Watching Television: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture Edited by Todd Gitlin. Pantheon Books, 248 pages, $9.95 (paper).
April 3, 1987        

So little [of television] sticks to your ribs ... so much effort and technology, goes into -- what? It's like human elimination. It's just waste.
-- Grant Tinker, chairman, NBC (quoted in “Inside Prime Time” by Todd Gitlin)

I'm not interested in popular culture. I'm not interested in prosocial values. I have only one interest. That's whether people watch the program. That's my definition of good, that's my definition of bad.
-Arnold Becker, vice--president for research, CBS, (quoted in “Inside Prime Time”)

When your taste matters, you're finished in television.
--Paul Klein, chief of programming, NBC, (quoted in “Inside Prime Time”)

Television is just another appliance. It's a toaster with pictures.
-- Mark Fowler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission,
(quoted in “Watching Television”)

After such candor, what forgiveness? More than 20 years after a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission castigated television as a "vast Wasteland," the situation is still the same except in one respect; television executives and regulators, like those quoted above, acknowledge TV's awfulness, whether apologetically or brazenly, So there hardly seems any point in becoming indignant about it. As Todd Gitlin remarked in “Inside Prime Time”, most people in the industry "get a joke and live it at the same time," which tends to disarm criticism by outsiders, or at least to defuse its intensity. And in fact, criticism-- which presupposes a minimum of aesthetic and moral seriousness in the activity criticized is not exactly what television requires. What’s wanted instead is diagnosis. How has it come to this? What in American culture is television symptomatic of “Watching Television” does not, for the most part, even attempt to invoke literary or dramatic categories; rather, it casts a cold, relentless sociological eye on present-day TV programming. The book's contributors share Gitlin's premise: for all its ineffable banality, television is now "the principal circulator of the cultural mainstream… The problem of American television is the problem of American culture and society as a whole."

Perhaps the deepest, most troubling question about television is: bad as it is, isn't it what most of us want? If so, then what is there for believers in democracy to complain about? If not, then why do we keep watching? And why haven't a lot of enterprising capitalists tried to make a profit by giving us something radically different? These questions go all the way down to the foundations of modern political theory: is the "free" market really free? “Watching Television” doesn't go quite that far, but it’s always possible to detect the question lurking behind the book's shrewd, detailed analyses.

Daniel Hallin's essay, for example, tries to come to terms with the "populism" of network news. Anyone who cares about politics knows that "objectivity" in journalism is a necessary illusion: impossible to achieve but an indispensable regulative ideal. Print journalists worry about the mechanics of even-handedness-- which facts to mention in what order, what mix of sources to quote, how to avoid biased characterizations, how, in short, not to mislead. But television journalists (or rather, producers, who, unlike editors, may have no background in journalism) worry more about something else: how not to offend. Enormous advertising revenues hang on differences of a fraction of a point in the Nielsen ratings. And so newscasters, like politicians, become exquisitely cautious, playing along with audience preconceptions, serving up information in predigested bits, avoiding the true-to-life complexity that might cause a viewer to become momentarily confused or irritated or (horror of horrors) to change channels.

As Hallin shows, the sensibility conveyed by network news is carefully calibrated to the reigning ideology - in our time, Reaganism. Since Watergate the networks have become somewhat more adversarial (or at least less obsequious) toward corporate and government officials, a stance endorsed by a jaded public. But they are also under intense pressure from an ideologically militant and well-financed Right, as well as from an exceptionally truculent administration. The resulting crosscurrent, has produced a brand of pseudopopulism that personalizes social conflicts, obscuring structural explanations. Hallin argues that the essential dynamic of network news is to create or reinforce a national consensus. Thus in its typical "plot line," TV news “enacts a fear" - of individuals or communities victimized by corporate greed, bureaucratic inertia, international terrorism - "and provides an idealized resolution of it."

If that sounds a little like soap opera, it's no accident. Soaps have refined to an even higher pitch the technique of simultaneously reflecting and elaborating on the national mood. Ruth Rosen's essay dissects “General Hospital” and other soaps, laying bare their formulas and tracing the limits they expertly, almost infallibly, keep to. just as TV news glosses over class conflict, TV drama glosses over anomie. Soaps like “General Hospital” create an idealized community (e.g., the now-famous Port Charles) that nurtures its loyal members and redeems its wayward ones, provided they accept its myths of harmony and hierarchy. Intractable realities, like the pervasive loneliness, rootlessness, and financial insecurity that afflict many of the soaps' viewers, rarely intrude; or if they do, never remain painfully and permanently unresolved, as in life. However much they flirt with real problems, soaps obscure the paradox of mass society: that the operating requirements of contemporary capitalism - mobility, manipulativeness in personal relations, expanded consumption - undermine the traditional values that conservatives claim to support.

The news and the soaps may filter out much of the real world, but at least they acknowledge its existence. New TV genres that have emerged lately are completely self-enclosed: they're not merely surrounded by commercials, or influenced by commercials, they are commercials. Music videos are one example. Pat Aufderheide has a savvy piece on MTV as a pioneer purveyor of postmodernism. She argues that its rapid, continuous flow of fragmentary images heightens tensions latent in American youth culture, encouraging adolescents to "become a piece of the action in a continuous performance" - by buying, naturally. Tom Engelhardt's essay describes the wholesale takeover of children's television by animated toys -- Strawberry Shortcake, the Smurfs, He-Man, She-Ra, Care Bears, Hugga Bunch. Of course, cartoons have always had commercial spin-offs, even huge ones-- witness Mickey Mouse. What's new and disturbing is that most cartoons now are not created by independent animators and studios, with at least some freedom to follow their imagination wherever it might lead, but by the toy manufacturers themselves, as part of a marketing strategy calculated to enhance the sellability of the product. As Engelhardt convincingly suggests, there's something creepy about subjecting very young children to manipulation on this scale.

All the essays mentioned so far are rewarding but I've saved the best for last. The essays by Tom Gitlin and
Mark Crispin Miller are tours de force: witty, weighty, and wide-ranging. Their premise is that there's a logic to the apparently random progression of styles within diverse TV genres; that the aesthetics of car commercials and cop shows (Gitlin's examples) or of sitcoms (Miller's) reflect the self-image, the inner heart, of our culture.

Roughly speaking, car commercials used to project friendliness in the 50s, funkiness in the 60s, and practicality in the 70s What do they promise in the 80s' According to Gitlin,

“The new-style car commercial reveals something about the new-style man who has been pronounced fit to drive into the future. This fantastical paragon is a pilot who soars through things untouched and unimpeded. Not for him the viscosity of everyday life. He is man on the move, man ready to go anywhere, man whose mobility is literal, carrying him forward, onward, or upward, off the road, if need be, but always advancing. The ideal man of the commercials embodies, in short, the master fantasy of the Reagan era: the fantasy of thrusting, self-sufficient man (women are outfitted with a different image, as we shall see), cutting loose, free of gravity, free of attachments.”

Where does this "master fantasy" come from? It is the contemporary version of those American archetypes, the lone, self-reliant frontiersman, cowboy, and (especially in the 80s) entrepreneur. Reaganism celebrates individualism; but at the same time, it fosters a corporate culture in which the traditional entrepreneurial virtues— risk-taking loyalty, honesty, pride in service-- have become virtually obsolete. This is a clear conflict, and like all psychic conflicts, it generates escapist fantasies. The many current car commercials that feature a cool, affectless Lone Driver, who gallops away from a tame and crowded civilization in his high-tech steed, allow the organization man, the fast-track manager, "to imagine a freedom he has forfeited in fact." And the same is, true, Gitlin argues, of 80s police shows like “Miami Vice” and “The A-Team,” with their blankness of tone, glittering surfaces, throwaway plots, stylized violence, and mistrust of human bonds outside the tiny circle of lawmen/outlaws.

Mark Crispin Miller's essay descends, via a study of the evolution of sitcom dads, into television's heart of darkness. There may not seem to be a world of' difference between “Father Knows Best” and “The Cosby Show”. But the styles of paternal authority they represent do differ, radically. Robert Young and his fellow middle-class dads in “Leave It to Beaver”, “My Little Margie,” and “The Donna Reed Show”, were self-confident patriarchs, ruling by virtue of their superior wisdom, usually needing only a raised eyebrow to elicit deference from mom and the kids. (Working-class dads, like Riley, were another matter.) But over the years their authority has been hollowed out by a steady trickle of jokes and therapeutic patter. Dad is now a pal.

Is this a benign development? Not quite.

“This modern Dad subverts his kids not by evincing the sort of calm power that once made Jim Anderson [of “Father Knows Best”] so daunting but by seeming to subvert himself at the same time. His is the executive style, in other words, not of the small businessman as evoked in the fifties, but of the corporate manager skilled at keeping his subordinates in line while half concealing his authority through various disarming moves. Cliff [Huxtable, of “The Cosby Show”] rules the roost through teasing putdowns, clever mockery, and amiable shows of helpless bafflement. This Dad is no straightforward tyrant, then, but the playful type who strikes his children as a peach, until they realize, years later, and after lots of psychotherapy, what a subtle thug he really was.”

This is acute, but Miller takes it still deeper. If the new dad's ultimate weapon is irony, so is the medium's. It is the ubiquitous, apparently self-mocking irony of prime-time TV-- as it cajoles, flatters, and cools out its millions of blasé but nonetheless addicted viewers that Miller wants to expose. Describing the mass audience's anxious knowingness, its contemptuous passivity, its chronic but inescapable ennui, and revealing the stylistic mechanisms that induce those states, Miller's essay stretches the bounds of its own medium-- TV criticism.

As does “Watching Television” as a whole. By taking TV seriously, though not on its own terms, the authors - especially Gitlin and Miller - have produced some of the finest social and political analysis in recent years. Their subject may be ephemeral, but their insights will endure.