When Television Made a Difference and How

Auckland   Sometimes the little things turn out to be big things or at the least added with lots of other things, become very big indeed.  That was part of the message I got from Cory Albertson’s book, A Perfect Union? Television and the Winning of Same-Sex Marriage, and our discussion on Wade’s World recently.  Albertson’s thesis is that part of what drove a 9% surge in approval of same-sex marriage and relationships prior to the pathbreaking 2015 Supreme Court decision was the increasingly common and positive depiction of such relationships in major, popular television shows, and that change helped to drive the social change in popular attitudes.

The power of television may be diminishing compared to the decades when it dominated news and entertainment venues, but Albertson is correct in arguing that it can still move the needle.  The continued power of Fox News as a rightwing megaphone for the President and his policies is of course a current example before us on a daily basis.

Importantly, as Albertson thanks television for its blessing of same sex relationships, it is important to note that there is a question mark that looms heavily over this thesis, just as it does in the title of his book.  Television played a positive role in his argument, but not without a potential long-term price because of what he termed its obedience to heteronormativity.  It didn’t just legitimize the relationships, it presented them stereotypically as duplicating heteronormative relationships with marriage, two parents with different roles, etc, etc, etc, that one expert he quoted called “compulsory heterosexuality.”  Similar to any other stereotype, doing so puts more pressure on those outside of the norm, implicitly portraying them as deviant, rather than simply diverse.

Albertson came to his thesis by watching all of the episodes of a number of popular television shows like Gray’s Anatomy, The Queer Eye, Modern Family, Glee among others in order to unpack how they handled same sex romantic relationships.   He claims to have been unscarred by the experience, but most of us would have to say he took one for the team in doing the hard time even if he jokingly claimed he was in bed eating bonbons at the time.  This “homonormativity,” as he quotes one expert is burdensome, often idealizing same sex marriages on an even higher pedestal than heterosexual marriage.  In handling same sex relationships, Albertson also found, not surprisingly as we are constantly learning from all reports of many executives’ behavior, they catered to the “male gaze,” tricking out many lesbian or bisexual women as sex objects for heterosexual men as part of the television package.

So, yes, Albertson’s finds that television contributed to the creation of a “Badiou event” meaning something that disrupts the normal “rules of the situation” sufficiently to enable social, political or other changes.  Albertson also finds there may be a steep price in the role television played that will require continued struggle not just to help change a law, but to win full recognition and acceptance of the diversity of expression of same sex and other non-heteronormative behavior and lifestyles.

It’s hard to argue that he isn’t making a valid point, whether you turn the television on or off in these situations.


Is TV Dying at the Hands of Women, Reality and Choice?

broken_tv.0.0New Orleans    With the viewing numbers and revenues plummeting at ESPN, investors in the stock market administered a financial butt whipping to media stocks from Disney to Fox, and pundits began asking whether or not “TV is dead,” rephrasing the same question others had posed when church attendance began falling. What’s up with all of this?


It can’t be because it’s summer reruns because darned few television or cable outlets can get away with that anymore. There is so much new viewing product that I read in recent months that there were north of 350 new shows cumulatively on mainline television, cable, and the new competitors like Amazon, Netflix, and the rest. In fact, syndication prices and numbers are going down as well as some of the newer series disappoint in this regard, failing to create the mega-millions for the “Friends” and “Steinfelds” of the recent past.

It might be because television, having bear-hugged reality, or more honestly a kind of faux, wannabe, exotic reality can no longer manufacture an imagination to effectively compete with reality. YouTube viewing is in the billions creating an inestimable array of choices for viewers, especially the young. I still find myself sometimes wondering how younger people figure out how to download so much of this stuff for binge viewing as they see fit. Livestreaming, I get fully, but both have untethered people from the television screen, opened up the computer and mobile phones, and made much of television bricks and sticks.

Maybe part of the problem is that not only does television seem to live and die for the young male eyeballs and the hopes that they will buy the ads fueling their business model, but women may be deserting television as well. Movies are hurting too, except for ones that appeal to women directly, and it seems for good reason. A recent University of Southern California study of the top 700 popular films between 2007 and 2014 found that women only made up 30.2% of all speaking or named characters. 73.1% were white, 19.9% of female characters were between 40 and 64. Only 1.9% were directed by women. Women in the famous Chinese slogan “hold up half the world,” but no one would know it from most of television. And to the degree there most of the women on the screen are young, see the appeal to young men above, there’s competition there as well because the internet is not only driven by technology, but also porn. The conservative Indian national government defied a Supreme Court order in that country by shutting down almost 900 porn sites. 900 porn sites in India, who knew? The scale of all of this must be virtually unfathomable.

All of which would either drive people, or leave people, looking for other choices and this is a time in which there are an abundance, almost an overabundance, of choices. Most studies that I have seen indicate that screen time is up when televisions, computers, and mobile phones are all counted, but television time itself is down. It may be that there’s nothing wrong with television, but everything right with choice, and the more choices people have, then the more they are going to go for what they really like and the reality they choose.

And, come to think of it, that is very bad news for television.