"When a man carries a gun all the time the respect he thinks he's getting might really be fear. So I don't carry a gun because I don't want the people of Mayberry to fear a gun. I'd rather they respect me." -- Andy Griffith (as Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show)
Last week, when Andy Griffith died, a wholesome piece of America died with him. The Andy Griffith Show and shows like it -- My Three Sons, Leave it to Beaver, even the zany I Love Lucy, and years later, All in the Family -- represented the use of television to entertain while imparting a moral message.
While most of these shows represented an idealized vision of the American family, they also conveyed a real respect for the values that made individuals, families, and America more functional. They helped shape our character, even if only to inspire us to niceties such as bringing an apple pie to the new neighbor down the street. They also were commercially successful at the time and had an enduring popularity, witnessed in generations of re-runs.
Norman Lear's All in the Family was a bold step forward. It exposed the bigotry, racism and disagreement within the American family about the Vietnam War, but in a way that spurred us to confront those issues and to probe our attitudes in light of our values.
Fast-forward to today. With a few notable exceptions such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Undercover Boss, the corny-but-virtuous sitcom has been replaced by cheap "reality" shows that reflect and even glorify the underbelly of America.
Recently, in Bloomberg Businessweek a TV critic chastised A&E's The Pitch for being too nice as compared with the cutthroat meanness of Mad Men, which precedes it in the lineup.
When you ask teens in middle schools and high schools today if they're influenced by television and other media, they often say, "Absolutely not -- I have my own mind."
Yet the annals of cognitive psychology document conclusively that what we put into our minds are a hodgepodge of cultural impressions, positive and negative experiences, memories, friends, family, and yes, media. In many ways, as television goes, so goes America. Mom and Dad compete every day with Pawn Stars, Mad Men, Real Housewives, Bounty Hunter, and the like.
When I discussed with a major studio head the current state of TV compared with the moral messages of Mary Tyler Moore and Dick van Dyke, he basically said that TV was not responsible for shaping American morality.
"Our responsibility is to make money and sell ads," he said. I countered with: "Let's say that one of your advertisers came to you with an idea for a moral show and was willing to pay you $100 million dollars for it."
"I'll do it for $90 million," he snapped back. I made my point and he made his.
While his may be the prevailing attitude today, there are well-intended producers, directors, actors and executives who feel that their creative products can be coupled with a responsibility for their nation. There are Hollywood insiders who, as parents and grandparents, see a link between the visual images children see and how they act toward others. There are suits in the executive ranks of media that see a link between doing good and doing well.
The ultimate question for media is one of value vs. values: Can you balance your need to make money with our nation's need for you to Do the Right Thing, and can you push the envelope of your talent and creativity to do it successfully?
If we just leave this question to the media, we deserve what we get. All of us must be concerned about our media diet and its powerful link to our cultural health, and we should be crying out to Hollywood to right the picture.
Andy Griffith may have departed, but other Hollywood icons can fill his shoes to take the lead.
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