Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Belinda Acosta

AUGUST 30, 1999:  As a kid, when time moved much slower and a moment with nothing to do could be life-threatening, Sundays were blah-days. It really depended on the time of year. In the beginning of a new summer, there was no time to waste sitting still. At the end of summer, it was another story. The oncoming doom of the new school year became present with the return to school-year bedtimes and habits. Actually, I liked school, but it wasn't summer vacation.

Daytime Sunday television was enough to make you stick your head in a plastic bag. All those public affairs programs and mind-numbing sports, like auto racing or golf -- golf! I'm still amazed that there's a Golf Network on cable television now, but I digress ...

Actually, I have some good Sunday TV memories. Early in the morning, I would turn on the television with the sound turned down low and sit inches from the screen to watch Davey and Goliath. I loved that claymation cartoon produced by those Missouri Synod Lutherans. If I was being proselytized to become Lutheran, it didn't work. But I was a sucker for those gentle stories of friendship, heroism, courage, faith, and hope. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that they were televised Bible lessons. I thought it was way cool how the clay figures walked and talked, and I pined for a dog like Goliath, who was there to hear your troubles between games of fetch. Goliath also had this goofy way of speaking, which I took pleasure in imitating until my mother's eyes rolled back white into her head and my brother ran screaming from the house. Compared to other cartoons, and especially to today's cartoons, Davey and Goliath is downright tedious, but I thought it was the best part of a Sunday morning, any morning, any day of the week.

During the day, there were a slew of old movie Westerns that my mother inexplicably liked. I watched them on occasion as I did chores around the house. I've never understood their appeal, even though the Western was a staple in our house until they finally faded off the air in the Seventies. When Gunsmoke, the longest-running Western in television history, signed off in 1975, my mother mourned. I barely gave it a second thought. Even so, there was something about the Western that I equated with stability. Maybe because a Western was always the finale of Sunday night TV-watching. Leading up to it, the teasing aroma of Sunday dinner, along with the familiar bloom of tortillas cooked to perfection, one after the other, filled the house with comfort. After Sunday dinner, it was The Ed Sullivan Show (until 1971), or The Wonderful World of Disney, and later in the evening, Bonanza. We watched these shows as a family, with full bellies, content in knowing all the chores were done for the day.

In every work setting I've ever been in, the people I work with -- parents with children of all ages -- lament the lack of suitable programming for children and families on television. Most of the programs I profile are definitely not suitable for children and may be inappropriate for some teens. Since I don't have children, these are things I don't typically worry about. But since these working parents do, I have to wonder: Why do people with children even bother having televisions when it's a medium fraught with mines? The answer, I suspect, comes from the fact that we baby boomers think of television in a nostalgic way that is part memory and part amnesia.

Davey and Goliath
Davey and Goliath

With the big exception of sports events, it's not like the "golden days," when watching television was a communal event. In the beginning, the first television on the block was cause for TV-watching parties. Neighbors were invited over to watch mostly vaudevillian, song-and-dance variety shows -- Your Show of Shows, The Milton Berle Show, The Jimmy Durante Show, and, of course, The Ed Sullivan Show. Later, when at least one television set per household became the norm, neighbors stayed at home, watching with their own families, in front of their own sets. Today, the gathering of family and friends in front of the set is a thing of the past. Most of it seems to be replaced by video rentals or pay-per-view events, which again, are typically sports events or pop/rock concerts.

Is this a cause for mourning or chest-beating? I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that television is a commercial enterprise. It always has been. With former program titles like GE Theater, The Gulf Road Show, Texaco Star Theater, Philco TV Playhouse, The Bell Television Hour, Kraft Music Hall, Colgate Theater, and The Chevrolet Tele-Theater, is there any doubt? As such, it responds to the demands of the spending public. That so-called "quality" programming -- and "quality" doesn't even begin to address the diversity issue -- seemed to be available in this younger, seemingly altruistic time was simply evidence that a different dollar was being pursued. Television owes viewers nothing, except -- and this is a big except -- when viewers are seen as what they are: potential customers to the sponsors who buy time on the networks.

Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, and IBM, among other corporations, recently announced their pledge to support family-friendly programming. Johnson & Johnson went so far as to put their pledge in print in a recent TV Guide advertisement. The outcome of this effort in the upcoming TV season is anyone's guess, though new program support patterned after Hallmark's Hall of Fame is one idea that comes to mind.

Making corporate sponsors responsive to the desires of any viewing constituency is not going to happen with the "airwaves are public" argument. It's too late. Like it or not, corporations "own" the airwaves thanks to the assistance of legislators who helped pass the Telecommunications Acts, particularly the last one in 1996. The return of the family-friendly pledge (and the success of the upcoming Brown-Out) depends on how responsive consumers can make television advertisers. If there is no perceived fall-out should these corporations fail to keep their family-friendly promise, nothing will happen, and down the line, these corporations will point to the family-friendly pledge and say, "See? Aren't we good citizens?" But being a good citizen means having a social conscience. As viewers, we need to get advertisers where their social conscience is. Coincidentally, it's the same place where their economic self-interest is.


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