Postman begins the chapter by dismissing the idea that television could extend or augment the intellectual traditions of other media. He says this is an example of what McLuhan called “rear view mirror thinking,” where we attempt to define new technologies by past ones. Postman says definitively that television does not extend literary culture, but rather attacks it directly.
As with the photograph, Postman presents television as directly opposed to print culture. There is no way in which they can both be dominant at the same time—we are either a culture of the image or a culture of print.
The claim of this section is that television is not only entertaining, but also responsible for making entertainment the “natural format for the representation of all experience.” Postman’s claim is that television has made the consumption of entertainment (as opposed to reason or rationality) more important than communication of information. Information, in television culture, is always entertaining.
Postman endeavors to explain why image and print are incompatible. For a print culture, good information is rational, but for an image culture, good information is entertaining. Postman thus implies that “rational” and “entertaining” are fundamentally opposed.
Postman turns to the example of supposedly “serious” discourse on television: broadcast discussion between great world figures like Henry Kissinger, Elie Wiesel, and others, which have taken place on stations like ABC. But televised discussions, even when they take place between serious people, never have a quality of real seriousness. Because time is so limited and because conversations are interrupted by advertisements, it becomes impossible to have a deeply contextualized discussion. This means that conversations on television rarely build from one point to the next. They rather take the form of various disjointed perspectives delivered in succession. “At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection.”
Reason and entertainment are fundamentally opposed because, Postman argues, “applause” and “reflection” are inherently contradictory. When we are entertained, we respond with a kind of passive approval, but when we are reasoned with or presented with a rational argument, we respond with active reflection. Once again, however, Postman is selective with his evidence, and doesn’t take into account television as an art form—something that might be entertaining, but also would inspire active reflection. This is understandable, though, as more “highbrow” and complex television programs are still a relatively new phenomenon.
“Television,” Postman says, “is our culture's principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged.” Entertainment doesn’t simply prevail on the television screen—it prevails in all other spheres of culture. Americans no longer talk to each other, says Postman, so much as they “entertain each other.”
Media, as we already know, don’t act in isolation. Just as the invention of eyeglasses contributed indirectly to the development of the microscope, so the rise of television has widespread and proliferating effects on culture and thought itself.
Priests and reverends include rock music in their services, surgical procedures are filmed and narrated for future viewers’ pleasure, schoolteachers sing to their students as much as they talk to them, and finally the courtroom is televised. People watch real courtroom proceedings as if they were soap operas. Says Postman, “Had Irving Berlin changed one word in the title of his celebrated song [There’s No Business like Show Business], he would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous Huxley. He need only have written, There's No Business But Show Business.”
Postman makes a definitive declaration here: television changes all information into entertainment. Even serious businesses, like medicine and law, exist in culture as forms of entertainment. And “Show Business” isn’t just confined to television. Every business is now the entertainment business—no major forms of information exchange are exempt from the rules of entertainment.