April 20, 2011

So what's the big deal about television?

And why should anyone out there care about It's About TV!, let alone waste your time reading it?

I could be considered a child of television, having lived my entire life within the all-encompassing grasp of TV. It’s not surprising, therefore, that I’ve had a lifelong interest in it – watching it, reading about it, being glued to it for hours, turning it off in exasperation. My interest in television, however, actually predates the year of my birth. Some people tend to deride anything that happened before they were born. I’m not one of those people. Hence, you’re likely to find me writing about a lot of programs I couldn’t possibly have seen when they were actually aired. (But that’s OK, because TV was better then.)

I've written frequently about television in my role as cultural archaeologist over at Our Word and Welcome to It,  including my weekly "Retro TV Friday" feature. But finally it seemed to me it was time to start a site devoted solely to television, where I could post articles that were longer and more in-depth, on a weekly basis rather than the (more or less) daily grind of "Our Word." Hence, "It's About TV!" But this isn't just a television blog; you probably won't come here to read the latest celebrity gossip about who's in, who's out, or who's coming out and is now in because of it. No, what we're interested in at "It's About TV!" is primarily the relationship between television and the shaping of American culture. For instance, does television drive culture, or reflect it? Did the cathode ray tube of the old RCA console act as a looking glass into the future or a mirror reflecting the present?

The answer, as is almost always the case in questions like this, is "Yes."

It’s not surprising that, being a child of the TV era, I’ve tended to look at my own personal view of history through the prism of the camera lens. Ask me about a year, a season, a moment in time, and I’ll likely relate it to something I saw or heard on television. And it’s not just the major events: JFK’s assassination, the moon landing, 9/11 and the like. It’s also the last episode of The Fugitive, Tiny Tim getting married on Johnny Carson, or the creation of an institution like Carson or Walter Cronkite.

For most of us, the knowledge of these events came to us because we saw it on television. And oftentimes, the impact of that broadcast took on importance that far transcended the event itself. Who could have guessed, for example, that the telecast of the Notre Dame-Michigan State college football Game of the Century in 1966 would not only change the future of sports on television but also play a crucial role in the desegregation of college campuses?

We’re entertained by television, we’re frustrated by, and sometimes we’re frightened by it. But what can we learn from it? For one thing, we can learn about ourselves, our history, and the shaping of our culture.

Why watch Mad Men interpret the 50s and 60s for us when we can watch an episode of Route 66 or East Side/West Side and see for ourselves how the era looked, what styles were like, how people talked. Watching a drama from the Golden Age of Television can tell us volumes about what Americans liked, thought about, valued, or worried about, and the cultural historian who tries to explain our times without consulting TV is extremely shortsighted.

And there are few history books written after the fact that can give us a flavor of a time in quite the way a TV Guide can. Just flip open a page at random from an issue, and you can see the latest fashions, find out about future technology twenty years before its time (Cable TV! Video Recorders!), or just learn about television’s Next Big Thing. (January 25, 1964: Bob Denver to star in new CBS sitcom about castaways stranded on desert island.)

Now this doesn’t mean that everything we saw or read back then was “the way it is,” to borrow from Uncle Walter. Maybe Ozzie and Harriet weren’t the typical American family and Father didn’t always Know Best. Maybe that starlet was really three or four years older than she wanted you to believe, or a leading man’s marriage wasn’t nearly as stable as it sounded. Maybe minorities were shown in stereotypes, and those hippies you saw on Dragnet in 1968 (or the beatniks on Dragnet in 1955) weren’t really like that at all.

The point is, those hippies and beatniks were portrayed that way because Jack Webb wanted you to see them that way. And doesn’t that say something equally important about the culture? What we see on TV may not always be the truth, but oftentimes it’s what we want to believe. Far from invalidating the experience as some kind of high camp, those Dragnets actually give us an insight into a generation struggling to come to terms with and understand the new culture in which it found itself.

Ed Sullivan, for example, didn’t understand rock ‘n roll, nor did he especially like it. What he did understand and like, however, was ratings – the higher, the better – and he knew it was important to stay ahead of the audience curve. He may not have liked what he saw and heard, but he did like the bottom line. But in giving his blessing to Elvis, the Beatles and the rest and telling Middle America it was safe to let them into their homes, did he unwittingly help to create the very youth-oriented counterculture that eventually brought him down and changed everything he understood and valued? It just goes to show that TV can be a fickle mistress indeed.

There’s probably nothing that illustrates my own relationship to TV quite as much as the fact I’ve blabbering on here, instead of getting to the point. Enough of what TV is all about: what about this blog?
Well, for one thing, it’s made up of my personal opinions – it’s not intended to be definitive, nor will it be perfect. On occasion you might find yourself with one of those “Wow! Really?” moments. Other times you’ll probably find yourself thinking, “What a total waste of time.” Hopefully, you’ll mind most of it fun and interesting, and you’ll decide it’s worth putting on your Favorites list.

Most of all, I hope I can bring back some memories, tell you something you might have forgotten or never knew, or give you a laugh or two. Maybe you’ll want to read a book I’ve mentioned, or buy the DVD of a show I’ve talked about. And if I can help steer you away from a real turkey by suffering through it myself so you don’t have to, then I’ll have done my job.

So if you wondered how 50s sitcoms helped fight the Cold War, or how The Gong Show could have an entire episode devoted to the song “Feelings,” then “All About TV!” is all about you.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!