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Alas it may not be out in time for spring courses, unless it will only be used in the 2nd half of the semester. So stay tuned! What is television?
At first glance, the answer might seem obvious, especially to anyone who has grown-up in a television-saturated society. But the question is trickier than it may appear, as television is far more multifaceted and complex than we tend to imagine it.
For a useful parallel, imagine that you are on television —as a contestant on the popular game show Jeopardy! But this is a book about television, not chicken. So what Jeopardy! All six of these definitions of television are central to its function in American culture—the main point of this book is to explore television in each of these crucial functions: as a commercial industry , a democratic institution , a textual form , a site of cultural representation , a part of everyday life , and a technological medium.
Few people would disagree with the claim that television functions in these six ways. The stickier point involves relative importance—which aspects of television are most vital to study, and which might be downplayed or ignored altogether? Different academic traditions emphasize various facets—economists focus on how industries generate profits, political scientists look at democratic institutions, anthropologists foreground everyday life, and film scholars analyze media texts.
But even interdisciplinary approaches to television have their points of emphasis and blind spots—mass communications researchers examine institutions, politics, and the quantifiable effects media have upon audiences, while cultural scholars of media generally focus on representations, texts, and audience practices.
This book tries to bridge these gaps, highlighting how each facet of television is vital to a broader understanding of the medium, and no single point of emphasis takes priority over others to understand the complex functioning of television in American culture. But how does such a multifaceted examination of television work in practice?
A brief review of the infamous events: at the end of a series of pop musical performances, Jackson and Justin Timberlake performed a duet to conclude the show. The exposure was barely visible, yet the cultural uproar was intense: blame was passed around, apologies were made, protests were filed, fines were levied, and laws were changed—all in reaction to a micro-second of television that was hardly visible to the naked eye.
Why did this event happen like it did, and why was there so much furor in reaction to it? To fully understand the reasons behind these events and their cultural significance, we need consider all six facets of this brief moment and its cultural aftermath, highlighting the key aspects of television that each chapter will detail—in doing so, we will mention some specific details of television might be unknown to you now, but should be quite familiar by the end of the book.
Certainly the television industry created this moment and is thus a good place to start analyzing. The Super Bowl always ranks among the highest rated programs of the year, so CBS relished the opportunity to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenues, as well as to promote its regular programming to an enormous audience. CBS tapped MTV to produce its halftime show—both were owned by media conglomerate Viacom at the time—to appeal to a youthful audience using flashy production values and hip contemporary performers.
Thus, although the goals of both CBS and MTV were the same—drawing an audience to sell to advertisers, and promoting their own Viacom-owned brands—the structure of the television industry treats broadcasting and cable differently, as do audiences who tend to be more fragmented and selected for cable channels. These differences in both attitude and regulatory scope concerning cable versus broadcast television had direct impacts upon the ensuing scandals.
Super Bowl broadcasts always assert a set of ideas to unite viewers in their national identity as Americans, with frequent use of flags, anthems, and other icons of patriotism. However other identity differences disrupted the patriotic celebration, fragmenting the audience along lines of age, gender, race, and moral norms.
Additionally, the actual breast-baring resonated with certain norms of identity in America, with the image of a white man ripping the clothes off a black women tapping into deep-seated assumptions about female sexuality and the history of racially-charged sexual content—Jackson was generally framed as the perpetrator of indecency and took most of the blame, even though Timberlake was the one ripping her clothes off! Had the Super Bowl been taped for later broadcast, there would have been no issue, as CBS would have edited out the offending moment.
But television features a broad mix of production modes, from live broadcast to filmed programming, in-studio to on-location production. Most of these modes of productions are linked to specific genres—sporting events are nearly always broadcast live, capturing surprises as they happen but also running the risk of airing unforeseen content.
The presence of dozens of cameras allow television producers to provide images to viewers that simply could not be experienced in person—no one in the crowd at the Super Bowl saw the wardrobe malfunction, except as it was presented on the Jumbotron television screen at the stadium.
But just as television can provide perspectives unavailable in real life, the medium ultimately controls what viewers see. When producers realized what Timberlake had just done, they cut to a wide shot of the stadium and fireworks, disabling our close view of the action and leaving viewers to ponder what they had just seen.
But a number of technological innovations from the s and onward have changed the balance of power controlling broadcast images. The popularity of the VCR in the s allowed viewers to tape programs as they were being aired, and certainly this moment could have been archived and studied via videotape. But digital technologies of the 21 st century give viewers even more immediate power to replay and redistribute images—households with digital video recorders like TiVo replayed this moment in record numbers, viewing it repeatedly in slow-motion to discern what had really happened.
Technologically savvy viewers digitized their video recordings and distributed still images and movie files on the internet, quickly becoming the most frequently searched-for image online.
Due to these technological shifts, CBS was not able to control the image they had broadcast, as viewers used technologies of recording and distribution to turn a live broadcast into an archived moment that long outlived its split-second origins.
Clearly these technologies impact the role of television within everyday life , as viewers were able to seize the image for their own purposes. While all accused parties both apologized and attempted to pass blame onto others, the FCC took the views of this vocal minority of viewers quite seriously by acting upon the over , complaints it received, most through organized online petitions and email campaigns.
Congress responded to the event by further empowering the FCC, proposing bipartisan bills to drastically increase fines for indecency. Although these actions certainly follow the democratic tradition that the airwaves are a public resource used by private industries to serve the public interest, there are underlying political agendas at work, as with most things in Washington. In this instance and its aftermath, television programming exists at the crossroads of competing democratic impulses: using the airwaves to serve public interests and community standards, while protecting the dual freedoms of speech and the press to present controversial ideas without government interference.
Hopefully this brief account of how a split-second moment of live television had such wide-ranging and politically vital impacts on American culture demonstrates the complexity of television as a medium. Any one of the six facets explored above might be seen as the most important aspect of this example—you might feel that ultimately it boils down to the public protecting itself from immoral broadcasters, or view this case as a demonstration of the power of new technologies to empower viewers.
However, to understand the full story of how television impacts American culture, we need to explore how the medium functions within all six of the facets described above. The rest of this book seeks to do just that, exploring each aspect of television in depth—including clarifying some of the concepts briefly alluded to about the Super Bowl broadcast—while emphasizing that none of the six facets operate in isolation from the other five.
Likewise, regulations of television help determine technological standards, which in turn mold production norms and textual forms. We can consider all six facets of television as individual points in a broader circuit of culture model, in which all parts are interconnected to comprise American television. This book offers its own distinctive arguments about how television works and how it impacts American society, while recounting key facts and historical moments.
The television industry simply gives viewers what we want. Television content is predominantly liberal—or predominantly conservative. Watching television is a passive pastime. Televised violence causes violent behavior.
Television is not worth taking seriously. After reading this book you will have absorbed a lot of information about television, but hopefully you will have learned even more about how to look at television , and its assumed place in American society, in a new way.
A third way that the Janet Jackson case models the rest of the book is its reliance on a number of academic traditions, but without getting bogged down in scholarly jargon or name-dropping. To understand the multifaceted realm of television, you have to be able to think across disciplines, dabbling in economics, political science, sociology, aesthetics, social history, psychology, and mass communication theory.
The book draws upon these disciplinary traditions to explore complex ideas, but avoids language that makes them only comprehensible to experts—or at least explains unusual terms when used. Some discussions are rooted in advanced theoretical concepts like poststructuralism and subjectivity, and the theoretical writings of authors like Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, but this is the only time these terms and names will be used—the end of each chapter offers a guide to further reading if you wish to dive into the more specialized literature about specific topics.
Likewise, the book is influenced by a number of theoretical traditions, such as feminist criticism and critical race theory, but attempts to foreground the core ideas emerging from these traditions, rather than explaining their academic origins and theoretical nuances. By exploring each of the six facets in depth, using a range of academic traditions, this book tries to demonstrate how to think critically about television with sophistication, but using ideas and language accessible to interested novices.
Although each chapter explores a particular facet of how television works, we need to avoid the temptation of thinking of television as a timeless essence, remaining unchanging across its multi-decade history. It is useful to consider the history of television as typified by distinct eras, with each offering a general outline of how television fits into American culture within a specific period.
Although the history of television is more complex than this simple periodization, this book will focus on three specific eras of American television, with each chapter considering specific ways that television has transformed over the following three periods:. The Classic Network Era. Starting with the emergence of television as an outgrowth of the radio industry in the mids and lasting until the mids, this era established norms that still persist today for all facets of television.
The defining structure of this era is the network system, in which nearly all programming was presented by three national networks ABC, CBS, and NBC , and audiences watched shows en masse simultaneously across the country. The classic network era set long-lasting standards for television programming formats and advertising-supported channels, while heralding the rise of television as a central outlet for political and public affairs information.
The Multi-Channel Era. The s were a transitional decade, as television shifted from being dominated by national broadcast networks to new technologies of cable and satellite programming. In the multi-channel era that defined the s, mass audiences were supplanted by demographically-defined market segments, as channels emerged to reach a wide range of target audiences in a system often termed narrowcasting. The television industry developed new formats and strategies to reach valued audience segments and new networks like Fox and Univision to compete with the Big Three, yet the basic system of advertiser-supported television remained in place.
However, the multi-channel era still saw television as the central information and communication medium for the American public. The Convergence Era. As digital media have grown in importance, the role of television is evolving as it is challenged by a range of technologies like the internet and videogames.
Television still remains central in American homes, but it is no longer experienced only as dictated by national networks or cable channels; rather, the television set is emerging as the centerpiece of a range of video-based technologies.
This technological convergence forces us to question the underlying economic models of both broadcast and multi-channel television, as viewers are taking control of schedules and using digital distribution technologies to offer alternatives to television programming and to resist advertising as the primary source of income for the television industry. While certainly any claims of the death of television as a medium are exaggerated, there is no doubt that we are entering a new era in which the norms of the past fifty years will be challenged and redefined in unforeseen ways.
Each of these eras intersects with all six facets of television, and thus every chapter will consider how historical transformations impact the issues pertinent to that particular facet. Since each era is predicated on a technological shift—from over-the-air broadcast to cable and satellite transmission to digital convergence—many of the larger issues about how television has transformed across these eras will be considered in most depth in Chapter In some ways this is easy to justify, as television has been defined since its beginning as a national system, governed by national legislation and regulations.
Additionally, American viewers have few opportunities to see television from other countries—the United States exports a great deal of media around the world, but imports almost none onto its television schedule.
These boundaries are starting to erode in recent decades, as the multichannel era opened up possibilities for more imports on cable channels like BBC America and many digital technologies are more global and unbound by national regulations. Thus while the book focuses on American television programming and its circulation within the United States, the conclusion briefly widens its scope to consider a more global context, considering how American television circulates throughout the world and the influence of imports on American culture.
Really interesting intro! First, this seems like an awesome book—I really look forward to it. You mention that in order to fully understand these reactions, we need to look at these six facets.
For the single event and the reactions to it, I agree. I may be able to speculate that there were some limitations due to advertising. But this is a general comment that can be made and it still is speculation. Lastly, I can see the assignments now in college courses, to analyze a media event with these six facets. If I were to reference this in my own writing on my blog, would a link to the post be sufficient, or is there some citation I should use?
Thanks for your note. Thank you for replying. I see what you mean. And this gives me some other ideas to think about when analyzing television. The presence or lack of a studio audience is a wonderful topic to consider.
Additionally, your point about the technology requiring a synchronous viewing reminds me of a post on Michael Z.
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Television and American Culture
The book was released in February , and is available for order on Amazon. This website serves as a community resource for readers, students, and instructors using the book. The Recent News section features links to updated happenings in the world of television, categorized by chapter to supplement the book. Teaching Resources features links to courses using the book, and opportunities to share pedagogical strategies. The Videos pages shares relevant online video that relates to the contents of the book. And Errata is a place to share corrections and clarifications.