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Does TV Really Have All That Power?

OF all the contrarian theories I've encountered lately, one of the more perversely fascinating is expounded by Douglas Davis in his articulate new book, "The Five Myths of Television Power, or Why the Medium Is Not the Message" (Simon & Schuster).

Point by point, he attempts to disabuse readers of virtually all conventional wisdom about television's dominant place in our view of the world.

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The five myth-shattering points Mr. Davis has nailed to the church door of prevailing communications theory are these:

TV does not control our voting, since most voters polled say TV played a small part in their decisions.

TV has not destroyed our students; bad schools have.

TV is not our reality, does not make our world, and to heck with Marshall McLuhan. Note the public hunger, he urges, for "reality" TV and long-form events such as those on C-Span and CNN.

TV is not making couch potatoes of us all, as the rise in per-capita book sales, adult education, and other nonelectronic pursuits attests.

The last myth to be exposed? Well, it's that we love TV. Actually, he says, we hate it. Semisecret Nielsen figures he cites show a lower-than-claimed overall viewership, and in other polls people say they don't really like TV.

Hearing our cherished premises debunked - from TV's control of politics to whether it constitutes our reality - is great fun, since the author's gleeful war against "common sense" is waged with an intellectual panache evident on almost every page of this startling work. In fact, the only reservation I have is that the thesis itself may not actually be true. If I didn't know better, I'd say Davis was indulging a satiric bent for mock sophistry, with results something like the old Bob & Ray routine in whic h a cracker-barrel commentator makes a reductio ad absurdum of correcting canards, explaining that fire isn't really hot and water isn't wet.

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One of the many things that make his claim hard for me to accept is that I come to it after hearing a chorus of authoritative opinion - from several directions - establishing precisely opposite facts about the medium. At a conference on TV recently, the day was devoted to decrying the medium's pervasive influence - the way it was debasing our political process, trivializing our social life, making our speech even more crass and superficial than it already is. There were dissenters on the panels, of cours e, many of them with built-in reasons for denying TV's faults. But none made the 180-degree turn Davis does in his book.

And that, of course, is Davis's point: This is the prevailing opinion, and it is wrong. But his argument itself is a kind of confirmation of TV's power. It cites the opinions of people who need to have been watching TV in the first place to register their objections to it. It points to an uptick in reading and adult education among people who are TV regulars. What these people say is that TV is not a big factor in their lives. What they do is view TV.

A person who averages four hours of TV viewing a day, yet claims it really doesn't exercise all that much control over him, is a little like someone who makes the mistake of being put under light hypnosis at a nightclub show. He tells himself he's going along with the hypnotist's commands only because he chooses to. If he felt like it, he could refuse the suggestions, of course. It's just that he doesn't happen to feel like it.

I don't really have to watch all that TV, say some people, to validate my reality or create my image of political figures. I watch it only because I choose to.

Americans may not actually be in control of TV's influence, but they are more conscious of its place in the epistemology of modern life than many media theorists' give them credit for. Davis's work is compelling evidence of this, sometimes through exaggeration. But one hopes the irony will not be lost on readers that it takes a full-sized book by an intelligent and informed observer - publicized through interviews on C-Span, among other places - to make people aware of their awareness.

If the author will forgive me, the advent of his book makes me think of a TV ad campaign for a men's cologne a few years ago. The man applying the aftershave gets a bracing slap in the face and says, "Thanks, I needed that."

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