The first reading that I asked my students to complete in my eight-week Evaluating Contemporary Television class is the opening chapter of Amanda Lotz’s book The Television Will Be Revolutionized. Having read the entire book when it was published in 2007, I was interested in seeing what she had added to that first edition in the updated 2014 edition, given the significant changes that had occurred in the television industry during that interim. In a traditional sixteen-week semester I would normally introduce my students to the early history of three-network (or four-network, if we count DuMont, which we should) broadcasting over several class meetings. However, the unique challenge of teaching a shorter, online course demands that I bypass much of that material in favor of readings that touch on contemporary developments. As such, I really like Lotz’s brief but expansive overview of the many industrial, social, and cultural changes that led to the emergence of what she and other media scholars call the “Post-Network Era” (and I was happy to see that, in the updated version of her book, she provided even more historical context for students who are new to the subject).
Lotz is quick to point out that TV audiences of the immediate postwar era had considerably fewer viewing options than we do today. When programs like CBS’s I Love Lucy and the same network’s The Honeymooners (which both feature numerous episodes in which characters are shown watching TV) debuted in the early 1950s, viewers had “little control over the medium.” Although the first remote control (fittingly named “Lazy Bones”) was developed by the Zenith Radio Corporation one year prior to I Love Lucy’s 1951 debut, such devices would not become an indelible part of the televiewing experience until much later, during the transitional multi-channel era of the 1970s and 1980s. Besides not being able to “channel surf” in the way that future audiences would take for granted, TV viewers of the early network era were bound to both the “place” and “protocols” of small-screen spectatorship, which was largely confined to the domestic sphere and was regimented by way of “day parts” (e.g., soap operas during the afternoon hours, prime time programming during the evening hours). If you missed “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” and thus were not one of the 44 million American viewers who tuned in to that famous episode on January 19, 1953, you were just out of luck. “Time shifting,” which would eventually be made possible by storage devices like the video cassette recorder (VCR) and the digital video recorder (DVR), was certainly not an option then.
What I most appreciate about Lotz’s approach is her commitment to exploring the experiential aspects of industrial changes; the way that audience’s behaviors and viewing practices shifted alongside the introduction of new technologies, including analog and digital cable systems. Subscription-based cable services, included HBO (which was launched in 1972), would introduce an alternative to the advertiser-driven content of the network era. But the multi-channel era was perhaps most significant in terms of giving audiences a greater number of choices and expanded control over how, where, and when they consumed TV series that were not necessarily bound to generic conventions or beholden to the dictum of “least objectionable programming.” As Lotz notes, such expansion was not limited to cable television, but was happening in the broadcast realm as well beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, when Fox (1986), the WB (1995), and UPN (1995) joined the “Big Three” networks of CBS, NBC, and ABC.
Today, of course, we live in a mediascape littered with options (too many choices, some luddites might argue) — a world in which “content” (the term too frequently used to denote cultural productions, such TV shows) has exploded across several different providers and platforms, all only a click away. But increased viewing options in the post-network era have contributed to some significant social changes as well, enabling viewers to “isolate themselves in enclaves of specific interests.” Do a Google Image search of “watching TV in the 1950s” and you will see one example after another of family members — all middle-cass Caucasian suburbanites, it should be pointed out — basking in a cathode-ray glow that evokes earlier photos of Depression-era Americans listening as one to the radio broadcasts of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats.” Seeing such images, we are reminded that television was experienced as a group activity that brought together family members around a seductive yet inoffensive narrative world that was also “inhabited” by millions of other Americans watching simultaneously from the safety and security of their own homes.
In place of such nostalgically imbued constructions of the domestic unit, audience fragmentation and the winnowing of television as a mass medium into smaller and smaller units of consumption have become the norm in the post-network era. Indeed, broadcasting has given way to “narrowcasting,” a term that indicates the perhaps-problematic fracturing of the public sphere into “interest groups.” Lotz dwells momentarily on this aspect, gesturing toward the way that the atomizing of the televiewing audience into smaller groupings perhaps explains, if only partially, why social and political polarization have become such an endemic part of contemporary America (one need only consider the diametrically opposed viewpoints put forth by this nation’s leading TV news providers, Fox News and MSNBC, to grasp her argument). One of the questions that I posed to my students in their first online reading response (extracts of which are included below) revolves around such cultural fissures. What, I asked them, are the larger implications of this social fragmentation and polarization? I also asked them if they missed (or felt any nostalgia for) the earlier history of television, when a relatively small number of shows was lapped up by a broad viewership due to a relative lack of options/alternatives.
Here are some of their responses:
OLIVIA J.: “I like being able to sit down with friends or family at a specific time to watch something special, but I do not think I feel any nostalgia for that being the norm, because I am so used to being able to view content when and how I want.”
NICK C.: “Comparing my grandparents TV watching experience with my own is interesting because I have access to so much more content than them. When my 95-year old grandpa first watched TV, he only had the three main networks at his disposal. I, however, bypass network TV completely and rely on Netflix and Hulu. And if I can’t find something out of the huge array of options these sites have to offer, I turn to more obscure (and much sketchier) streaming websites or torrenting which is frowned upon by your internet provider though not illegal.”
MICHAEL M.: “It’s difficult to think about going back in time and watching TV on a small screen from across the room, getting up to switch from one of the three channels to another, but at the time, that was still remarkably advanced.”
Near the end of her opening chapter, Lotz proposes the term “phenomenal television” in reference to programs that somehow break through the “cluttered media space” of post-network television to attain cultural significance. Because she does not list any examples by title, I asked my students to think of any recent TV shows that have managed to “capture the zeitgeist” or speak to contemporary social and political concerns. A few of them listed the following:
JAMIE P.: “One iconic show that speaks to contemporary social and political concerns is House of Cards. With access to information at an all-time high, the affairs of politicians have been coming to light in increasingly drastic ways. This plays into the political fervor most Americans demonstrate when policies are instituted based off aberrations uncovered through fictional media. While this show is not likely to continue, or at least not with the current staff, it is not because of an inability of the program to garner interest, but rather sociopolitical ramifications from actors on set.”
SARAH K.: “I may be alone on this one but I do feel that The Walking Dead is a series that fits the ‘phenomenal television’ category that Lotz proposes. I find it to be an allegory of our current American society. Our country has come to a point where a century of reckless consumption and consumerism has resulted in record levels of preventable illness and pollution, among other things. And instead of making the hard, but necessary changes to correct these trends, a majority of people choose to walk around with their heads in the sand, like a bunch of zombies while a few good people relentlessly struggle for change against the powerful corporations and politicians. I…believe that this is a message that will continue and hopefully be a catalyst for change in the real world.”
DARYN B.: “One example of a show that captures the zeitgeist is Veep. An HBO show about the challenges the US Vice President faces, Veep’s wry take on the insanity of US politics perfectly captures the concerns many people have regarding the current administration. One problem with topical comedic shows like Veep is that once the topic they are lampooning has passed, the only people who will relate to the material are those who were around when it was happening. It’s unlikely to be a show that will be relevant in 20 years, long after the Trump administration has left the White House.”
BRYCE K.: “Will & Grace…When the show started in 1998 on NBC, there weren’t too many shows that involved the LGBTQ community, let alone a comedy. The show not only talked about a serious issue/topic about gay people in America, but it also bright a positive light to a serious topic while pushing the envelope. Will & Grace continues today not only because of its positivity but also due to how it adapted to today’s modern gay community.”
NICK C.: “I immediately think of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The show features an ever-changing plot formula and theme anchored by the great chemistry between the main characters and by its dark and surprising humor. It is much funnier than other shows to me because it diverges from the safe humor that most TV is made up of and explores…racy topics. One other show that meets this criteria is Rick and Morty…it tackles existentialism and ‘farther out’ scenarios.”
JAMES W.: “I would have to say that Modern Family could be one of them with its use of an untraditional family and prominent representation of a young Latina mother as well as a gay couple. This show came out in 2009 and marked a change for what an American family could look like. Instead of the nuclear family viewers were watching trials and triumphs of the extended, diverse family made up of individuals with various identities, dominant and subordinate alike.”
LESLEY M.: “The one show that comes to mind…is Netflix’s Big Mouth. Today’s teens’ experiences of going through puberty and dealing with everyday challenges are accurately depicted in the show. It included a lot of relevant material in relationship to the social issues average teenagers in America might face today, such as parents’ divorce and homosexuality. I’m not sure how this show will endure in the years to come, but I think it could possibly aid in changing ideas about how certain social issues are being addressed and thought about in today’s world.”