Viewfinder: TV Today: What Would the Founders Think?

TV was invented in the 1920s by one of two people (depending upon which story you choose to embrace), a Scottish scientist named John Logie Baird or a farm boy who knew absolutely nothing about electronics, Philo T. Farnsworth. I admit that I am fond of Farnsworth. One day in 1922, he drew a diagram on a chalkboard for his high school science teacher, and announced his idea for television.

Later in life he was quoted as saying, "Television is a gift of God, and God will hold those who utilize His divine instrument accountable to Him." Clearly, Farnsworth understood the massive responsibility of creating TV programs.

When we look back at all the TV programs ever produced, I wonder what Farnsworth would think about how humankind has used God’s "divine instrument."

By and large, the vast majority of the content that humankind has put on television has been disappointing at best. Most programs are mind numbing and some of them are downright despicable. In an effort to meet the TV industry’s unique market demands, most programs are viewed at no charge. Revenue comes by way of TV commercial advertising. This fundamental market condition has had a profound impact upon the types of TV programs that are able to obtain production money.

In this market model, the most profitable pursuit is to produce TV programs that draw the largest audiences. Advertising revenue is highest when the audience size is highest. Advertisers also seek one other thing – the lack of controversy. Advertisers do not want to have their commercial air on TV programs that people may find objectionable. This fundamental condition prevents funding TV producers who are willing to tackle difficult issues on TV like abortion, drug laws, third world hunger and many other key humanitarian issues.

In my estimation, Farnsworth would be ashamed of us. The "divine instrument" has furthered the careers of a very small number of people in the TV industry. Humankind has used TV to sell products that are really not necessary, while half of the Earth’s population is malnourished. I can imagine Philo saying, "By and large, people in the TV business should feel shame.

You don’t have to feel shame, because you can be different. Though the shows that you produce might not draw millions of people, they could be inspirational to thousands of Internet viewers, or several hundred people at your church, school or civic club. Even if your programs don’t tackle controversial worldly issues, you can create shows that impact the lives of small groups of people, and help build their virtual community. And who knows, perhaps, at some point, you will produce a program that will tackle an issue of global significance.

When you do, you’ll make Philo T. Farnsworth proud.

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