THE television commercial showed scenes of a devastating earthquake. Then a little boy appeared on the screen. With a disarming smile, he invited people to come to Universal Studios to share in the thrill of a catastrophe. Simulated, of course. The TV commercial added something to the effect that Universal Studio tours were the tops in entertainment. What was most unusual about the earthquake commercial was that there was nothing really unusual about it. TV and films have robbed us of our ability to be indignant about disasters as amusement. The horror of witnessing an earthquake, or an automobile running over a human being, backing up, and running over the body again, or a shark biting off a man's leg - such horrors have lost their sting. They no longer smash at our sensitivities and produce inescapable revulsion.
Indifferent or calloused reactions to violence are a sure sign that a civilized society is in trouble. If true education begins with an awareness of human hurt and suffering, then we are fast losing our basic literacy. Children sit in front of television screens for six hours a day and saturate themselves with scenes of human beings battering one another both physically and emotionally. Inevitably, these children develop a warped view of human relationships and, indeed, of human biology. They observe ordinary conversation suddenly escalate into verbal abuse and then into a slugfest, with heads being pounded against brick walls, or someone being pushed through a plate-glass window, or sent sprawling down a long stairway. In real life, such assaults would be enough to kill or cripple, but in TV or films, recovery is instantaneous and the assailants or victims pick themselves up for the next combat or disaster.
We are deluding ourselves if we think that such absurd notions about the human body play no part in the thinking of our children, or that they have no effect on their life styles. We send our children to school, but the dominant impress on their minds comes from TV or films.
Have we no recourse? The American people do not seem to realize that television stations owe their existence to public policy. The TV owners are given a channel that they can proceed to sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. The gift of that franchise, however, was attached to a condition. The TV station is required to recognize a public-service responsibility. The evidence of failure in some cases has been copious, but so far no franchise has been revoked.
The cry of censorship is certain to go up, once public power demands revocation as the penalty for mindless violence. Such a censorship allegation, of course, would be nonsense. A television station is not like a newspaper that pays to reach its market through newsstands or for direct delivery in the mails. Owners of television stations reach their audience through free use of the air, a property of the American people, who have the right to keep that property from being used against their own interest.
Obviously, the entertainment media are not the only sources of violence in the society. We are dealing here with a vast array of causes involving historical patterns, economic factors, ``public taste,'' and spillover from crime and drugs. It is also true that not all owners of television stations are irresponsible, nor are all TV programs devoted to unremitting violence. But the present system very clearly is not working as it should or as it was envisioned. It is important, therefore, for Americans to recognize that they can still take hold - if they are sufficiently concerned.
With or without respect to the effect of TV and films on the public mind, what the American people need most - both in our everyday lives and in our actions as a nation - is a vast experience in re-sensitization. We need a renewed respect for the fragility and preciousness of human life. We need an enlarged awareness of the conditions of human existence and, in at least equal measure, we need reeducation in how best to sustain the civilizing experience.