Introduction: Television Awareness Training (TAT)

The Viewer's Guide for Family and Community.

In the mid-1970's, faced with the growing influence of television and media in the lives of American families, a small group of communications professionals working in the national offices of several leading Protestant religious denominations formed the Media Action Research Center, a non-profit collaborative organized to develop educational programs about media that could be used across the mainline religious landscape. Their first project was the creation and publication in 1977 of Television Awareness Training, a 10-week adult education course for use in local churches and community groups. With discussion/action-oriented chapters on advertising, news, children's use of media and issues such as stereotyping, violence and sexuality, (many written by authors who have continued to provide leadership in media education and issues — George Gerbner, Bob Keeshan ("Captain Kangaroo"), Aimee Dorr, Nicholas Johnson, Elizabeth Thoman, Judge David Bazelon and others), it was the first comprehensive course about television published in the US — and an influential "foreparent" of today's media literacy movement. Hundreds of Protestant and Catholic religious educators were certified as "TAT Trainers" and the program continued into the 1980's. For an analysis of what happened to TAT and its influence to the present day, check the links at the end of the article.

The following introduction to the 300 page TAT Workbook stands even now as a thoughtful reflection on the values and changes — both positive and negative — that television has brought into our lives.

T-A-T: New Awareness, New Decisions, New Action Because television means so many different things to so many different people, there is no way to study it or write about it that is not controversial. Viewing is a very personal experience, and it generates very personal opinions. Even though TV is a mass medium, where 90 million people simultaneously watch a presidential debate, each of us sees and hears different messages because we bring our own experiences, feelings and perceptions to the event.

As a society, we have something of a love/hate relationship with television. We want it. We use it. We would miss it terribly if it vanished. Where else would I find so conveniently packaged the latest news, entertainment, sports, a way of occupying children, laughter, a needed escape, a way of learning about people and places I will never visit any other way, and those sudden poignant insights that come from drama and from exciting people talking about exciting ideas?

Yet, many of us are ambivalent about TV. We have nagging doubts. Do I watch too much? Am I addicted? Does my time with TV rob me of time better spent in close and direct personal relationships? What kind of message am I accumulating about the world, other people, myself? Is TV changing how I think and behave? Is it making me passive, making me fearful of real life?

It would be something of a miracle if most of us were not confused about our relationship to television. We are constantly handicapped by the instant nature of TV. We have little opportunity to know in advance what a program is going to be like, what values it will suggest, how appropriate it will be for children, how appropriate to our own tastes.

We are handicapped, too, because television is such a taken-for-granted presence. It happens to us. We do not prepare for it. Few of us ever make deliberate, intentional plans for how we will use this phenomenal communications medium.

In a little more than twenty years, television has grown from a novelty to an incredibly pervasive part of our lives. Ninety-eight percent of American households own a working set. Almost half have more than one. The average home is lighted by the TV screen 6 ¼ hours a day-more than 2200 hours a year.

That's more time than most of us spend on a job-second only to sleeping as an activity.

Millions of us were born into and grew up with TV. It is estimated that the average American youth, at the time of high school graduation, has spent 50 percent more time watching TV than he or she has spent in the classroom.

Some people question making a sharp distinction between the classroom and TV. More and more, television is being seen as a massive educational system in itself, one that operates practically 24 hours a day. It is for all ages and there are no holidays and little truancy. It constantly models for us how people behave and solve problems in an incredible variety of situations.

That TV has the power to influence us seems clear. Advertisers pay some six billion dollars a year to get their product messages to us, because the medium has proven that it can influence our purchases.

Television has become a window on the world and many of us do seem to decide what the world is like because of what is on the screen. Often, that TV window is our only exposure to some situations and ideas. I may decide, without it necessarily being a conscious decision, what certain groups of people are like as a result of how they are presented. I may come to like or dislike them. I may decide that they are not very important if they are rarely presented.

It is not always easy to separate the TV world from the real world. The personalities and dramatic characters of TV can become part of our lives. Marcus Welby, during his first five years as a doctor on TV, received a quarter of a million requests for medical advice.

In a study at the Media Action Research Center, a seven-year-old boy was interviewed after he had viewed violent programming. He was asked why he thought there was so much shooting and killing on television. The boy said, "Because that's what's happening outside in the world."

And that gets at part of what seems to be worrying a lot of us.

Is that what's happening out there? Is TV simply a mirror that accurately reflects the way our culture is? Or are the images more like those in a fun-house mirror-recognizable but distorted?

Television Awareness Training creates a process for looking at such questions. The goal is to enable us to become more aware of how we use TV, what the teaching messages are and how we can make the changes that seem appropriate.

T-A-T approaches the study of television from the viewpoint of human values. The primary concern is that this pervasive and persuasive medium, which takes up so many of our waking hours, be a valuable, positive experience. Each of the eight chapters in Part I of this book is written by a person with a definite point of view about the television experience. Each author feels TV programming can be improved. Each feels that we, the viewers, can use TV more intentionally and positively.

T-A-T was developed by the United Methodist Church, Church of the Brethren, and Media Action Research Center, Inc.

We, the creators of T-A-T, bring a strong personal point of view to the development of this venture. We see possibilities for TV viewing becoming an experience richer in human possibility-a TV window on the world that more adequately shows how we can live cooperatively with one another, be more accepting of differences, be more loving and affirming.

We believe that positive changes will happen when we, the viewers, are more aware, view more selectively, ask values questions and find more positive ways of using TV. When we change, and let our preferences be known, the programming will change.

In working for change, there is a tendency to look for weakness, find what most needs changing. That is natural and necessary. But it is necessary, also, to look at the positive values which TV represents-the wealth of good programming, the positive educational experiences that are possible. Television, used with care, is a valuable, perhaps indispensable, part of American society.

T-A-T's goal is to help us step back and look at television's presence in our lives. There need be no blame-assigning. There is no single hero to be praised for TV at its best, no single culprit to be blamed for TV at its worst. We are all in this together-viewers, networks, stations, advertisers, programmers. If there is to be positive change, we must work at it together. And if we allow this incredible deliverer of messages to fall short of its possibilities, we will all be the losers.

Author Bio: 

Nelson Price served as president of the Media Action Research Center, Inc, from 1975 to 1990. MARC researched effects of violence on children, produced pro-social public service announcements for children, developed Television Awareness Training, a major education program on the effects of television on children, adults and society. MARC also developed a television curriculum for use in churches titled, "Growing with Television." It was a 13 week coordinated program for five different age-levels. Price was one of four developers of TAT and was a national trainer.

Price served as President and CEO of the ODYSSEY Cable Network from February 1990 through March 1996. He was a founding incorporator for the national interfaith Cable Coalition, Inc., a trustee and secretary of the board from 1988 -1990. NICC created the cable channel. Membership in the coalition increased from a dozen faith groups in 1988 to over 60 in 1996. Cable households increased from approximately 10 million to 26 million. Programming came from member faith groups, though acquisitions from other producers and from original productions. It in now the Hallmark Channel.

Price worked for the United Methodist Church in various communications positions from 1952 to 1990.