Introduction: Reading Television
Issue #57, October 2001
About a half century ago, Edward R. Murrow hosted an edition of See it Now in which he connected a CBS feed from New York with another CBS feed from San Francisco, resulting in the first time ever that people were able to see live pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge at the same time. In those heady early days of nationwide feed, Murrow showed the United States pictures of itself it had never seen before, and a few it needed to see: The Harvest of Shame shared the plight of migrant workers with middle America; The Case of Milo Radulovich was the beginning of the end of the reign of McCarthy. Best of all, it was commercial network television that was making all of this possible.
Or was it? We now know for instance, that most of the truly controversial issues tackled by Murrow and his See it Now crew were in fact paid for by Murrow and his then producer Fred Friendly, because the network sponsors were unwilling to maintain their sponsorship of a show so controversial. Often, the producers were stuck peddling minutes in the hours before airtime because of nervous sponsors. We know this because Fred Friendly told us so, in a book called Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control. But if we'd been paying attention, we could have known that in 1951, the original sponsor, Alcoa, regularly pulled out. The ads placed in the New York Times for shows not sponsored by Alcoa said "Friendly/Murrow" on them, often without even using the CBS logo. This then is one way of "reading" television.
The variety of essays we reviewed from our call for papers only lead us to realize how broadly our readership thinks about television. We were surprised by what we received, but we were in many ways more surprised by what we didn't get. There were no pieces on commercials or infomercials, no one who admitted to being a couch potato, no confirmed trekkies or soap opera lovers, and no critiques of the increasing presence of religious programming on major networks like Fox. Even more surprising, no one submitted essays discussing the possibilities public access television opens up to political activists, or for that matter, the use of the TV set to function as a virtual baby sitter when parents cannot afford to pay one.
This is, perhaps, evidence of many of the ways television functions for some of us. Given how stigmatized television is for readers of magazines like this, we presume that many people are embarrassed to admit that they know anything about it, let alone disclose how much they really watch every day. Television programs are both what help bring us together around the water cooler and what serve to divide us: those of us who watch genre television think we're cool while others think we're geeks; those of us who watch soaps are defensive in the face of others who think we're wasting time, but watch ER and NYPD Blue; those who watch sports dominate the conversations in the kitchens on Monday morning.
The authors of the pieces in this issue cover a large spectrum of the above, even though they didn't manage to give us what we expected. Each piece "reads" television for a different reason, and in a different way: Elisabeth Hurst ruthlessly dissects Canadian content laws, explaining their absurdity even while managing to defend it some; Marnie Carroll discusses European uses of American television from an expatriate perspective in an attempt to demonstrate that US television isn't quite as all pervasive as some are concerned it might be; Walter Jacobs explains how he uses The X-Files as a homework assignment; Zack Furness makes it personal: he used to watch his father on TV.
On a more traditional note, Bradley Berens rethinks hospital drama and his ability to watch ER following the birth of his daughter; Megan Shaw Prelinger remembers the roots of her own political education from The Prisoner; Baynard Woods crowns the Dukes of Hazard the kings of the South; and Joe Lockard considers the phenomenon of Britney Spears after watching a few of her videos.
Finally, Bernadette Flynn thinks about the impact of the television as a piece of furniture in our lives, dissecting the place of the television in the living room.
As we sat to write this introductory piece, we were struck by how difficult it has suddenly become to discuss anything but most especially television, without reference to September 11. During the editing process, it was impossible to ignore the sinister quality of the video footage of jubilant Palestinians dancing in the streets of Nablus on that Tuesday, as it was repeated non-stop on every major American network. Indeed, it made the task of producing a Bad Subjects issue devoted to television uniquely relevant. We agonized over whether to go ahead and publish the issue as it was, whether to add pieces about the events, or to scrap the issue altogether. We finally compromised: we are including one piece on the recent events by Joe Lockard, giving his take on the visual politics of George W. Bush. But mostly we decided that in spite of the pop-culture bent of this issue, the events of the past few weeks have made it clear that interrogating television is vitally important. It is our hope that the articles we're presenting can lead the way toward that interrogation.