Television In Our Lives: Then and Now
Two new books by ODU professors examine ubiquitous medium
By Michelle M. Falck
Pick any major historical event during the past 60 years and chances are you witnessed it happening on your television screen. April 3, 1956: a young man who looked and sounded like the wave of the future, Elvis Presley, makes his first television appearance on the Milton Berle Show. November 22, 1963: Walter Cronkite announces to Americans that their young president was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. February 9, 1964: a British pop band called The Beatles appears on the Ed Sullivan Show. July 20, 1969: Neil A. Armstrong steps on the moon’s surface. August 18, 1974: President Richard Nixon addresses the nation and announces his intention to resign from office.
Aside from their historical significance, these events were memorable because they represented a significant development in the cultural landscape of the time the ability of Americans across the country to participate collectively in a singular event in real time. The television set, which has become a ubiquitous fixture in most every American household today, had generated a shared consciousness that transcended economic and social strata.
Recognizing the important influence of television on American culture, two Old Dominion University professors have written books that examine the historical significance of television programming.
Media historian Gary R. Edgerton, professor and chair of the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts, has written “The Columbia History of American Television,” which was published by Columbia University Press in September 2007. His book traces the technological developments of television and its growing cultural relevance in our society from the 1930s and ’40s through present day, concluding with a look at the new forms of instantaneous communication and the ways in which they shape our social, political and economic landscape.
Edgerton, along with Jeffrey P. Jones, associate professor of communication and theatre arts, co-edited another work, “The Essential HBO Reader,” published by the University Press of Kentucky for release in January 2008. “The Essential HBO Reader” takes a comprehensive look at one of cable television’s most innovative and popular networks, examining HBO’s development as a corporation, a creative voice and a brand. For this work, the authors assembled a veritable dream team of television scholars to contribute analysis and detail to HBO’s nearly 40-year history and its profound influence on the entertainment industry.
Taking television seriously
Listening to Edgerton and Jones discuss television, it is clear they are passionate about their subject and quick to defend the medium against the hackneyed complaint that there is “nothing but garbage” to watch.
“Descriptions of television run the gamut, and a lot of them are pejorative terms like ‘boob tube’ and ‘chewing gum for the mind’ and that we’re wasting our time watching TV. When you’re talking about programming 24/7, 52 weeks a year, then obviously there’s a lot of dross on TV,” Edgerton concedes. “On the other hand, there are wonderful things on television all the time, too. So if you watch proactively and you schedule what you watch … you can get a lot out of it.”
“The Columbia History of American Television” examines “how television programming has evolved, how it has become more sophisticated, more challenging as an art form,” Edgerton adds. “I would pose it [television] as being as accomplished as the best movies you see. Some of the best television programs “The Wire,” for example are as good as the best novels that are out now.”
In the preface to “The Columbia History of American Television,” Edgerton reflects on the historical significance of television in America: “No technology before TV ever integrated faster into American life. Television took only 10 years to reach a penetration of 35 million households, while the telephone required 80 years; the automobile 50; and even radio needed 25. By 1983, moreover, the representative U.S. household was then keeping the TV set turned on for more than seven hours a day on average; two decades later this mean was up to eight hours a day and counting.”
Historical-critical studies are lacking
Despite television’s prevalence in our lives, few of us stop to consider the influence it has on how we think and perceive the world around us. “The central paradox of the last 60 years is that the flow of television images and sounds has been torrential, while our historical-critical understanding of TV as a technology, an industry, an art form, and an institutional force has largely been a peripheral concern for most people,” Edgerton contends.
Despite having to address a multitude of historical events, Edgerton manages to present the material in an intelligent and engaging manner. Ken Burns, producer and director of the recent PBS documentary “The War,” describes “The Columbia History of American Television” as “an accessible and compelling narrative of the complicated forces that went into creating our most enigmatic of mediums.”
The book begins with a look at television’s prehistory and the laying of the first telegraph line in 1844, which gave rise to the idea that images and sounds could be transmitted over long distances. Edgerton then considers how television’s look and purpose evolved during the Network Era (1948-75) and the part TV played in the transformation of postwar America. The birth of prime time and cable ushered in the Cable Era (1976-94) along with the exportation of American culture as a result of television’s foray into the international market.
Edgerton concludes “The Columbia History of American Television” with a discerning look at the current Digital Era (1995-present): “Unlike any other medium before it, the Internet was global from the outset. Even though the roots of the Internet date back to the late 1960s, it wasn’t until 1995 that it actually caught on with the general public in the United States when the World Wide Web (a hypertext-based information retrieval system) became widely accessible through Netscape’s graphical browser. From that point onward, the Internet grew faster than any other communication medium in human history.”
Whereas “The Columbia History of American Television” takes a historical look at television, “The Essential HBO Reader” strives to spotlight what many consider to be the gold standard of television programming today.
“HBO actually jump-started the Cable Era. It was the first network to go up on the satellite. They gambled everything. In 1972, when HBO was first formed, there were about 45-50 services that were trying to break through in pay cable. They [HBO] threw a Hail Mary pass and literally bet the bank on going up on the satellite,” Edgerton explains. “They innovated to such a degree that they broke away from the pack, and then, as is the case in any popular art, all of the other major competitors started to imitate them.”
Young scholars contribute essays on HBO
Jones agrees. “It’s an extraordinary network, but since there are few other academic works analyzing it, there was obviously a dearth of scholarly criticism and commentary on it.” For this very reason, Edgerton and Jones succeeded in bringing together both established and young, up-and-coming scholars in television studies to contribute essays for the book.
“It was a wonderful time to do it,” Jones adds, “in particular, because there was this commentary that since ‘Sex in the City’ had left and with the ‘Sopranos’ imminent demise, HBO had lost its footing and somehow HBO was like the other networks. I think from Gary’s and my perspectives we recognized that most people don’t understand how different of a network it is, including its profitability, but also what an innovator it is beyond what everybody is so familiar with. (Innovative programming) is just one component of what they do, and they do it well, but just as cutting-edge are the documentaries and other dramatic programming, including shows like ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘Angels in America.’ To call attention also to the sports programming and comic programming that it has revolutionized that’s what we wanted to do.”
As noted in the book’s introduction, the founding of HBO “was a harbinger of something new and innovative that was happening to television as an industry and a technology during the early-to-mid 1970s.” The original concept for HBO was to feature subscription television service that primarily would offer first-run movies and sporting events. It was based on a different economic model than the one followed by CBS, NBC and ABC, their affiliates, and the country’s independent stations, which all sold specific audiencesmost recently targeting young, urban, professional viewers above all othersto sponsors. “Unlike this advertiser-supported system, HBO’s subscriber format focused all of the channel’s attention on pleasing and retaining its viewing audience. HBO and the other 45 aspiring local and regional pay cable channels then trying to survive in America’s media marketplace were shifting the center of gravity in this sector of the television industry away from advertisers and more toward serving the needs and desires of their monthly customers.”
Programming stronger without advertisements
Both Edgerton and Jones agree that HBO’s lack of dependence on advertisers promotes the creative energy that exists at the network, and gives it a competitive advantage. Because HBO programs do not have commercial interruptions, the creators of these programs do not have to limit the narrative development to six- or eight-minute segments. Instead they have the flexibility and freedom to develop dense and complex narratives that have pushed higher the art of television, according to Edgerton.
“People watch these shows differently than they watch most television,” he explains. “Whereas [most] television is on as background noiseyou’re talking, you’re doing housework, you’re cooking, you’re eating, you’re checking your e-mailwith these shows, because they are so dense and the narrative is so complex, you do have to pay attention for the hour or so that it is on.”
Edgerton points out another effect that advertising has on regular broadcast programming: “If you take the top 10 shows … and consider the number of product placements over the course of the season, you’re talking 8,000 product placements.” The implication is that regular broadcast producers and directors have to be concerned about how to work a product into a shot, whereas HBO has the luxury of not worrying about those considerations and instead can focus on the story narrative.
The end result is better-quality programs. In fact, as Jones and Edgerton point out, HBO typically walks away from the Emmys and Oscars with numerous awards, not only for its dramatic programming, but also for its social documentaries. The network has even become known as the home of stand-up comedy, replacing the late-night television talk shows as a comedian’s primary television venue for making it big in show business.
How the traditional broadcast networks or an enterprise such as HBO will continue to evolve in an era of digital communications is anybody’s guess, but the question is part of the appeal for television historians.
For scholars in the field of television studies or for educated readers interested in the subject of television, each of these books promises to inform and engage with accounts and commentary about how television influences the way we think about ourselves and our culture.