem with the Bush campaign in 1992 was that the media strategy was exactly the same as 1988, and it was a different year. There were lots of different issues afoot and a different opposition, of course, and so just going on the attack wasn't going to work. Even if he had changed his media style, I think he would have been face to face with the realities of the events -- that is, the weakening economy -- and he would also have had to face the problem about the issue of pro-choice, pro-life. He took a very rigid stand on that and alienated himself from lots of Republican women and lots of Republican voters. I don't know what a media style could have done about these content issues.
LAMB: How much of Bill Clinton's victory is due to his media strategy?
DAVIS: I think that Bill Clinton's victory is due to the content of the campaign, and the content of the campaign drove the media strategy. His attempt to say, "I'm putting people first; I'm basically interested in the economy; I want to know what's hurting you, what's wrong; I understand that you're hurting," drove them to take up various styles and various approaches to media. The often-abused appearances on MTV, Arsenio Hall, imitating Elvis Presley on "The Charlie Rose Show," which is what finally put me into his camp, an attempt to reach the younger voter and talk to the younger voter about those issues -- it seems all of that proceeded from the content of the campaign, and that's why it worked. Perot's campaign worked, I think, in the same way until the very end.
LAMB: Let me ask it a different way: Had he not gone on Arsenio Hall and MTV and "The Charlie Rose Show" and not done all of those kind of shows, would it have made a difference in the outcome of the election?
DAVIS: That's an almost impossible question to answer.
LAMB: What's your supposition?
DAVIS: No. I think probably if he had expressed that content in a different way, he still would have won, because of the content. It was a position that he was taking with the events that decided that campaign. It wasn't the media style, even though, as I said before, I'm a great believer in interactivity. Ross Perot is very interesting. People often say to me, "Look, if Ross Perot hadn't gone on television, he wouldn't have gotten anywhere," and I point out to them that lots of people aren't on television. We can think of all sorts of people -- Pat Buchanan and Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown and an endless number of candidates went on television. Perot stuck because of the content of his campaign -- what he was saying about the deficit, what he was saying about corruption in Washington. That's what drove him and gave him his high numbers, and I just want to point out one thing about the end of the campaign. It is absolutely true that Perot set a world's record for spending money on television at the end of the campaign, and it is true that he got large numbers in terms of people who tuned in to watch those supposedly boring infomercials; again, another proof that TV viewers are far more sophisticated than we have given them credit for. The fact is that his numbers on the voting charts didn't move at all -- didn't move at all -- so the key to Perot's success at the beginning and all the way to the end, it seems to me, was the position that he was taking. It wasn't his use of media, though I think it was a brilliance subservient to that premise.
LAMB: You dedicate this to C. V. and her sisters. Who is it?
DAVIS: C. V. is the now-famous Charlotte Victoria, the 10-year-old daughter, and her sisters, one of whom lives in Washington here and works at National Air & Space Museum -- I like to say runs the special events department -- and my oldest daughter who lives in New York and is working in public health.
LAMB: And Charlotte Victoria lives with you in New York?
DAVIS: Yes, yes.
LAMB: Let me read to you from page 18 of your book: "To date it has occurred to virtually no one with a strong public voice to suggest that the major networks long ago lost psychic touch with the taste of the audience, that the public itself is the aggressor, acting to reject what it no longer needs, or that TV news and political spots are to blame for low turnouts by depriving potential voters of substantial reasons to support any candidate, given the consistent trivialization of political debate." Do you want to explain what that means?
DAVIS: I say it a lot through the book in different ways. There are some passages toward the end that are maybe a little more poetic. I think that the bottom line here with regard to declining voter turnouts is the nature of the campaigning which is based in this misjudgment of what is important about television, or any medium, which is what is said and what is done on it -- by ignoring that and thinking that you can say or do anything if you do it in a certain kind of style or slickness. Until the last campaign, 1992, we have seen a steadily decreasing percentage of people who want to come out and vote. In the last campaign that was turned around.

To tie to something else I said earlier, I think it was turned around by the voter because the voters began very early to make it clear that they didn't want any more of this, that they had had enough in 1988, and they got from the candidates a greater elaboration of policy and more detail. You remember, of course, the Richmond debate in which one after another persons stood up from the audience and said, "Come on, stop this mudslinging. I want you to tell me what you're going to do about my jobs and my health care," etc., etc. So that's the key to it all. A lot of people have said, "You know, you're really bashing the networks." Well, the networks are bashing themselves. They're losing viewers, and I think they have to wake up to this quality. I'm calling for a greater quality between what is sent and what is received, and I think that that's what that passage is about, and a number of others.
LAMB: In the back of the book you have contrarian stats, as you call them, an addendum, and you go through a lot of this stuff that we've been talking about, including something you just mentioned here. Your first item here is "Estimated Percentage of Prime-Time Audience for ABC, CBS and NBC." You start in 1981 and you say that 87 percent of the audience was watching the networks in prime time. The statistics just came out a couple of days ago that showed that in this season they went down 5 percent more in audience, down to 60 percent. Why are they losing audience?
DAVIS: Why? It's wild -- the reason I just tried to indicate. The networks have lost touch. If you'll permit me to make a great leap, they have lost touch with the sophistication and the volatility and the impatience of the market and the audience, in the same way that our foreign policy strategists hounded me when I first went to Russia in 1987 and 1988 and came back and started writing about all the enormous changes that were taking place there. It's now forgotten, but a lot of our great foreign policy spokesmen were saying, "Impossible. There's never going to be any larger change in Russia. The Russian people are just absolutely inherently servile. They have no tradition of democracy, and it's only Gorbachev," as now we're being told that it's only Yeltsin. There's a certain losing touch with the reality of the street, of where people really are, where their minds are. I think the networks have lost touch, as our great foreign policy spokesmen lost touch with the nature of the Russian people and what they want and what ultimately they will get even out of this forthcoming crisis.
LAMB: You say that the network news shows have lost 15 to 20 percent of their audience in the '80s. How come?
DAVIS: Again, the same. I think that the networks are aiming much lower than the audience. I think that the market is expecting much more than it's getting from the networks and is moving elsewhere, given an alternative. If I were given an alternative to Con Ed in New York, I would certainly grab it. I have no alternative. In the old days, essentially CBS, NBC, ABC were Con Ed. They no longer are. Now, of course, there are a lot of people in the networks that understand this, and you can begin to see some changes in network programming now to attempt to speak to this kind of seriousness in this sort of audience.
LAMB: Does TV dominate us or merely distract us? This is another one of your points. "In 1992 the following activities occurred among viewers while the TV set was on: eating dinner, 63 percent; engaging in another activity with the TV as background noise, 36 percent; and falling asleep, 29 percent."
DAVIS: Absolutely. Again, that's why the mere Nielsen numbers about when the TV set is on or off doesn't tell us very much about the real activity of the audience. I talk a lot in myths four and five about the often-expressed desire on the part of people who really want to seriously study the relationship between the TV viewer and the television set, the desire to somehow or another observe it in a life context as opposed to an abstract context. We talk about people watching TV as though they were alone with the television set and there were no other distractions and nothing else was going on.

The fact is, you and I know people are engaged in all sorts of life choices, lifemanship, while they're watching TV. TV has become so casual and so much a part of our lives, it's almost like indoor plumbing or electricity to us now. We really are not obsessed with it. We deal with it almost, as I say in another part of the book, like a little boy or a little brother rather than as a demonic god. So, we've all been trying to figure out ways in which to observe this situation; that is, the real viewing of television as opposed to the mythic view of it, and what I tried to do in myth four is give you the results of my visiting about a dozen homes in a period of about one week. I just went and I watched how people watched television, and it's quite extraordinary what I saw. All of this is there. The people who write about TV rarely do that. The TV critics rarely go into people's homes and watch this act of viewing TV, and that's what I tried to do and to give you some sense of it, and then at the end I tell you a little bit about how I watch television. You will recall the bookends with my watching Paul Tsongas withdraw from the race on C-SPAN.
LAMB: I wanted to ask you about that, because there was a lot of poetry in that. You even brought Rousseau into the picture. Explain that.
DAVIS: You can't sound-bite something like that, but we're on C-SPAN. Rousseau was the great spokesman for attempting to see things freshly and to see things new. It is an idea that is parenthetically very present in American culture. One of the first things that our poets and our philosophers and our politicians said upon coming here is, "We want to see everything new. This is a new day, a new country, and we don't want to look at it in old terms." I think it's a sort of distinguishing factor between America and the rest of the world. I'm not saying it's necessarily good that we are always trying to see things freshly and new, as opposed to the Russians, for example, who are always seeing the past.

But it seems to me that looking at certain aspects of television -- in this particular passage I'm talking about coming home after seeing the movie Kafka, and it's about 1 a.m. and I turn on C-SPAN, which I always do, to see what's there, because one never knows what's going to be there, and here is Paul Tsongas resigning from the campaign. I'm watching this, and at a certain point his wife comes over and kisses him and leaves the imprint of two dark lips on the side of his cheek, which he doesn't notice. He keeps talking. He's trying very hard to be very serious to everybody there, but everyone could see this kiss, this lip imprint upon him, and it made of that particular moment, you know, when he's trying to withdraw gracefully from the race, a certain how-can-you-describe-it. It wasn't comic; it was very touching.

As I was watching, I thought, you know, this is something that can happen with this medium -- this sort of chance encounter, this sort of chance juxtaposition of the wife coming and kissing him. The event is going on in real time, you know, because you didn't edit it, you didn't mediate it. It had a quality -- again I just have to say, it was very touching. It had a quality of pathos related to also the deeper, serious issue of his withdrawal from the campaign and the meaning of the campaign itself. But it made it quite a special thing, and one has to say of it that this is a moment that could only happen in this medium at this time by this means, and that's what I meant. That's what I mean about seeing freshly. It's like seeing that very special quality of that moment and not trying to link it to anything traditional that we've been told about what television is, about what politics is, about what life is like.
LAMB: What do you do when you're not writing books?
DAVIS: I teach, I make art.
LAMB: What kind of art?
DAVIS: All kinds. I've made the same mistake with that that I've made with my education. I do everything. I make prints, I make drawings, I make photographs, I make objects. I guess I've made more video probably than anything else, and I was a part of the first generation of video artists. Now, of course, every kid in art school, every kid in the university now works with video as an art form. The video camera has become like a pencil now, which is what we all hoped in the beginning. I make films. I am particularly interested in working with live satellite transmission. The project has an official title, The Russian-American Company, and it's a group of American artists and Russian artists who will in live time collaboratively create a work of television programming, which you will hopefully see later this year.
LAMB: On the back of your book you have a couple of comments from others that struck me as interesting. David F. Poltrack, senior vice president of planning and research for CBS, who I think was the gentleman who a year ago or so said that the network audiences had bottomed out at 63 percent and it's now gone down to 60 percent, says this about your book, "Provocative and intellectually challenging, Davis has made a major contribution to the literature on television and its role in our society." Why is Mr. Poltrack of CBS commenting on your book? Don't you make him mad when you write this stuff?
DAVIS: About 13 minutes ago when we were talking about networks, I think I said -- I'm just kidding, of course -- but I think I said that there is some evidence of adjustment. The networks are adjusting to this loss of audience and trying to find ways to more narrowly pinpoint and go after the kind of audience they're losing. Poltrack's research has, along with many other factors, led CBS to attempt to reach a certain specific kind of viewer. "Murphy Brown" was one of the spinouts from that change. Though obviously I'm sure he doesn't particularly like everything that I have to say about networks, I think that CBS is clearly recognizing the shift that I'm talking about, so perhaps they can hear it better or see it better than the other networks can, though obviously there are all sorts of exceptions in each one of these broadcasting systems.
LAMB: Of all the things you've written -- the op-ed pieces and speeches and books and all that stuff -- what has gotten the most comment?
DAVIS: Oh, this! I write for two kinds of audiences; the larger public, which I try to reach through the New York Times and through Newsday and in an earlier time through Newsweek, and then I write, I suppose, for what might be called the visual art media world of which I'm a part. So there are two different kinds of writing. The first kind obviously reaches more people and can have at least a superficially larger impact. I would say that the op-ed in the New York Times in 1988, the title of which was "Zapping the Myth of TV Power," had the most impact from everyplace. We heard from everyplace. I felt a little bit like Galileo. You remember what happened to Galileo. Galileo was subjected to the Inquisition in 1633 because he dared to say that the earth goes around the sun rather than the reverse. It's amazing that he really lived. I felt a little bit like that after the 1988 op-ed. I mean, I was on almost every talk show imaginable for about two or three weeks, and everybody was yelling and screaming at me at one level or another. I think it was one of the reasons why I decided to do the book; that there was some kind of nerve here that needed to be stroked.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. Douglas Davis has been our guest. It's "The Five Myths of Television Power, Or Why The Medium Is Not The Message." Thank you very much for joining us.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.