Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Watson - Defining Visions

Watson, Mary Ann. Defining Visions: Television and the American Experience in the 20th Century. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008.

Since its emergence after World War II, television has had a powerful role in shaping Americans' perceptions and understandings about their nation and the world. Watson explores fictional programming and news coverage in a broad overview of American programming from the Golden Age to 9/11. The chapters are arranged thematically, with each theme taken chronologically in an attempt to reveal larger trends.


Chapter 1 - Television's invention and replacement of radio. Radio shows transition to television.

Chapter 2 - RACE: 1950s and 1960s, problematic portrayals of minorities. 1970s and 80s begins to change. But 1990s, portrayals become increasingly fragmented, as audiences themselves split and watched different programming.

Significant programs: Amos & Andy, Beulah, Nat King Cole Show, I Spy, The Cosby Show, WB & UPN, 1990s all-black v. all-white sitcoms

Chapter 3 - GENDER & FAMILY: 1950s into 1960s portrayed women as a homemaker supporting working husband and raising children. 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore Show breaks mold with single working woman, early 1990s conservative critics accuse TV of undermining family values

Father Knows Best, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed Show, Dick Van Dyke Show (beginning to undermine), Maude, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Family Ties, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Murphy Brown, Simpsons

Chapter 4 - VIOLENCE: 1950s violence was a last resort for a hero who generally tried to wound or disarm rather than kill. 1959 Untouchables was a key turning point with weekly scenes of death committed by villains and heroes. From there, violence has increased as has violent behavior by youth. The author sees a direct correlation. From time to time, under government or public pressure, television has attempted to address the problem - ratings system, V-chip. Another significant change was many programs began to show the gruesome effects of violence as a way of emphasizing their negative effect on society. 1977 Zamora case: 15-year-old boy murders 82-year-old woman during burglary, defense argues television influenced him.

professional wrestling, The Untouchables, MTV, A-Team, Homicide, The Sopranos

Chapter 5 - SEX: 1960 as a turning point year. Dick Van Dick Show, Petries still in separate beds but Moore's character wears capris rather than typical dresses and more chemistry between the couple than ever before. Sexual innuendo increases into 70s. Actual sex increases into 90s. Watson is particularly concerned with the portrayals of rape and harassment. 1979 General Hospital episode where Luke rapes Laura, but the two go on to fall in love. Condoms are rarely used on TV, STDs rarely discussed. Teen sex increasingly portrayed. Depictions of homosexuals as predators common into 70s, but more normalized even by the time Ellen came out.

Elvis on Ed Sullivan, Dick Van Dyke Show, Charlies Angels, Three's Company, Soap (Crystal's flamboyent gay character), Cheers, Married...with Children, Beverly Hills 90210, Clarence Thomas Hearings, Clinton scandal, Seinfeld, Friends

Chapter 6 - WORKPLACE: Beginning in 1950s professional organizations (such as the AMA) offered to partner with producers to ensure a realistic (read: positive) portrayal of their profession. Lower class workers largely disappeared between Honeymooners and All in the Family. Disappointments of 1970s US led to portrayals of lower class workers who, despite having more brains then their superiors, couldn't move up the ladder.

Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Laverne and Shirley, West Wing, CSI

Chapter 7 - ADVERTISING: Concerns with advertising to children. Product placement. Restrictions on advertisement for unhealthy products. Cigarettes, alcohol, fast food.

Chapter 8 - PERSONALITIES: Displaying famous people and their lives. Alcohol as an effective mean of coping with stress, and drunkenness as fun and without consequence. Death of 13-year-old Carol Lightner in 1980 by hit-and-run drunk driver leads mother, Candy Lightner to start MADD. Begins to change presentation of drinking on television. Towards end of 1990s, alcohol on TV begins to loosen. Fashion: Farah's hair. Increasing use of vulgar language on TV (you suck, bitch, etc).

Person to Person, This is your Life, Dean Martin Show, Party of Five, Drew Carey Show, Michael Jackson's crotch grab on Black or White premiere, Madonna

Chapter 9 - NATIONAL CHARACTER: The steady decline since Bishop Sheen. Quiz show scandals disillusion viewers. Shows like Queen for a Day gave false hope to impoverished viewers. Grey Panthers critique portrayals of elderly on TV, with some success in 80s (Murder, she Wrote, Matlock, Golden Girls). Portrayal of people with disabilities. Jerry Lewis's telethon increasingly critiqued for portraying disabled as helpless victims. Watson claims sports are more violent and suffer from bad sportsmanship and role models. Seinfeld typifies the decline.

Chapter 10 - DEMOCRACY: Christmas in Korea (Murrow), See It Now: Murrow takes on McCarthyism and wins, MLK's use of television for Civil Rights. Pete Seeger appears on Smothers Brothers and sings antiwar folk song. Cronkite questions Vietnam. Nixon loses debate in 60 but succeeds in managing his appearances in 68. Televised coverage of Watergate hearings. SNL takes down Gerald Ford. Reagan masters the medium, impressing after his assassination in 81. Hostage crisis. Challenger explosion, like JFK assassination, leads Americans to gather around the TV. Military controls footage of Persian Gulf War. OJ Simpson chase and trial. Chandra Levy case looks foolish as TV news goes 3 months before 9/11 without mentioning Al Qaeda once.

Epilogue - Election of 2000 and 9/11. Election coverage was chaotic. 9/11 coverage excellent for first day, but exploitative after as channels refined footage.

As an overview of countless hours of programming over 50 years, this is useful. But in terms of analysis, Watson offers little that is surprising or significant. She seems to think that, other than occasional moments of temporary reform, television programming has been on a downhill decline. Norman Lear's programs in the 1970s are given short shrift. The quality revolution slides by unnoticed and uncommented on. It could be argued that her simplistic criticism of the art of television is in sync with the way average viewers perceive the programming. However, it is easy to counter-argue that what viewers think they perceive from television does not match how it actually informs them. Unfortunately, Watson offers no discussion of these theoretical problems. She merely claims at the outset that television is "a cultural and historical force" (11) that "confers status on ideas, quite apart from their legitimacy or accuracy." (8) I think she is right, but I think such claims deserve more delicate treatment. The last paragraph of chapter 8 is typical:

"Beginning in the post-World War II era, the broad reach of television was socializing the national personality in sundry ways. Over the decades it brought harmless trends that enlivened daily lives and interactions. But by the end of the 20th century, it was also defining as acceptable lewd and selfish behaviors that diminish and weaken communities."

This book could be useful as a text for an undergraduate survey course on the history of television. For my own purposes, it was somewhat lacking.

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