Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Core response - The Cultural Forum Has Its Limits

In Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch's “TV as a Cultural Forum,” the authors argue that it is not very useful to worry about what “message” television is giving us, because television is not one, impoverished message. Rather, it is a complex and rich forum of ideas where debate and process is a key part of the medium. “The forum offers a perspective that is as complex, as contradictory and confused, as much in process as American culture is in experience. Its texture matches that of our daily experience.” (571)

While I agree with much of this and will spend a good deal of my presentation time on Wednesday applying this analysis to my own personal experience and favorite shows, I think this idea of the plurality of TV as a cultural forum has some limits, limits which Newcomb and Hirsch themselves acknowledge.

“We recognize, of course, that this variety works for the most part within the limits of American monopoly-capitalism and within the range of American pluralism.” (566) I would argue that it also exists within the limits of the storytellers' experience. If the majority of television storytellers come from similar backgrounds, it will be difficult to get that variety of opinion and experience that Newcomb and Hirsch see as intrinsic to television as a cultural forum.

Unfortunately, television has not had a great track record of diversity, and even today most of its storytellers are a relatively homogeneous group. In 2013, white males directed 73% of all television episodes. (The Directors Guild of America, press release, 10/2/13.) In 2014, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of at least 9 to 1 among creators of broadcast comedies and drama. (The 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report by the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.)

This is how you end up with so many all-white shows set in New York – Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, Sex in the City, and (for all practical purposes) Girls and Nurse Jackie. When asked about the lack of diversity in their casts, these show creators often reply that they are just writing what they know, which is exactly why diverse storytellers are so important to make television a true public forum that represents the range of our culture's stories. We still have a long way to go before the texture of television matches that of our daily experience.


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  2. Hi Helen! You raise some great points, and I agree with you; there is STILL a dearth of diversity on TV screens as well as within the collaborative production spheres. While there may be some programming that represents marginalized populations on specialty channels/networks, CBS, NBC, ABC and cable channels are hardly platforms for diverse performers and artists. Recently, two ABC shows have caught my attention for their aggressive campaigns to assert their alternative approaches to the American sitcom: Black-ish, a comedy about a Black family in the suburbs, and the upcoming Fresh Off the Boat, another sitcom featuring an Asian American family. I’ve only seen part of one episode of Black-ish, but the show seemed to reinforce its departure from other (white-centric) family sitcoms and reclaim the conventions of the genre. Do these shows provide a space for discourse on race and the American experience for its intended viewers? Or maybe I should first ask, "Who are the intended viewers?"

  3. Helen and Bobby –

    I agree as well – this is an important conversation to continue to have, among viewers and content producers. If we are considering a diverse viewing audience, the question I would have is, what implications does this have for our existing television formats? I’m also not terribly familiar with a show like Black-ish, but from the advertisements it appears the program capitalizes on a rejection of historically white sitcoms (i.e. the patriarch educating his children on being / “staying Black”). I’m thinking of the difference between an “alternative” show (i.e. one which rejects normative representations) and an “oppositional” show (i.e. one which creates its own representative system, independent of the mainstream). Does this show rely on a preexisting format (the “white sitcom”) and assume an audience who finds those sitcoms funny, or does it utilize an entirely different structure and system of humor? Is it necessary to rethink means of representation as well, and to call for an increase not only in alternative but oppositional programming, to convey a broader spectrum of ideological positions?

    -Allison Ross

  4. It's interesting to me that, in order to be diverse, one must take risks, and while I truly enjoyed Hendershot's analysis of "Parks & Recreation," and agree it's smart, it feels ... safe. It surprises me that in an era when audiences are so split, and network ratings have become a fraction of what they used to be, they major networks are willing to take LESS risk now, then they were in the 70s with shows like "All In The Family" or any one of a number of "Black" shows like "The Jeffersons," even Mary Tyler Moore! I appreciate the "edginess" of cable, but wonder why their popularity has seemed to propel the networks backwards in their risk-taking.

  5. Helen,
    One of the things that strikes me exactly on this point in Hirsch and Newcomb is the underlying sense of pessimism about TV's ability to "lead the conversation" -- that mysterious national conversation about weighty issues we're supposedly always engaging in. The sentence after the one you quoted on 566 puts the point even more decisively: "It is an effective pluralistic forum only insofar as American political pluralism is or can be." The medium reflects and perhaps even exaggerates the limits of the broader society. The notion of the bricoleur (or Sahlins' huckster) further speaks to the deep limits on the TV medium itself to effect leading change. In either case, TV makers (at every stage of the production and distribution process) are just tinkerers with the tools that the broader society affords them unable to lay their hands on any new idea until that society decides to hand it to them by entitling an underserved demographic to speak or deciding to turn the collective cultural attention toward a given issue. In this light, the failure to staff effectively expresses a broader cultural preference and who are TV makers to do anything but follow the broader culture's lead? This seems to be the logic. As I say, pessimistic.