Neil Postman's "Amusing ourselves to death"
Chapter 6 -- a summary




Chapter 6: "The Age of Show Business"

Postman makes a distinction between a technology and a medium.

A technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind....A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.

Like the brain, every technology has an inherent bias -- only those who know nothing about the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral. The printing press had a bias toward being used as a linguistic medium, but it is conceivable to use it exclusively for reproducing pictures. But from its 15th Century beginning the press was seen as an opportunity to display and mass distribute written language.

We must not talk about TV as a technology but as a medium. The bias of TV as a medium in America is not the same as other nations where it does not operate around the clock, where commercials are not the norm, and where talking heads are not the primary image. In those countries, most programs have a purpose of furthing the government ideology and policy and TV is used mostly as if it were a radio. There, its potentialities are prevented from developing and its social consequences are kept to a minimum.

In the U.S. , TV has found in our form of democracy and our relatively free-market economy to be a nurturing climate in which its full potential as a technology of images can be exploited.
(The vast number of American TV programs exported are in demand not because the U.S. is loved but because American TV is loved.)

The problem of television is not that TV presents entertaining subject matter -- but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.

Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on TV -- the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.


Even with NEWS programs, the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music opening and closing the program, vivid flim footage and the attactive commercials tell people not to take them seriously.

The "fun" format of news programs is one for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.

People should not judge harshly those who frame it this way, for they are following where the medium leads.

There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence -- only a recognition of what good pictorial images look like.

Postman uses the example of "The Day After," a TV motion picture about nuclear war and points out there was no discussion period, no arguments or counterarguments, no scrutiny of assumptions, no explanations, no elaborations and no definitions.
Postman does not say it is impossible to use TV as a carrier of coherent language or thought in process (he cites some examples where it does).

It is the nature of the medium to suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest, which are the values of show business.

All of this means that American culture has moved toward a new way of conducting its business -- especially its important business. The nature of American discourse is being eroded because increasingly, what is show business and what is not show business are blurred and ever more difficult to tell apart.

Postman says Irving Berlin should have had Aldous Huxley in mind and written a song called "There's No Business But Show Business" (instead of "There's No Business Like Show Business).



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Updated 2012