Chapter 6: How to Read Television

Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media
by William F. Fore

Chapter 6: How to Read Television

"Gracie, what was the film about?"

"It was about two hours."

-- old George Burns-Gracie Allen exchange


What we normally see, hear, and talk about in relation to a program (i.e. the story) is only about 5 percent of what takes place. The underlying behavior (i.e. the nonacted behavior) occupies 95 percent of the program. A horse walking on "Bonanza" is not acting; it is the real behavior of the horse.

-- Tony Schwartz, media producer,1974 1




J.T. Pace, a 63-year-old son of a former sharecropper from Maudlin, South Carolina, will never forget the day he met the wife of the vice-President of the United States.

In late June of 1988, Pace travelled to St. Louis to appear at the climax of an ABC-TV three-hour special celebrating the Fourth of July, the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, and literacy. A year before, Pace had been illiterate. He had spent much of his life in "deception," as he called it, because of his shame and frustration. For most of his life he had used his energies to hide the fact that he could neither read nor write.

A deeply religious man, Pace listened for hours to tapes of the Bible. But he wanted to read it himself. So at the age of 62, he entered literacy training, and a year later he could read -- freed, as he put it, from a life of slavery.

Now he was to meet Barbara Bush, a strong advocate of literacy, and be introduced by her as he read the Preamble to the Constitution on national television. But there was one problem: some of the words still bothered him. He could read at eighth-grade level, but experts say it takes an eleventh-grade education to read and understand the Constitution. In particular, the word "tranquility" bothered him; he couldn't pronounce it and didn't know what it meant. J.T. and Barbara Bush met and talked. He explained his reluctance to read the Preamble. Finally she took his hand and asked, "What if you and I read the Preamble together? J.T.'s face lit up. "I'd like that," he replied.

That evening they stood together at the podium and slowly began to read the Preamble. J.T. stumbled at some of the difficult words, but then gained confidence. Gradually Barbara Bush's voice subsided and J.T. finished reading in a strong, clear voice: "....and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America." 2

Why is illiteracy so terrible? Because it renders a person defenseless. If you can't read, you can't tell when you are being "taken." You become an easy target for the manipulator, the trickster, the operator. Warning signs mean very little (except for their shape and color). Explanations on medicine bottles are ignored. The threat of a cut-off of your telephone is missed. You become a kind of walking invalid, unable to compete or even function in your own world.

But even those who can read today are "illiterate." Today the visual image, particularly television, is replacing the printed word as the primary source of information, and very few people know how to "read" television. Fortunately, most -- including the print illiterate -- sense at least some of the TV's grammar. For example, when the camera moves in for a facial close-up while the music gets stronger, we expect a break -- usually for a commercial. When we see a commentator's eyes moving back and forth as he speaks, we understand that he is reading a script rather than actually "talking" to us. When we hear laughter during a sit-com, we know that it is canned, not real. This intuitive understanding of the language of TV is shared by people whether they can read print or not -- and therefore brings about a kind of levelling between those who can read print and those who cannot.

But almost everyone needs to learn how to read TV at an "eleventh-grade" level. For TV illiteracy has the same consequences as print illiteracy: it leaves people defenseless against the dangers of manipulation, misinformation and propaganda.

Arthur Asa Berger, a professor of communication, suggests three ways to analyze the meaning of TV: TV as signs and symbols; TV as economics: and TV as psychology. 3 Let us look at "how to read TV" from each of these perspectives.

Reading TV as Signs and Symbols

A sign is something that stands for something else. The shape "A" stands for the first letter in our alphabet, and it stands for the sound "aee" or perhaps "ah." The shape "A" doesn't look like the sound "aee". Someone, far back in our history, simply attached the shape "A" to the sound "aee." In the same way, all letters, words, and most importantly, visual images of many kinds, are signs -- each one signifying some concept that we have learned to associate with it.

This association between signs and concept is the basis for TV commercials that urge us to buy something that "signifies" something else -- mouthwash that signifies sweet breath and popularity, automobiles that signify power.

A symbol is somewhat different: it stands for something that is related to the symbol itself. A symbol actually looks like or naturally associates with what it refers to. For example, a pair of scales as the symbol of justice could not be replaced by just any other image, such as a wheel or a horse. Some symbols are very powerful, such as the American flag, the Canadian Maple Leaf, a red cross. Symbols often have strong emotional appeal.

We recognize both signs and symbols because we have learned to carry around in our heads various "codes" that help us deal with them. The codes for written words are contained in spelling and grammar -- the rules by which we use such signs as "A", "B" and "C". We also have learned complicated codes of association. For example, when we hear that "he is as sharp as a tack," or that "she is as bright as a penny," we understand these as coded messages rather than as the literal truth. We have learned to decode them.

We have learned non-verbal codes as well. People are "speaking" all the time, even when they are not talking. Their dress, hair, facial expression, how they use their hands and "body language" -- all tell us something about them, because we have learned how to read these visual "codes". Richard Nixon learned the importance of non-verbal codes during his famous TV debate with John F. Kennedy. The perspiration on his forehead, his dark jowls, and his tense manner were decoded by many viewers to signify someone who was not to be trusted.

Cultures are in fact systems of codes that play a crucial -- and often unperceived -- role in our lives. A friend of mine from Argentina once told me that, as a little boy, his German grandfather would say to him, "Before you were born, everything was already here." Gradually, as he grew older, he understood what his grandfather was trying to tell him: that the rules, the codes, the culture preceded him, and he could do very little about that. To become socialized, to be grown up, to be acculturated, means that we have learned enough of the codes of our own culture so that we can function as do other adults in our world.

The codes we are able to "read" relate fairly specifically to our own geographical location, our ethnic group, and our class. For example, every time I visit England I have to put myself on guard, because when I cross a street in the U.S. I automatically look first to my left, since that is where the traffic will come from. In London this code doesn't work. In fact, it can get you killed, because the traffic usually comes from the right. Fortunately, these days so many Americans visit London that most street corners have the warning: "Look Right!"

Signs, symbols and codes are one way we can read television. We can look at what we see on TV, not from the point of view of who characters are, or even what they do, but what they mean.

For example, consider MASH, the eleven-year TV hit of the seventies, from the perspective of signs and symbols. What did the characters "mean"? Hawkeye, the cynical but loving doctor in perpetual search of both nurses and his own home-brewed alcohol, symbolized the frustration and immorality of war (though MASH was "about" the Korean War, it appeared during the Vietnam War, and some analysts believe it helped develop a national antipathy toward deeper U.S. involvement in Vietnam.) B.J., the other lead doctor, married and compassionate, represented the way all of us would like to be perceived: bright and witty but kind and understanding. Hawkeye and B.J. together "meant" authority, that doctors were in charge, not only in the operating room but in their entire tiny universe. Radar, true to his name, meant that brains and a little technology (the phones, the public address, the files) are potent problem-solvers. Margaret, the head nurse, meant that women perpetually are shortchanged in our society -- misunderstood, made into clowns, yet truly competent and necessary. Father Mulcahy, the priest, meant that religion is basically peripheral to life, sometimes used for comic relief, but, when the chips are down, helpful in facing the mysteries of death.

Perhaps you agree with these interpretations of the "meaning" of MASH's central characters. Perhaps you don't. The point here is to realize that television can be read in terms of its signs and symbols.

We can read TV's visuals as well as its characters. Here are a few standard camera shots and editing techniques and what they "mean":

Visual Meaning

Close-up, Intimacy

Medium shot, Personal Relationship

Long shot Context, setting

Angle down Power, authority

Angle up Weakness, smallness

Zoom in Observation, focus

Fade in, Beginning

Fade out, Ending

In addition, as Christians, we bring our own "codes" to television. In the MASH program, for example, we observe that Hawkeye, in addition to being a compassionate and skilled surgeon, was also a philanderer who sought casual sex with the nurses. The doctors engaged in heavy drinking that sometimes impaired their ability to function. Men ran the show, and women were clearly secondary. Our codes as Christians pick up these meanings, and it is important that we retain this Christian perspective in an essentially secular world.

Both codes, religious and secular, are important. To understand the difference is part of what the Bible means by learning how to be in the world but not of it (John 2:16). We need to resist those values and meanings in our national culture that are at variance with the values and meanings which are a part of our own Christian communities. At the same time, our distinctly Christian codes of personal ethics do not reveal the only meanings in MASH, and, as Christians, we also have to be sensitive and aware of the wider cultural meanings, meanings in the programs, meanings that may or may not also be Christian -- the anti-war message, the compassion, the community, the healing, and, of course, the humor -- and celebrate, criticize and enjoy them as well.

Studying television as signs and symbols can be entertaining and very revealing. Decoding TV's codes can uncover some interesting hidden meanings. But constant decoding can also spoil the overall effect and power of a presentation. It's a little like evaluating a meal by analyzing each ingredient -- intellectually interesting, but not totally satisfying. And this leads us to a second way of reading TV.

Reading TV as Economics

It is not generally known that Karl Marx supported himself for more than ten years by writing for a New York newspaper. Just before and during the Civil War, Marx was employed by Horace Greely, the famous editor of the New York World, as that paper's European correspondent. So while Marx, writing away at the British Museum, was primarily concerned about economic theory, he also was interested in the relationship between the information people had and the ways they thought and acted.

Marx insisted that everything in a society ultimately is shaped by the economic system of that society. This includes people's ideas:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness. 4

In a capitalist nation such as the United States or Canada, those who benefit most from the social arrangements are the wealthy. From this perspective the aim of the poor is to become wealthy, and the aim of the wealthy is to maintain their wealth, which means to maintain the status quo and their position in it. One way the powerful maintain the status quo is by exercising control over the ideas and information that people receive. Again, to quote Marx:

The ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production...." 5

According to this analysis, those in the ruling class develop and maintain information and ideas that justify their status, and they do it in ways that make it difficult for ordinary people to recognize that they are being exploited and victimized.

Twenty-five years ago the German media analyst Hans Magnus Enzenberger made the point that all media are manipulated in some way:

There is no such thing as unmanipulated writing, filming or broadcasting. The question is therefore not whether the media are manipulated, but who manipulates them. 6

This same critique can be used equally well in regard to socialist and Communist countries as to capitalist countries. In fact, often it is easier to see how the media are controlled, for example, in the Soviet Union or in China, because in those nations what can and cannot be printed and broadcast are governed by precise regulations and strong, highly visible governmental agencies actively enforce those regulations. In capitalist nations the controls tend to be far more subtle. But controls are there nevertheless, as anyone who has ever attempted to influence a program or get on the air can attest.

What are the objectives of the ruling class in North America so far as the media are concerned? One is to convince people that there are no classes, and certainly no "ruling class." In the United States and Canada we live with the myth of the "classless society." There is no aristocracy, and everyone is soon on a first-name basis. But while both nations have a very large middle class, both also have a strong, and increasingly rich, upper class. At the same time both are witnessing the growth of a lower class that grow larger and poorer every year. Thus, while Marx's predictions of revolution and the permanent rule of the workers have proved to be quite inaccurate, his economic analysis can be instructive and helpful to our reading of what television really means in our society.

From the economic perspective, whenever we analyze television programming we must always ask one simple question: who benefits? The following questions apply to both the United States and Canada:

Who benefits when more ads are run on television each year?

Who benefits when the nightly news contains less and less information, and more and more entertainment?

Who benefits when the amount of documentaries on network TV decreases each year?

Who benefits when sponsors no longer are identified with (and thus accountable for) a particular program, but can spread their ads across many different programs (and thus have no accountability)?

Who benefits when a single company can own television and radio stations, cable systems and local newspapers -- and thus control much of the information in a whole community?

Who benefits from massive advertising of cigarettes aimed especially at teenagers, young women, and the poorest neighborhoods?

And there are some questions which apply more specifically to the United States alone:

Who benefits when every candidate for Congress must pay thousands of dollars to local broadcasters in order to run for office?

Who benefits when there is not a single quality series for children, Monday through Friday, on network TV?

Who benefits from the U.S. being the only major nation in the world that actually allows commercials on programs aimed at children?

Who benefits when the agency assigned by Congress to regulate television in the public interest instead regulates it in the interest of the broadcasters?

This is one way to "read" television -- to ask who benefits by particular kinds of programs and commercials, by what is present on or absent from the screen, by the arrangements in the social system itself regarding television.

Also, we must ask: who is injured? Who is misled, misinformed, and softly wooed into simple acceptance of the status quo, into accepting the way things are, into believing that things can never be changed -- that the poor will continue to get poorer and the rich richer. Economic analysis can have its own Christian perspective, for the Bible clearly demonstrates that God has a particular concern for the poor, the defenseless, the hopeless -- in other words, those who are injured by the status quo.

While the economic perspective offers only a partial and biased way of reading TV, it is also a powerful device for examining much of what we experience on our TV screens. But there is a third approach to reading TV.

Reading TV as Psychology

Television is a factory of dreams. It reaches us at a level far below -- or beyond -- the level of mere thinking. Psychologists have begun to recognize the similarity of the moving image, in both film and TV, to dreaming. Dreams are visual, like a moving picture. Dreams involve us emotionally much as a powerful story does on the large or small screen. Dreams seem to bypass our usual ways of knowing -- seeing, feeling, thinking -- and television and film appear to follow the same route.

We have long realized that people do not simply behave rationally. Emotions, both recognized and unexamined, also affect our behavior. A whole new field, motivation psychology, has developed to explore what causes people to think and act the ways they do. One of its founders, Ernest Dichter, tried to discover the real reasons that people do things, so that manufacturers could better shape people's behavior toward buying their products. In 1960 Dichter wrote in his book, The Strategy of Desire:

Whatever your attitude toward modern psychology or psychoanalysis, it has been proved beyond any doubt that many of our daily decisions are governed by motivations over which we have no control and of which we are often quite unaware. 7

For example, says Dichter, the unconscious reason people use cigarette lighters is that doing so gives them a sense of mastery and power -- an identification that goes back to the earliest days of human experience in controlling fire. A desire for mastery and power also motivates people to drive powerful cars, to fly in powerful planes (especially corporate jets, which they "control" more directly), to carry impressive brief cases (a symbol of social power), and to engage in "power" breakfasts. It is even one reason why they seek power mowers that start -- every time.

Motivation psychology asks what "uses and gratifications" the media provide. This question provides another valuable tool in helping us read TV. Instead of asking "what do the characters mean?" or "who benefits?" we ask: what are the uses and gratifications of TV? Why does it appeal to me? What are the deeper, more basic appeals behind the surface?

The people who plan television programming are very astute at discovering what people need, then fashioning their appeals (in both programs and ads) to meet those needs. Professor Berger identifies some twenty-one of these needs, which may also be thought of as uses or gratifications or desires:

1. To be amused.

2. To see authority figures -- sometimes exalted, sometimes deflated.

3. To experience the beautiful.

4. To have shared experiences with others (community).

5. To satisfy curiosity.

6. To identify with the deity and the divine plan.

7. To find distraction and diversion.

8. To experience empathy.

9. To experience extreme emotions, such as love and hate, the horrible and terrible -- but in a guilt-free and controlled situation.

10. To find models to imitate.

11. To gain an identity.

12. To gain information about the world.

13. To reinforce our belief in justice.

14. To believe in romantic love.

15. To believe in magic, the marvelous, the miraculous.

16. To see others make mistakes.

17. To participate in history (vicariously, without risk).

18. To be purged of unpleasant emotions.

19. To obtain outlets for our sexual drives in a guilt-free context.

20. To explore taboo subjects safely.

21. To affirm moral, spiritual and cultural values. 8

This is a good check list for reading television's psychological appeal. Of course, once we become conscious of the appeal of a particular program or character or action, then we can ask whether that appeal is important or trivial, valid or invalid, humanizing or dehumanizing, Christian or non-Christian. In other words, we can deal with it. And when we learn how to deal with television, it loses much of its power over us.

Television continually tries to convince us that we have complete "freedom," while at the same time creating in us anxieties and dissatisfactions that can be resolved only by buying something, by believing something, or by doing something which television suggests. This is why TV is so appealing and at the same time so frustrating. This is also why it is so dangerous: it has the potential to dominate us while making us think we are acting in perfect freedom.

And this is why the experience of J.T. Pace and other illiterates is important. Their experience of print illiteracy simply illustrates in a vivid way the effect that media illiteracy is having on all of us. J.T. found that reading print freed him from a life of "virtual slavery." But everyone, using the various techniques of analysis I have described in this chapter, can learn to read television -- and that will help to free us, too.



1. Schwartz, Tony, The Responsive Chord (New York: Doubleday, 1974), p. 116.

2. Harr, John Ensor, "The Crusade Against Illiteracy," Saturday Evening Post, December 1988, p. 42-43.

3. Berger, Arthur Asa, Media Analysis Techniques. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1982.

4. Bottomore, T.B. and Rubel, M., (eds.) Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, p. 51.

5. Bottomore, p. 78.

6. Enzenberger, Hans Magnus, The Consciousness Industry. New York: Seabury, 1974.

7. Dichter, Ernest, Handbook of Consumer Motivations: The Psychology of the World of Objects. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, p. 341.

8. Berger, p. 99 - 105.