Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media, and Popular Culture. Editor: Brian Cogan & Tony Kelso. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.
Politics and Television Entertainment
If radio, throughout its history, has involved a protracted political battle between profit-seeking corporations and the democratic forces of everyday people for control over the airwaves (see Chapter 3), then television has not followed suit. Although it took dozens of years after its birth for business interests to prevail in dominating the radio environment, television in the United States was a commercial enterprise right from the start. Indeed, as television made its way into the living rooms of American homes, it immediately adopted the economic model, based on the financial support of advertisers, that radio had already established through trial and error.
The development of television had begun well before it became a fixture in the lives of U.S. citizens, however. Because so many people were involved, both explicitly and indirectly, in bringing television to fruition, it is difficult to point to one inventor of the medium. Technological innovations that were necessary for the creation of television were already occurring in the nineteenth century. Yet it would take decades for television to come to realization.
Perhaps the first significant event to widely demonstrate TV’s potential was NBC’s broadcast of the opening of the World’s Fair in New York on April 30, 1939. Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the welcoming address, making him the first incumbent president to ever appear on television. (Before he became president, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover had presented a speech on an experimental telecast in 1927.) Two years later, though, the screens went almost entirely dark. With the outbreak of World War II, the television industry deemed it futile to roll out a major innovation for a distracted population.
Once the war had concluded, television enjoyed a rebirth and quickly picked up steam. Probably the first major attempt to broadcast a regularly scheduled series can be traced to 1946, when NBC introduced a variety show called Hour Glass,which ran for 10 months. Yet overall, the network shows and reception signals paled in comparison to today’s expectations. Still, a threshold had been reached. In 1947, the opening of Congress was telecast for the first time. By the end of 1951, a coast-to-coast infrastructure was in place. In 1948, less than 1 percent of the homes in the United States had owned a television. Five years later, in 1953, the percentage had bounded toward 50 percent. By 1960, nearly 90 percent of households had purchased a television.
The Commercial Model: Democratically Serving “the People” or Bending to Corporate America?
Although news often obviously taps into political content, programming that is commonly regarded as sheer entertainment can carry political implications as well. (For a full discussion of television news, see Chapter 5.) As television usurped the dominant role that radio had played in the culture, it also appropriated the advertising supported economic system that its forbearer had crystallized. Consequently, from a political perspective, since the very origins of television as a mass phenomenon, the influence of advertising has had a considerable impact on the type of content the medium has generally broadcast, often reflecting the interests of big business more than offering a marketplace of ideas that, according to the spirit of the First Amendment, is fundamental to the needs of a democracy. Advertisers demand not only high ratings, but also a symbolic climate that is suitable for the promotion of goods and services. Accordingly, advertisers usually frown upon any kind of content that generates controversy, challenges fundamental assumptions about U.S. culture, or triggers deep contemplation. For the advertising industry, risk is, to a large extent, a four-letter word.
The Roots of Advertising’s Influence on Programming
The prominent media historian Erik Barnouw once explained how advertising began to shape the nature of programming during the early days of television, a pattern that has mostly been followed ever since. A variety of early dramas, including a number of those carried by such notable anthology series as Kraft Television Theater (1947-1958), Philco Television Playhouse (1948-1955), Goodyear Television Playhouse (1951-1960), Omnibus (1953-1957), andPlayhouse 90 (1956-1961), addressed, in a profound manner, some of the troubling issues that ordinary people confronted in everyday life. These shows, telecast live, resonated with audiences and achieved high ratings. “But one group hated them” (1990, 163), Barnouw stated: the advertising industry. As he put it:
Most advertisers were selling magic. Their commercials posed the same problems that Chayefsky [one of the renowned television writers who worked within the genre] drama dealt with: people who feared failure in love and in business. But in the commercials there was always a solution as clear-cut as the snap of a finger: the problem could be solved by a new pill, deodorant, toothpaste … or floor wax ….
… [T]he “marvelous world of the ordinary” seemed to challenge everything that advertising stood for. (1990, 163)
Eventually, faced with criticism from its sponsors, television executives learned an important lesson that still guides industry leaders today. Decision makers must balance the wishes of the audience with the demands of the advertisers that fund the programming. Television fare that highlights economic problems or has other political implications is almost always anathema. Beginning in the 1950s, then, to ensure lines were not crossed, interference from advertisers, such as involvement with script changes, became commonplace. Then again, partly because broadcasters have been charged by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to serve the public interest, some challenging programming inevitably slips through the cracks.
On the other hand, there are certain entertainment formats that advertisers are very willing to back. “Law and order” dramas, for example, especially those that reinforce the U.S. legal system, have been acceptable ever since television first began broadcasting in earnest. Westerns that mythologized the American frontier, including Cheyenne (1955-1963),Gunsmoke (1955-1975), and Maverick (1957-1962), proliferated during the 1950s and remained popular in the first half of the 1960s. This genre, too, had no difficulty finding support from advertisers.
From Sponsorship to “Spot” Advertising. Yet early on, just as had been the case with radio, advertisers not only sponsored shows, but oversaw production as well. Because of this arrangement, advertisers could directly mold programming to their benefit. The event that led to the demise of advertising-produced programming was the “Quiz Show Scandal.” Shows with high payouts, such as The $64,000 Question (1955-1958), drew sensational ratings and captivated millions of viewers. Yet in 1959, a black cloud was cast over the television industry when it came out that some of these shows were being rigged in the service of advertisers. Designated contestants, chosen for their audience appeal in hope of maximizing ratings, were being fed answers—and even coached on how to credibly deliver their replies—in advance of the contests. As the scandal came to a head, congressional hearings into the situation were launched. The public, which, in general, trusted in television with a type of naivete, given the medium’s rapid growth and almost magical quality, was disillusioned. One result was that television executives mostly replaced the quiz shows with other programming. But the larger outcome—one that had a major impact on television’s very structure—was that the networks soon disallowed advertisers to be considerably in charge of program production and scheduling. Instead, to ensure a higher degree of integrity, they indicated that they would themselves oversee the creation and scheduling of all the shows in the TV lineup. But to continue to receive the financial support of advertisers, the networks fully implemented an economic model that was already in motion: they would welcome advertisers to insert short commercials into the breaks between shows or during the programs themselves. Known as “spot advertising,” it satisfied both the networks’ need for funding as well as the advertisers’ desire to market their products through the airwaves. This quid pro quo arrangement between the advertisers and the networks and stations has been in place ever since.
Political Critiques of Commercial Television
In general, a television station or network seeks to balance its drive to maximize profit with the need to satisfy the government’s FCC’s requirement that it must serve the public interest if it hopes to hold onto its license. The former goal is usually pursued through the broadcasting of entertainment programming while the latter is most often met with news and other public affairs offerings. Most observers would contend that the “serious” formats receive short shrift in comparison to shows and programs that focus on various types of amusement. Because of this perception, ever since the first mass telecasts, television has garnered more than its share of rebuke. Critics argue that by putting the accent on “mindless” fare, television is not giving people enough worthwhile information and is therefore shortchanging democracy. They feel that the FCC has rarely done more than pay lip service to ensuring that broadcasters promote the public interest. Such a harsh evaluation was exemplified in 1961 by then FCC chairman Newton N. Minow, who proclaimed that television was a “vast wasteland.” His words have been echoed through the years in one way or another by scores of detractors. Yet others counter that this stance is elitist—the television industry is simply providing the populace with what it wants. They reason that high ratings indicate a vote of confidence in a show. On the other hand, if people are tuning out, then a program is cancelled. Accordingly, they say, the television business is especially honoring the spirit of democracy.
Cable TV: Expanding Commercial Communication
Until the 1970s, the television industry was dominated by just three national networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Most people received “free” (besides the cost of a television set and electricity there were no other direct charges) programming through the airwaves via the antennas that were already installed on their TVs. Cable television initially emerged mainly to bring station feeds to rural homes that were out of range of broadcast signals.
But eventually cable sought to extend its reach. Thus began the gradual loosening of the traditional broadcast networks’ lock on power, as more and more viewers subscribed to cable services. Broadcast network ratings started to decline, a tendency that has continued until the present. Today, audiences have dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of channels from which to pick. Nor is cable the only option— direct satellite television, videotape or DVD rentals, and even programming available on the Internet and cell phone have further weakened the relatively long reign of CBS, NBC, and ABC.
When cable first burst onto the scene, many advocates declared that, in breaking apart the broadcast network oligarchy, it would function as a force for democracy by providing viewers with far more choices. Moreover, the possibility existed that cable fees could reduce the need for funding from advertisers, therefore enabling “the people” to have more influence over industry programming decisions than sponsors. Yet commercialization crept into cable right from the start. Currently, besides the “premium” channels, such as HBO and Showtime, cable channels are laden with advertisements. Critics pronounce that the spread of advertising and other recent pro-business policies have undermined any democratic potential cable represented. Instead, they claim, the proliferation of channels has merely reinforced the advertising supported economic model that had already been implemented and has generated only more of the same kind of programming that had become standard fare. In short, the debate about whether television either extends or emasculates the democratic impulse continues.
Educational and Noncommercial Television
Of course, public television offers viewers an alternative to the standard formats that commercial television typically delivers. From television’s birth, numerous parties were interested in the possibility of using the medium as a vehicle for education. Yet television was so dominated by commercial interests that educational goals were largely shoved to the side. In the 1950s, most attempts to promote noncommercial, educational television were largely futile.
Interestingly, when television was first introduced into other Western nations, it was regarded as a public resource—commercialism came later. Yet in the United States, the tables were flipped: it would be years before public television finally took its place beside its commercial counterparts. In November 1967, backed by President Lyndon Johnson, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was legally established. In the beginning, public television was funded mostly through government subsidies and viewer donations. A major part of its mission involved devoting far more attention to serving the public interest than the advertising-supported networks appeared to be doing. To this end, emphasis was placed on program diversity and reaching particular groups, including traditionally marginalized populations, whose needs were not being satisfied by commercial offerings designed to appeal to massive audiences.
In its early years, public television indeed featured more controversial fare than that typically seen through commercial channels. Makers of documentaries, in particular, turned to public television as a fertile venue for nonfiction films that challenged conventional views. Moreover, freed from the tyranny of maximizing ratings, it could set aside considerable time for public affairs coverage. During the Watergate crisis, for example, public television was able to air the congressional hearings live during the daytime and repeat the presentations at night—something that commercial television could in no way duplicate. Because many citizens were highly engaged in learning about the scandal (in a sense, making Watergate a popular culture event), the extended, live broadcasts breathed new life into public television. Stirring up the waters continued into the following decade. In 1988-1989, for instance, the four-part PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) series Secret Intelligence bravely revealed the covert and unsavory practices of the CIA since its founding in 1947.
Entertainment shows on public television also sometimes pushed the envelope by tackling risky themes. For example, launched in 1971, The Great American Dream Machine (1971-1972), which consisted of a string of short comedie scenarios, was iconoclastic in lampooning government activities. The political satire was so biting that it evoked angry cries in Washington.
Such heated rebuke was not unusual—in fact, public television has never been immune from political pressures. Like commercial television, which relies on the FCC for licensing, public television is dependent on the government—but to a much greater extent because Washington furnishes it with much of the money it needs for its very survival. Thus, public television must generally avoid broadcasting programs that might trigger too much hostility from political authorities and jeopardize its funding. From time to time, government officials, especially on the conservative end of the spectrum, have threatened to reduce financial backing or eliminate public television entirely. In 1995, for example, Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich announced his intention to tighten up the purse strings in retaliation for PBS’s perceived liberal bias.
Today, PBS documentary series such as Frontline (1983-present) and P.O.V. (1988-present) still treat topics that commercial stations usually will not touch. Yet critics charge that even these high-minded programs tend to play it safe. They argue that not only the fear of political backlash but also the increased influence of corporate benefactors has compelled PBS to become more inhibited over the years. When public television was initially established, it strove to maintain a commercial-free environment. But facing constant economic difficulties, public television eventually invited, with growing regularity, corporations to sponsor shows. Along the way, PBS allowed advertising to creep into its programming. At first, corporate promotions consisted of brief oral announcements with minimal visual support (nor could companies directly pitch specific products). Currently, what could only be identified as full-fledged commercials commonly appear in between programs. PBS is by no means as commercially driven as its competitors; yet, like its advertising-based competition, it cannot altogether avoid the temptation to “soften” its lineup to appease its sponsors. Some observers bemoan this state of affairs, contending that PBS has started to resemble the commercial networks. Others counter that perhaps public television has run its course, given that its ratings continue to decline and that cable networks, such as the Discovery Channel and Bravo, now occasionally provide the same kind of information and formats that formerly could be found only on PBS. More than ever, public television is struggling to retain its distinctiveness and demonstrate that it is worth saving.
Alternative Media, Noncommercial Television, and Voices of Dissent. At the same time, though, given that television is not monolithic but a complex institution, perspectives that challenge dominant points of view occasionally surface. During the Vietnam era, for instance, some forms of noncommercial television (and even commercial television for that matter), including National Education Television (NET), a forerunner of PBS, offered words and images of dissent. In 1967, the Ford Foundation funded the creation of the Public Broadcast Laboratory (PBL), which launched a series of shows that were made available to dozens of educational television stations across the country. PBL programming gave voice to the nation’s subculture, accenting themes that commercial networks typically disregarded. Today, vehicles such as the current affairs program Democracy Now (the show started on radio in 1996, then eventually joined television as well), owned by the Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), are distributed to generally low-rated educational or otherwise noncommercial cable stations for small audiences that wish to view controversial material they usually cannot find elsewhere.
The meddling of advertisers was not the only factor that, early on, encouraged the television industry to drain its programming of controversial political inferences. Although the end of World War II brought peace to the nation, a new, “softer” conflict emerged, one that would be waged more through symbolism and propaganda than with arms. The “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union would guide foreign policy decisions and be embedded in the American conscience for decades, finally coming to a close with the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany in 1989. The atmosphere surrounding the perceived Soviet communist threat had a profound impact on the entertainment industries, including television. In October 1947, a new government formation, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, opened proceedings in regard to the purported influence of communism in Hollywood. Months later, a group of writers was charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions posed by the committee. All of them served time in prison. Soon, a blacklist was developed to identify anybody suspected of harboring communist sympathies. Any person included in this secret list generally found it impossible to find work in the entertainment industries.
Hollywood was the first media field to face investigations into possible links to communism. Soon, however, the world of broadcasting was confronted as well. The “witch-hunt” gained momentum entering the 1950s. A publisher created by three former FBI agents followed up an earlier document with the release of Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, which, often based on exceedingly indirect or flimsy evidence, identified 151 communist sympathizers who were infiltrating the broadcast industry. Many of the people on the list were noted celebrities, including Lucille Ball (fortunately for her, she was one of the lucky ones to ultimately be “cleared” of posing a threat). Being implicated in any number of politically “liberal” actions, including such seemingly minor incidents as formerly opposing one of the fascist leaders in World War II or currently resisting race discrimination, could land a person on the roll.
Into the fray stormed a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, after whom the movement to purge communist leanings from the nation would eventually be named. McCarthy became the symbolic leader of the mission, bringing his zeal to a cause that already smacked of paranoia.
Throughout the era of McCarthyism, the blacklists were carefully shielded from view and the procedures used to flush out “controversial” figures were especially furtive. Faced with ruin, some artists even took their own lives, including Philip Loeb, star of The Goldbergs (1949-1954), who, after the cancellation of the show due to his name’s appearance in the pages of Red Channels, overdosed on sleeping pills. The chilling effect of McCarthyism was pervasive. Writers and their superiors were averse to taking on any risky subject matter.
One of the developments that possibly contributed to McCarthy’s downfall was Edward R. Murrow’s investigative coverage of the senator and his tactics on the CBS news show See It Now (1952-1955). Soon after a series of episodes on the theme, hearings involving a dispute between the army and McCarthy were also televised. In his testimony, McCarthy conveyed a repugnant image. Following the proceedings, the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy, 67 to 22.
Yet McCarthyism did not vanish right away, even after the senator’s death in 1957. Television professionals continued to suffer the loss of viable careers if they became even loosely linked with communism through often dubious evidence. The McCarthyism era finally came to a close shortly after John Henry Faulk, who had worked for CBS radio as a disk jockey and had made frequent appearances on CBS television, won a lawsuit against an organization (and affiliated individuals) that was yet committed to rooting out the communist threat it felt still existed. After the June 1962 ruling, numerous artists who had been blacklisted began to resurface, and issues that earlier would have been seen as too risky were now more apt to receive attention.
The Influence of the Government on Programming
McCarthyism represents an example of government officials putting acute pressure on the media industries to tame their programming. Yet the government in general has a certain degree of influence over content decisions. Although it rarely directly censors television shows (some wartime news coverage being one exception), the government can apply its authority in more subtle ways. For instance, because television stations must obtain and renew their licenses through the FCC and abide by its regulations, television executives are leery of broadcasting anything that might deeply offend the government.
The government has seldom overtly meddled into entertainment programming in particular. On occasion, however, especially during the early days of television, certain shows that received airtime were in fact created by government agencies or at least had officials involved as advisors or in helping out in other capacities. For example, produced by the Department of Defense, The Armed Forces Hour (1951) featured short films and musical performances by members of the military that served to promote the armed forces. Retired Rear Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias served as technical consultant for Behind Closed Doors (1956-1959), a spy drama based on actual episodes of Zacharias’s experience in naval intelligence. Conceived by Lieutenant Carl Bruton, The Big Picture (1953-1959) was a U.S. Army documentary series that enjoyed a particularly long run and was well received by many viewers. I Led Three Lives (1953-1956), based on the book of the same name by former FBI spy Herbert A. Philbrick, functioned as anti-Communist propaganda. Philbrick himself worked on the show as a technical consultant. Moreover, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover added his implicit endorsement—each script was sent to his agency for approval before production.
Again, though, such direct government intervention into television entertainment is rare. Symbolic support for government policies and activities is generally indirect, emerging from what some scholars argue is the medium’s ideological tendencies (see “Television and Ideology” below). On the other hand, U.S. officials have probably been more influential in shaping the role that television has played in other countries.
Television and Foreign Propaganda
Sometimes the U.S. government has directly promoted the distribution of media products abroad. For example, in the 1950s, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) began supplying emerging television stations in over 15 countries with American films. In this manner, the United States was subtly fostering the spread of the nation’s worldview, thus implementing a type of propaganda program. In particular, within a Cold War climate, the films were meant to counteract the extension of communism. The secretary of state at this time, John Foster Dulles, was instrumental in exploiting the media, both domestically and internationally, to position the U.S. capitalist and democratic approach to life as superior to anything communism had to offer. The secretary of state became a recognizable television personality, even inspiring the comedian and actress Carol Burnett to sing a humorous tribute to him, which was called “I Made a Fool of Myself over John Foster Dulles,” on an episode of The Jack Paar Show (1957-1962).
Cultural Imperialism. Yet the influence of U.S. media on other parts of the world has not always been a result of direct government intervention. More often, it has been a by-product of companies involved in the U.S. media industry simply seeking greater profits by moving into foreign territory. As European nations and other countries began developing their own television systems, they were frequently willing to buy U.S. shows instead of broadcasting their own because they could save money. The American interests that owned the programming had already reaped handsome returns domestically—consequently, they were prepared to market their already completed high-quality shows for a price that the studios in the foreign nations, faced with the prospect of creating programs from scratch, could not match. Along the way, although it was not intentional, U.S. television fare functioned as propaganda by transmitting the “American Way of Life” into the homes of people throughout the world.
With American television came American advertising agencies, which increasingly set up branches abroad. Their clients, corporations based in the United States, were only too eager to gain tremendous access to foreign markets, enabling them to pitch their goods and services across the ocean. The U.S. government might not have been the key player in this expansion, but it was certainly sympathetic to it, seeing it as a means of further halting communism in its tracks. Accordingly, the government initiated aid programs that facilitated the process.
As this scenario unfolded, cries of American cultural imperialism, the tendency to undermine a country’s symbolic environment by imposing one’s own, were sounded by artists, teachers, and other critics outside the United States, an accusation that continues to this day. In an attempt to stem the flow of U.S. media products, foreign governments applied various measures, yet could not prevent American television from gaining a significant foothold. Many opponents feared that, with its wealth, media dominance, and military might, the United States would remake the world in its own image.
Not everyone was opposed to the cultural “invasion,” however. Entrepreneurs, advertising agencies, and numerous other proponents have argued that international audiences are well served by the media vehicles that the United States, with its abundance of talent and resources, can produce. Moreover, they caution, just because citizens in foreign nations are viewing American shows does not mean that they are turning into “Americans”—different people evoke different meanings based on the cultural lenses through which they screen them. Worldwide distribution of television programs does not inevitably lead to worldwide homogenization. Furthermore, those who dismiss protests of cultural imperialism say, cultural currents travel in both directions. The recent integration of Latin and African sounds into some of the popular music produced in the United States is a case in point. Cultures have been intermixing and affecting one another throughout the millennia.
Television and Ideology
Numerous media scholars argue that nearly every product of the mass media— especially television—has political implications. According to this line of reasoning, by emphasizing certain depictions while leaving out others, television and other forms of media tend to convey messages that sustain the status quo. In this manner, they claim, television indirectly fulfills an ideological role. The concept of ideology, as used by academics in media studies and cultural studies, is concerned with the deep-rooted, shared beliefs and values that define a culture, endorse a particular worldview, and cultivate an approach to living that maintains the current distribution of power in society. The “dominant” ideology is that to which most people subscribe, even though it benefits those in positions of cultural authority (i.e., government leaders and corporate leaders) more than everyday citizens. In other words, the circulation of dominant ideology helps to prevent ordinary men and women from resisting the current state of affairs. The primary way in which television inadvertently facilitates this ideological feat is by rarely challenging viewers to bring to mind fundamental questions about the very structure of society. Instead, taken for granted assumptions (for example, capitalism is the best economic system on earth or the United States has established a model of democracy that all other nations should follow) are continuously reinforced. The undesirable consequences of the nation’s executed policies (for instance, families struggling with poverty or covert military operations in foreign countries) receive far less attention. From this vantage point, even the most “mindless” situation comedy or “escapist” drama contributes to preserving the American Way of Life by perpetuating a sense of cultural equilibrium and not giving a platform for voices of dissent. In most cases, a show’s part in this scenario is hardly obvious.
Reflecting the Political Climate of the Times
Yet some programs have more plainly served an ideological function. Seldom do television producers intentionally seek to convey propagandistic messages. Rather, the process is more subtle. By simply reflecting the political climate of the time and operating within the economic structure of the television industry, they inadvertently create programming that tends to reinforce status quo perspectives.
The spy genre is a case in point. In the mid-1960s, stories centered on espionage burst onto the American airwaves. At this time, citizens were starting to learn about covert CIA involvement in clandestine affairs abroad, including its role in a coup in Iran that established the Shah as its leader (ultimately leading to negative consequences when the Shah was finally overthrown at the beginning of the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979) and the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. These disclosures were upsetting to a portion of the populace because they flew in the face of the image of the United States as only an agent of benevolence in the world. Through sheer repetition and by conveying the theme that some threats were so fierce that they demanded underhanded response, spy stories, in a sense, presented the opportunity for viewers to come to terms with the idea that government organizations were engaged in secret—and possibly morally dubious—behavior.
In general, the spy programs emphasized that there were demonic, conspiratorial forces that had to be eradicated, even by ignoble means if necessary. In short, good (the United States) must ultimately triumph over evil (the nation’s enemies). Along the way, the spy series justified the use of deception. A somewhat similar type of programming resurfaced in the 1980s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who frequently engaged in intense Cold War rhetoric and endorsed a number of military interventions in Latin American nations to stop the supposed spread of communism.
The Vietnam War supplied another context in which shows could indirectly affirm foreign intervention to halt the communist menace. Although few programs specifically turned to Vietnam as a setting, a number of shows in fact highlighted military ventures, usually drawing from World War II, a less controversial conflict, to provide a dramatic or comedie backdrop. Most likely, television insiders were not furtively and deliberately endorsing government policies, merely reflecting them.
Throughout the 1960s, though, there was an almost surreal juxtaposition between the real world events on the ground and the images presented by television entertainment. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and its accompanying protests, and the Women’s Liberation Movement contrasted sharply with TV programs such as My Mother the Car (1965-1966) and F Troop (1965-1967). Broadcast news could not avoid coverage of the various forms of strife that were manifesting themselves across the country. But when it came to prime time television, the cultural disruptions were almost entirely absent from the screen. Some critics would charge that television was, again, inadvertently performing an ideological function by celebrating the American Way of Life and diverting attention from issues of political import, thus enabling those in the positions of power to go about their business without worrying about encountering overwhelming resistance from the public. Many television advocates, on the other hand, would say that, after a day of work and other stresses, the typical person does not seek to be reminded of unpleasant, real life affairs; instead, he or she turns to the television for escape and relaxation. In this sense, once more, television is merely giving viewers what they want.
Going against the Grain. Interestingly, some popular television entertainment in the 1970s actually challenged fundamental American assumptions that had held sway for so long. Perhaps, if they hoped to stay pertinent, broadcasters could no longer avoid reflecting the turmoil that had made its imprint on the culture. One program, All in the Family (1971-1983), especially stood out, as it took on issues of bigotry, sexism, and other controversies. Yet instead of driving viewers away with its frank portrayals, as those who contend that audiences desire only simplistic fare might predict, it received very high ratings, even climbing to number one on the charts and generating various spin-offs, including Maude (1972-1978). Other shows hesitantly followed suit, allowing greater inclusion for people of color, homosexuals, and other marginalized groups. Over the years, “relevant” programming—from the socially conscious Welcome Back, Kotier (1975-1979) and Barney Miller (1975-1982) in the 1970s and early 1980s, to today’s multifaceted Law & Order (1990-present)—has offered not only engaging entertainment but opportunities for reflection as well.
Recent Ideological Trends
Still, throughout television history, this type of programming has hardly been the norm. Most of the time, television entertainment has tended to shy away from formats that ask people to consider difficult truths. For instance, just as spy stories in the 1960s gave indirect justification for covert government activity, today, according to various critics, certain entertainment programs inadvertently make disturbing behavior seem more palatable. Since President George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror” after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, a number of revelations have surfaced that many people find troubling. For example, investigative reporters have exposed the use of torture by U.S. soldiers and the CIA’s role in “extraordinary rendition,” a process that involves captives suspected of illicit and dangerous transgressions being piloted to nations known for their abusive treatment of prisoners. Well before these and other alarming leaks had emerged, the U.S. government had already upset many people around the world by creating and supporting the operation of a makeshift detainee center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Hundreds of alleged enemy combatants had been rounded up and deposited there and, running counter to traditional U.S. justice procedures, were neither officially charged with a crime nor given the hope of a trial.
Within this political atmosphere arose movies and television programs that featured torture as a perhaps unfortunate, yet necessary means toward a worthy end. The TV show that probably best exemplifies the trend is 24, which first aired in November 2001, only two months after the brutal 9/11 terrorist attacks. Having achieved notable popularity, it is still running today as this book goes to press. Clearly reflecting the “War on Terror,” 24’s hero, Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland), a “Counter-Terrorism Unit” expert, routinely strives to prevent an array of especially catastrophic terrorist threats to the nation. Furthermore, acts of torture, committed by U.S. agents against monstrous enemies, frequently enter into the scenario. Seen through the lens of ideology, these representations, according to many scholarly observers, indirectly justify the use of otherwise objectionable (and probably illegal) violence when the situation demands it. At the same time, then, they circuitously sanction the questionable policies and activities of the government. Other post-9/11 series, such as The Shield (2003-2008) and Lost (2004-present), have also incorporated into their narratives portrayals of torture to ensure that “good” triumphs over “evil.”
The Ideology of Consumerism
Another common ideological message that television continuously conveys, critics point out, is the attractiveness of consumerism, that is, the continuous buying and using up of products. Because of the economic structure of television, which is rooted in the monetary support of advertisers, the industry is compelled to offer programming that provides a climate suitable to the promotion of goods and services. Media content analyses have consistently demonstrated that the world of television is disproportionately populated by characters who are financially well off (see “Television and Socioeconomic Class” below). Rarely do themes center on, for example, the real life issues of living paycheck to paycheck, losing a job, or coping with poverty. From this perspective, not only do the commercials endorse the accumulation of merchandise—the shows themselves also reinforce the pursuit. On the other hand, the negative consequences of rampant consumerism—environmental damage, the exploitation of low wage workers, and so on—receive little play. Politically, the concerns of big business are symbolically served more than those of the millions of everyday citizens who do not reap their share of the benefits of capitalist enterprise.
The Impact of Ideology
Other critiques have focused on the notion that television, as a constant source of amusement, distracts people from engaging in the sort of political activity that could help improve their lives. Rather than regularly drawing attention to government and corporate abuses that might challenge people to get involved in political affairs, television supplies endless entertainment that typically generates a passive state of mind.
Not every media scholar agrees with this assessment of television’s ideological impact and political implications. Rather than assume television—or any form of mass media for that matter—is somehow manipulating or “brainwashing” citizens into adopting attitudes and behaving in ways that work against their best interests, many thinkers contend that viewers are in fact active and use the media on their own terms. To suggest that television is inducing a kind of hypnotic spell over people, one that undermines their ability to take full control of their lives, is, to these media researchers, to take an elitist and paternalistic stance. Expressing a more populist approach, they maintain that audiences are not hoodwinked by broadcasters but engage with television simply because they obtain, to one extent or another, satisfaction in it.
Television and Identity Politics
Similar to radio (see Chapter 3), in its early days and for years afterward (and, according to some critics, even today to some extent), television tended to marginalize certain groups in relationship to gender, race, and other distinctions. Many media scholars contend that this is an important point to consider when assessing television’s political impact. Because of the medium’s major presence, it plays a role in expressing cultural expectations about what people are (or should be) like. In this manner, television contributes to ways in which different types of people are perceived and form their own identities, a process that indeed has political implications.
Television and African-Americans
When television first took root in people’s homes, African Americans were dramatically underrepresented. Still, black performers were frequent guests on variety shows right from the start. Ed Sullivan, for instance, featured African Americans as early as 1948 in his show, Toast of the Town (later renamed The Ed Sullivan Show [1948-1971]). Broadway Minstrels (1948), originally described as an “all colored revue,” was designed to be network television’s first all-black show. After two weeks, however, white artists also came on the program, which was renamed Broadway Jamboree, and then cancelled in less than two months.
Usually, though, when they appeared on the screen, African Americans were portrayed in a stereotypical fashion. This pattern was exemplified by the situation comedy Amos and Andy (1951-1953). The show had already enjoyed a hugely popular run on radio. A pair of white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, had played the roles of the two lead African American characters, complete with “black accents.” Yet putting black makeup on white men had become socially unacceptable after World War II. Thus, African Americans were cast for the show. But the demeaning depictions that Gosden and Correll had established were simply adopted by the black actors, Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams, Jr.
Yet the situation improved over time, particularly after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The television industry began to show more cultural sensitivity toward nonwhite people. Throughout the coming decades, African Americans were included in a number of TV series. Still, a lot of the characters they played were viewed by critics as “token” roles. Moreover, from the original release oí Amos and Andy to 1984, only four other shows that aired on broadcast television for more than one season featured predominantly black casts—all of them were situation comedies.
Bill Cosby, though, made headway in I Spy (1965-1968), becoming the first black performer to star in a regularly scheduled dramatic series. African American Greg Morris soon followed suit, playing a lead character in another and especially popular spy series, Mission Impossible (1966-73). Another significant program was Julia (1968-1971), which represented the first time that a black female performer (Diahann Carroll) starred in her own series in a “respectable” role (she was a nurse instead of, for example, a domestic servant). Yet a number of critical viewers argued that the main character was merely a “white woman in dark skin.” The show rarely alluded to the nation’s racial problems. Nor did Julia interact with many black characters—she was fully integrated into the almost entirely white environment the show depicted.
In 1977, the miniseries Roots, about a man who was captured and sent to America to serve as a slave and the struggles of his descendants for emancipation, took the country by storm, with its final episode commanding the largest audience of any sponsored telecast up until that time. It compelled many of its approximately 100 million viewers to confront the history of the country’s horrific practice of slavery. On the other hand, not everybody was enthusiastic about the drama. These people maintained that, with its ultimately uplifting ending, Roots only functioned to help whites purge their feelings of guilt without evoking any significant change.
The following decade, The Cosby Show (1984-1992) portrayed an upper-middle class, successful black family. The attractive and likeable clan was headed up by Cliff Huxtable (played by the renowned Bill Cosby), an obstetrician, and his wife, Clair (performed by Phylicia Rashad), an attorney. The situation comedy became a major hit, occupying the top spot in the ratings for years. Scores of fans celebrated the show because it went against the grain of traditional stereotypes and demonstrated that a largely white audience could identify with a black family. Others were less enamored with the program, saying that it misrepresented African Americans by not calling attention to the structural racism that prevented most black people from achieving high status in the country. They objected to the show’s suggestion that if African Americans would only work hard enough, they too could be like the Huxtables, when, from these critics’ point of view, such aspirations were an illusion for many.
Perhaps part of the problem was that, because there were still relatively few representations of African Americans on television, the image of the Huxtables came to symbolize the entire black population. From this perspective, what was desired was a range of depictions that recognized the diversity that existed among blacks. Put simply, there needed to be more shows centered on African Americans that collectively captured the full socioeconomic spectrum.
In fact, The Cosby Show did pave the way for the numerous primarily African American programs that followed, although these shows tended to entail only a limited range of African American representations. Today, the percentage of African American characters on television nearly parallels the proportion of the actual U.S. population composed of blacks. Yet they are still underrepresented in some formats, especially public affairs and advertising. Moreover, one of the main critiques waged by media scholars today is that, while overtly offensive depictions seldom occur, stereotypes are perpetuated in subtle ways. For example, African Americans are far more likely to appear in athletic or comedie roles than in “serious” ones. While black situation comedies pepper the programming lineup, an African American drama almost never emerges. Consequently, a black basketball player reinforces the distorted perception that African Americans are more physical than intellectual. And the focus on humor vaguely keeps alive the minstrel show tradition of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—in these variety acts, African Americans further darkened their faces—or sometimes, to appear as African Americans, whites darkened their faces—with makeup and performed grossly racist sketches for white onlookers. For some academics in media studies, the endless scenes of hip-hop “thugs,” with their long chains, oversized clothes, and gold-plated teeth, also resurrect the minstrel show mentality.
Many observers point out that one major reason why African Americans and other people of color have been underrepresented and overly stereotyped is that television’s labor force has traditionally been disproportionately white. Consequently, images of diverse groups have tended to be produced and viewed, so to speak, through a white lens. Over the course of television history, people of color have had less access to employment in the industry than their white competitors— especially in relationship to decision-making positions of power—although the situation for nonwhites continues to improve. Some scholars also believe a path toward more equitable portrayals of all races and ethnicities would involve a commitment to developing a wide range of multicultural programming aimed at children. The hope is that by exposing people to the full demographic spectrum of U.S. society, television could inspire greater acceptance of diversity at large.
Television and Native Americans
The treatment of people of color in general has followed a similar pattern as that for African Americans. Before the Civil Rights Movement and pressure from various political interest groups, nonwhites gained little inclusion on the screen and were usually stereotyped. With a few exceptions, for example, Native American men have been vastly underrepresented on television and often depicted as “noble savages” or mystical, “wise sages.” The Western genre, a staple in the 1950s and 1960s, pictured white cowboys battling hostile and animalistic “Indians” who needed to be shoved aside in the name of progress. In these shows and others like them, Native American women were often presented either as self-sacrificing, princess-like Poca-hontas figures or as sexually promiscuous “squaws.”
Television and Latinos
Latino men have frequently been portrayed as lazy and clownish, or as “Latin lovers.” The Western The Cisco Kid (1950-1956), a carryover from Hollywood films, for example, featured the lead character as a type of “bandito,” while his sidekick, Poncho, expressed himself through a gross caricature of broken English. In The Adventures of Kit Carson(1951-1955), the hero’s subordinate Mexican partner was actually played by a white actor. Another Western, Zorro (1957-1959), included a number of Mexicans, yet they generally served as villains or buffoons, or in minor roles. Another white actor fulfilled the part of a simpleminded Mexican on The Bill Dana Show (1963-1965). Dana’s character, Jimenez, worked as a lovable but inept bellhop for a hotel.
The most prominent Latino actor in television’s early days, though, was Desi Arnaz, who was Lucille Ball’s husband, both in real life and in the hugely popular show I Love Lucy (1951-1961). To a large extent, Arnaz, who was Cuban, was actually presented in a positive way, albeit with a touch of the Latin lover quality. Still, when he lost his composure over Lucy’s mishaps, he frequently descended into Spanish-speaking outbursts that conformed to stereotypical imagery.
For their part, Latinas were often relegated to disguising their cultural origins. What is more, when they were allowed to express their ethnic identities, it was frequently as the classic “luscious Latina” seductress.
Yet as the industry began to recognize the potential of the Latino market, circumstances slowly took a turn for the better. A greater number of programs in the 1970s and 1980s featured Latino roles—although they contained traces of earlier stereotypes, they did not perpetuate the crass caricatures of previous decades. Finally, in 2000, The Brothers Garcia was promoted as the first English-speaking situation comedy with an all-Latino cast and creative team. A show that garnered even more attention, however, was The George Lopez Show (2002-2007), starring the comedian by the same name. The series focused on the amusing adventures of Lopez, the manager of an airplane factory in California, and the rest of his Latino family. In 2006, America Ferrera was cast in the lead role in Ugly Betty, a spin-off of the Columbian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty, la Fea (I am Betty, the ugly one). The comedy centers on the less-than-glamorous Betty, who works in the pretentious world of fashion and struggles to fit in. Regarded as distinctive because of its offbeat quality, the show, which is still running, has received critical acclaim, including three Emmy awards in 2007.
Despite the gains Latinos have made on television, today they are still very under-represented, especially given that their population now exceeds that of African Americans and is expected only to grow larger, partly due to the increasing flow of immigration from Mexico, Central America, and South America to the United States.
Television and Asian Americans
One of the common stereotypes of Asian Americans before television—and subsequently reinforced by the medium in its infancy—related to “the yellow peril,” the idea that Asians are somehow a threat to the nation’s culture. The portrayal, as is commonly the case, grew out of the political climate of certain periods, such as the resentment toward the large migration of Chinese into the country in the nineteenth century and the war with Japan in World War II. These depictions entailed shifty, diabolical Asian men whose heinous intentions must be stopped. On the other hand, Asian men have also often been pictured as asexual—rarely has an Asian male been cast in a romantic lead. Instead, they are seen as brainy and without physical attractiveness. Women, conversely, have been frequently represented as hypersexual, either as passive “China dolls” or as aggressive “Dragon ladies.” Critics have also complained that Asians are too regularly associated with martial arts.
The initial Asian depictions on television occurred in 1949, on Mysteries of Chinatown. In this show, staring a white actor as Dr. Yat Fu, the “mysterious Asian” stereotype was prevalent. The Adventures of Fu Manchu, a rehash of earlier Hollywood films, came to the air in 1956 and lasted only one season. The nefarious Dr. Fu was clearly yet another manifestation of the dreaded yellow peril. The following year, the sexless Charlie Chan, also a character previously established in movies, came to the small screen in The New Adventures of Charlie Chan. Its main role played by a white actor, the show, too, lasted just one season.
The following decade, the adventure series Hong Kong (1960-1961) underlined the generalized perception of Asian men as devious and Asian women as sexy. In addition, the eventual legend Bruce Lee was cast in The Green Hornet (1966-1967). In this crime drama, Lee used his martial arts prowess to help bring criminals to justice. Interestingly, Lee was under the impression that he would play the lead role in another series focusing on an Asian environment, Kung Fu (1972-1975). Yet the white actor David Carradine was hired for the role because, according to the show’s producers, they felt a Chinese man could not be accepted as a hero by an American audience. Carradine’s portrayal arguably perpetuated the caricature of the mysterious Asian male. Perhaps the program that offered the most complex representations of Asians was the police drama Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980). This long-running series probably conveyed hints of Asian stereotypes, yet included at least three Asian regulars who were not limited to the narrow symbolic confines once exhibited by Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan.
Still, even into the 1970s, the humble servant figure made its appearance from time to time. Bachelor Father (1957-1962) relied on an Asian “houseboy,” Bonanza (1959-1973) included the Chinese cook, Hop Sing, and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969-1972) presented audiences with a docile Asian housekeeper in service to Eddie and his single father.
Asian Americans secured a larger number of supporting roles in the 1980s. Then, in 1987, Japanese American actor Pat Morita was cast in the lead role in the police detective series Ohara (1987-1988). The program was not free from stereotypes, however, as Ohara drew on mystical patience in pursuit of criminals and resorted to martial arts when the situation demanded it.
Another breakthrough was achieved in 1994, when the comedienne Margaret Cho acquired the principal part in Ail-American Girl. The situation comedy involved a culture clash between the assimilated Korean American girl Margaret Kim (Cho’s role) and her mother who adamantly held to her traditional ways. This show offered sympathetic portrayals of Asian Americans yet lasted but one season.
One of the most well-known Asian American movie and television performers today is Lucy Liu, who starred in Ally McBeal (1997-2002) and episodes of Ugly Betty. Yet some media scholars illustrate that, even in the twenty-first century, Liu has a tendency to reinforce the dragon lady image. It appears that some stereotypes die hard. Moreover, Asian Americans continue to be underrepresented on U.S. television.
Television and Women
In 1978, Gaye Tuchman wrote an article, “The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media,” that is still widely circulated today. In the piece, she argued that women were omitted, trivialized, and condemned in the media, including television. In short, women were represented less often than men and were too frequently portrayed as subordinate or in other inferior ways. For example, in early family situation comedies such as I Married Joan (1952-1954), The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (1952-1966), Father Knows Best (1954-1963), and Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963), women were inevitably positioned as housewives and mothers. Tuchman explained that, furthermore, when women were shown working, they usually labored in lower status jobs than their male counterparts and repeatedly displayed incompetence. A lot of evidence seems to support her position. In the 1950s through the 1970s, only 20-35 percent of speaking characters were female.
Yet even by the mid-1980s, more than twice as many men as women could be viewed on the small screen. Women were especially underutilized in dramas, while appearing more regularly on comedies. Still, similar to other marginalized groups, women made gains over time and improvement continues today. Just as the Civil Rights Movement challenged the media in terms of race, the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s called into question the traditional expectations associated with women. One program that seemed to lead the way was The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). The actress after whom the situation comedy was named played Mary Richards, a single career woman who worked as an associate producer for a local news broadcast. In a sense, she symbolized the image of the independent woman that had a degree of cultural resonance in the 1970s. On the other hand, she had to meet the demands of her male superiors, especially the gruff head producer, Lou Grant. Several years later, the police drama Cagney & Lacey (1982-1988) was significant in that it demonstrated a “buddy” series starring two women in typically male roles could attain popularity.
In the 1990s, Ally McBeal (1997-2002) generated considerable attention from media scholars for its gender portrayals. The show was lauded for revolving around the life of a successful female lawyer. Yet critics also countered that the main character was still stereotypically desperate for a man. Moreover, the actress in the lead role, Calista Flockhart, paid no service to women wishing to escape from the culture’s dominant standard of beauty—she was utterly thin, even, some suspected, anorexic. Another series that sparked a wide and passionate following was Sex in the City (1998-2004). Too racy for commercial television, the situation comedy was carried by the premium cable network HBO (although a sanitized version of the series continues to circulate via syndication). The show was notably provocative for its strong, professionally employed female characters who engaged with explicitly sexual themes and undermined traditional gender stereotypes. The program was not immune from criticism, however—a number of observers claimed it promoted the idea that women could achieve full equality with men only through the savvy use of their bodies, thus buttressing the perception of women as sex objects. Compared to their predecessors from the situation comedies of the 1950s, however, these women had truly come a long way.
But most academics of television would state that, overall, programming only rarely fundamentally challenges the gender roles that are broadly accepted in the culture. No doubt, women are more likely to be as intelligent and talented as men than they were in decades past. But typical conventions of masculinity and femininity remain. Moreover, even today, men occupy a greater number of starring roles than women. At the same time, the television workforce is still dominated by men, particularly in key decision-making positions.
Television and Socioeconomic Class
The media researcher Richard Butsch has repeatedly illustrated that the working-class population is underrepresented on television (as well as in other media), while people in the professional or managerial ranks are overrepresented. Much of his emphasis has been on situation comedies in particular, which, he claims, frequently flip typical gender role expectations. Butsch asserts that when working-class men appear, they are almost always depicted as buffoons—conversely, their wives are seen as competent (2003). Over the years, Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners (1955-1956), Fred Flintstone of The Flintstones (1960-1966), Archie Bunker of All in the Family (1971-1983), and Homer Simpson of The Simpsons (1989-present) have all fit the bill. On the other hand, he claims, when a family is middle class or of still higher economic standing, the male in the household is usually not pictured as clownish. Ideologically, then, these situation comedies seem to be making an indirect statement about socioeconomic class and the unacceptability of not making a lot of money. Many other scholars have also demonstrated that people from the lower economic classes are consistently underrepresented in the media, including television, in general. Moreover, when they are displayed, it is more likely that they will be shown in less glamorous ways than their financially well-off counterparts. Part of the reason for this imbalance, some critics contend, is that because television is largely funded by advertisers, TV executives are more apt to feature a symbolic world that is far richer than real life. In this manner, television tends to continuously reinforce the ideology of consumerism.
Of course, because television is so complex, there are always exceptions to every tendency. For instance, a long-running show that to a large extent sympathetically portrayed a working class family (the Conners) was Roseanne (1988-1997). True to form, the father was not a strong leader—the mother was the most dominant force. Yet the Conners, despite their eccentricities and financial difficulties, were a loving family.
One genre that has more prominently featured people of lesser socioeconomic standing is the daytime tabloid talk show (often scornfully referred to as “trash TV talk shows”), such as The Jenny Jones Show (1991-2003), The Montel Williams Show (1991-2008), and The Jerry Springer Show (1991-present). On these programs, the guests often come from the fringes of society and display qualities that are perceived as decidedly outside the norm (cross-dressers, extreme racists, highly promiscuous men and women, and so on). The emphasis is usually on creating heated debate and, sometimes, even physical conflict (The Jerry Springer Show is notorious for its staged altercations). In a sense, the abrasive tone is similar to that of many radio talk shows, except that they tend to be more socially liberal and at least indirectly address a type of identity politics. Those who dismiss this format as vulgar and as a negative cultural influence usually contend that many of the guests convey demeaning representations of lower-class people. The shows, however, are not without their academic supporters. Some proponents argue that, regardless of their excesses, the programs have helped the public gain a greater awareness of marginalized people and have promoted tolerance toward them. Furthermore, the talk shows have brought previously hidden subjects to light, including transgender-ism, incest, and domestic abuse, which has provided therapeutic benefit to many viewers.
Television and Sexual Orientation
For most of television history in the United States, gays and lesbians were considerably excluded from programming; when they were shown, they were usually depicted in grossly stereotypical ways. Even in the 1990s, the sight of two men in bed together— but not touching—on Thirty something (1987-1991), and an unprecedented kiss between two women on Ellen (1994-1998), generated considerable controversy and withdrawal of advertising support. Not until 2000 did the first romantic male-to-male kiss take place on commercial television, in an episode of Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003).
From the dawn of television through the 1970s, homosexuals were largely absent. In the 1980s, a regular gay character, who struggled to gain acceptance from his family, was included on Dynasty (1981-1989). Yet elsewhere, gays and lesbians still received little play.
Representations of nonheterosexuals increased in the 1990s. But not until near the turn of the twenty-first century did true breakthroughs occur. At one point, Will & Grace (1998-2006) was the fourth highest rated program in the country, even though Will, one of the two main characters, was gay (yet played by a heterosexual male). But various critics complained that Will was essentially nonsexual—he did not engage in affectionate activity with any men. Some went on to point out that, if anything, the show sometimes indicated that Will might cross over and actually become romantically involved with Grace, a woman. Overall, the image of Will was made palatable to a heterosexual audience uncomfortable with blatant homosexual display.
In 2003, perhaps more than any television show had ever done, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-2007) brought mainstream visibility to homosexuality. The hit “reality” show, about five homosexual men who in each episode gave a heterosexual man a “makeover,” started on the cable network Bravo, then came to NBC once it had demonstrated that it did not pose a serious risk to advertisers. Although the program did not emphasize sexuality, its five stars were openly gay and highly likeable.
But no show was as bold in presenting an at least somewhat authentically gay world as Queer as Folk (2000-2005), which started in Great Britain, then traveled to the United States in 2000. Homosexual romance was a central element of the drama. Yet it appears that advertisers were not willing to back such a frank depiction of homosexuality, given that the show was telecast by the premium cable channel Showtime. (After its original run, Queer as Folk was picked up and edited for commercial television by Logo, a cable station targeted toward gays and lesbians —see “Targeted Channels for Marginalized Groups” below.) Several years later, lesbians finally had their turn, as Showtime originated The L Word(2004-2009), a drama centered on the lives of homosexual and bisexual women.
Two genres that have also lately helped nonheterosexuals emerge from television’s closet are the daytime, tabloid talk show and the “reality” show. MTV’s reality show The Real World (1992-present), for instance, has consistently included gay characters, many of whom are appealing to general audiences. Survivor (2000-present), a reality show that pits contestants against one another in surmounting various mental and physical challenges, presents another case in point. In its very first season, a gay man, Richard Hatch, won the contest. Although most viewers found him to be unpleasant, they did not necessarily arrive at this opinion due to his sexuality, but because he was simply an objectionable character per se. Some scholars argue that Hatch’s not being exclusively defined by his sexual orientation represented a significant stride toward securing widespread acceptance for nonheterosexual people. Many other reality shows have also included homosexuals and portrayed them in a nonjudgmental manner.
In general, though, even today, lesbians and bisexuals appear far less often on television than gay men. And representations of transgendered people are even rarer. Most media researchers agree that the “queer” community has made considerable gains on television but that there is still a long way to go.
Targeted Channels for Marginalized Groups
One development that has enabled television to better serve marginalized people is the recent dramatic increase of channels—especially through cable or satellite systems—that are available to all sorts of niche audiences. For example, Black Entertainment Television (BET) is aimed at African Americans. Latinos can turn to Univision, Tele-mundo, or other Spanish-speaking stations. Asian Americans do not have as many options (one probable reason is that they still make up a small portion of the U.S. population and are therefore not seen as having much market potential) but there are stations that target them, especially in large, multicultural cities. “Women’s television” includes Lifetime, We, and Oxygen. In 2005, Logo was introduced—since then, the GLBT (gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender) community has finally had a station it could call its own. A search through any cable or satellite channel lineup will often reveal many stations that cater to other demographic groups as well.
How television evolves in its relationship to an increasingly diverse U.S. population will continue to have important consequences in terms of identity politics. Through its representations of various groups, television will play a role in defining social expectations and either encouraging or subverting the movement toward full equality for all of the nation’s citizens.
Politicians and Celebrity
Because many politicians, especially at the national level, are highly visible, they sometimes, in a sense, assume the status of celebrity. More than any other medium, television provides the opportunity for politicians to become household names and public personalities. During any presidential campaign, for example, competing candidates for high office are continuously seen in news and public affairs shows, commercials, and, from time to time, even entertainment programs. (For a comprehensive treatment of political campaigns, advertising, and other types of promotion, see Chapter 7.)
Probably the earliest president to attain the level of television celebrity was John F. Kennedy. Widely regarded as the nation’s first “TV President,” he demonstrated a mastery of the medium like no other politician before him. Handsome, witty, and charming, Kennedy vividly displayed his command of the airwaves during the televised Kennedy-Nixon Debates in 1960, an event that likely played a significant role in his election victory. When the president was assassinated on November 22, 1963, a tragedy caught on film, it triggered the largest television media event that had ever occurred up until that time; symbolically bringing people together in a collective ceremony of mourning, television, to many observers, helped unite the nation as the population tried to recover and understand the meaning of such an unexpected and deeply felt loss.
Lyndon B. Johnson, who inherited the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, dramatically lacked his predecessor’s charisma. Despite his less than magnetic persona, however, Johnson was nearly obsessed with managing television coverage while he was in office. According to the media historian Erik Barnouw (1990), the president kept three televisions lined up side-by-side in the White House, each tuned to one of the major networks. Nor was he above taking matters into his own hands when he witnessed a newscast that offended him—he was known to have personally phoned anchors and other television journalism professionals to subject them to a heated tirade when he believed the situation called for it. Today, every major politician strives to shape media coverage to his or her liking, a complex propagandistic enterprise that inevitably comes with the territory. Lyndon Johnson, though, perhaps represents the first particularly intense attempt by a president to control his public image and perceptions of his administration’s practices (especially its involvement in the Vietnam War) in the age of television.
Richard Nixon, too, sought to direct television in a manner that cast him in a positive light. Generally perceived as awkward on camera (an interpretation that might have even benefited him at times, since he could avoid accusations of being a slick, “Hollywood type”), he often conducted ignoble affairs in secrecy and orchestrated events that made him seem presidential. For example, his travels to the Soviet Union and China enabled him to come across as open-minded, boldly diplomatic, and even heroic. On occasion, Nixon worked to soften his curmudgeon image by tapping into elements of popular culture as well.
Yet the next president after Kennedy to gain a kind of celebrity standing was Ronald Reagan. Not only was he adept at managing news coverage, but, drawing on his career as an actor, he was a great performer who skillfully presented himself as a highly likeable and engaging leader. (For more discussion on Reagan as a celebrity, see “Former Entertainers as Politicians” below.) Bill Clinton, too, at least until the Monica Lewinsky scandal, was commonly recognized as possessing a charming on-camera presence and as being effective at handling media coverage
Another politician who appears to have joined the ranks of celebrity is the current president, Barack Obama. Now and again described by journalists during his election campaign as having obtained “rock star status” or, rather more ominously, having evoked a “cult of personality,” Obama frequently drew huge audiences to his rallies, which were sometimes staged in a sports stadium or other large venue. Recognized as a dynamic speaker (even, partly because his father was black, bringing to mind for some people shades of Martin Luther King Jr.), the then 47-year-old candidate attracted young voters in particular, sparked comparisons to John F. Kennedy, and inspired expression that relates to the realm of popular culture, including a music video that made the rounds on the Internet and a series of Obama Girl and other YouTube episodes.
Because of their high profile, U.S. presidents have often been represented in entertaining ways in the media. For an examination of some of these depictions, see the names of various presidents and their media portrayals in Part II.
Former Entertainers as Politicians
A number of politicians did not rise to the level of celebrity via their visible political activity per se. Instead, they had already achieved star status through their work in entertainment before they decided to transition into the political sphere. Several of the most well-known performers to later obtain office came from the world of film—some of their movies also eventually appeared on television. These stars include Clint Eastwood (mayor of Carmel, California, from 1986 to 1988) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (current Republican governor of California).
Other election winners first found fame in professional sports, a television staple. Some notable performers in this category include the following:
- Bill Bradley. A Rhodes Scholar and Oxford graduate who played for the New York Knicks for 10 years, Bradley won two championships with the team, in 1970 and 1973. After his illustrious career ended in 1977, he was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1983. In 1978, Bradley ran for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey and won, going on to serve three terms. Following his departure from the Senate in 1996, he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 but lost to AI Gore, despite the support he received from basketball greats Michael Jordan and Bill Russell.
- Jim Bunning. A star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies who retired from major league baseball in 1971, Jim Bunning went on to serve in the Kentucky Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Then, in 1998, he was elected to represent Kentucky as a Republican U.S. Senator, a position he currently holds as this book goes to press. Bunning is also the only U.S. Senator to be in the baseball Hall of Fame.
- Jack Kemp. After a 13-year career as an American Football League (AFL) quarterback (earning most of his success with the Buffalo Bills), Jack Kemp won—in Buffalo, New York—a Republican seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971, and retained the position until 1989. In 1988 he ran for president but was defeated in the primaries by George H. W. Bush, who eventually appointed him as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an office he held until 1991. During his tenure, he advocated innovative “Urban Enterprise Zones” to boost inner-city economic growth. Then, in 1996, he was the vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of Bob Dole, who was soundly defeated by incumbent Bill Clinton. In May 2009, Kemp died of cancer.
- Steve Largent. Largent retired from the Seattle Seahawks in 1989 after enjoying a reputable career as a wide receiver that earned him induction into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1995. Just one year before his football recognition, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until 2002.
- J.C. Watts. Watts was elected in Oklahoma to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990. An African American, he became a rising star in the Republican Party until he left politics for the private sector in 2001. Before entering the realm of politics, he had gained sports fame as the quarterback for the University of Oklahoma, leading the football team to two Big Eight championships, in 1980 and 1981.
Numerous television shows have also functioned as launching grounds for political ambition. For example, George Takei, who had played Mr. Sulu on Star Trek, ran unsuccessfully for Los Angeles City Council in 1973. Sheila Kuehl, known for her role as Zelda on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, later became a California state senator and recently filed a “Statement of Intention” to run for California Secretary of State in 2010. Nancy Culp, who had achieved fame as Miss Jane Hathaway on the Beverly Hillbillies, made an unsuccessful run for Congress in Pennsylvania in 1984—she lost a close race, perhaps partly because her one-time co-star Buddy Ebsen had taped radio ads for her opponent claiming that Culp was “too liberal.” Also liberal was Ben Jones, who had portrayed the character Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard, and was afterward elected to represent Georgia in Congress, serving two terms from 1988 to 1992. Ten years later, he ran again, this time in Virginia, but failed in his attempt to win a congressional seat. Fred Grandy, a Harvard graduate who became the popular character “Gopher” on The Love Boat, was subsequently elected in Iowa to serve as a Republican congressman from 1986 to 1995, and eventually went on to host radio talk shows. Alan Autry, i.e., Bubba Skinner from the television show In the Heat of the Night, became mayor of Fresno, California, in 2000 and served until 2008.
Originally gaining fame as a pop music singer with his wife, Cher (together they simply billed themselves as “Sonny and Cher”), in the 1960s, Sonny Bono soon also starred with her in the very popular The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, a variety show that aired from 1971 to 1977. Once his entertainment career had ended and he and Cher had divorced, he went into politics. In 1994, after serving as mayor of Palm Springs, California, he was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives by California’s 44th District. In Congress, Bono became best known for the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which aided the music industry but was also controversial. The Act granted an additional 20 years to a copyright before a product entered the public domain. Tragically, Bono died in a skiing accident in 1998 and was succeeded by his wife Mary Bono for the rest of his term and in subsequent elections. Although his public persona as an entertainer was one of a lovable goofball, he was a respected congressman at the time of his death.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Jesse Ventura garnered attention from his days on the mock-sport, heavily televised pro wrestling circuit. In 1998 he was elected as governor of Minnesota, a position he decided to relinquish after one term.
The large number of former television stars who became politicians demonstrates that name recognition and acting skills can be valuable assets for future politicians. It appears that the nature of celebrity somehow adds a layer of legitimacy to the political pursuits of many candidates, even though, due to rules regarding fairness that the television industry follows, their programs are not shown while they campaign.
Finally, no former entertainer ever attained higher political standing than President Ronald Reagan, who, as an actor, had mixed both film and television appearances. He embarked on his performance career as a radio sportscaster in the 1930s. From there, he turned to acting and appeared in dozens of motion pictures, most of which, however, are regarded as “B” movies. His first major venture into politics occurred when he became president of the Screen Actors Guild. At that time, he was perceived as a liberal. His gradual transformation to conservative icon started once he was hired to host a TV series sponsored by General Electric (GE). While under the employ of GE, he also traveled the country as a spokesman for the company, espousing the marvels of free enterprise and limited government. He began to gain notice when he gave a stirring televised speech on behalf of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964. Coming across as a natural politician, Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966 and won the election. He finished two terms, and then competed against incumbent Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. He lost only narrowly. The following presidential election season, however, Reagan secured the Republican nomination and handily defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter. Four years later, his reelection was almost a foregone conclusion.
As president, drawing from both his acting and political experiences, Ronald Reagan was masterful on camera. Apparently exuding warmth, sincerity, and patriotic sentiment—yet with a stern, fatherly hand when the situation warranted it—the ever-avuncular Reagan played a role in helping many citizens, after the disillusionment of the Vietnam era and the poor economic performance under Jimmy Carter, feel better about their country again. Although he was often accused of being an intellectual lightweight who merely functioned as a rhetorical showman for the Republican Party, the criticism rarely stuck, earning him the nickname of “the Teflon president.” His public appearances were generally heavily stage managed out of fear that any inadvertent bumbling or unfortunate ad-libbing might undermine the inspiring persona he radiated whenever he read from a script. Somehow Reagan was so adept at making a positive impression that he was even able to survive the Iran-Contra crisis relatively unscathed.
Today, for many Republicans, Ronald Reagan’s legacy has taken on almost mythic proportions. He is seen by many as the person who reinvigorated the conservative movement and championed some of its most fundamental tenets. During the 2008 Republican primary season, for instance, each of several candidates indicated that, rather than carry on the mantle of the increasingly unpopular incumbent George W. Bush, he would lead his administration according to the model Reagan had established. Just four years earlier, following the president’s death after a lengthy bout with Alzheimer’s disease, Reagan’s six-day funeral ceremony had turned into a genuine mass media event.
Appearances on Television Entertainment by Politicians
Since the dawn of television, politicians have increasingly appeared on entertaining television shows, frequently as a means of promoting a run for office or as a way of simply enhancing their public image. Serving as a guest on a talk show has been especially common.
Sometimes the situation is reversed and a one-time politician leaves the field to fully enter the world of entertainment. Former Cincinnati council member and mayor Jerry Springer, for example, went on to host the daytime tabloid TV talk show, The Jerry Springer Show, which debuted in 1991 and is still in circulation today. Springer has made a number of other television appearances but is best known for the show named after him. In fact, Springer generated so much attention from the program that eventually a Hollywood movie was made about him, entitled Ringmaster (1998). For his part, Fred Thompson has bounced back and forth. Originally an attorney who served in the government realm for years, he later became a character actor in 1985. Then, in 1994, he was elected as a Republican U.S. Senator and continued in office until 2003. At the end of his second term, he joined the cast of Law & Order (1990-present), playing the role of New York City District Attorney Arthur Branch. Next, he left the show in 2007 to seek the 2008 Republican nomination for president. His campaign failed miserably, however, and he soon left the race without winning a single primary delegate.
Other people involved in politics make a name for themselves by serving as political pundits, or sometimes even as hosts, for televised news or public affairs shows. Several highly visible examples include former White House appointee and Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan; current Democratic strategist James Carville (who gained initial fame through his appearance in the political documentary, The War Room); previous Democratic presidential candidate and longtime social activist Jesse Jackson Sr., who once hosted his own syndicated TV talk show; and Democratic strategist George Stephanopoulos (who “co-starred” with Carville in The War Room), the current host of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos (2002-present).
Many entertainers never run for office yet vigorously engage with politics through activism. Whether campaigning on behalf of political candidates or advocating in support of various causes, these performers work to affect social change. A by-no-means-comprehensive list of notable celebrities who have channeled considerable energy in this direction includes the following actors, athletes, and musical performers:
- Actors—Ed Asner, Warren Beatty, Harry Belafonte (also a singer), Marlon Brando, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, Angelina Jolie, Paul Newman, Chuck Norris, Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey (also a TV talk show host who is involved in many other media enterprises), Joanne Woodward.
- Sports Figures—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Bill Russell, Bill Walton.
- Musical Performers—Joan Baez, Bono, Jackson Browne, Tracy Chapman, the Dixie Chicks, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Woody Guthrie, George Harrison, John Lennon, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Barbara Streisand (also an actress), Stevie Wonder, Neil Young.
Critique of the Intersection of Politics, Celebrity, and Entertainment
The merging of politics, celebrity, and popular culture—especially television— has evoked substantial debate among scholars in terms of its impact on American democracy. One school of thought can perhaps be captured by Neil Postman (1985), who declared that television, by its very nature, has been a major factor in trivializing the political process. According to him, the print media, on the other hand, have a tendency to promote analytical deliberation. Thus, in the nineteenth century, before the onslaught of movies and television, when citizens relied on newspapers and other printed materials for their information, they might have been inclined to take a highly rational approach to politics. Conversely, from Postman’s perspective, television downplays words in favor of visual images, which generally incite emotional reactions. At the same time, television presents an entertaining framework for nearly everything it depicts—including political events and campaigns. Extensive argumentation and debate are supplanted by sound bites and talk show appearances by politicians. Sustained media coverage of the issues is replaced by gossip and innuendo. The result is that citizen involvement in politics, a purportedly serious endeavor, is akin to following sports or celebrity performers, a supposedly frivolous activity. Along the way, the media do not empower the citizenry but undermine democratic potential.
Other academics adopt a far more optimistic stance toward the blending of politics, celebrity, and entertainment. They say that television and other elements of popular culture do not necessarily contaminate the realm of politics—in fact, they can even generate more interest in the political issues that affect everyday lives. Lies-bet van Zoonen (2005), for example, suggests that politics in the United States have always incorporated aspects of entertainment based on the communication tools available at the time. From this point of view, there is nothing wrong with political engagement being pleasurable or fun. Popular culture can actually evoke greater political passion and expand awareness. Ultimately, the media are instrumental to the practice of democracy and, despite their current limitations, have the potential to stir citizen participation.
Many critics have drawn attention to declining voter turnout, political apathy, and cynicism as signs of television and popular culture’s corrosive influence. Why, they ask, are many people more willing to vote for a contestant on American Idol than a candidate for the presidency? Still, perhaps the intersection of politics and entertainment is inevitable, given that both institutions involve performance. Scores of observers have pointed out that there is a greater emphasis on style, appearance, and personality than there was in the distant past. The question is whether this drives people away or pulls them in.
Looking at the 2008 presidential election season, a case could be made that the contemporary media environment is in no way alienating voters. The turnout in Democratic primary polls and caucuses, for instance, was unprecedented. Part of the excitement could be attributable to the fact that both of the leading candidates, one a woman (Hillary Clinton), the other a mixed-race man who identifies as black (Barack Obama), pointed to the possibility that, for the first time in U.S. history, a female or person of color could attain the nation’s highest office. Moreover, Obama epitomizes the idea of the politician as celebrity. Handsome, charismatic, inspiring, as well as a master orator, Obama sometimes delivered a stump speech in an indoor stadium filled to capacity. From time to time, a person in attendance even fainted, a reaction that is reminiscent of the grip The Beatles once had on an audience. Will.i.am of the music group, The Black Eyed Peas, produced a pro-Obama video for YouTube that received millions of hits. Journalists occasionally referred to the candidate as having “rock star” status; at first, some even worried that he was triggering a “cult of personality” that foregrounded style over substance. Yet whatever pundits make of it, there can be no doubt that thousands of people were drawn into the political process who probably would not have been otherwise; indeed, Obama clearly stated that one of his central goals was to get everyday citizens excited about and involved in politics. His presidential victory over John McCain in the general election produced the greatest voter turnout in decades. Based on the phenomenon he generated, it would be hard to argue that the blurring of politics, celebrity, and entertainment automatically yields apathy and cynicism. Here, the result appears to be quite the opposite. Perhaps, therefore, the impact of politics combining with popular culture depends on the inherent drama associated with a particular political event or campaign—it varies from context to context.
Celebrity activism, too, has received heavy criticism. Politicians seeking endorsements from entertainers, opponents say, cheapens the democratic process. Actors, musicians, and other entertainment performers do not always possess substantial political knowledge and should not have a disproportionate influence on the system. In contrast, some scholars state, celebrity activists can produce widespread interest in important causes, such as hunger, AIDS, and economic injustices, which can lead to positive change. Furthermore, if it is true that citizens are feeling more detached from traditional political parties and their major politicians, then celebrities can fill a gap by forming opinions from the same resources available to everyday people, thus offering perspectives that audiences can relate to.
Political Television Shows and Genres
Since the birth of broadcast television, many commercial programs, instead of conveying political implications through ideology, have had explicitly political themes or narrative contexts. Premium cable channels, especially HBO, have also offered entertaining shows with political backdrops. Indeed, freed from commercial influence, these shows have sometimes challenged dominant cultural perspectives far more than is usually true with commercial fare. Nonetheless, because advertising-supported television reaches much larger audiences than subscription-based services, it has had much greater impact. What is widely regarded as primarily informative programming, such as news, public affairs, and documentary vehicles, has, of course, often directly related to politics (for more exploration of these formats in relationship to politics, see Chapters 2 and 5). Indeed, a number of political news stories in the television age have had such social significance and have attracted so much interest that they could arguably be viewed as instances of real life merging with popular culture, although with an especially serious tone. Major political episodes that became highly rated, protracted, televised media events might include, for example, the Watergate crisis (1972-1974) and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yet a variety of shows and genres that are generally assigned to the broad category of entertainment per se have also overtly drawn from the realm of politics.
Spy and Foreign Intrigue Shows
A number of programs that foreground espionage mirror the current political environment in which they air. Accordingly, the content of the shows is either expressly or implicitly political. In these shows, talented spies who are often members of federal agencies or at least loosely in line with government objectives engage in secretive and sometimes ethically ambiguous activity as a means of undermining threats to the nation, especially from foreign adversaries. Along the way, they tend to reinforce the idea that the United States is a force for “good” that must do whatever it takes to root out “evil.” Shows of this ilk that have appeared through the years (along with brief descriptions) include:
- Dangerous Assignment (1951-1952). U.S. undercover agent Steve Mitchell was sent to locations around the world to battle various international problems.
- Doorway to Danger (1951-1953). The chief of a top-secret government agency, John Randolph supervised a group of agents involved in tracking down U.S. enemies.
- Foreign Intrigue (1951-1955). In the beginning, American foreign press correspondent Robert Cannon encountered war criminals and other seedy characters. The cast and locations changed over time but the general themes remained the same.
- The Hunter (1952-1954). Master of disguise Bart Adams worked to thwart sinister plans, often conceived by communists. Frequently, he had to rescue a person from the Red menace.
- I Spy (1965-1968). Tennis player Kelly Robinson and his trainer, Alexander Scott, served as secret agents for the U.S. government, working to undermine the Soviet threat abroad.
- Mission Impossible (1966-1973, 1988-1990). In each episode of this highly popular series, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force received a tape-recorded message instructing him about that week’s assignment, which frequently involved a threat from a foreign power that needed to be subverted.
- The Exile (1991-1995). A former U.S. agency spy who was framed for murder, John Phillips (aka John Stone) engaged in furtive secret assignments while trying to clear his name.
- Air America (1998-1999). Rio Arnett, whose code name was Air America, worked undercover for the Office of Strategic Implementation.
- The Agency (2001-2003). The activities of the CIA were the focus of this series.
- Alias (2001-2006). After spying for an agency she mistakenly believes is aligned with U.S. interests, Sydney Bristow joined the CIA to fight her former secret employer and keep the nation safe from terrorism.
- 24 (2001-present). Every season agent Jack Bauer is faced with only 24 hours to save the United States from a major terrorist scheme. Each “real time” episode in the season features one hour in his excruciatingly stressful day.
- The Unit (2006-present). A top-secret team of soldiers engages in undercover missions—often involving counterterrorism—throughout the world, while the operatives’ families cope with their absence and attempt to protect their cover.
- Burn Notice (2007-present). In a twist on the traditional format and infused with a comedie edge, this series finds Michael Westen, a spy once in good standing with U.S. intelligence, privately freelancing his covert services in an effort to finance his personal quest to determine why he has been “burned,” that is, blacklisted from official duty.
- Chuck (2007-present). In another surprising and comedie deviation from the standard formula, this show centers on the socially awkward Chuck Bartowski, who, after opening an e-mail that suddenly embedded an entire database of secret government information into his brain, now must work to foil would-be terrorists and other evildoers, even as U.S. agents attempt to regain the lost intelligence.
Political science scholar Rex Brynen (2000) argues that certain science fiction programs, similar to particular spy series, have reflected—and simultaneously contributed to—political trends of the time. The legendary Star Trek (1966-1969), for example, drew upon the idealism that was in the air in the 1960s, often presenting motifs of multicultural tolerance and metaphorically projecting a romanticized version of American society. Decades later, scoring very high in the ratings, The X-Files (1993-2002), with its accent on conspiracies, captured the feelings of political paranoia that had emerged after a population subjected to events such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal (see Political Scandals) had grown increasingly cynical about the government and its affairs.
Preceding both programs, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), one of television’s most successful science fiction series, followed the crew of the Seaview, a futuristic atomic submarine, as it traveled the seas seeking to dispose of both human and alien villains. In a sense, the show functioned as a counterperspective to Star Trek: whereas the latter conveyed the 1960s sentiment of liberal optimism, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea reminded viewers that threats of all kinds (especially from various bastions of communism) remained ever present.
Military Situation Comedies
War, of course, has overt political implications. A number of shows have taken a comedie approach to military conflict. Sometimes, it seems as if such a framework has lampooned conflict. On the other hand, various critics would contend that situation comedies with a military backdrop, despite their emphasis on amusement, actually normalize, and thus inadvertently justify, the need to execute bloody battles. Some of the programs in this category that have aired over the past several decades include The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959), McKeever & The Colonel (1962-1963), Ensign O’Toole(1962-1964), McHale’s Navy (1962-1966), Corner Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-1970), The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1965-1966), Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971), Operation Petticoat (1977-1978), Private Benjamin (1981-1983), and Major Dad (1989-1993). One show that especially stands out is M∗A∗S∗H (1972-1983), which, most observers would agree, provided a critical outlook on the hardship of war.
Most television military dramas have not seriously challenged U.S. interventions, but have, instead, portrayed war as an exciting adventure. Some of the programs within this genre include O.S.S. (the acronym for the U.S. World War II agency, the Office of Strategic Services—1957-1958), The Gallant Men (1962-1963), Combat (1962-1967), Twelve O’Clock High (1964-1967), The Rat Patrol (1966-1968), Garrison’s Gorillas (1967-1968), S.W.A.T. (technically a police drama, but one involving army-style warfare in major U.S. cities—1975-1976), From Here to Eternity (1979-1980 miniseries), Tour of Duty (1987-1990), China Beach (1988-1991), Soldier of Fortune (a drama that contained elements of espionage as well—1997-1999), Pensa-cola: Wings of Gold (1997-2000), and NCIS (mostly a criminal investigation show that also includes doses of comedy, it nonetheless features a special team of naval and marine personnel within the context of conflicts abroad—2003-present).
Yet a potentially critical outlook has sometimes entered the picture. For instance, Over There (2005) dealt with the Iraq War even as it was occurring, examining the effects of the conflict on a group of soldiers and their families. The drama, which lasted only one season, did not appear to strongly advance an agenda, thus allowing viewers to form their own points of view on the intervention.
Another military-related program, this time from a different genre, was the “reality” show Boot Camp (2001). In this series, which lasted just one season, 16 “recruits” were subjected to raw physical tests in a military environment to see who had the mental discipline and stamina to avoid elimination and rise to victory. Adding to the aura of authenticity,Boot Camp featured real-life marine drill instructors putting the contestants through the drills.
Political Situation Comedies
Many situation comedies have, on occasion, included material of a political nature. All in the Family (1971-1983) and The Simpsons (1989-present) are two cases in point. Murphy Brown (1988-1998) also provides a notable example. The show caused a stir when the lead character rejected two suitors and, instead, opted to raise as a single mother the baby she had recently given birth to. Then Vice President Dan Quayle condemned the fictional Brown’s decision, citing it as an instance of the way in which family values in the nation had supposedly declined.
A variety of other situation comedies have incorporated the realm of politics into their very fabric, featuring fictional government officials or other political participants as main characters. These shows (along with brief descriptions) include:
- The People’s Choice (1955-1958). City council member Socrates (“Sock”) Miller encountered various amusing difficulties, including his relationship with the mayor’s daughter, as he tried his best to help the community.
- The Governor & J. J. (1969-1972). Governor William Drinkwater, a widower, relied on his daughter to serve as “first lady.”
- All’s Pair (1976-1977). Set in Washington, D.C., arch-conservative political columnist Richard Barrington and his ultraliberal girlfriend, Charley Drake, somehow managed to maintain their love for each other.
- Benson (1979-1986). African American Benson served as Governor Eugene Gatling’s butler. Yet Benson also proved so adept at assisting Catling with political decisions that he was eventually appointed state budget director. Later, Benson became lieutenant governor and even ran against his former employer for the governorship (the election result was never revealed, however).
- Hail to the Chief (1985). Centered on the zany life in the White House of Julia Mansfield, the first woman to be elected as U.S. president, the series lasted only several months.
- Mr. President (1987-1988). Another show about the U.S. president, this time played by the renowned actor George C. Scott and centered on the home life of the nation’s top official.
- Hearts Afire (1992-1995). Set in Washington, D.C., revolving around the romantic relationship between legislative assistant John Hartman and senator press secretary Géorgie Anne Lahti (who later added Hartman to her name after their eventual marriage), the show alluded to various political topics.
Several political situation comedies have had a more explicitly satirical bent. Included among them are the following:
- D.C. Follies (1987-1989). The show’s title stood for the name of the D.C. bar at which the main characters met for social interaction. Most of the principles, though, were not live human beings but puppets—many of them depicted high government officials, including then President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy, and former presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.
- The Powers That Be (1992-1993). Prominent executive producer Norman Lear was behind this spoof of Washington insiders that followed the life of a dim-witted senator and his dysfunctional family.
- Spin City (1996-2002). Prone to frequent gaffes and unable to competently govern, New York Mayor Randall Winston was compelled to rely on his staff, especially Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty, who was adept at handling the media.
- That’s My Bush (2001). This short-lived program mercilessly parodied President George W. Bush shortly after he had won the nation’s highest office.
- Lil’ Bush (2007). Echoing the tone of South Park, this highly irreverent cartoon show featured President George W. Bush and some of his top officials (including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s first Secretary of Defense) as mean-spirited childhood friends engaged in devilish pranks during the George H. W. Bush administration.
Similar to certain situation comedies, numerous dramas have sometimes integrated political content into their episodes. Whether it was the exploration of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin or the Nuremberg Nazi trials in Playhouse 90(1956-1961); the social issues raised by Lou Grant (1977-1982); the horrific rendering of the quest to survive a nuclear holocaust in the made-for-TV movie The Day After (1983); the portrayal of GIs acclimating to everyday life after returning home from their assignments during World War II in Homefront (1991-1993); or the spotlight on an Irish family reacting to events in the turbulent 1960s in American Dreams (2002-2005); televised drama has occasionally offered the opportunity for viewers to contemplate matters of consequence.
Then again, several dramas have had a more explicitly political focus. Perhaps surprisingly, however, throughout U.S. television history, there have been few shows that have been identified with the genre known as political drama. Some of the most noteworthy ones (along with brief descriptions) include:
- Treasury Men in Action (1950-1955). Based on actual cases from the files of the U.S. Treasury Department and broadcast live, the series depicted government agents triumphing over various scoundrels. Somewhat functioning as propaganda (the government recognized it for its public service), it also occasionally featured real-life government officials.
- Cavalcade of America (1952-1957). An offspring of its radio counterpart, this dramatic anthology presented stories of American heroes, including many political figures.
- Slattery’s People (1964-1965). Amidst professional and personal troubles, state representative James Slattery promoted causes and advocated for reforms.
- The Senator (1970-1971). Idealistic in the face of opposition from entrenched interests, Junior Senator Hayes Stowe sought to better society by doing what he felt was right.
- Backstairs at the White House (1979). This miniseries provided a view into the private lives of eight U.S. presidents through the eyes of White House staff.
- Top of the Hill (1988-1989). The youngest and newest member of the U.S. Congress, idealistic Representative Thomas Bell strove to satisfy his conscience by taking on corruption, pollution, and other political concerns.
- First Monday (2002). While heroically attempting to make the right decisions, recently appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joe Novelli often represented the swing vote in an evenly politically divided court.
- Commander in Chief (2005). Although the show was short-lived, it was notable for fictionally featuring the first woman to become the president of the United States.
Most of these series had only brief runs. Yet the political drama that stands out from all the others, not only in terms of its years on the air but also because of its popularity, critical acclaim, and attention from academics, is The West Wing(1999-2006). For a full discussion of this show involving the activity of a fictional U.S. president, see The West Wing.
Many entertaining talk shows have tapped into the political world. During television’s infancy, for example, Edward R. Murrow frequently conversed through a screen with political notables in their homes on Person to Person (1953-1961). More recently, Barbara Walters, from time to time, has also used the straight interview format with politicians on the sporadically broadcast Barbara Walters Special. Other programs, designed to advance a decidedly partisan agenda, have somewhat blended the traditional public affairs interview genre with the standard talk show style, a method perhaps best exemplified by Rush Limbaugh (1992-1996), a spin-off of the radio program also hosted by Rush Limbaugh. Then again, there have been numerous straightforward interview shows that have conveyed considerably more balance. Some of the most notable ones have included public television’s long-running The Charlie Rose Show(1991-present), whose host has often conversed with political players of all stripes, as well as cable television’s many offerings, especially Larry King Live (1985-present), which has enjoyed over two decades of telecasts. Although the venerable, ever-suspenders-wearing King has invited far more figures from the realm of popular entertainment into his studio, he has also interviewed scores of politicians, sometimes even particularly powerful ones. To date, for example, a total of eight either former or then current U.S. presidents have appeared on his show.
Yet late night talk shows have especially drawn attention in connection to politics. The genre is associated with those programs that generally air after the last edition of the local news on weeknights and feature a host who opens with a comedie monologue or other amusing material, and then interviews one or more invited guests, most of whom have already attained some kind of celebrity status. A few of the best-known current late night talk shows include The Tonight Show (presently hosted by Conan O’Brien) and Late Night with Jimmy Fallón on NBC, Late Show with David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on CBS, and Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC.
The popular form intersects with politics in a number of ways. To begin, the comedie hosts regularly draw from current affairs, particularly the realm of politics, for topics they can turn into satire during their introductory monologues. Over the years, these stars have delivered literally thousands of jokes with a political bent. Political scandals, such as the affair between former President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, especially provide fodder for ridicule. Politically Incorrect, also a late night talk show of sorts, takes a different approach. It actually invites celebrities and political guests to engage in a round-table (and generally humorous) discussion and debate on the issues of the day. On one episode, host Bill Maher generated considerable political controversy (resulting in the cancellation of his show, which was originally telecast on Comedy Central from 1993 to 1996, by ABC—only to be quickly picked up by pay channel HBO) when, shortly after September 11, 2001, he contended that the suicide mission of the terrorist attackers was not an act of cowardice.
Yet the blending of amusement and politics comes through in another manner on the traditional late night talk show. Although the majority of guests hail from the world of pure entertainment per se, on occasion, a politician will also appear. That a politician was not averse to visiting such a venue was in evidence even during the early days of television. Richard Nixon, for example, a then former vice president and eventual president, once turned up on an episode of The Jack Paar Program in 1963. Mixing his political persona with a touch of musicianship, Nixon actually performed one of his own compositions on the piano. Jack Paar had taken over The Tonight Show in 1957 after it had gone through several mutations (including name changes) and then left the program in 1962 to host a similar show named after him. Given his influence in the industry, Paar is recognized as a pioneer of the late night talk show form. Moreover, not every political interview he conducted blended with entertaining performance. For example, Paar had earlier engaged Nixon in a serious conversation on The Tonight Show during the politician’s run for the presidency in 1960. His opponent and soon-to-be winner of the top office, John F. Kennedy, was also interviewed by Paar on another installment of the show.
The kind of lighthearted moment Nixon provided in his 1962 talk show appearance, however, was not typical for years. A common perception was that a politician playing loose on television would somehow cheapen his (or, rarely, her) image. Although there was never a clear and solid dividing line, nonetheless, politics and entertainment were seen as two separate fields. Even Nixon’s stint on the piano occurred only after he had retired from politics (although he would eventually emerge again in the 1968 presidential season).
One political moment in talk show history that is frequently cited involved Bill Clinton during his first run for president in 1992. Hoping to reach youth voters, he made numerous appearances on entertaining television venues, including The Arsenio Hall Show (a late night talk show that ran from 1989 to 1994 and that for a time was very popular, especially with younger audiences). Donning dark sunglasses, Clinton whipped out his saxophone and used his musical skills in an attempt to connect with young viewers, who are often perceived as being more amenable to entertainment than serious political discussions. Through this gesture, Clinton hoped to render the older, relatively staid Republican candidate, President George H. W. Bush, old-fashioned in contrast. A major difference between Nixon’s piano performance in 1962 and Clinton’s musical presentation 30 years later, though, is that Clinton was actually in the midst of running for president. The first “baby boomer” candidate to seek the position, Clinton was instrumental in making more ordinary the tactic of fusing politics and popular culture as a means of reaching youth voters.
Since Clinton’s somewhat raucous performance, talk show appearances by politicians have become increasingly common. Indeed, one of the notable features of the 2000 presidential campaign was the more extensive use of talk shows in general as a way of reaching the public in a setting that usually does not involve challenging questions. One of the central reasons a politician will become a guest on a late night talk show is to try to carve out an affable public persona and connect with voters on a more personal level. As candidates and office holders have turned to entertainment vehicles with greater regularity, the practice has gained a higher degree of acceptability and the distinction between politics and entertainment has become hazier than ever. Some observers view the tendency as problematic, feeling that it debases the political arena. Other onlookers counter that it can actually rejuvenate political participation by meeting people in the symbolic environments that considerably resonate with them and through which they find consistent pleasure.
Some recent late night talk show visits by politicians, however, have truly stood out from their previous manifestations. When Arnold Schwarzenegger came on The Tonight Show (then hosted by Jay Leno) in October 2003, he did not simply exploit the appearance to boost his run for the governorship of California—he actually announced his candidacy itself. Throughout history, the declaration of an intention to pursue a high office was viewed as a serious affair, one expected to be staged in a formal or traditional setting. Yet Schwarzenegger virtually eradicated the wall between politics and entertainment with his break from convention. Some critics would argue, however, that his bold move should not be seen as totally unexpected. After all, Schwarzenegger had achieved fame as a professional body builder and, later, as an actor, well before shifting to the realm of politics. Still, other former entertainers had transferred to the political field, but none of them had ever commenced a run for governor on late night, broadcast, television.
Then again, something similar had happened just one month before, albeit on cable television, which usually draws a significantly smaller audience than its broadcast competitor. John Edwards announced his candidacy for the nation’s most prestigious political office—the presidency of the United States—on a different yet related venue. The Democrat declared his intention to run for the top spot on the ticket for the White House on the satirical, news parody program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Here was an instance of forgoing a “real” talk show for a “fake” news program.
Four years later, Fred Thompson, a sometimes actor, other times politician, whose starring acting performances on the popular television series Law & Order were currently in circulation, combined Schwarzenegger’s choice of popular culture vehicle with Edwards’s high aims by, in fact, announcing his plan to seek the presidency on The Tonight Show.Interestingly, Thompson, a Republican, made this proclamation on the very same day as a Republican candidate debate that he declined to participate in had been televised on the FOX network.
Late night television talk shows have collectively functioned as one of the primary products of popular culture to blend politics and entertainment in a way that seems mostly palatable to the public. Today, there is no sign that the political exploitation of the format will lessen in the future—if anything, given the growing propensity to merge politics and popular culture, the practice will likely increase.
Morning News Shows
Ostensibly a vehicle for news coverage, television morning news shows also blend in elements of entertainment. The genre began in the United States in 1952, when NBC introduced The Today Show (also known simply as Today), which still airs nationally for four hours (over the years its length has increased) each weekday morning, making it one of the longest running television programs of all time. Today inspired a number of spin-offs, whose producers hoped to emulate the format and achieve similar success. In 1975, another very popular morning news show, Good Morning America, debuted on ABC. Since then, these two programs have battled one another for the top spot in the morning ratings. CBS, for its part, has not been able to develop a show that consistently competes with NBC’s and ABC’s offerings for ratings supremacy. Currently,The Early Show occupies the morning slot in CBS’s schedule. Launched in 1999, it replaced CBS This Morning (later abbreviated to This Morning), which was a descendant of other comparable CBS morning ventures. One cable station, FOX News, also produces a morning news show that attracts a sizable audience. FOX & Friends made its entrance in 1998 and, like other programs on the network, is generally recognized as framing issues from a conservative or right-wing perspective.
Although morning news shows devote some time to traditional “hard” news, they are usually regarded as “softer” than their evening counterparts, featuring far more “lifestyle” stories, such as human interest coverage and interviews with celebrities, thus blurring the line between news and entertainment. Many scholars and critics have complained that this “dumbing down” of the news has increasingly leaked into all forms of television journalism. Perhaps the plainest recent example of the cross-pollination between AM and PM formats occurred when Katie Couric, who had gained wide fame onToday, was assigned to replace Dan Rather on The CBS Evening News in 2006.
Because of the view that morning news shows provide a friendly television environment, politicians sometimes prefer to appear on them rather than other news programs. Those who are facing an election, in particular, reason that they will encounter a less intense line of questioning than they would on the evening news broadcasts. Ross Perot, a former independent candidate for the presidency, who ran against Republican George H. W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, was one of the first politicians to markedly exploit this tactic on the campaign trail. His morning television program stops included Good Morning America, as well as daytime talk shows.
Since then, morning news show appearances by politicians have become commonplace. For instance, the top two candidates for the 2008 Democratic nomination for the presidency—Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—as well as the Republican nominee—John McCain—all hit the morning show circuit during their campaigns. On a single day in December 2007, for example, in preparation for the first contest of the primary season, the Iowa Caucuses, Clinton was interviewed on Good Morning America, Today, The Early Show, FOX & Friends, and Morning Joe (a morning news show on cable station MSNBC). Obama made several visits during his campaign as well, including an appearance with his wife, Michelle, on Today. Their joint effort was meant to display a united front in diffusing a controversy that had emerged. Earlier, it had been exposed that the family’s church pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had delivered remarks that were especially inflammatory and vehemently critical of U.S. policies. Quickly, speculation arose as to whether Barack shared Wright’s views, which were widely depicted as un-American. Michelle, too, had been accused of expressing a lack of love for her country. By coming together on Today, they hoped to dispel such rumors and portray themselves as a warm, level-headed, and patriotic couple. John McCain also turned to Today, Good Morning America, and other morning news shows to discuss his positions and present a likeable image.
It seems almost certain that morning news shows will continue to be one of the tools in the complete campaign arsenal, as well as a forum for any major politician who wishes to get a point across without the threat of a serious challenge from an interviewer. On occasion, then, these programs serve as a keen illustration of news and entertainment merging with political discourse.
An array of variety or sketch comedy shows have placed considerable emphasis on satirizing political officials and events. A few of the most important entries in this category include Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-1973); The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1975 and 1988-1989), a show that also featured the presidential “candidacy” of Pat Paulsen; Saturday Night Live (1975-present); and Mad TV (1995-present). Several news parody programs have also presented scathing political satire.
Politicians have not only traveled the talk show circuit in an act of self-promotion, but have, on occasion, played minor roles in televised series. Richard Nixon, for instance, once came on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and uttered “Sock it to me,” an oft-heard phrase on the show. Over the years, a number of politicians have either served as a guest host on Saturday Night Live (1975-present), including former New York mayors Edward Koch and Rudolph Giuliani and former Vice President AI Gore, or at least made an appearance, such as 2008 presidential candidates Michael Hucka-bee, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. Other television genres have also featured cameos by famous politicians. Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, as well as Henry Kissinger, for instance, showed up in the drama Dynasty (1981-1989). In another case in point, Boston resident and then Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill appeared on a 1983 episode of the long-running, Boston-based sitcom Cheers. During his brief stint, O’Neill played a bar patron, which, in some roundabout fashion, probably reinforced his long-held contention that “all politics is local.”
Politicians and Consumer Advertising. While political advertising is an important component of any major campaign (see Chapter 7), from time to time, in a noteworthy instance of mixing politics and popular culture, a politician makes a cameo-like appearance in a commercial that is not promoting a candidate but an everyday consumer product or service. Some of the most famous spots in this vein include the following:
- Anne Richards and Mario Cuomo Doritos Commercial. Former governors Anne Richards (Texas) and Mario Cuomo (New York) came together in an amusing commercial for Doritos corn chips that was broadcast during the Super Bowl on January 29, 1995. In the spot, Cuomo and Richards (who is apparently packing up her office now that her reign as governor has come to a close) talk about changing times, with the initial implication being that they are referring to a shifting political climate. As it turns out, however, they are merely commenting on the new design of the Doritos bag. At a New England presidential dinner later that month, then President Bill Clinton joked that he had been so impressed by the commercial that he had eaten “three bags of Doritos since then.” While the advertisement was meant to generate humor by having politicians poke fun at their own images, it also signified a trend toward accepting consumer commercials that feature politicians as nothing out of the ordinary. Though the Doritos spot did not represent the first time a former politician had been involved in pitching a product, previously, popular sentiment held, any ex-high-ranking, government official who engaged in such a practice generally ran the risk of compromising the dignity of the office he or she had once occupied. Arguably, the Doritos commercial opened the door for the famous Bob Dole Viagra and Pepsi spots that were to come.
- Bob Dole Viagra Campaign and Pepsi Commercials. After serving as a U.S. senator from 1969 to 1996 and losing a run for the presidency, Bob Dole, who had successfully overcome prostate cancer in 1991, began performing in television commercials for the erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra, in 1999. Though his role as spokesman for the pill provided fodder for late night comedians, it also brought attention to the sexual complications that can develop for prostate cancer survivors and also perhaps helped to reduce the stigma associated with male impotence. The commercials, as well as appearances on other popular culture venues, such as talk shows, seemed to indicate that Dole was comfortable with making light of himself, which flew in the face of the image he had earlier cultivated as a politician—dull, stilted, and serious.
Later, during the 2001 Academy Awards, Bob Dole made a splash in a commercial for Pepsi. The spot features a singing and gyrating Britney Spears intercut with various onlookers apparently riveted by her dancing prowess. The final admiring spectator is Bob Dole, seated in an easy chair, with a dog by his side. As the commercial comes to a close, he utters “Easy boy,” a double entendre that could be interpreted in relationship to the dog or Dole’s possible erection. Roughly two months earlier, Dole had starred in another commercial for Pepsi during the 2001 Super Bowl. A parody of his Viagra campaign, the spot leads the viewer to believe it is a promotion for the drug, with the same tone and language (Dole speaks about, for example, “a product that put real joy back in my life”) the audience would associate with commercials for the tablet. Soon, however, once the setup is complete, the “little blue friend” turns out to be not a dosage of Viagra but a can of Pepsi.
Besides acting in these much discussed commercials, Dole has appeared in a variety of spots for other goods and services, including the Visa credit card, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Target retail stores.
- James Carville and Bill Frist Coca-Cola Commercial. Democratic strategist and political pundit James Carville and former Republican Senator (from 1995 to 2007) Bill Frist also starred in a Super Bowl commercial, which was broadcast during the game in 2008. The spot for Coca-Cola opens with political opponents Carville and Frist arguing on a pseudo-panel discussion news show. Soon, Carville treats Frist to a bottle of Coke. This shared moment ostensibly, in the blink of an eye, transforms their relationship: in successive scenes, they ride a Washington tour bus together, attend a museum together, sit for the painting of a dual caricature portrait together, and cheer at a basketball game together. The final shot displays them clinking their bottles together while viewing the Washington Monument, which is centered between them in the distance. The humorous montage reinforces the theme that is captured in the lyrics of the song sung in the background— “Why don’t we go outside and change our view?”
Consumer advertising offers the potential to earn a substantial sum of money after a political career has subsided—with the exception of Carville, who has never run for office, all of the figures in the commercials described above have left the realm of politics behind. At the same time, similar to cameos on other popular culture formats, performances in commercials can help humanize a politician and make him or her seem more likeable. Yet in the case of a retired official, rather than serving as a campaign tool, they could represent part of a strategy to enhance a legacy by changing the public perception of a former elected leader from “just another politician” into “an everyday person.”
It is clear that throughout television’s history, politics, popular culture, and televised entertainment have intersected in a variety of ways. What this means for democracy in the United States continues to be a topic of much debate.
Television will almost certainly persist as a force in how democracy is practiced in the United States. It is likely that the blurring of politics and entertainment will only continue as well. Yet the nature of television itself is changing. Gone are the days in which viewers would turn to mostly CBS, NBC, and ABC for programming. With remote controls and digital recording, audiences now have the opportunity to watch what they want, when they want. Moreover, the consequences of television’s further convergence with the Internet are grounds for considerable speculation. Today, people can bypass television altogether by accessing the medium’s fare on the Internet, whether on computers, iPhones, or BlackBerry devices. In addition, through YouTube and other similar sites, every person has the potential to post his or her own content for anybody else to screen. Many scholars are hopeful about these developments, arguing that the transformations are serving to democratize the media—and by extension, politics. They claim that slowly but surely, power is shifting from the few to the many, from a relatively small number of corporations and political institutions to millions of consumers. Less optimistic observers caution that the economic and political entities that have been responsible for much of the structure of the mass media will simply adapt and maintain their grip on the new media environment. (For a full discussion of the unfolding role of new media in politics, see Chapter 8.) How the intersection between politics, media, and popular culture continues to unfold remains to be seen.