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Monday, October 28, 2013

A World Without Television??

With the advent of streaming, more and more people are watching movies, sitcoms, and reruns of Top Chef on their I-Pads…by themselves.  Alas, says Emma Brockes in The Guardian (10.28.13), no more shared culture.

I grew up in the early days of television, and sitting around the TV in the evening was indeed a family affair. Of course in those days there were only three channels to watch with very little programming difference among them, so breaking off from the herd was not an issue.  Television sets were expensive, and even if there were a lot more variety, few families would have been able to afford one for the living room and one for Sis in her bedroom.  And finally, in most small towns in America back in the Fifties, there simply wasn’t much else to do but watch TV. There was Bowl-a-Rama, Bette Davis down at the Rialto, getting drunk at The Hedges, but not much else.  Besides, all these outings cost money.  TV was cheap, and so was credit; so for very little you could tune in.  At the beginning of the Fifties when television first entered American homes, there were only a few programs produced; but by the end of the decade there were 840.  There was really very little reason to leave the house.

There was very little diversity among these shows, however because there was very little diversity I America – especially among those who could afford a TV.  Everyone loved Arthur Godfrey, and Arthur Murray; Dragnet, and Have Gun Will Travel. Producers didn’t have to worry about black audiences who were still invisible.  There were few Latinos; and Italians, Poles, and Irish immigrants, anxious to become real Americans, quickly caught on to Ralph Cramden and Ed Sullivan.

Early television was indeed a shared culture – both by families and the nation.  Every Thursday morning, chat around the water cooler and in the ladies room was about I Love Lucy or I’ve Got a Secret.  While some shows, most notably Playhouse 90, had adult themes, the sitcoms, variety shows, and dramas were for everybody. Parents and children both could laugh at Red Skelton.  Advertisers soon got wise to the fact that ‘serious’ drama and cleansers didn’t go well together, and soon adult crises were gone so that the medium could carry out its real purpose – selling things.  Silly shows and silly commercials went well together.  In any case, the likes of Playhouse 90 and all highbrow programming of early television would have disappeared anyway.  People wanted escape.

I used to go to Bollywood films in India many years ago, and even the four-hour, predictable marathons were never enough for Indian audiences. Moviegoers had to be pulled out of their seats as the final heraldic music and love scenes in the Vale of Kashmir faded, not surprising at all when the painful reality of Bombay lay just outside the theatre doors. We Americans may like to think that we are more sophisticated in our tastes, but the ‘art films’ of the Fifties and Sixties quickly went the way of Playhouse 90 to be replaced by adventure, horror, explosions, and romance.

One aspect of the shared TV experience of the Fifties was not mentioned by Brockes.  The real value of TV was that it was electronic wallpaper – it was always there, always on, filling voids and uncomfortable silences. It made communication easier. It nipped disagreement in the bud.  Conversation could start and stop, begin and end comfortably.  Thoughts were put on hold when the plot thickened, reanimated during the love scenes.  More family interaction happened because of television than despite it.  Radio was a different medium altogether.  You had to pay attention.  McLuhan described it as a ‘hot’ medium because it could not be ignored.  In the days before radio, families might have sat together, but they did individual things – Dad read the paper, Mom knitted, and Sis played with her dolls. In the Fifties den or rec room, families interacted because of TV.  They commented on, laughed at, or joked about what was going on onscreen. 

As programming time expanded, audiences became segmented.   Kids watched Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings.  Housewives were glued to the TV for the afternoon soaps – which was where, by the way, they got their adult content of hospitals, unwanted pregnancies, death, dying, and miserable relationships.  Men watched the Saturday Night Fights and afternoon baseball. At the same time, however, families and society were glued together by prime time TV – we all watched the same shows.

Emma Brockes laments the passing of this shared culture; but it really was no more than a time-bound phenomenon.  Because America was homogeneous society, still predominantly rural where entertainment sources were limited; and one in which family values (two-parent households, well-knit family groups) still reigned, it is not surprising that television quickly became the center of American life.

At the same time it is incorrect to assume that smartphones, tablets, and streaming have destroyed common media culture.  Millions of 30-somethings watch Breaking Bad or The Wire regardless of the electronic device; and share reactions at the yoga studio or gym. The programs have changed, and the way they were viewed has; but the shared experience has not.

Collective live viewing is still in. Look at any beer commercial, and you will see the same 30-somethings watching football on TV together, male bonding at its best.  Beer, nachos, and the NFL. Men watch sports a lot and often do it together – at each other’s apartments or at sports bars.  There is nothing more culturally common than American sports.  Men have always shared that particular love with each other, regardless of team allegiance or market.  They love the games, the players, the energy, the violence, and the competition; and whether they watch the Broncos together or apart, they have all watched it together.

There has been a lot written about how the social media are destroying just about everything.  Young people are becoming more isolated, more individualistic, and less community-oriented.  They live more in a virtual world than in a real one. Their avatar, carefully crafted and modeled to represent what they would like to be rather than what they are, has taken place of their pimply, uncertain selves. 

This, of course, is all wrong.  Except for the socially retarded, most young people use the social media to expand their social circles, not to limit them.  They use them to hook up, not to stay in.  The Internet fuels the content of YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.  Tragedy and the absurd rocket around the web in milliseconds.  The Talking Dog goes viral and gets tens of millions of hits on YouTube. Causes are promoted and consolidated on the media and virtual groups are formed to promote biking, yoga, environmentalism, health eating, gay rights, anti-capitalism, and many other popular issues.  In a literal way, each person advocating these causes is doing so from his or her own device, and thus is doing so alone; but in reality the shared experience is a thousand times greater and hundreds of times more rewarding.  You are not just sitting around the TV with family and friends watching Wild Kingdom, you are communicating with millions around the world.

So, no need to lament the demise of TV or the shared culture it represented in the Fifties.  The world has moved on to an even more socially shared electronic space; and that is a good thing.

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