April 1991 Print

A Former TV Broadcaster Opens a Can of Worms Part II: The Canned Minds


Interview conducted by Father Bourmaud, Professor at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary

—Continued from last month—

I should think that TV by its very nature will promote a very selective type of program.

Yes and no. Anything that will get public attention is a program. It doesn't matter whether it is a good story, but it has to be catchy-news... news even about non-stories. The more sensational, the more cruel, the better. It is no wonder the message of a traditional Catholic priest won't be broadcast on TV. Two people who worked for me wanted to do a story on our traditional church. It never came out. Why? Because it goes against the grain, against the nature of TV, which is to offer the newest, the most original, the most sensational.

What are the typical criteria of the ideal show?

The more bloody, the more obscene, the more glamorous and shocking, the better the show. What sickens me the most is when they give a message introducing a story: "We warn you that these pictures are very upsetting. If you have any children, take them out of the room." Why are they running it if it is that bad? They know exactly that by announcing it that way, they will rivet people to the screen. It is the way it works.

Is there any relation between the TV age and the increase of immorality?

Certainly. You hear children of five years of age saying things that adults alone used to say. Obviously they didn't learn them from their parents, but from TV. And, then they are relating it and talking about things they have no business to talk about: that is unnatural! The shows always have radical views, and it cannot but get worse. Look at the shows of the '50's up to the '90's, and see what you can run on a TV. Go to the censorship board and see.

They couldn't show Presley below the waist when he was on Ed Sullivan. Now look at what they do! Semi-nude love scenes in the afternoon, and all that in less than 30 years.

Is the destruction of Christian morals a constant among producers?

Christian morals and Christianity altogether are under attack. A Jewish observer, columnist Don Feder, recognized that "no other group is so consistently maligned on prime-time television." Another Jewish film critic Michael Medved, mentioning some of the recent anti-religious movies like "The Last Temptation of Christ," "King David," "The Mission," etc., comments, "Hollywood filmmakers vehemently deny any anti-religious bias. Instead, they are only providing the public what it wants. But there is one gigantic flaw in that line of reasoning: all of the movies I've mentioned above—every single one of them—flopped resoundingly at the box office. Taken together, these pictures lost hundreds of millions of dollars for the people who made them. Hunger for money can explain almost everything in Hollywood, but it can't explain why ambitious producers keep launching expensive projects that slam religion."

What about "trash TV"?

On "trash TV," just when I was leaving, they had a live show at the Coliseum with "gladiators," supposedly superior specimens of mankind, who would fight people in the audience. People would want to fight to overthrow the gladiators' position, so as to win the prize. In another one, the losers were thrown into a pool swarming with alligators.

You mean, real people volunteered to fight them in real life?

Exactly, that was all the sensation of it: real people, real alligators, and filmed live. I imagine the next to come will be a live execution, somebody at the stake. I am sure that would be the hottest-rated thing ever seen on TV. I have seen it in the studio but not live. Imagine the thing live! "Phone in. Call the following number. How should he go? Should he be burned, shot or hung? Think about it! We'll be right back after this message." This is awful, but it is not that far away. TV desensitizes people, so that if the picture of the first plane crash shows one body, in the next, people want to see two or more bodies. It must get worse and worse every day. TV is an incentive to sin. TV is a sin.

TV is a popular tool and at times a dangerous one. How can something so harmful have at the same time gained free entrance in the poorest and remotest homes right from its origins?

I don't think that the souls at stake are aware of its poison. Had they known it, they might have never used it. But they think of it only as a means of entertainment. They know they can turn it off if it becomes offensive. That is how they rationalize it. They want to have fun and will gladly spend three and four hours watching the afternoon game. Meanwhile, they are certainly giving up their faith, but that is secondary compared to giving up their TV set.

Why can't people do that nowadays: get rid of their TV's? Would they be afraid of being bored?

That is probably the point where many of them stop short of getting rid of it. What will they do to kill the time? Yet up to less than forty years ago, TV was not around. What did the farmers in the Midwest do throughout the long winter months? If you ask them now, they say "Well, I don't know how I survived without TV."

And now TV is the universal savior because it gives you many things to watch and think about?

So they say. In reality TV is appealing essentially to people's senses, and today is an age of dissipation: "Whatever distracts me, entertains me, keeps my mind occupied, even if it be something I have no point knowing, I will like and will pay for." Little things please little minds. Modern man has a little mind and doesn't want to think. With TV, modern man doesn't have to think anymore, because it has taken away the precious moments where man finds himself a man: the times when he can think of himself. "I don't want to philosophize"; it is how the modern age works.

Do you have any objection to the use of TV as a leisure?

Leisure refreshes, rejuvenates you, TV doesn't. See how many couch potatoes fall asleep in front of the screen. Figure it out! They sleep while they are being entertained! I've never fallen asleep hiking, fishing or playing football.

But, besides being entertaining, TV is used as a tool of information so people can be in touch with the world, right?

You said it; in touch with the world! That is the whole question. TV sells you the world like the devil did when he tempted Christ. TV is intrinsically worldly, materialistic, and humanistic. It can only say, "The world is the world is the world. That's all that is and that's good enough!" It trains us not to see God's hand. Yet, I grant that man should be informed about the society in which he lives: I'll give you that one. What you see on TV, however, is not the truth. It is altered, manipulated, and that's not how you inform yourself.

Isn't TV a good educational tool despite its potential to be misused?

If it is, I haven't seen it yet. That is one of the greatest lies. If I left my child in front of the TV for two years and another one in front of flash-cards and the alphabet, the first child will be years ahead of the second, but where is he going? We aren't meant to live that fast. It isn't right. But the TV puts you in the competition, and you become addicted to the refinements. Then the mother of the first child comes and gloats over how much smarter he is than yours and, of course, no mother wants to admit that her children are left behind. Meanwhile, this whole TV circus leads us to the abyss: because never does the TV say, "Make sure you say your prayers before you sit down for the show; now, it's time to make an act of mortification, and then Big Bird will lead us in the Rosary!"

G.K. Chesterton once said that there is always an inverted proportion between the importance of the message and the means used to spread it. Wouldn't you say that TV is giving out a futile message?

I must say I disagree with that. I think the message is quite powerful. They have something to say. Do you want to know what it is? "On sale! Buy, go in debt! Become somebody! Look like J.R. Ewing! Be what you see on TV and be real! You must have a new car, imitate the hairdo of your favorite TV star, her clothes..."

What is the profile of screen heroes?

They must be people who are young, efficient, affluent and urban. If added to that, they are immoral and boastful, that will help, but never humble or obedient; the loudest, the most original, the most extreme in the claim of his own rights, the most violent. Look, teenagers today are literally worshipping a Ninja turtle! From one extreme to the next! Where will TV end?

Can the presence of TV in the homes have some unifying value, since everyone is busy watching television together?

In former times, people at home used to talk. They had serious talks. If people get together today, they don't talk. They just get the government's message, the world's message. At home with the TV, you don't have to go out and visit, or pick up a book and read it. Today, the most elementary laws of hospitality are broken without scruple thanks to the dear screen. If Mr. and Mrs. Johnson try to visit you in the middle of an interesting program, you hardly have a look at them, let alone a word.

America's pediatricians have found that "children watch far too much TV.1 That is what makes them aggressive and promiscuous."

You don't have to be a doctor to discover that. Yet, besides the obvious immoral influence of TV, it erodes the family bond and very subtly sometimes.

See, the typical hero offered to our children is Sergeant Muscle, rewarded especially for his immoral success. Dad is just Mr. Loser Carpenter,2 a regular worker, a "Joe" who just looks like an idiot: a third class citizen.

Your son won't be long in asking you, "Dad, why can't you come home from work and look like a Zorro? Why can't you be like him?" The hero image is implanted there, which has all the values that the world wants you to have; but Dad is not the hero.

TV makes children whimsical and fat couch-potatoes, doesn't it?

Yes, because by constantly watching commercials, they find themselves wanting things which they don't need. The child watching TV will come to his parents with demands. The parents, to satisfy him, will meet these demands, whose parameters are pre-set by the TV. That is scary, because there is no bond between the children and their parents. If the State at one stage ever wants to place a wedge between them, TV is it.

TV: a narcotic? Can you control TV?

We tried it in our home. We resolved to be very selective. "We will look at the TV guide, we will see only certain TV shows, and then we will turn it off." We allowed only one TV. But as soon as you walked in the house, a voice said, "Turn it on; you don't know what you are missing." To me it is diabolical. Not because of the voice but because it has such a powerful attraction.

Why does it have that? Is it habit-forming, or addictive?

I believe it is addictive, not like alcohol, because you drink at your own pace, as much as you want. This addiction is more like an intravenous drug, where someone else controls the drug dosage. TV has all the effects of a drug, and it may well have the same cause. There have been articles written on it. How is it addictive? In that people can't avoid turning it on. They have to admit this. Why is that? And, especially, why do they still do it? Certain drugs like heroin end up killing their users.

TV, an opiate?

In effect, it is a dope, a spiritual dope for deadening the pain of modern living. It is the marijuana of the masses and the opiate of the people, the god of modern man. Television like narcotics, works on the brain, inducing a stupor. "My father is turning into a vegetable," it was said in the '50's, "He just sits watching that screen every night." No wonder the first TV generation became the first to commit widespread drug abuse. Mere coincidence? Researcher Marie Winn in Plug-in Drug notes: "The television viewing state of consciousness is not far removed from that state described by drug users as 'pure awareness,' in which '...the person is completely and vividly aware of his experience, but there are no processes of thinking, manipulation [of data], or interpreting going on.' (Charles Tart, in Altered States of Consciousness).

How can you speak of stupor when the senses of sight and sound are obviously involved?

TV has an hypnotic power of centering the attention of a person on the screen because the pictures are racing too fast.

"An evening of TV viewing is a typical example of perceptual overload which initiates some level of hypnotic trance. Being bombarded with so much information over such a short time, people sit like somnambulists, staring blankly at the screen."3 "The horror of television... is that the information goes in, but we don't react to it. You are training yourself not to react and so later on, you're doing things without knowing why you're doing them or where they came from."4

Do you think that TV is baptizable?

Well, if it were, it has had plenty of opportunity to prove itself as such. It came in at a time when the Church was still on its feet, before Vatican II, when there was strict censorship. TV had its chance. It started out like an infant, more or less innocent. Look where it is now; and there is a good argument against it in that it helped the world to become what it is today. If TV did have some kind of redeeming value, I think it would have somehow come through. It hasn't!

What you say seems strange. TV is a material tool, a work of technology; there is nothing evil about it.

Yes, like an atomic bomb. People said that the atomic bomb was the same as the other ones; but it is not controllable, only destructive. It is too powerful for a man to fight. It is too powerful a tool to have any positive effect.5 What do you gain by using it? Has anybody ever answered that question?

Couldn't Catholics have their own station and their own program and "sell God"?

A Catholic Broadcast Corporation, a CBC? That is forgetting that we live in a pagan world. My first question is "Why would you have to use a TV?" Is it because the devil uses it? Does that make it a good tool? It is like talking to the serpent: "I'm going to use you to do good because I am more cunning than you think." Stay away from it! It has never worked. TV is so much in the hands of the devil that you are never going to use it as a tool to convert people! It is like casting pearls before swine. Suppose you have a traditional Catholic show on one channel: people will watch it between the 6:00 pm news and the ball game. "Oh! Bishop Sheen is on at 7:00. We must watch him!" If you invite your parishioners to watch TV, you are going to end up closing your own parish. "Why should I come to church and bring all my kids, crying in the back? Why go through so much hassle to hear just my parish priest, if the bishop is coming on TV at 7:00pm?" That is increasing the temptation to be lazy.

VHS is an off-shoot of TV and is widespread in homes. How about watching videos? Would you object to them as you do to regular TV shows?

"Look, Ricardo Montalban starring with the children of Fatima!" Do you think you can use movies to edify? You can't. The children of Fatima and Ricardo Montalban—that shady character in the movies—are not the same thing. And the children themselves have to have curly hair and rosy cheeks. People want to see and believe that. Look at "The Greatest Story Ever Told." It is pure Hollywood!

Movie videos are one thing; lectures or catechism on video are another thing, aren't they? "Keep the Faith" has come up with a large selection of highly educational videotapes, available to a public who otherwise would never be exposed to them. That sounds like a very positive apostolate.

I don't know, Father, but unless I am missing something, I cannot ever imagine traditional catechism being taught on TV. "Chapter II. Baptism. There will be questions following, but you've got to come closer to the screen, because I can't hear you well." You see, there would be no interaction. To have any impact on one's life, catechism must be live, personal and authoritative. Nothing can replace the exchange between professor and students.

What would you think of making home-made movies?

Here I see another type of problem. It is my own production; there is always the pride involved. And of course, you will be taking only selective shots, the most original, the most interesting; but again, you are missing 95% of the picture.

I must say that, given even my little experience with VHS, when I produce anything, I have to think "catchy," "sensational," "punchy." The dull shots will necessarily be eliminated.

But again, that is not so realistic. There are boring speakers, and I suppose that they serve a purpose. Who knows whether St. Alphonsus de Liguori was a great orator? Maybe no one would have listened to him on TV, but look at the great books he wrote!

I always think that Archbishop Lefebvre comes across great on TV!

I think that if you can't be present at the Bishop's Mass, then it is God's will. But if you want to be there, then you will get your priorities straight and make some room in your activities so as to be able to go and see him. TV is not a channel of God's grace. It stultifies the sacred and belittles good, while enhancing evil. You cannot televise Christ's Mystical Body.

Christ is in our neighbor, and we can find Him better in real life than on the screen.

But don't you think that Bishop Sheen's TV program in the '50's converted many people?

I know I am going to shock you, but I personally believe that he would have converted them with or without the show. Those people who want to find out will go to church and spend the time THERE. It is not while lying down lazily on a sofa that one is apt to receive the grace of conversion. Conversion supposes an urge, an active search for the truth. People must want to convert. You can't push conversion on them! Why would you have to squeeze the graces of conversion from Bishop Sheen between a soap and a beer advertisement? And why couldn't conversion happen in the same way as it did before the '50's? It all boils down to the same false argument: "If it is there, then I must use it."

What remedies do you suggest to cure the TV addicts? Some books suggest that people take the resolution of turning the TV off for two weeks in order to find ways of filling the time they were so afraid of facing before. What is your opinion?

Yes, of course, two weeks will be enough to find the right leisure. Others speak of forbidding TV for important social times, like meals. I personally don't think that there can be a gradual withdrawal.

So, "Get rid of it!" is your only advice for the detoxification of TV watchers?

It is the same as breaking a cocaine or heroin addiction. Stop altogether, and then live a life of faith and prayer. As a priest friend of mine used to say, "The TV? 'Raus' [it] out of the house and be 'schnell' about it!" No, you can't compromise by having even one TV in your house. You can't have the TV in the corner with the statue of the Blessed Mother on top of it! You've got to make up your mind. Mary doesn't have her place on top of the "devil's box." Of course, it is a difficult choice, and I don't think people can give their set up without having the true Faith.

Well, many people don't have the true Faith, like the Amish, and they have no TV. But of course, they have certain values of faith which are higher than the world's. The TV is the world, serves only the world, and not God. It can be despised only by the souls whose goal is above that of materialism.

I think it would be really unbearable for a non-believer to be deprived of TV while at the same time knowing that it is available. But a Catholic can bear the deprivation of TV, because he knows that he is made for a much more elevated life. The Faith is attractive only as long as we quietly think about it. Television is attractive only as long as we think about nothing. The ever-widening void encouraged by TV is an open invitation to the 1001 devils who are abroad these days.

—To be continued—


1. According to Marie Winn, in her book, The Plug-In Drug, the weekly average for an American is 20 hours (World Almanac, Nelson Research, Feb. 89). At 60 years of age, an American will have spent six years in front of a TV set.

2. Mr. P. left his job when he converted, becoming a simple carpenter. Together with another convert to the traditional movement, he founded the J.M.J. Company, "The Jesus, Mary & Joseph Carpentry Shop."

3. Quoting professor Wilson Bryan Key in "Clam-Plate Orgy," he tells us that: "Perceptual overload is another subliminal media strategy: bombarding individual perceptions with sensory stimuli in heavy quantities or intense volume, thus initiating some level of hypnotic trance and sensory anesthesia... This is exactly what TV's are intended to do.

4. Parents should recreate with their children, in the presence of God. It is one of the most essential duties of education: to live and do things together during the short span of time that the children are at home. TV invades that last refuge.

5. "The evil is not that man possesses technology, but that technology possesses man and makes him a slave. With TV, it is a pleasant one, the easy-chair slavery." (Integrity Magazine, Feb. 1951)