This is one of my first papers for a graduate course I'm taking called Media Historiography. My professor, Moya T. Luckett, is amazing and super brilliant. Hope you enjoy!
The Media Study of Television History in America
Media historians explore the history of a medias birth into society and the way in which it interacts with other forms of media, especially those that come before and influence it. Historians must note the many developments and changes the media undergoes, as the historical context in which it cultivates transforms. Media historians study multiple distinct texts, often exploring what these texts speak and reveal about a historical past. The medium of text that I find most compelling is the development and consequence of television on American audiences, it’s progression and impact on American history, and how through its history it has interacted with other forms of media. The way in which television outlasted other forms of promising media like the Zograscope during the 1920s, and is still today surpassing other media is a nod towards its importance in history. Television has shaped and developed America’s pop culture scene and swayed social norms. One of the most compelling components of TV as a discrete text is the way in which it is rapidly expanding today, unlike film or other media because of it’s stretch into the realms of the Internet with platforms like Hulu and Netflix. Smoodin mentions how powerfully TV media has affected the masses. There is such a large variety of TV programming that touch on most, if not all, of American lives today. From I Love Lucy to All in the Family to Breaking Bad, television has always reflected the present-day in a clear, insightful manner that continuously captivates the nation.
Although technically developing since the 1920s, the first major TV shows that infiltrated American homes were in color during the 1950s. Shows such as I Love Lucy, Tom and Jerry, The Twilight Zone, The Goldbergs (which is now being remade in 2013), and American Bandstand all influenced the movement of questioning attitudes and starting an early conversation about issues in America, especially those that dealt with the quintessential American family. Every week when I Love Lucy (1951-1957) came on, America dutifully followed a young American couple as they experienced the trials and tribulations of married life. Interestingly enough, although married in real life, CBS believed that American audiences would not believe the marriage between Lucille Ball, an “All-American girl” and Desi Arnaz, a Cuban bandleader. However, they were proved wrong when I Love Lucy became wildly successful in the middle class American home.
I Love Lucy was filmed and set in New York, therefore ‘West coast viewers were able to view live programs only through low-quality kinescopes, which derived their images by using a 35 mm or 16 mm film camera to record the show off a closed-circuit television monitor. As videotape had not yet been developed, kinescopes were the only practical and affordable means to allow a live show to reach television markets on the west coast’ (American Radio History: Filming “Lucy”). Additional technology first seen with I Love Lucy was the pioneering use of three cameras. The process of using three cameras as opposed to one resulted in a much sharper quality of show, and set the standard for sitcoms filmed in front of an audience in the future.
The original pilot was filmed while Lucy was "showing" with her first child, but did not include any references to the pregnancy in the episode because CBS thought that talk of pregnancy was in ‘bad taste’. A couple of seasons later, Lucy was pregnant again and they decided to have her character expecting as well. They would not allow the use of the word "pregnant", so "expecting" was used instead. The airdate was chosen to coincide with Lucille Ball's real-life delivery of Desi, Jr. by Caesarian section. "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" was watched by more people than any other television program up to that time, with 71.7% of all American television sets tuned in, topping the 67.7% that tuned in for Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration coverage the following morning (Time, Birth of A Memo). This indicates a palpable moment when American fascination with pop-culture and entertainment tipped the scale over politics and other societal matters that normally captured the attention of American audiences. By examining the language of a 1950s television show, there is a clear signal of American views on matters such as pregnancy and the issues that go along with private and public topics. Issues concerning point of view, use of language, and fictional versus reality genres (I Love Lucy was based very much on their real lives) all slowly figured their way into television history.
Installing the television set in the 1950s was more than just buying into a new fad. As a piece of furniture, as a new technology and as a medium to dissect texts from across distances, the TV infiltrated the private American home and lead to discussions about the relationship between public and private space, and our understanding of space. “Particular habits and media of communication frame our collective sense of time, place, and space; how they define our understanding of the public and the private; how they inform our apprehension of “the real”; and how they orient us in relation to competing forms of representation” (pg. xvi). Media creates space. As Smoodin mentions, it is important to consider the relationship between the TV set and world events such as the Cold War, which was in full bloom during the ascent of TV. Information about war and international problems were more accessible and therefore created even more conversation in American homes because of television (The Return to History). From the 1950s to the 1970s color started to become the realist mode, whereas black and white signified something outdated but interesting, similarly in the way that the record player is now coming back into style over listening to an iPod (Gunning).
As technology and social movements developed and progressed from the 1950s to the 1970s and 1980s, different television programming resulted. All in the Family (1971-1979) was one television show that broke a lot of social ground, and is still considered a controversial show today. All In The Family broke ground in its depiction of issues previously considered unsuitable for U.S. network television comedy, such as racism, homosexuality, rape, miscarriage, abortion, and the Vietnam War (Allan Neuwirth). By depicting these controversial issues, the show became one of the most influential comedic sitcoms in history, as it took the classic sitcom formula and added in real-life conflicts that Americans could relate to. Even President Nixon could be heard discussing the show on one of the infamous Watergate tapes. TV slowly moved towards broader issues around culture, modernity, and sensation.
Today we have an unbelievably large variety of programming. There are reality shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, entire networks just for food and cooking, and a plethora of competition shows for dancing and singing, or anything else that can be made into a competition like Fear Factor or Survivor. This surplus of television programming all reflects the hustle and bustle of American life today, looking for and achieving an audience for any storyline that can turn a profit. When we think back on the few very similar TV shows in the 50s and 60s, it’s easy to wonder why they didn’t immediately break into these other categories of television. “In part, we forget what older media meant, because we forget how they meant” (Pg. xiv). Some may wonder why as a nation we’ve moved into all of these other areas of entertainment, but television’s relationship to regulation is an important aspect of media to recognize. A regulatory mode of discourse and analysis is one of the most important factors in keeping a media alive. Not just any extraneous conversation will do; institutional questions which allow us to bridge business, economics and social ideas is the type of discourse that will keep a brand new media afloat. Who doesn’t want to discuss what happened to Jesse on Breaking Bad in the series finale, or why X-Factor has much better talent than American Idol? There must be active consumption within a media that facilitates a relationship between politics, creativity and culture (Smoodin).
TV interacts with many other different mediums of media. Television’s relationship with film is of course notable because film came before TV, but TV is slowly becoming more abundant and popular. TV’s effect on society is more poignant because every week we loyally follow the programming. They have more pull because they attract American audiences across the board. Whether you’re interested in a singing competition like The Voice or an excellently written drama like Homeland, there is a niche for everyone in TV land. “Media emerge and exist in ways that both challenge and regulate notions of what it means to be human” (pg. xix). Television media holds up a mirror to society.
The way in which television seems to be superseding film is just like the way that television history is always engaging with past histories and rewriting them. Each new decade pushes the envelope in terms of controversial material. This is similar to how Einstein felt the need to create the next best invention just as someone else seemed to be surpassing him (Gitelman). Perhaps if Google glasses fail, the next inventor will take those glasses and the technology within them, and make an entirely new media, which stands the test of time. “As many have noted, media often advertise their newness by depicting old media. The first printed books looked like manuscripts, radios played phonograph records, and the Web has ‘pages’”(pg. xx). With every new “toy”, there is a parent toy not far behind.
As the medium of film progressed, photography decreased in popularity, and as noted in the paragraph above, TV seems to be superseding film. Therefore, when it comes to comparing TV and photography in 2013, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. One piece of technology concerning photography that has completely disappeared since the early 1900s was the Zograscope. In New Media 1740-1915, there is a discussion in Zograscopes, Virtual Reality, and the Mapping of Polite Society in Eighteenth-Century England in which the Zograscope is discussed and dissected as a media. “Zograscopes views told a story of public space as available, accessible, dynamic, and vibrant, but controllable, clean and polite” (pg. 5). Just as the television created a new type of private space in the American home, so did the Zograscope, which transformed 2D images into 3D and were normally a technology only the upper class could afford. “Zograscope views were not about sentiment. They were about politeness. English Zograscope views depicted those polite places that were suited to neutral public sociability. In other words, Zograscope’s views exhibited an emotional detachment in their subject matter” (pg. 11). This is very much unlike TV, which looks to dig its claws more into the family household, using emotion if necessary, and has grown exceedingly more expressive and controversial as television progresses in modern America. “Media emerge and exist in ways that both challenge and regulate notions of what it means to be human” (pg. xix).
TV as opposed to other forms of media, like photography or video games, seems to most accurately portray American lives because of its continually keeping pace with modernity. Breaking Bad, The Mindy Project, Greys Anatomy, House of Cards, and Orange Is the New Black are some examples of the many different popular shows today. House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black are both noteworthy because they are Netflix original series that have been nominated for Emmys, an award show with a large historical context by itself. “By questioning the meaning of some of the fundamental conceptual frameworks with which cinematic history has been written, they advance history even as they advance theory” (Smoodin). Smoodin discusses the idea of amateur media versus professional media. Netflix is an Internet media company that offers a huge selection of television shows and films (often prompting ‘binge-watching’, a new American craze). Netflix is a well-defined example of how television is transforming still today, keeping the media of television novel. Typically social markets are what change media into one thing or another, if the particular media fulfills the idea of capitalism, and once they find their niche or use, the sense of novelty is over (Gitelman). Netflix vs. ABC is a great example of amateur vs. professional, and how the idea of amateur and professionalism continuously alternate roles depending on the public’s opinion. Portability is a factor in media development, and that’s why the rise of Netflix is so important to keep an eye on. The way in which technology evolves is up to the public and will always be in flux. “Movies are fast becoming the ugly stepchild for major media companies, while television continues to be the cash cow that drives profits” (TheWrap).
Most importantly today is the comparison and conversation about TV and Internet. The two are coming together like never before, causing many media historians to question whether the Internet will eventually replace television. However, the introduction of a new media is delicate, and could disappear into oblivion at any moment. “Drawing from Rick Altman’s idea of “crisis historiography”, we might say that new media, when they first emerge, pass through a phase of identity crisis, a crisis precipitated at least by the uncertain status of the given medium in relation to established, known media and their functions” (pg. xii). When Netflix and Hulu first emerged on the media scene, many did not believe that ‘on your own time’ programming through the Internet could vanquish or subsume television through supercession (Gitelman xiii).
The direction in which TV is heading enables me to believe that TV will never be dead media. “Most of the following essays focus on media – Zograscopes, optical telegraphs, the physiognotrace – that failed to survive for very long. They are in, Bruce Sterling’s words, “dead media”. Yet because their “deaths”, like those of all “dead” media, occurred in relation to those that “lived”, even the most bizarre and the most short-lived are profoundly inter-textual, tangling during their existence with the dominant, discursive practices of representation that characterized the total cultural economy of their day” (pg. xiii). Therefore, if in the year 4013, television truly becomes a dead media because of the next incredible invention, the everlasting effects of television will be forever evident in American history.
Television and the historical context that developed around each new era of TV, from the Lucy days to the Seinfeld days to the Kardashian days, there must be an awareness that history isn’t just a chronicle of facts, but that media history suggests a conceptual framework of an entire era in American history. TV has slowly gestured towards understanding more thoroughly different cultures. Just as All in the Family broke social barriers with it’s discussions of previously considered taboo subjects, so did the first homosexual kiss on screen during Melrose Place in 1994. These television shows are animated and propelled by questions that we have resolved, moved on from or don’t understand, and that is what makes television as a media so enthralling to the history of America. “Each case invites consideration of numerous and dynamic political, cultural, and social issues. We might say that, inasmuch as “media” are media of communication, the emergence of a new medium is always the occasion for the shaping of a new community or set of communities, a new equilibrium” (pg. xv).
One of the many uses of history, especially television history, is to anchor a nation, or a culture, through time and experience (White 27). Time itself is a culture, and a way of seeing and experiencing socially. TV continuously propelled America to consider conceptual issues that transfer information into facts, and help us understand events and questions of value and connectedness. One of the most important theories in terms of natural sciences is that some technologies don’t evolve. They develop, but natural selection occurs, just in the same manner that natural selection has touched every other way of life. “People…communicate mind to mind. There is no race. There are no genders. There is no age. There are no infirmities. There are only minds…Utopia? No, the Internet. Where minds, doors, and bodies open up” (pg. 91). Television is one of those medias that will not just survive, but flourish, grow, and expand.
Carr, Edward Hallett. What is history?. New York: Vintage, 1961. Print.
Gitelman, Lisa, and Geoffrey B. Pingree. New media, 1740-1915. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003. Print.
Lewis, Jon, and Eric Loren Smoodin. Looking past the screen: case studies in American film history and method. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.
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