Take, for instance, “Roots.” My small-town, all-white, conservative Republican family sat down together to watch the struggles of LeVar Burton’s Kunta Kinte. We cried when he was put on the auction block as a slave in Africa, and smiled when his grandson, Ben Vereen’s Chicken George, became a free man.
I would never have had the ability to talk about the atrocities of slavery as openly with my parents, or even ask if our family had ever owned slaves as comfortably, had it not been for Alex Haley’s story brought to life on television.
When it came to forbidden love, Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward taught me about that in “The Thorn Birds.” Everyone was so invested in the love between Meggie Cleary and her family priest Father Ralph de Bricassart in the fields of Australia, and stayed glued to the tragic consequences of that affair. All that drama played out before my church’s youth group, as we sat to watch it together.
My childhood owes a great deal to those forgotten classics. I understood about the potato famine in Ireland because of Pierce Brosnan and Kate Mulgrew’s “Manions of America.” John Travolta’s “Boy in the Plastic Bubble” taught me to be kinder to my sick classmates. And I first learned about cancer from James Caan in “Brian’s Song.”
Today, television provides hundreds of channels of programming, and the Internet offers endless possibilities for learning. However, the art of the Made-for-TV movie has been lost, with most now focused on shallow romances and regulated to the graveyards of the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime.
Even the idea of children watching television is coming under attack. Just last week the so-called ToyBox survey found that obesity among European pre-schoolers is at record levels, and experts believe television is a contributing factor. They suggest nurseries ban toddlers from watching television to fight childhood obesity, and parents remove sets from their children’s bedrooms.
Even though I agree too much television is not healthy for kids, I worry that message has been exaggerated to suggest any television is bad for children.
In my case, television brought my otherwise disjointed family together to learn.
I am a smarter person because of Made-for-TV movies. Not just because of the topics they covered, but also because of the conversations they created afterward. In a way they brought history back to life, and my family got to know each other better through our reactions to them.
Katie Jo is even smarter 33 years after I saw Helen Keller’s discovery of language on TV.
Melissa Carter is also a writer for Huffington Post. She broke ground as the first out lesbian radio personality on a major station in Atlanta and was one of the few out morning show personalities in the country. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCarter