Saturday, January 24, 2015

Core Response #1: Then and Now: TV as Cultural Forum

As Todd Gitlin addresses in “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment” (1979), “”the hegemonic ideology is maintained in the Seventies by domesticating divisive issues where in the Fifties it would have simply ignored them” (255). Gitlin reaches this statement after introducing Norman Lear’s (All in the Family, and much more,) legacy on TV, stating, “where previous shows might have made passing references to social conflicts, Lear brought wrenching social issues into the very mainspring of his series..” (256).

As media students and media makers, we could see the differences between the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best and All in the Family when considering how dominant ideologies about traditional gender roles were firstly placed into the 3-act sitcom format, and how topical tensions about evolution versus creationism were confronted head on in the Family cold open, then how race tensions in the 1970s were carried out in a post-Civil Rights America in which Archie Bunker was certainly an archetype of racist, sexist, bigoted mainstream ideologies. Bunker is like an amalgam of everything that was wrong with American mainstream thought of the time, and while he was not an evil antagonist that brought harm directly to others, he still embodies a force that many Americans had to deal with and attempt to educate and reform in an evolving US consciousness.

Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker of All in the Family.

Gitlin’s piece and Horace Newcomb and Paul M Hirsch’s “Television as Cultural Forum” (1983) discuss television in the context of broadcast television in the same way Raymond Williams’ discusses his concept of flow from last week’s reading. Newcomb and Hirsch acknowledge TV as a national medium that brings the masses together, also noting that: “…Television fulfills what Fiske and Hartley refer to as the “bardic function” of contemporary societies. In its role as central cultural medium it presents a multiplicity of meanings rather than a monolithic dominant point of view. It often focuses on our most prevalent concerns, our deepest dilemmas” (p.564).

 Newcomb and Hirsch then discuss the Father Knows Best episode we viewed in class, rightly stating that “We suggest in popular culture generally, in television specifically, the raising of questions is as important as the answering of them” (565).

If TV as a cultural forum addresses the fears, dreams, dilemmas, etc. of American society at large, it very well can’t answer some of the biggest social problems the country faces. N&H also discuss the TV producer, creator, what we know consider the showrunner, as an agent that addresses his personal and political ideologies and expressions in his or her work (568). We see this through Lear’s body of work and his continuing interest in social justice and equality. 

Elinor Donahue as Betty on Father Knows Best.

Last semester, I went to a panel that included a conversation between Lear and Amy Poehler, the lead of Parks and Recreation as Leslie Knope, the TV show that is the subject of Heather Hendershot’s article we read from How To Watch Television (2013). Sadly it didn’t get into the cultural forum aspect of Lear’s work and how it can now be seen on Parks, but it did address how much fewer people watch Parks and Recreation than those that watched a Lear series. Side note: Poehler reiterated that she thinks All in the Family is the greatest TV show of all time and also added that she named one of her sons Archie after Archie Bunker.

 While the network era readings addressed broadcast TV at large, present media scholars are more apt to address narrowcasting series and programming, because the sheer saturation and abundance of post-network, digital era TV is currently a very difficult terrain to make concrete and precise arguments about. We can say that network TV is going through certain patterns, that streaming outlets like Netflix and Amazon are contributing to that and changing how we watch TV, and that premium cable challenged network TV’s commercial, ad-revenue based model and also challenged dominant ideologies with subversive content, but grand statements about all of this isn’t super conducive at the moment.

Hendershot writes: “Today, with hundreds of channels on offer, it is difficult for a program to generate high profile controversy, and viewers may find that politically challenging series are easy to ignore. Previously, as Newcomb pt it in an interview in 2007, TV made you ‘confront your beliefs.’ Such confrontation was central to the cultural forum model and, thus, specific to the network real in a niche-viewing environment, however, viewers tend to gravitate to content that matches their preexisting interests. Narrowly targeted niche TV thus provides ‘self-confirmation,’ leaving little room for the old cultural forum ideal of ideas in conflict.” (206).

This is spot on. Although I love watching TV, I myself find it so difficult to watch an episode of Big Bang Theory or Mike and Molly. Sadly, a series like Shonda Rhimes’ Grey’s Anatomy, does a lot of good work in showing progressive ideology, but this is buried in its female-led soap opera image. Her work has its own problems of course, but her portrayal of interracial as well as gay couples was unparalleled, especially on network TV.

On the other hand, I watched Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, aware of the impact that his previous series The West Wing made on television audiences for his liberal ideologies expressed and for the earnest, complex depictions of its cast of characters. Sorkin’s Newsroom fell flat in numerous ways- firstly, the concept of a TV series that provides a 2-year hindsight on how news media and US society treated major events is Sorkin at his worst and most condescending, showing everyone what they did wrong and how he would have took it on. Sorkin’s campus rape episode in the series final season last year brought on a lot of controversy and debate of its problematic portrayal, also that he fired a writer after she suggested the problematics of the script (

Hendershot does an excellent job of pointing out how Parks and Rec, in its spirit and intent, can still function as an example of TV as a cultural forum in the narrowcasting era. The dynamic between pro-government Leslie Knope and anti-government Libertarian Ron Swanson provides a microcosm and an example of the US as a bipartisan divided nation. Their stubbornness and unwillingness to agree on anything regarding government’s role on individual citizens and society at large mirrors how a Democratic US President can’t get a whole lot passed with an unflinching majority Republican congress.

Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, the anti-government, libertarian voice of Parks and Recreation.

Again, as Hendershot also states, statements like that are reductive and generalized. She also shows how Leslie is not a far left symbol, while Ron is not a Rush Limbaugh kind of conservative figure. For example, Ron Swanson, I imagine, would not want the government to tell women what to do with their bodes as pregnant women. Parks and Rec offers a rare glimpse to the Libertarian mindset, previously underrepresented on American mainstream TV as far as I can think of. Hendershot touches on how Parks addresses the absurdities of conservative rhetoric. In the "Pawnee Zoo" episode she details, a small town Indiana married couple are horrified that Leslie married two gay penguins in a government sanctioned event. The punch line is that the married man is clearly gay while his wife is completely unaware.

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, and the conclusion to Parks and Recreation's "Pawnee Zoo" episode.

The same couple return in Season 5, Episode 4, “Sex Education,” in which Leslie goes to teach safe sex practices to a senior living home inundated with STDs due to rampant unprotected sex. The couple argue that the state of Indiana only allows abstinence only sex education and that encouraging premarital sex, or unwed sex, is illegal. Of course the absurdity is that these individuals are past their reproductive prime, and are widowers or widows at this stage in their lives. But conservative ideology rooted in religion often does not acknowledge the practicalities of everyday life. This is again an example of an innocuous satire of conservative ideology- a more daring one would be addressing how abstinence only programs do not work in high schools, where teenage pregnancy is often correlated with a lack of education on safe sex practices.

Conservative rhetoric at its most absurd, according to Parks and Recreation.
Knope is under fire for teaching safe sex to seniors.

If anyone has read this far along, my question for you is: what recent TV series or episodes have made you think of the medium as a cultural forum? This is something that can be evidenced through popular discourse in popular press, or through niche online blogging and the like. Or maybe it’s something that you think went underlooked and should be more heavily discussed or written about.

Stefania Marghitu, Core Response #1


  1. Hi Stephania! Excellent observations, as usual! Hendershot suggests that Parks and Recreation commendably situates the viewer between Leslie and Ron who represent two political ideologies. TV certainly has a way of artfully crafting a space for political and social discourse. I watch a great deal of Family Guy, so naturally I have exploited it as a frame of reference on innumerable issues (for better or worse). I find it deliriously impertinent but tactful in its scathing social critique. Seth MacFarland’s indiscreet humor has engendered anger among audiences and critics. Most episodes begin with Peter, the foolhardy central character, proclaiming some social practice wrong (usually something politically loaded). Subsequently, he attempts to combat and dismantle that custom throughout the episode. But in the end, he decides that his labors to invert that practice are futile and the practice should be left alone. Peter’s boorish crusade draws attention to the complexity of each issue, suggesting that there is no definitively correct angle. The show lampoons every walk of life proving that no side is off the hook from criticism.

    1. Hi Bobby- thanks! Family Guy is a super interesting example and carries the tradition of shows like The Simpsons and Homer as the fool I would imagine, I haven't watched either show in ages to be honest but it's coming back to me now. Of course South Park is another example of an animated series that pushes the boundaries on social critique, but different than the McFarland scope. I wonder if you think the animated version allows for more absurdity and "gets away" with more than a traditional sitcom. If Peter is kind of like an Archie Bunker.

  2. Great post! After reading Gitlin and your post I was struck by both of the episodes we watched last week -- Father Knows Best and All In the Family-- in relation to what Gitlin calls "slant" and how nuclear families engage with the "deep social issues of the world outside" (262). The dichotomy of "ignoring" or "domesticating" these issues represents, for me, another example of what Newcomb and Hirsch referred to as, reality negotiation. It's remarkable to think of what it must have felt like for audiences to see televised scenarios of families dealing with issues such as racism, religious prejudice and sexism, when to that point the public sphere had never been quite so open.

    To answer your question, I will reference The Bachelor in terms of a TV series that calls me to consider/question the medium as a cultural form. This show has an extremely vast depth of problems, but The Bachelor continually plays with issues of hetero-normative gender roles and hegemonic ideals of ethnicity and attractiveness. It boggles my mind that countless seasons in, everyone still looks the same! Yet, each season millions (myself included) watch with rapt attention and full engagement. That almost every other reality competition program has both embraced and thrived off of diversity seems to have made no impression on the producers here. Is it perhaps, because The Bachelor is the most socially traditional and prominent example of the ideal American dream? It is almost as if sex, romance, love, and marriage are only relegated to a strict subset of the population in the world of The Bachelor. I still intend to watch tomorrow night!

    1. Hi Myah- thanks! Ah yes, even if Reality TV isn't something that intentionally makes the audience question the structure and representations of social norms of beauty and attractiveness and who deserves love from an eligible guy etc- actually it often does the exact opposite as you say The Bachelor does. What (very little, I'll admit) I've seen of the Bachelor you're so right- everyone looks the same. If the show is so successful with that formula, I'm sure the producers aren't even thinking about bringing in diversity. That also seems to reflect popular fictional representations - mainstream film and TV romances. I think there's a lot of great scholarly work on Reality TV in terms of heteronormativity and traditional gender roles, race and ethnicity- and reality TV again is good for the cultural forum because it's sooo popular. I was so surprised how many of you guys in the class watched it too! But it proves it's a show within the zeitgeist. For example one of my reality TV shows, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, turned from a 30 minute reality sitcom a la The Osbornes to a 45 minute dramedy that fed into the tabloid stuff the Kardashians became infamous for and also the lifestyle promoting they are so brilliant at accomplishing as a Family Brand. I've seen a lot of recaps for shows like The Bachelor and the Real Housewives- and with the nature of online writing, it can get super personal and tell us just as much about the writer as it does the show, so that's another interesting thing for me to consider when thinking about TV as a cultural forum and how the internet contributes to it and is an extension if it- whether its those recaps and also through of course, social media.

  3. Hey Stef

    Great post as always! Your question about what other TV programs can be thought of as contributing to a cultural forum made me think of talk shows - particularly the Oprah show. Oprah's show was largely concerned with bringing 'real' people's stories to a national audience and engaging with various social issues (crime, poverty, eating disorders, sexual assault, etc). The show often took on the format of an actual forum, as audience members would engage with guests by asking questions and offering their own insights. Oprah's book club also furthered the connection between the show and the audience by allowing Oprah's fans to read with her. These widely diverse conversations, which began within the one hour confine of the show, would then continue on Oprah's website and in her magazine. Following the end of her talk show, Oprah created her own network in the hopes of creating "mindful, not mindless, television." (1) Although the network has had a fair share of problems, and Oprah herself can be seen as a problematic figure, the Oprah show might be a particularly interesting site for analysis when it comes to discerning the power of television to create a cultural forum.


    1. Thanks E! Oh yes- The Oprah Winfrey Show is a great example and how her show was the starting point of her brand. Someone could probably write a paper about Oprah's pervasiveness throughout other TV shows- from Tina Fey's Liz Lemon 30 Rock (and the Oprah cameoooo!) to Abbi Jacobson's Oprah tramp stamp on Broad City. I wish she didn't end the show in 2011 because it would have been fascinating to see how the show held up in an increasingly digital era. Her show did a really good job of bringing together all the hot button issues of the time, and also bringing in the biggest celebrities to spill their guts to her. Or in the case of Tom Cruise, jump on her couch! But even the Lance Armstrong, and to a lesser extent, the Lindsay Lohan, interview she did in the past few years were very much in the zeitgeist. It was almost as much because of their infamy and because her coming back to do an interview that made the specials talked about.I imagine TiVo'd Oprah would have been big too.

  4. Stefania –

    Thanks for the fuller analysis of Parks and Rec! In terms of a public forum, I wonder what Gitlin would think about shows like The Voice or even Revenge which encourage audiences to tweet their responses to the programs as they view them. While this may not represent a public forum, per se, what might this sort of (mediated and limited) “activism” suggest about the ways in which fans participate in simulated conversations about television they are watching? It seems engagement and discussion are being encouraged, on one hand (voting on who ought to win, objecting to or agreeing with a particular plot decision or speculating who might have killed a favorite character). However, this is hardly being done to effect political change. It seems these forms of fora are generated more as a marketing ploy, directed at individuals who use social media. Does this illusion of participation make a show more marketable? Continuing the search for examples (since I don’t feel my use of a reality singing show and primetime soap are particularly exemplary), what might be the implications of this illusion of participation for a more politically oriented (whether left, right or centrist, i.e. on the right side The O’Reilly Factor) program? Would social media integration and network-mediated discussions foster conversations, or simply reinforce premediated discourse?

    -Allison Ross