Addressing an audience that packed Sudler Hall Friday night, Sam Waterston ’62 spoke about the role of television today and about his extensive acting experience, including 11 seasons on “Law & Order.”
Although the speech, sponsored by the Elihu Club and the Yale University Dramatic Association, was billed as “Television’s Good Side,” Waterston spoke about the effect of advertising and sales on television during the prepared part of his remarks. Half of the hour-long talk was in the form of question-and-answer, with topics ranging from politics to television to Abraham Lincoln. Waterston, who frequently portrays Lincoln in the theater and on screen, concluded his remarks with a reading from Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
Waterston said television, which he called “a sales device,” is unique because it is so closely linked to advertising. He said choices about programming are made based on the need to attract advertising revenues.
“All other functions pass through sales before they get to you,” he said.
The link between sales and television has had a “gigantic effect” on American society in recent decades, Waterston said. He added that people take news and cultural developments less seriously than in the past because most programming today is interrupted by ads, which he called “trivial.”
Rather than searching for information about the news independently and making their own judgments about the importance of events, Waterston said television encourages people to believe that anything important will be sold to them by advertisers or networks.
“Why search, when you can have free home delivery?” he said.
The television star also described the political effect of selling on what the public perceives as truth. He said the Social Security crisis is a “sales pitch” that is not supported by evidence showing that the system remains viable.
“If a thing is really well sold … really forcefully, or insistently, it must be true,” Waterston said sarcastically.
Cultural acceptance of sales is a recent phenomenon, he said, while 50 years ago advertising was something people distrusted.
“Compared to the past, this is out of balance,” Waterson said.
Waterston said he sees a similar lack of balance in politics, which he said are no longer moving towards openness, liberty or responsibility.
“Thinking about the way the world is changing makes me a little gloomy,” he said.
But Waterston said some television programs have value even though they are affected by the “filter of sales.” He said he likes “Law & Order” because it does not always provide satisfactory solutions and does not focus on the personal lives of major characters, including his role as prosecutor Jack McCoy.
Waterston said his 11 years on the show has affected his own understanding of justice.
“If there’s anything heroic about the law, it’s not that it deals justice but that it struggles to deal justice,” he said.
Catherine Killingsworth ’08 said she appreciated Waterston’s experience and insight into the television industry.
“I like that he’s not afraid to talk about television in an intelligent way, despite the fact that he’s on a show,” she said. “He didn’t try to plug ‘Law & Order,’ really.”
Zahreen Ghaznavi ’08 said she attended the talk as a long-time fan of “Law & Order,” and agreed with Waterston’s suggestion that some viewers were attracted to the legal profession because of the show.
“I’m really interested in the law, and I think it’s really true what he said about people becoming lawyers, just like people [may] become doctors after seeing ‘E.R.,'” she said.
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