The Democratization of Television

A lot has been said about the democratization of information the Internet Age has brought to our society. As dismal as things may seem right now, I am so happy to live in an era where knowledge is at my fingertips. If I can’t afford to take a class or buy a book on a subject I’m interested in, at least I can do my own research. The library, another one of my great loves in life, does the same thing. But this is quicker and faster and I can carry it around with me. But how does this democratization apply to television? And why does it matter?

How Television Helps

I have always been inquisitive. As a child, television was another information source from which to suck new information. I grew up in rural New Hampshire where, especially at that time, racial diversity hardly existed. Some of my first “real” exposure to difference – what it might be like to be another color or to live in the city or to be a different age – was through shows like Sesame Street, Ghostwriter, and Doctor Who.

As I’ve grown older and become more critical of the stories I consume, I realized television is useful not only in showing experience different from my own, but- when viewed with a critical eye – depicting a social order viewers can either choose to accept and emanate (more likely) or question and rebel against. This is why the biggest and most dangerous view held about television is that it is unimportant. Pop culture is a double-edged sword. Consuming it can be an exploration of the world we live in and how we define ourselves (it is up to the viewer to determine how accurate those depictions are), or it can be an exercise – especially in depictions of complex issues like gender, race, and class  – in reenforcing disparate structures of power in our society. Often times, it is both.

How Television Hurts

In his 1997 essay “What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream,” Noam Chomsky examples Walter Lippmann, an American journalist who worked during the first part of the 20th century and sharply criticized the Committee on Public Information, an independent government agency formed by Wilson to influence the American people away from their anti-war stance .

 [Lippmann] says, there is this new art in the method of democracy, “manufacture of consent.” By manufacturing consent, you can overcome the fact that formally a lot of people have the right to vote. We can make it irrelevant because we can manufacture consent and make sure that their choices and attitudes will be structured in such a way that they will always do what we tell them, even if they have a formal way to participate. So we’ll have a real democracy. It will work properly. That’s applying the lessons of the propaganda agency.

Chomsky’s essay is well-worth a read, discussing how the propaganda used by the British and their Ministry of Information and, later, by Woodrow Wilson and his Committee on Public Information during the first world war marked a turning point in the adeptness of institutions’ use of media to shape public opinion. Chomsky focuses on newspapers and journalism in his piece, but the concepts can be applied to television and other forms of popular culture, which have only become more prevalent since Chomsky wrote the essay 15 years ago.

How Television is Changing

Never before has television had much of a life outside the institution. Though network and cable televisions owned by ginormous corporations still produce most of television, the Internet has provided a place to distribute outside of that structure. Web series, though not hugely popular, have an audience (note to self: next web series review should not be about a program produced by a major corporation, i.e. Netflix). There are other voices – voices that are made silent in mainstream media – that are now being heard.

The structure is changing in another way, as well:  No longer is sitting in front of the box at a specific time every week, one hour at a time, the only way to watch your favorite shows. More and more people (especially of the younger variety) are finding their television online, sometimes in ways that completely remove the advertising element. This is particularly relevant given that, for the corporations that make and produce these shows, advertising and the revenue is what matters. Chomsky again:

But the audience is the product. The product is privileged people, just like the people who are writing the newspapers, you know, top-level decision-making people in society. You have to sell a product to a market, and the market is, of course, advertisers (that is, other businesses). Whether it is television or newspapers, or whatever, they are selling audiences. Corporations sell audiences to other corporations. In the case of the elite media, it’s big businesses.

Well, what do you expect to happen? What would you predict about the nature of the media product, given that set of circumstances? What would be the null hypothesis, the kind of conjecture that you’d make assuming nothing further. The obvious assumption is that the product of the media, what appears, what doesn’t appear, the way it is slanted, will reflect the interest of the buyers and sellers, the institutions, and the power systems that are around them. If that wouldn’t happen, it would be kind of a miracle.

So, what happens when the corporations can’t deliver on that audience? Or, at least can’t predict as they have in the past, how the audience will consume their creations? I’m not saying we are heading towards some kind of television revolution. Already, corporations have begun to move their advertisers into the very fabric of their shows and movies (“Isn’t this Vitamin Water delicious, Character #2?”). But it is definitely changing and up-in-the-air, and that is exciting.

And, more than ever before, people have access to television. There is more of it and more places to find it that may not have the same financial barriers they have had in the past. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I hope that the more media people consume, the more critical they become of it because with information comes recognition of pattern.  All it takes is a teeny, tiny step back to start asking questions like: “Why are all the people on this show white, rich, and beautiful?” or “Why does the female character on this show never get to do anything cool?” I have made this case before, but I truly believe that our public educational system would benefit from some sort of media consumption component. I know our teachers have their hands full with pesky issues like literacy, but the amount of information our society (especially our kids) are bombarded with everyday is truly awe-inspiring.

Conclusions

Television is important. The widely-held view to the contrary is not only wrong; it is dangerous. The average American now watches five hours of television everyday. Moving right past the potential health hazards of staying sedentary for that long, there are other consequences. Contrary to popular belief, watching television is not mindless. Yes, there are absolutely moronic programs out there that depict the most vacuous of characters and real-life people taking part in mindbogglingly offensive behavior, but even those shows (and, often, especially those shows) are imparting something to their viewers. Scarily enough, it is often that being mindbogglingly offensive is cool.

Television has the potential to do something else, though, and that is the reason I love it. It has the potential to expand people’s minds. “How TV Brought Gay People Into Our Homes,” is a recent NPR story that discusses how depictions of gay characters in shows like Glee and Modern Family have changed Americans’ attitudes towards homosexuality. The blog “Oddly Together” argues that the depiction of a black president in 24 helped pave the way for America’s election of Barack Obama (It’s relevant to note that his post was in reaction to a New York Times article that argued that the program, which debuted eight weeks after September 11th, supported the Bush Administration’s “stop-at-nothing approach to counter-terrorism.”) These are complex issues that could never be proven to everyone’s satisfaction, but I believe that television can make a difference. There is a lot of talk about how we are increasingly becoming a culture without myth, but I don’t think that is true. Joseph Campbell, the guru of myth, called myths “public dreams,” and what else is popular culture? The question then becomes: what do our dreams look like?

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