The Fourth Great Influence: A Television Education

16 Oct


The prospect of television as a means for education is not a new concept. In Charles Minnow’s 1961 address, “Television and the Public Interest,” he identifies TV as having the potential to be the “fourth great influence” on children – placing it alongside traditional institutions like home, school, and church. He asks, “Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children?” (5). This question, aimed at the potential for TV to serve an educational purpose (no longer a mere “wasteland”), remains relevant in a contemporary discussion of the relationship between television and its audience.

In his 1995 essay, “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” Charles McGrath mentions that, “For instance, if you watch enough “E.R.,” the hit show set in the busy emergency ward of a Chicago hospital (NBC, Thursday night), you can, without even knowing it, learn a lot about medicine.” (246). This extends Minnow’s plea for educational programming beyond children and into the realm of adult audiences – reinforcing and adding to the important question of the role television has to play in contemporary education. Similar shows like Fox’s “House” give even more modern  viewers a comparable, rudimentary (albeit fantastical) crash course in diagnostic medicine. Whether these shows are just fostering a generation of hypochondriacs, or actually contributing to the education of their massive audiences is debatable; however, McGrath makes a moving point that ordinarily unavailable realms of knowledge (excluding those who practice medicine) are being made available in unprecedented ways to wide audiences through these types of shows. While they aren’t exhaustively teaching us to be doctors, they can teach us facts about medicine along the way.

Although seemingly working against Minnow’s plea for a companion to the home, school, and church, AMC’s “Breaking Bad” imparts similarly uncommon education to its audiences: the chemistry behind the production of meth. Going even further than either “E.R.” or “House,” the show nearly has its audience learning the synthesis and distribution of meth alongside its protagonists, Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul). I would argue that by having its “amateur” audience as captive (and eager) companions to Walt and Jesse, it takes the education process to a deeper and more intimate level. Walt’s extensive knowledge of chemistry, never far from the surface, coupled with his amateur status in the meth industry (at least initially) makes for an even more poignant viewer education. In fact, the show has its own science advisor, an organic chemistry professor from the University of Oklahoma (, lending further credibility to its unconventional educational qualities for the exhaustive fan. It’s worth noting that the show cleverly avoids teaching its viewers how to actually make meth:

FLATOW: Are you ever fearful that he’ll give away the recipe, the real way – does he ever give away the real way to chemically make meth in a lab on the show?

NELSON: Oh, do they do that? Are you asking that? No, they don’t. That was actually one of the concerns of a lot of people, but Vince Gilligan has been very clever. You know, there are multiple ways to make meth. And so although his scenes are very accurate, he will sort of (unintelligible) together parts of different syntheses, so that if you just simply followed the one synthesis as it’s presented, you wouldn’t come out with methamphetamine.

These types of programs 50 years after Minnow’s plea in his 1961 address speak (in an almost ironic fashion) to the adaptive power of contemporary TV in the unconventional education of its audiences.

8 Responses to “The Fourth Great Influence: A Television Education”

  1. Hannah Loftus October 16, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    Keegan makes a fundamental point in addressing television through McGrath: it allows the viewer to see through specific lenses into realms not normally made available to viewers in reality (ie, the “world” of meth production, or the “world” of medical care [from the p.o.v. of the medical worker]). I think further examination of the facilitation of education between TV shows and viewers can be made. The viewer is drawn into the “world” that they watch, because it mirrors reality. The information presented (like drug use, or medicine) is not abstract, like it is in traditional education contexts (in a book, or in an online article). The viewer is essentially part of the learning process, because they can relate realized and unrealized aspects of their own daily life to aspects of the show. This way, the viewer is connected to the TV show, and connected to the education it gives the audience.

  2. footagefinder October 16, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    A fascinating post! I wonder whether procedural or informational consistency, which is used in Breaking Bad to contribute to the show’s realism and its representational complexity, is the same as education. Television engages in numerous forms of education through example (e.g., the lessons of Sesame Street), participation (e.g., the call and response of Blue’s Clues), and procedural formats (e.g., the step-by-step instructions of myriad cooking shows). But what kind of learning takes place when facts are integrated into or scattered through a narrative? Is this what Minow described? Does it exceed what he could have foreseen given television’s earlier formal range in 1961 when he delivered the Wasteland speech?

    Also, in the specific case of Breaking Bad, where a process is being aestheticized but not presented in a procedural fashion (in a way that enables audience reproduction), can we still call this education or learning?

  3. andrewkgreen October 16, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    This is really a really interesting example, and I wonder if there isn’t more of this “subtly educational” aspect to newer scripted cable dramas, like breaking bad, that have emerged in recent years. I’m sure we will talk more about The Wire and The Corner and maybe even Homicide when we watch those shows, but I figured I would mention my personal experience with them. I’m from Baltimore and have lived there my entire life, but it wasn’t until I saw The Wire that I began to take an interest in learning more about my city, especially the issues of crime, drug trafficking, and the decline of American manufacturing and urban life that is dramatized on that show. It took this sort of “outsider’s gaze” to make me take an interest in something that literally existed all around me growing up. The way I see it, a camera focused on something elevates that subject matter to a level of importance that makes us want to investigate and learn more. Coupled with the narrative techniques these shows use, we are essentially told “this setting [whatever it may be] and the way these characters enhabit it, is important, so pay attention”. Homeland on Showtime brings an insider’s perspective to the CIA, largely due to its “realism” or “perceived realism” in a way a show like 24 never did. We don’t put much “educational” weight behind That 70s Show, because it’s a comedy, but Mad Men certainly falls into that “subtly educational” category for me. Sure it’s beautiful to watch and the writing is engrossing, but I think we would all admit that there is some level of historical education going on when you willingly visit that world for an hour. I’m looking forward to talking about what makes these particular types of shows so engrossing and, at the same time, feel realistic, informative, and (for lack of a better term) “legit”. They have a certain gravitas to them, because of their technical qualities (writing, art direction, and so forth), that I think confers a sense of authority and opens up the possibility that we can learn something from paying attention to them.

  4. evanharold October 16, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    McGrath’s praise of the albeit small surge of quality television is of course dated. Looking back on shows like “E.R.” and “Law and Order” I can’t help but see them as campy and cliché. I was also 8 years old. Regardless, this idea that Keegan examines, that the repetitive nature of Procedurals, and the value of at once niche and glorified professions, offers something resembling an education for viewers. Whether or not this holds, I tend to focus more on the dependency construct that such a system perpetuates. Perhaps the most important passage of McGrath’s articles comes on 247:

    “For a lot of us work is where we live most of the time; that, like it or not, our job relationships are often as intimate as our family relationships, and that work is often where we invest most of our emotional energy. Even if we don’t work in hospitals or in station houses, we can recognize these TV workplaces as being very similar to our own.”

    Most people don’t watch television at work. So the home is the place where, as McGrath himself once did, people can zone out and indulge themselves. We see again a property of television—here in terms of its programming, which revolves around the occupational sphere—that is self-fulfilling. Is there any awareness in the irony of that anticipatory car ride home, that race to shelter in my domestic bubble and valorize a job that is just enough like mine to appeal to me, to mend the alienation and interrupt the doubt, but also just enough of a fantasy to captivate me?

    McGrath’s qualification of “even if we don’t work in hospitals or station houses” more appropriately reads “especially if.” The romanticization of these Classic Jobs allows and demands audiences to forego their own disenfranchisement within the equally romanticized Classic American Society, while concurrently displacing their connections to their own jobs onto these televised ones. To me, it is the opposite of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and the like. Where on TLC and E! we can scoff in relief at our own stability, on basic cable we can fantasize about these factual but essentially untrue depictions of working life.

    • elisabethsanders October 17, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

      This connects to an issue I had with the McGrath reading — namely, that he was discussing television’s “value” without setting up any sort of vaguely rigorous definition of value. (It’s an article and not a scholarly work, though, so I guess I shouldn’t really expect that?) His “value” system, as I can discern it, seems to align pretty well with a sort of ~cultural elitism~, this-was-published-in-the-New-York-Times schema: valuing the “educational” and the “literary,” devaluing the sensational (“tabloid exposés”) and “the sitcoms.” Of course, anyone who sets up a hierarchy of media that unthinkingly places the old above the new (“TV will never be better than reading”), especially for vaguely-articulated reasons that sound like little more than romanticization (TV will never have the “invitation to something deeper” that books have, let’s all go to a used bookstore to inhale the smell of aging pages and then have a ceremonial kindle-burning at the point) is immediately suspect. But not only is the hierarchy thoughtless and damaging, the mentality it leads to is—saying that good tv is novelistic, or that novelistic tv is good, is doing nothing but perpetuating a senselessly elitist value system that only allows lowbrow forms legitimacy when they successfully approximate highbrow forms.
      In addition to “literary” (whatever that means) qualities, the other value he finds in television (this shared with Minnow) is in its capacity to educate. Deciding what is educational and what is not seems to me to be privileging certain kinds of information over others—why is internalizing a bunch of medical jargon, or Breaking Bad Chemistry, more “educational” and thus more valuable than watching, for example, a depiction of human relationships or emotion? (Especially given that we can all agree that ER doesn’t teach you to be a doctor, and also everything on House is probably made up.) So, basically: what is education/what forms or categories of information are “educational”/what forms or categories are “not educational”/to what extent are attempts to privilege educational forms an insidious form of elitism that infringes upon or denigrates other uses of the medium/to what extent might television be educating us in areas or modes that we don’t recognize as “educational”?

      • elisabethsanders October 17, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

        Also, that was meant as a reply to the main post, not Evan’s comment, whoops, guess I’m bad at wordpress

  5. crystalfong October 18, 2012 at 1:36 am #

    I also think your choice of Breaking Bad as an educational example is very interesting. I just started watching this show this past summer, and the first thing that comes to mind when people ask me how about it is: “well, now I know that you can make meth from cold medicine”.

    Is this something that is educational or worth learning? In my case, probably not. I can see how people may be concerned that Breaking Bad will encourage viewers to dabble in drugs, but seeing as how they never show how to do it explicitly, that’s not the type of learning we should be talking about. In William’ The Forms of Television, he talks about education by seeing and how it can be done in different practices. One is “presentation of some other way of life, or some work process, or some social condition” (72). I think one can argue that Breaking Bad is educating us on the interplay of meth addicts, meth cooks and distributors, drug cartels and the DEA – all things that are unfortunately too real, and something most of us sitting at home would never know about. It exposes us to more than just how to make meth, but also how gangs take advantage of little kids, or how destructive addiction can be. Is this necessarily “good” or “useful” education? That’s hard to answer, but we are being entertained and at the same time, learning about a world we would never know about without the television.

  6. Katie Hunter October 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Also worth considering are Hugo Munsterberg’s thoughts about film/cinema psychology when film was first delving into dubious material. There was all this concern for the youth’s reactions to seeing robberies or lewd behavior at the movies, but in his book PHOTOPLAY, Munsterberg basically shows us that when the drive to do a thing shown in a film (or in our case, a television show) is satiated by the narrative, then the viewers won’t go out and do it. It has to do with the whole violence in media/increase in violence in real life causation that people keep trying (and failing) to establish. Munsterberg believed that film content/behavior did not have an affect on the behavior of the audience.

    Breaking Bad is also a really interesting platform to discuss “learned/inspired from television behavior/actions” from, because in this specific scenario you are dealing with an actual formula that can be mimicked. Behavior or beliefs can be imitated to a certain extent, but these manifestations are never as formulaic as say… the recipe for meth.

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