Chapter 6 – The Age of Show Business
Postman begins by challenging the assertion that the television can be "used to support the literate tradition" (83). Using the Marshall McLuhan phrase "'rear-view mirror' thinking," he suggests that such a belief is based on the fallacy that a new medium is only an amplification of an older medium, and not an entirely new thing altogether. In the same way that a car is its own creation and not simply a "fast horse," so is television not a continuation of the literate tradition, but rather its own entity (84).
Postman then poses his purpose for the remainder of the book – to examine what television is as a medium, and the ways in which it has influenced and dictated our public discourse.
First, he makes a distinction between a "technology" and a "medium" (84). The former is "merely a machine," while the latter is the "social and intellectual environment a machine creates" (84). So while television as a technology is a collection of tubes, chips, and glass, television as a medium is the media-metaphor, the public discourse dictated by the way we use that machine in society.
Postman suggests that every technology has an inherent bias. In the same way that the printing press was invented for religious purposes but never could have realistically been contained to that purpose because of its potential, so would television never have become simply a stand-in for radio, but instead was inherently meant to communicate incessantly through images. In particular, Postman believes television was destined to meet this potential in America, where the free market and nature of "liberal democracy" would ensure that television reached its full potential. As an interesting paradox, Postman notes how this freedom has made American television the most popular in the world, at the same time that America's "moral and political prestige" has declined across the world (86). He distinguishes between American television and America itself.
To explain this phenomenon, Postman first acknowledges that television is "a beautiful spectacle" of ever-changing images and myriad subjects, all "largely aimed at emotional gratification" (86). Even commercials have become entertaining and viscerally stimulating.
However, Postman does not take issue with the fact that television is entertaining; in fact, he believes that facet of television is something to be celebrated. Instead, what concerns him is that television has "made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience" (87). In other words, by over-saturating us with entertainment, it has shaped our discourse as one entirely centered around entertainment.
Postman calls entertainment the "supra-ideology of all discourse on television" (87). What he means is that every program stipulates in its format that it exists primarily, if not solely, to entertain us. He suggests that news does not aim to be taken seriously, but rather as a fun experience of good-looking, amiable people set against colorful backdrops. The potential depth of any news story is belied by the emphasis on the program's entertainment value. However, Postman does not place the blame on the producers, but rather suggests that television as a medium demands such banality – after all, it demands the news be presented through image, not through the rational discourse of a print or oratory based culture.
As evidence of this attack on television news, Postman cites an incident in which several distinguished speakers including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel conducted a discussion following a 1983 showing of the nuclear holocaust film The Day After. Though all of the elements suggested this would be a "serious" discussion, the format ended up pushing each speaker to either speak in generalities that were never explicitly countered, or to confusedly attempt to make a profound point in too-little time. What Postman means to illustrate is that even these intentions to create "serious" television fell prey to the fact that television does not allow for the processing of thoughts. To have slowed down and considered the points being made would have been "disconcerting and boring," and as a result, few of the distinguished guests were willing to risk it (90). Television "demands a performing art," and what this program offered was the spectacle of "serious" people conducting a "heavy" discussion (91). It was, by no means, actually an illustration of seriousness or heavy discussion, but rather a performance meant to communicate that. The medium allows only for this latter phenomenon, and not the former.
Postman does qualify that television can indeed offer "coherent language" and "thought in progress" (91). He cites the William Buckley program "Firing Line" as example of a show that inspires serious discourse, but notes this as an outlier, one whose lower ratings and time slot reflect its anomalous status. As another example, he notes that the single camera used for a President's speech is tolerated, but that this is not considered "television at its best" (92). It is not accidental that we call the medium teleVISION, for we do indeed watch it, and so does it function to its fullest potential when it is a spectacle of fast imagery and quickly changing colors.
Television is not the first medium that was designed primarily for entertainment – film, records and radio all did the same – but what is unique about it is that it "encompasses all forms of discourse" (92). Whereas nobody would use film for information about government, or music to learn about baseball scores, the public turns to television for most of our information, in a variety of fields.
As a result, its penchant for entertainment has infected the way Americans talk to each other in regular life. Postman suggests that "Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images" (92-93). He gives several examples: a Chicago Catholic priest who uses rock music to keep his sermons from being "boring"; a New York priest who donned a baseball cap during an important event; a dangerous surgery that was broadcast live on television; a Philadelphia public school initiative in which children will be sung their lessons; the broadcast of a rape trial; a United Airlines game wherein the flight crew offers prizes to whichever passenger wins; a Rutgers professor who was honored for turning his lectures into gags and bits to keep students entertained; the strange case of the Amish culture which refuses to allow its people to watch films but which nevertheless allowed the major motion picture Witness to be filmed in their community; a then-current plan to turn the Bible into a series of movies; the far louder applause for an honorary degree given Meryl Streep than the one given Mother Theresa; and finally, the new spectacle of presidential "debates," in which the syntax of Lincoln-Douglas format is disregarded for a series of "impressions" and attempts to proffer a sense of celebrity (93-97).
What all these examples (which are delightful to read about in their specifics) suggest is that every type of public discourse – education, religion, safety, politics, cultural differences, etc. – has been turned into some facet of show business. Because the top priority of show business is indeed entertainment, Postman justifies his title for our age: "The Age of Show Business".
Interestingly, it isn't until here, almost exactly halfway through the book, that Postman directly defines and addresses what television is. Though he touched on many of these ideas in earlier chapters, it is only in "The Age of Show Business" that he applies the same systematic approach to television as he did to the earlier ages of American discourse. In many ways, this restraint reveals his purpose: to write an academic, philosophical, schematic analysis that is nevertheless readable by a general audience. He wants to avoid seeming like a cantankerous, knee-jerk opponent of television, so he attempts to discuss it in its historical, theoretical framework.
He mostly accomplishes this through his distinction between "technology" and "medium". Though the summary is hopefully clear enough, it is perhaps worthwhile to collect all of his basic definitions of television in one place, for each of reference. As he notes, he does not wish to attack the technology of television. The science and research of the tool itself is not his concern. Instead, he wishes to discuss television as an influence on society. In the same way that he discussed print and oratory culture with only minimal mention of the printing press, he here means to discuss the culture inspired and dictated by television. The distinction, however, is that television is inexorably linked to the product it produces and the culture that imitates that product. We were able to read work that was printed elsewhere, with little need to think about the printing press itself. The television now contains within it, in our own home, the multitude of its offerings. We are in control of its rhythms and products to some extent, and so is the potential for entertaining ourselves unceasing.
And it is in fact this idea of entertainment that gives the book its title. His litany of examples at the chapter's close not only grounds the ideas, but also establishes the stakes for his argument. Postman believes that television is dangerous because its mile-a-minute rhythms and emphasis on spectacle over substance has infected our everyday lives. Everything we do – even the most ostensibly important aspects like religion, politics, and education – has been infected by the imperative to entertain. What he implicitly suggests is that this issue will only proliferate, and become more all-encompassing. It is worth asking whether, in the age of smartphones and the Internet, he has not been proven almost prophetic.
This Analysis, which touches on the section in which he most closely inspects television's inherent potential, is the best place to discuss the political implications of Postman's work. As noted in previous Analysis sections, Postman seems to mostly avoid any explicit political attacks on society, but the implications are everywhere in the work.
For the most part, Postman's political concerns place the blame on the way television as a medium is inherently inclined to turn culture into entertainment. As he notes, the technology itself demands material that is non-stop spectacle if it is to be used to its fullest potential. And, if we accept his earlier argument that the media-metaphor of a culture defines its discourse, then it is inevitable that this entertainment nature of television would influence culture in the way he describes. The most obvious political detriment of such a medium is that it affects society's ability to form an informed electorate. If, for instance, television has taught us to judge politicians by their celebrity aspect, then we will not consider the important issues and elect politicians who have the best chance of bettering our lives or ensuring our safety. Likewise, we would be potentially be unaware when religious figures might be conning us of our money, and would also perhaps be indoctrinated into accepting less valuable education without knowing it.
However, there are many long-standing ideas implied by this discussion, which Postman neglects to mention. None of these are new or particularly esoteric, which begs the question why he does not at least mention them to disregard them. Likely, he was uninterested in opening the scope of his investigation too widely, thereby potentially turning off readers. It is useful when studying the work to consider these wider implications.
The first question raised when Postman suggests that television will reach this full potential as spectacle in a "free market" is who specifically is exploiting and ensuring this potential. His answer tends to be that the medium will do it naturally, but considering the long history of how entertainment has been used to keep lower classes distracted from larger problems, the question must be raised. The most archetypal example is the Roman games, and the bread-and-puppet theatre. In a time where overexpansion led to large-scale Roman unemployment and domestic unrest, the empire began sponsoring the free, violent spectacles of the gladiator games, largely in hopes that an entertained lower class would be less likely to revolt. Certainly, this pattern can be applied to a world so oversaturated with entertainment in the way Postman describes. If indeed, as he mentioned in earlier chapters, the big problem of decontextualized information is that it saps our ability to take meaningful action, one must wonder whether there are entities that can gain from that lack of initiative.
The French thinker Guy Debord explored this very notion in his 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle. Expanding on this idea of Roman games, Debord suggests that a "spectacle" is not the show itself (i.e. a television program or a gladiator fight), but rather the means of discourse that a society has with itself. The parallels to Postman's theory – which suggests that decontextualized information creates a vacuum wherein we opine on irrelevant news, thereby creating news that is equally irrelevant but meant to be reported on – are quite striking. The problem for both Postman and Debord is not that we have entertaining spectacles, but that the spectacle itself has become the way in which we communicate. We are distracted from matters that we can actually endeavor to change, because we are focused into a vacuum of superficiality and banality that feeds itself with entertainment. Debord, a pronounced Marxist, suggests that the vacuum is sponsored not by governments, but by the monied classes that need to keep a rigid class order in line. He might argue that Presidential debates have become so spectacle-driven because the President himself does not matter; therefore, it's best that the public be entertained so as to distract them from asking the more important questions. Postman's opinions on this issue, and indeed any larger attacks, are outside the scope of his work, but he never even addresses the question in passing, even when he points out the existence of television that can allow for serious thought and discussion, but which is nevertheless relegated to an outsider status. This notable void in the otherwise rather cohesive and comprehensive study makes it a fascinating lens through which to consider the book, and one that will continue to yield dividends in subsequent Analyses.