With the launch of the series I Witness Video, the networks have finally caught up with a popular use for the video camera: as a source of security. The camera as agent of surveillance can help secure property by fingering the bad guys. And as the camcorder replaces holiday snaps it can capture your family history. Alighting on this notion of video not just as image but as a functional household device, TV is now busily promoting itself as a technological quick fix for the nightmares of an embattled America.

Like Rescue 911, I Witness Video (which debuted as a series this season on NBC after the success of three specials last season) presents TV and video as unmitigated blessings for humankind. Though written off as “snuff video” by TV Guide, I Witness Video clearly sees itself as the socially redeeming version of America’s Funniest Home Videos: “Most of us use our camcorders to record parties, vacations, the happy times,” says host Patrick VanHorn. “But video is also used for much greater purposes. To help us see things in ways we never thought possible. To influence our behavior, alter our opinions, and even change our lives. Tonight, video that has made a difference.” But when one example of video that’s made a difference is provided by a microcam mounted in the helmet of a football player, giving us a skull’s-eye view of the game, that rhetoric looks comic. And when a camera is taken aboard a helicopter on a last-minute search for a kidney-transplant patient vacationing in the desert, the ambulance-chasing aspect brings that snuff-video accusation to the fore.

CBS’s Rescue 911, on the other hand, never chases ambulances, because it rides with them. Where I Witness Video gives us live recordings of real events, Rescue 911 engages in harrowing reconstructions featuring many of the actual participants in real-life accidents and dramas. The show’s recent fourth-season opener was an extended 60-minute boast that began unashamedly with the slogan “100 Lives Saved.” “A television program’s success can be measured in many different ways–ratings, awards, reviews,” says host William Shatner. For us, the important measure has been in lives.” In all his years as Captain Kirk, Shatner never uttered more preposterous words. But if you believe that understanding popular culture requires some suspension of cynicism, then it is possible to see this statement not only as a lie (from the point of view of CBS) but also as a promise (from the perspective of the audience).

Of course we know that Rescue 911 is not a public service, but a show that draws respectable ratings for CBS, precisely because it is sensationalist and exploitative of human tragedy. But for the audience, shows like this provide what USA Today used to call “the journalism of hope.” We might not believe Captain Kirk, but he has a point. Rescue 911 does offer solutions. What is the critic, trained in the art of analyzing “texts,” to do when the role of television moves so swiftly from reflection to action?

When TV’s function shifts so dramatically from truth (reporting the world) to use (improving it), it places itself centrally as the new authority figure in a frightened, atomized society. “I realized at that point that I was talking to a child and I realized that he was there by himself. I knew that he had not called his mom at work, he had not called his grandparents. He had immediately called 911, and that was crucial.” The point being made here, by a fire dispatcher, is that the boy called 911 because he had seen the TV show. Rescue 911 is interested in results, not myth, although that leaves plenty of room for the myth of its own results. Some of which are truly bizarre: a woman with mysterious symptoms is taken to the hospital by her husband. In the emergency room, they see a Rescue 911 episode about a woman with exactly the same symptoms, who’d been poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty gas heater. The couple diagnose the problem on the basis of what they have just seen on TV, and rush home to rescue their children from the brink of death.

“For most of us our homes seem so safe, we could never imagine them posing a threat to our lives,” Shatner tells us. Watch out for his metaphor: In paranoid postimperial Amerikkka, the family has retreated to the home, where it nests comfortably in front of the TV set–only to find that here, too, dark threats lurk in every nook and cranny. In this big bad world even the home is a haven of insecurity. If Saddam doesn’t gas you, your oven will. But if Rescue 911 is actually saving lives, and if, as a text, it offers a life-affirming promise that TV will actually make the world a safer place, then what’s wrong with his metaphor?

Rescue 911 is thus a benign version of America’s Most Wanted, the show that reenacts crimes in order to set the general public on the heels of real-life felons. Similarly the CBS series Top Cops focuses not on hunting down bad guys (as Fox’s Cops does) but on dramatizing the personal stories of individual police officers. When a real-life hero by the unlikely name of Dick Tracy foils a young woman’s attempt to throw herself from a bridge over a highway, the dramatization looks like standard stuff. But when the real cop is reunited years later with the woman, who thanks him for saving her life, the emotional charge is undeniable.

All three programs (I Witness Video, Rescue 911, Top Cops) develop an earlier model of tabloid TV circa 1988-’89 (Cops, America’s Most Wanted) by placing the viewer even more firmly on the side of, and often physically in the position of, law enforcement officers and fire and rescue workers. The camera sits there with the 911 operators and witnesses their anguish as a child almost dies from a drowning accident. It shows us, from the point of view of a police officer, the ghastly moment when a villain turns the gun on me–I mean, her–and shoots her.

Of course, from the perspective of the television industry, this is a timely strategy. Even as they use the trashiest and most manipulative televisual forms yet invented to garner ratings shares, the networks also lay claim to social responsibility. They are among the most violent shows on TV, yet they are also TV’s answer to the critics who claim it exploits the lowest common denominator for antisocial ends.

But what’s in it for the audience? William Shatner’s promise (message: We care) might echo the empty gestures of President Bush in some respects, but it also answers a need. We crave release from the guilty burden of voyeurism. Like the good Samaritans who pull off the highway to save the life of a young girl trapped under her overturned vehicle, we want to be involved. We don’t want to just sit there any longer, helplessly ogling all those wars and famines. American culture is built on the admirable belief that there are no problems, only solutions. Traditional news is disliked precisely for its failure to pay lip service to that credo.

Is a new populist aesthetic purging the bourgeois professionalism of network television in the name of a postmodern vidiocracy? Or are these shows simply another turn of the screw by the moguls of consumer surveillance? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in a period of recession and rising concern about crime, tabloid TV has found a way to give viewers a sense of empowerment (like a weapon, the camcorder “shoots”) while doing something concrete about crime. In one I Witness Video segment a camcorder in a store in Des Moines actually captures images of three burglars stealing the camera itself, and this footage is aired over and over and over again, a digital mantra, as if it has some special significance. Which it does. The videotape was shown on local TV news, which then led to arrests. Thus, the camera protected itself. Maybe these magical powers will protect you, too? The thief even gave the medium the ultimate soundbite-as-endorsement: “As soon as I saw that on TV I knew I was going to get caught.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Lisa Michniuk.