Television's Impact on American Society and Culture
Television's Impact on American Society and Culture
TV is a constant presence in most Americans' lives. With its fast-moving, visually interesting, highly entertaining style, it commands many people's attention for several hours each day. Studies have shown that television competes with other sources of human interaction—such as family, friends, church, and school—in helping young people develop values and form ideas about the world around them. It also influences viewers' attitudes and beliefs about themselves, as well as about people from other social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
Between the 1940s and 2000s, commercial television had a profound and wide-ranging impact on American society and culture. It influenced the way that people think about such important social issues as race, gender, and class. It played an important role in the political process, particularly in shaping national election campaigns. TV programs and commercials have also been mentioned as major factors contributing to increased American materialism (a view that places more value on acquiring material possessions than on developing in other ways). Finally, television helped to spread American culture around the world.
Racial minorities on TV
Until the 1970s, the majority of the people who appeared on American television programs were Caucasian (white). Being white was presented as normal in all sorts of programs, including news, sports, entertainment, and advertisements. The few minorities that did appear in TV programs tended to be presented as stereotypes (generalized, usually negative images of a group of people). For instance, African American actors often played roles as household servants, while Native Americans often appeared as warriors in Westerns.
Some critics argue that outright racism (unfair treatment of people because of their race) was the reason that so few minorities appeared on television. But television industry analysts offered several other explanations as well. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, the broadcast networks tried to create programs that would attract a wide audience. Before research tools became available to gather information about the race and gender of people watching, network programmers assumed that the audience was made up mostly of white viewers. They also assumed that many white viewers would not be interested in watching shows about minorities. In addition, the networks did not want to risk offending viewers—or potential advertisers—in the South who supported segregation (the forced separation of people by race). Whatever the reason, prime-time television programming largely ignored the real-life concerns and contributions of America's racial minorities for many years.
There were a few early TV shows that featured minorities. The popular situation comedy (sitcom) I Love Lucy, which aired from 1951 to 1957, co-starred comedian Lucille Ball (1911–1989) and her real-life husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz (1917–1986), who was Hispanic. The Nat "King" Cole Show, a musical variety series that began on NBC in 1956, was hosted by the well-known black entertainer Nat King Cole (1919–1965). Even though the program attracted many of the top performers of that time, it was cancelled after one year because it failed to find a sponsor (a company that pays to produce a program for advertising purposes). A very popular early variety program, The Ed Sullivan Show, featured a number of black performers as guests. Still, African Americans mostly appeared on TV in the role of entertainers.
This situation slowly began to improve during the civil rights movement (1965–75), when African Americans fought to end segregation and gain equal rights in American society. TV news programs provided extensive coverage of civil rights protests, which helped turn public opinion in favor of the cause of equality. As awareness of racial discrimination (unfair treatment based on race) increased, more social critics began complaining about the absence of minority characters on television. They argued that positive portrayals of minority characters in TV programs could help increase the self-esteem of minority viewers, promote understanding, and improve race relations in the United States.
Breaking the color barrier
In 1965, African American actor and comedian Bill Cosby (1937–) costarred as a detective on the popular series I Spy. He won three Emmy Awards for his role. In 1968 Diahann Carroll (1935–) became the first black woman to star in a prime-time TV series. She played the title character in Julia, a sitcom about a nurse raising her young child alone after her husband's death. Since Julia lived in an apartment building with both black and white tenants and never faced prejudice or discrimination due to her race, some critics complained that the show did not reflect the realities of the African American experience. But Carroll claimed that Julia was as realistic as any other fictional program on TV. "We all had to realize that television was not representative of any community," she commented in Ebony. "It was a make-believe world. Even the white families were cardboard [one-dimensional or flat]."
During the 1970s, television program ratings began using such viewer characteristics as age, income, education, and ethnicity to break down the mass audience into smaller groups. Once the networks could collect more detailed data about the audience, they began creating programs to appeal to specific groups. Around this time, the networks also shifted their general focus away from older, rural viewers and toward younger, urban viewers, who were seen as more likely to spend money on sponsors' products. This change in audience focus led the networks to tackle more frequently debated issues in their programs.
As a result, several programs featuring minority characters and families first appeared in the 1970s. The African American comedian Flip Wilson (1933–1998) hosted a successful variety show that aired on NBC from 1970 to 1974. The Flip Wilson Show reached number two in the national TV rankings and won two Emmy Awards. Some historians credit Wilson for leading the way for later black comedians who had successful television careers, such as Arsenio Hall (1955–), Eddie Murphy (1961–), Chris Rock (1965–), and Dave Chappelle (1973–). However, other critics claim that Wilson started an unfortunate trend in which a growing number of African American entertainers on television played the role of comic fool.
Another important minority show of the 1970s was Good Times, which aired on CBS for five years beginning in 1974. This situation comedy focused on the struggles of an African American family living in an inner-city apartment building. Each week the Evans family relied on love and humor to overcome discrimination, unemployment, crime, and other problems faced by many black families in the United States. Many TV critics praised the series for dealing with these issues in a realistic way, and many viewers identified with the family's struggles during tough economic times. But some African Americans felt that the character of son J. J., played by Jimmie Walker (1947–), was a ridiculous stereotype. In fact, the actors who played his parents, John Amos (1939–) and Esther Rolle (1920–1998), left the show in protest when its focus shifted from the family to the clownish J. J.
The Jeffersons, which aired on CBS for a decade beginning in 1974, was another important show about an African American family. It was created by Norman Lear (1922–), who also created the popular but controversial show All in the Family. The sitcom centered on George Jefferson (played by Sherman Hemsley [1938–]), a successful black businessman who moved his family into a luxury high-rise apartment building in New York City. George often behaved rudely and made a fool of himself, only to be rescued by his patient wife, Louise (Isabel Sanford [1917–2004]). The program reached number four in the annual television ratings in 1974–75, demonstrating that shows starring African Americans could achieve widespread, popular success. But it also received criticism during its long run for portraying some characters as stereotypes.
The mid-1970s also saw the launch of the first prime-time TV series centering on a Hispanic character. Chico and the Man, which aired on NBC from 1974 to 1978, starred Puerto Rican comedian Freddie Prinze (1954–1977) as Chico Rodriguez. Chico is a talented young mechanic who builds a relationship with a cranky old garage owner, Ed Brown (played by Jack Albertson [1907–1981]). The show was set in a multicultural neighborhood in East Los Angeles, and it received critical praise for presenting a thriving Hispanic culture to national TV audiences. The show continued after the death of Prinze in 1977, but went off the air the following season.
Another landmark program in African American TV history is Roots, an eight-part mini-series (a short series of television programs with a continuing story line) that earned some of the highest ratings ever when it aired in 1977. Based on a historical novel by Alex Haley (1921–1992), it followed four generations of an African American family, beginning when the first member was brought to the United States from Africa and sold as a slave. Many people hoped that the miniseries would increase awareness of the impact slavery had on African American families, and thus would help improve race relations in the United States.
The Cosby Show a sitcom that aired on NBC from 1984 to 1992 and claimed the top spot in the annual TV ratings four times, also had a broad appeal. Created by Bill Cosby, The Cosby Show centered on a stable, middle-class black family. Cosby played Dr. Cliff Huxtable, a successful physician and wise and loving father. Phylicia Rashad (1948–) played his wife Clair, a respected attorney and patient mother. Some critics claimed that the program was unrealistic, partly because two professional, working parents could never spend so much time at home with their children. Others complained that the show did not do enough to address issues of importance to African Americans. But many viewers found it refreshing to see the positive image of a comfortable, confident, and loving black family on TV each week.
Cable TV targets minority viewers
During the 1980s and 1990s, American television viewers gained many new channel options. The growth of cable TV services—and the introduction of new broadcast networks such as Fox, UPN, and WB—greatly expanded the amount of programming available on television. Many of the new cable channels and smaller broadcast networks directed their programs toward minorities, since these audiences were not being well served by the major networks. Black Entertainment Television (BET) and UPN focused on African American viewers, for instance, while Univision and Telemundo aimed at Hispanic audiences.
Even as shows for and about minorities became more widely available, however, prominent roles for people of color were rare in prime-time programs on the major broadcast networks. There were a few examples of multicultural casts in mainstream series. The police drama Miami Vice, which aired from 1984 to 1989, depicted a pair of detectives. One partner was white (Sonny Crockett, played by Don Johnson [1949–]), and the other was black (Rico Tubbs, played by Philip Michael Thomas [1949–]). Similarly, the police drama NYPD Blue, which began in 1993, featured a white detective (Andy Sipowitz, played by Dennis Franz [1944–]) partnered with a Hispanic detective (Bobby Simone, played by Jimmy Smits [1955–]). In many cases, though, the minorities who appeared in prime time cop shows were depicted as criminals, gang members, or drug addicts.
In general, television programming became more segregated (separated by race) in the age of cable, with individual shows tending to feature casts that were either white or black. As of 2006 The Cosby Show was the last major network program with equal appeal to black and white viewers. Polls showed that black and white Americans tended to watch completely different sets of shows. Most of the programs that attracted large numbers of minority viewers aired on the smaller broadcast networks or on specialized cable networks. Critics argued that these separate viewing patterns prevented people of different races from developing shared interests and common cultural references and thus contributed to the racial divisions in American society.
In 1999 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other minority organizations formally complained about the lack of diversity in network television programs. The networks responded by adding more minorities to the casts of shows and actively recruiting minority employees. By the early 2000s the effort had produced some positive results. Surveys showed that African Americans accounted for 15 percent of the characters in prime-time series. This figure was similar to the percentage of African Americans in the overall U.S. population (12.5 percent).
Hispanics did not fare as well in prime-time TV series. Although Hispanics made up 13.5 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for only 3 percent of the characters on television in 2003 (Asian Americans and Native Americans each accounted for less than 1 percent of characters). Cable operators targeted the Hispanic market with an increase in Spanish-language programming in the 2000s. But Hispanic activists wanted to see more Hispanic characters in mainstream programming as well. For example, they pointed out that several popular prime-time series were set in Miami, Florida, where as of the early 2000s about 66 percent of the population was Hispanic. Even so, these programs did not feature Hispanic characters in major roles. One of the few successful network series to focus on a Hispanic family was George Lopez, which began airing on ABC in 2000. This sitcom starred Hispanic comedian George Lopez (1961–) as the manager of an aircraft parts factory who struggles to deal with his rebellious teenaged children, ambitious wife, and meddlesome mother.
Some experts believe that the key to improving minority representation on television is to increase the number of minorities who work in positions of authority in the TV industry—as station managers, for instance, or as network programming executives. They argue that putting people of color in charge of programming at the major networks and at local TV stations would lead to more frequent, accurate, and respectful portrayals of minorities on screen.
Women on TV
Television has a mixed record when it comes to portraying women and gender roles. Although women made up more than 51 percent of the U.S. population as of 2000, female characters have always accounted for a
The NAACP Fights Racism on TV
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has fought against discrimination in the American entertainment industry since its founding in 1909. The organization, which promotes equal rights for African Americans and other minorities, played a role in shaping the content of TV programs from the earliest years of television. In 1951, for instance, the NAACP filed a lawsuit in federal court to stop the CBS network from airing the show Amos 'n' Andy, because it portrayed African American characters as stereotypes (generalized, usually negative images of a group of people). Although the lawsuit was not successful, pressure from the NAACP and other organizations helped convince CBS to take the show off the air in 1953.
At the start of every television season, the major broadcast networks release descriptions of the new programs they plan to introduce. Prior to the 1999–2000 season, the NAACP reviewed the TV schedules and pointed out that none of the new prime-time network series featured minority characters in prominent roles. The organization held meetings with television executives about the lack of minorities on TV and reached agreements in which the networks promised to take steps to increase diversity.
After 2000, the NAACP continued to work with the television industry to increase the number of high-profile roles for minorities on screen, as well as to create more employment opportunities for minorities behind the scenes of TV programs. In his introduction to a 2003 report on the organization's progress, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume explained the importance of television in shaping people's views of minorities:
Ideas and images guide our lives. They create the belief systems that control our individual and societal actions. Television communicates more ideas and images to more people in a single day than [Biblical King] Solomon or [English playwright William] Shakespeare did in their entire lives. More people depend on the medium for news and entertainment, from which they construct their worldview, than on any other venue in the world.
When it comes to forming ideas, reinforcing stereotypes, establishing norms, and shaping our thinking, nothing affects us more than the images and concepts delivered into our lives on a daily basis by television and film. Accordingly there is ample cause for concern about what does or does not happen on television when there is little or no diversity in either opportunities or the decision-making process….
With all the [problems] affecting communities and people across our nation, one might argue that there are more urgent needs and other battles to fight. Although that might be the case in some instances, few if any issues will define us more in the context of who we are, what we think, and how we respond than the medium of television.
Over the years, many other special interest groups have recognized the impact of television on the way Americans think about various issues. Like the NAACP, these groups have increasingly tried to work with the TV industry to make sure that programming reflects their viewpoints.
smaller percentage of the major roles on prime-time TV series—especially drama series. But the history of American television also includes a number of progressive programs that helped viewers come to terms with the expanding role of women in society.
In the 1950s, television programming had a male focus. The most popular shows tended to be Westerns, police dramas, and science-fiction series. These programs usually featured strong male characters that faced danger bravely and used their wits—or their fist-fighting abilities—to solve problems. Most of these types of dramas did not have any regular female characters. Situation comedies often included female characters, but these women appeared almost exclusively in roles as suburban housewives and mothers.
A few early TV programs included mild challenges to traditional gender roles. Lucy Ricardo, the heroine of the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, felt dissatisfied with her role as a housewife and wanted to get a job in show business. But Lucy's struggles were presented in a zany, humorous fashion in order to make her ambitious nature less threatening to audiences of that time, when the majority of women did not hold jobs outside of the home. During the 1960s, popular oddball comedies such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie featured strong female characters who moved beyond their traditional roles with the help of their own magical abilities. Some reviewers claimed that these series helped prepare American society to accept greater empowerment of women.
In the 1970s, feminists (supporters of women's rights) began actively seeking equal rights and opportunities for women in American society. Network TV programming started to reflect the growing women's rights movement by presenting more women in nontraditional roles. The main character in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example, was a smart, independent, single working woman. The sitcom One Day at a Time featured a divorced mother struggling to raise two teenaged daughters on her own. Maude, a spin-off from the successful sitcom All in the Family, centered on a divorced woman as well. In one of the most controversial sitcom episodes of all time, Maude (played by Beatrice Arthur [1923–]) faced an unplanned pregnancy and decided to have an abortion.
As the broadcast networks gained more information about the viewing audience during the 1970s, they began trying to capture female viewers with dramatic programs as well. Instead of providing nonstop action and adventure, many drama series started to focus on characters' emotional lives. But male characters still dominated these types of shows. In 1972, according to Mary Desjardins in the Museum of Broadcast Communications publication "Gender and Television," 74 percent of the characters in prime-time drama series were male. Little progress was made over the next fifteen years: in 1987, 66 percent of the characters were male.
Such statistics prompted the National Organization for Women (NOW), a women's rights group, to challenge the networks to include more positive representations of women in prime-time programming. Pressure from NOW helped convince CBS not to cancel the original 1980s police show Cagney and Lacey, which was the first prime-time drama to star two women. The networks also produced several popular sitcoms starring strong women in the 1980s, including Roseanne and Murphy Brown.
The rise of cable TV ensured that even more programming for and about women would become available in the 1990s. Several cable channels, such as Lifetime and HGTV, designed their shows for female viewers. Meanwhile, the broadcast networks began featuring women in more diverse roles in entertainment programming. By the 2000s, however, some gaps in coverage remained to be addressed. Women's sports rarely appeared on television, for instance, and news programs used far fewer women than men as expert commentators.
Gays and lesbians on TV
Gay and lesbian characters did not appear on television until the 1970s. Several factors contributed to the introduction of homosexual characters at that time. First, the broadcast networks shifted their focus toward younger, urban viewers, who were thought to hold more accepting social views. Second, a series of rulings by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave independent production companies more control over TV programs. These independent producers tended to be more willing to address frequently debated subject matter than the networks. Finally, homosexuals began to be more visible in American society, and TV shows began to reflect that change.
At first, gay and lesbian characters made occasional appearances in single episodes of ongoing TV series. These characters were usually one-dimensional, or not realistically portrayed, and they typically served the purpose of creating conflict among the regular characters. As more gay and lesbian characters appeared on TV, some critics charged that they were too often presented as stereotypes. In 1978 the National Gay Task Force provided the broadcast networks with a list of positive and negative images of homosexuals. The activists encouraged the networks to avoid presenting negative images of gays and lesbians as sexual predators or child molesters. Instead, they asked the networks to present positive images of gays and lesbians as contributing members of society who are comfortable with their sexuality.
In the early 2000s, gay advocacy groups had some success in working with the television industry to promote fair and accurate representations of homosexuals in TV programs. For instance, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) acts as a resource for the entertainment industry and provides suggestions on how to improve the depiction of homosexuals on TV. GLAAD releases an annual list of gay and lesbian TV characters as part of its mission to eliminate homophobia (fear of homosexuals) and end discrimination against gays in American society.
Some conservative religious and political groups resent gay activists' success in working with the television networks. They believe that homosexuality is abnormal and poses a threat to traditional family values. They view positive portrayals of gay and lesbian characters on TV as promoting immoral behavior. Some groups, such as the American Family Association (AFA), have organized protests against advertisers that sponsor programs that portray homosexuals in a sympathetic or positive way. Television networks thus face pressure from advocacy groups on both sides of the gay rights issue.
For many years, the networks tried to balance these competing interests by including more gay characters in TV series, but strictly limiting any physical or sexual interaction between them. But cable TV channels relaxed these standards in the 1990s, and the broadcast networks had to follow in order to compete. The late 1990s and 2000s saw the introduction of a number of TV programs focusing on gay and lesbian characters, such as Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Queer as Folk, and The L Word.
TV and the American family
In the 1950s, television was considered a form of family entertainment. Most American homes only had one TV set, and many families would gather around it in the evening to watch programs together. Recognizing this trend, the networks produced programs that were suitable for a general audience, such as variety shows and family comedies. From the beginning, fictional TV families have often reflected—and sometimes influenced—the real lives of American families.
TV families of the early 1950s showed some diversity, although they did not represent all American lifestyles. There were traditional, nuclear families composed of parents and children, for instance, as well as childless married couples and extended families living together under one roof. Some TV families lived in cities, while others lived in suburbs or rural areas. But the only ethnic families shown on TV were recent immigrants from European countries such as Ireland or Italy. TV programs did not feature African American or Hispanic families until the 1970s.
By the late 1950s, the increasing popularity of situation comedies (sitcoms) started to make TV families more alike. Most sitcoms featured white, middle-class, nuclear families living in the suburbs. Popular programs such as The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and Father KnowsBest presented idealized views of suburban families led by a patient, hardworking father. The typical role of women in these shows was as a stay-at-home wife and mother who cooks, cleans the house, cares for the children, and provides constant support to her husband.
During the 1960s, as American women started to break out of traditional roles and seek greater independence and freedom, more TV shows featured different types of families. A number of TV families were led by single fathers, in such shows as My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, Family Affair, and Bonanza. Since divorce was not widely considered socially acceptable at the time, though, these single fathers were almost always widowers (husbands whose wives had died).
The 1970s was a decade of social change in the United States, with the civil rights movement and feminist movement much in the news. (The civil rights movement sought to secure equal rights and opportunities for African Americans, while the feminist movement sought to secure equal rights and opportunities for women.) The portrayal of family life on television became more diverse during this period. Some TV shows featured working-class families, such as All in the Family, and others featured single, working women whose co-workers served the function of a family, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Landmark TV programs such as The Jeffersons and Good Times focused on African American families for the first time. Television also continued to provide sentimental portrayals of nuclear and extended families in programs such as Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons.
Some of the most popular TV programs of the 1980s were prime-time soap operas about wealthy, powerful families. Shows such as Dallas and Dynasty presented views of a luxurious, upper-class lifestyle. But the families at the center of these dramas had all sorts of emotional and relationship problems. During the 1990s, television programs in general began featuring more dysfunctional families—from the real-life family feuds on shocking daytime talk shows to the family conflicts on sitcoms such as Roseanne and The Simpsons. At the same time, many cable TV channels attracted viewers by showing reruns of old shows, such as Leave It to Beaver and The Brady Bunch, that provided a comforting view of family life in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the 2000s, there were different cable TV channels for every member of a family. Most American homes had at least two TV sets, so families were not as likely to watch television together. Increasingly, the members of a family watched different shows, ones suited to their gender, age group, and interests. Some critics argued that these television viewing patterns had a negative impact on families. They said that separate TV viewing prevented family members from spending time together and engaging in special activities and rituals that created strong family bonds. In addition to reflecting family life in the United States, therefore, television also changed it.
Television concepts of social class
In addition to race, gender, sexual orientation, and family, television has shaped the way that Americans think about the issue of social class. From the 1950s through the 2000s, most characters in TV programs have been upper-middle-class, professional people, such as doctors, lawyers, journalists, and business owners. Working-class and poor characters have appeared much more rarely, and they have often been portrayed in a negative manner.
TV programs have often portrayed working-class men—such as Archie Bunker of All in the Family or Homer Simpson of The Simpsons—as selfish, immature clowns who have trouble seeing other people's points of view. By contrast, the women in working-class TV families have tended to be more intelligent and sensible than the men. But in the case of middle-class families depicted on television, the fathers and mothers are more likely to be presented as equally mature and responsible parents. In a similar way, television has tended to portray family life in poor or working-class TV families as full of problems and arguments, while middle-class TV families are more likely to be portrayed as emotionally healthy, with all the members contributing and supporting each other. Some critics argue that the positive treatment of the middle class in TV programming sends viewers the message that middle-class values and beliefs are somehow better than those of other social classes.
Religion on TV
Presentations of religion have been relatively uncommon throughout the history of American television programming. In fact, only twenty prime-time entertainment series featured outwardly religious characters in major roles during the first fifty years of TV. Nearly all of these characters were Christian. Jewish and Muslim characters mostly appeared in programs with a historical or biblical focus. Whenever religion did appear in entertainment programs, it tended to be presented as generally as possible in order to avoid offending viewers.
Television has always featured some religious programming on Sunday mornings. These shows have ranged from discussion-based programs to broadcasts of actual church services. Religious shows expanded in number and influence during the 1970s, when satellites orbiting the Earth allowed TV signals to be broadcast nationwide for the first time. Several Christian religious leaders created special programs to take advantage of the wide reach of television and spread their religious messages across the country. This type of religious programming became known as televangelism, and the religious leaders who appeared on TV became known as televangelists.
Some televangelists achieved a great deal of power and influence, such as Pat Robertson (1930–) with The 700 Club and Jim Bakker (1939–) and Tammy Faye Bakker (1942–) with The PTL Club. Robertson used his popularity on television to begin a political career, including a campaign for president of the United States in 1988. He also began a political organization, the Christian Coalition, and launched the Christian Broadcasting Network (which later became The Family Channel). Overall, though, televangelism fell out of favor during the 1980s, when prominent televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert (1935–) became entangled in financial and sex scandals.
Religion started to play a more prominent role in entertainment series during the 1990s and 2000s. In the popular series Northern Exposure, for instance, several characters explored alternative and Native American religious traditions in their search for spiritual growth. The networks produced a number of other shows that focused on religious themes, such as Touched by an Angel, Seventh Heaven, Highway to Heaven, and Joan of Arcadia. But while the topic of religion received more attention on TV, it was still usually addressed in a general way and from a Christian perspective.
Television's impact on politics in America
Television coverage has shaped American politics and government in a variety of ways. It has affected the way that political candidates are selected, the way that they campaign for office, and the way that voters decide among them. TV gives the American people a personal look at their leaders and the inner workings of government. But critics claim that television has also affected politics in negative ways. For instance, they say that it has encouraged voters to judge candidates based on their appearance on television instead of on their views on important issues. They also argue that the high cost of political advertising on television has made running for office too expensive for all but the wealthiest Americans.
Almost from the beginning of television, the medium has served as the main source of political news and information. Its influence expanded rapidly during the 1960s, when advances in TV technology allowed viewers to experience major political events, such as debates and nominating conventions, live as they happened. As of 2004, according to research quoted in American Demographics, 44 percent of Americans named TV as their top source of political news, while 29 percent named newspapers, radio, or online sources.
Though television is highly influential, surprisingly few regulations govern its role in the political process. A few regulations that applied to politics were included in the Communications Act of 1934, which originally covered radio and was later extended to include television. This act contained an Equal Time Provision, for instance, which required TV stations that gave or sold time to one political candidate to do the same for all other qualified candidates participating in the race.
In 1959 Congress passed an amendment to the 1934 Communications Act. One provision of the 1959 law was the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present both sides of hotly debated issues. As part of a larger effort to reduce regulations affecting the broadcast industry, Congress overturned the Fairness Doctrine in 1989. The only part of the law that remained in effect applied to political campaigns. It gave candidates the right to respond to any negative reports contained in broadcast TV programming. In general, however, the FCC did not regulate the content of paid political messages, except to make sure that the sponsor of the message was clearly identified.
Campaign ads on TV
Political campaign advertising got its start on TV in 1952. The Republican candidate for president, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), used a series of short commercials to create a friendly, charming image of himself among voters. The TV spots helped Eisenhower win the election, and every presidential campaign since then has relied on TV advertisements to promote candidates to voters. In fact, TV commercials have emerged as the most important form of communication between presidential candidates and voters. These ads allow candidates to reach a wide audience with a message that is under their direct control.
Critics blame television for the rise of negative campaigning (a candidate's use of political messages to criticize his or her opponent). During the first fifty years of political advertising on television, one-third of the commercials were negative. There are a few famous examples of negative ads that influenced the results of an election. In 1964, for instance, Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign ran a controversial TV commercial suggesting that if his opponent, Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), was elected, nuclear war would result. Although the ad was widely criticized, surveys showed that it helped convince voters that the country would be safer with Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–68) as president. In 1988, George H. W. Bush's campaign ran a commercial suggesting that his opponent, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis (1933–), was responsible for the murder of innocent people because he had allowed a dangerous criminal, Willie Horton, to be released from prison. The infamous ad helped put Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) in the White House by convincing voters that he would be tougher on crime than Dukakis.
Many negative political TV advertisements are sponsored by political action committees (PACs) or special interest groups—ranging from associations representing various industries to organizations promoting social and environmental causes. Campaign finance laws limit the amount of money that individual citizens can contribute to support political candidates, but as of 2006 there was no limit on the amount that groups could spend independently to promote a certain candidate or issue. This situation led to the creation of many PACs specifically for the purpose of running negative ads during election campaigns. The PAC is identified as the sponsor of an attack ad, which allows a candidate to benefit from it without being directly associated with negative campaign tactics.
During the 1990s, television news programs and other media began analyzing the content of political advertisements. Many news sources provided a daily or weekly adwatch segment to report on the truthfulness of claims made in campaign commercials. Nevertheless, negative campaign ads continued to flood the airwaves prior to every election. Many of these commercials distorted the records of political opponents in order to win votes. Some political analysts charged that negative campaigning contributed to a decline in public respect for all lawmakers and government institutions.
TV coverage of primaries and debates
Television also plays a major role in the selection of presidential candidates. A large number of candidates typically express interest in being nominated for president by either the Democratic or Republican political parties. Both parties hold a series of primary elections in various states to help them determine which of the many candidates should represent the party in the national elections. Television provides extensive coverage of the primaries. This coverage sometimes gives more attention to some candidates than to others, which can influence voters' opinions about which candidate is the most likely to succeed in the general election. In addition, candidates who do not perform well in the early primaries are often unable to raise funds to pay for continued campaigning.
Once the two major political parties have selected their presidential candidates, television provides extensive coverage of the campaigns. The ability of TV to influence voters' perceptions of the candidates led to the creation of a new position in a candidate's group of advisors called a media consultant or handler. These professionals help shape the candidates' media image through television appearances. The TV appearances can take a number of different forms, including advertisements, interviews, talk show visits, and debates. Televised presidential debates have been a vital part of the campaign process since 1960, when a strong showing in the first TV debates helped John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) defeat Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) for the presidency.
TV's influence on voters
A common complaint about television coverage of election campaigns is that it tends to focus on the candidates' personalities, strategies, and political momentum rather than on their opinions about important issues. Television also tends to compress candidate interviews and news events into soundbites of information—or brief, memorable quotes lasting fewer than ten seconds each. Soundbites fit into the limited time available during TV newscasts and commercials, but they do not provide voters with a detailed, in-depth understanding of a candidate's ideas and positions. Some critics also claim that television spends too much time analyzing what is known as the horserace aspect of political campaigns, or which candidate is leading in surveys of voters at a particular time. Overall, critics argue that the emphasis of TV coverage of election campaigns has led more voters to base their decisions on the image the candidates convey on television rather than on the candidates' opinions about various issues.
Television also influences the way that the U.S. government conducts its business. At its best, television coverage acts as a watchdog, constantly observing the activities of the president and Congress and reporting back to the American people. Many politicians have recognized that television puts them under constant observation. Upon taking office in 1968, President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) created the White House Office of Communication to deal with the media and ensure that his administration delivered its intended message. But television also gives a great deal of free attention to incumbents (people currently holding an elected office) by covering their press conferences, interviews, and public appearances. This attention gives incumbents who run for reelection a big advantage over lesser-known challengers, who must pay for most of their TV exposure via commercials.
Some critics claim that the high cost of advertising on TV makes it too expensive for all but the wealthiest or most politically connected Americans to run for national office. In 1992, billionaire Texas businessman H. Ross Perot (1930–) became an instant presidential candidate by purchasing air time on the major television networks to present his message to voters. But some analysts believe that the Internet had helped make the competition more fair between candidates who may have different amounts of money. The Internet allows candidates to distribute campaign information quickly and raise funds from a wide variety of sources. During the 2004 presidential race, for instance, former Vermont governor Howard Dean (1948–) nearly earned the Democratic Party's nomination by conducting a highly successful Internet fundraising campaign.
As the primary source of political information for American voters, television plays a vital role in shaping campaigns, elections, and government in the United States. It also influences voters' knowledge, opinions, and behavior. For example, studies have shown that TV coverage affects which social and political issues the public considers to be most important. Issues that receive a great deal of TV coverage are generally judged to be more important, while issues that receive little coverage tend to be viewed as less important. At the same time, though, television can overwhelm viewers with an excess of information, especially with the numerous cable channels devoted to politics. Critics argue that this information overload has turned off many viewers and contributed to a decline in the number of eligible voters who actually vote in elections.
In the United States, television operates as a business, with the goal of making money. The broadcast networks earn money by selling commercial time to advertisers. In this way, commercials make it possible for Americans to receive broadcast television signals over the airwaves for free. Cable and satellite TV providers earn money by charging subscribers a monthly fee. Some cable channels also sell commercial time to advertisers, but others only air commercials for their own programs.
Many other nations around the world operate television as a government service rather than as a business. In these countries, viewers pay taxes to support the production and broadcasting of TV programs, and programs appear on the air without commercial interruption. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is the only American network that receives tax money from federal and state governments to support its operations. Most PBS funding, though, comes from donations from individual viewers and charities.
U.S. commercial television is based on ratings, or measurements of the number and type of viewers who watch a particular program. Ratings determine how much money a network can charge advertisers to place commercials on that program. The more viewers from a particular group of people (based on factors such as age, gender, and income) watch a program, the more money the network can charge advertisers for commercial time during that program. In this system, successful programs are those that attract the largest number of viewers who are likely to buy the advertised products. The most successful programs, therefore, are not necessarily those of the highest quality or cultural value.
Since commercials provide the main source of income for the broadcast networks, advertisers have played an important role in the development of television programming. Advertisers can choose not to sponsor programs that are controversial or that do not support their commercial message. In general, most advertisers want to be associated with programs that put people in the mood to spend money and buy their products. For this reason, shows with sad or tragic elements are less likely to appear on TV than those with happy themes.
The history of TV commercials
The first commercial advertisement appeared on an experimental NBC broadcast in New York City in 1941. The Bulova watch company paid nine dollars for the spot, which only reached a few hundred people since TV sets were not widely available at that time. When TV broadcasting and set ownership expanded in the 1950s, however, advertisers rushed to buy time on the new medium.
In the early years of television broadcasting, commercial sponsors created many of the programs that appeared on the air. Large companies, like the consumer products giant Procter and Gamble, would purchase an hour of air time on a network. Then they would hire an advertising agency to develop an entertainment program to fill that time. The sponsor's name was often made part of the title, as in the Texaco Star Theater (sponsored by the Texaco oil company) or the Camel News Caravan (sponsored by Camel cigarettes). Advertising messages about the sponsor's products would appear throughout the programs. Most of these early commercials lasted sixty seconds. They typically explained how the product worked and made statements, which may or may not have been true, about the many ways in which viewers might improve their lives by buying it.
In the late 1950s the television networks began taking more control over the production of programs. Rising costs made it more difficult for advertisers to sponsor entire shows. In addition, it was revealed that commercial sponsors had played a role in determining the outcome of several popular quiz shows. They had encouraged producers to give some contestants answers in advance as a way of creating drama and increasing ratings. The quiz show scandal raised concerns about the amount of influence advertisers had over the content of programs.
Around this time, NBC network executive Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver (1908–2002) came up with the concept of spot advertising. Under this system, which continued to be used in the 2000s, multiple sponsors could purchase small blocks of commercial time on a single program. Within a few years, most advertisers decided to place short commercials in many different programs, rather than pay to sponsor a single program in its entirety.
The broadcast networks then took over the production of programs—building sets and hiring writers, directors, actors, and camera operators. Advertisers had less control over program content, but they could still choose which programs to sponsor. Many advertisers avoided programs that featured unusual characters or hotly debated subjects that might upset their customers, the viewers. As a result, the networks became less likely to produce this sort of program, because they did not want to risk losing potential sponsors.
By the 1960s television commercials could reach a national audience. At the same time, the introduction of color TV systems allowed advertising messages to become more visually interesting. These factors contributed to an increase in television advertising revenues to $1.5 billion per year. Since the cost of air time continued to increase, the typical length of commercials went from sixty seconds to thirty seconds.
During the 1970s, TV advertising began to grow more creative. Instead of providing a straightforward explanation of a product and its benefits, commercials began using the power of television to associate products with more general feelings or moods. A number of new commercials attracted positive attention during this time. One example is the classic 1971 Coca-Cola "Hilltop" ad, in which a diverse crowd of people comes together for a chorus of "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." The beverage in this ad was associated with peaceful interaction between different kinds of people. This era also saw the rise of public service advertising. These commercial messages encouraged viewers to take some worthwhile action, such as donate money to charity or quit smoking.
By the 1980s television had made the American advertising industry more powerful than ever before. Companies spent lots of money to develop and test TV commercials in hopes of influencing viewers' attitudes toward their products. Newspapers and magazines began reviewing the latest trends in advertising and presenting awards for the most creative or effective commercials. There were even special TV programs dedicated to showcasing the year's best or funniest commercials.
The late 1980s also saw the introduction of a new type of TV ad called an infomercial. These were half-hour long, sponsored messages that took the form of a regular TV program, such as a celebrity interview or an exercise show. In reality, though, they were an extended commercial for a specific product, such as a diet aid, a certain brand of exercise equipment, or a financial management tool.
Commercial TV and materialist values
In the 1990s and 2000s, TV advertising became a huge business. In 2003, for instance, the television industry attracted an amazing $40 billion in advertising income. Advertisers willingly paid more than $2 million to run a single thirty-second commercial during the Super Bowl. Television advertising also had a tremendous impact on American culture. Characters who appeared in popular TV commercials became celebrities, and numerous advertising slogans (such as Nike's "Just Do It") entered people's conversations.
Yet television commercials also came under widespread criticism. Critics claimed that the seemingly endless strings of commercial messages in TV programs manipulated viewers and promoted materialism (a view that places great emphasis on acquiring things). They argued that commercials made viewers believe that buying consumer goods was the key to happiness and fulfillment. In this way, TV ads encouraged viewers to spend money on things that they did not really need and that would not help them feel more satisfied with their lives. While many Americans disliked the number, loudness, and message of TV commercials, however, few people were willing to pay for broadcast television services through increased taxes, thereby ensuring the continuation of commercials on TV.
The sheer number of advertisements in commercial television programming, meanwhile, has made it more difficult for individual ads to be memorable and effective. More and more American viewers discount the claims made in TV commercials, while others use new technologies to avoid watching them at all. The practice of time shifting, or recording TV programs to watch at a later time, posed a significant threat to commercial television in the 2000s. Digital video recorder (DVR) systems, such as TiVo, made time shifting easier by recording TV programs on a computer hard drive. These systems give users more flexibility in recording and watching programs. Some analysts predict that DVR technology could change the face of television by eliminating network schedules and allowing viewers to watch their favorite programs whenever they want.
For many viewers, a key benefit to using a DVR is that it gives them the ability to skip all the commercials in TV programs. This trend is causing concern among advertisers. Some advertisers have started to find new ways to get their message across on television. For instance, many companies pay to have their products shown during TV programs. In this type of advertising, known as product placement, a character on a TV show might drive a certain type of car or drink a certain type of beverage because a company has paid for this kind of exposure within the program. Some critics argue that understated methods such as product placement are even more dangerous than regular TV commercials, because viewers are less likely to realize that they are receiving an advertising message.
Experts suggest that television viewers constantly remain aware of the commercial nature of television. They emphasize that TV exists not only to entertain and inform, but also to sell things and make viewers think in certain ways. By educating themselves about the ways in which TV advertising works, viewers can recognize commercial messages and evaluate them carefully.
American TV and the world
By the start of the twenty-first century, improvements in communication technology allowed American television programs to reach distant places around the world. As of 2004, the twenty-four-hour cable news channel CNN broadcast to more than 200 countries around the world, while MTV reached 176 and Nickelodeon was available in 162. The global reach of these cable giants ensured that American TV coverage of wars, political events, and natural disasters—and even music and cartoons—received worldwide attention.
The global reach of television has the potential to make a positive impact on people's lives. For instance, TV programs can help people learn foreign languages and adapt to new cultures. International TV can also help immigrants maintain a connection to their homelands. American television programming has even been mentioned as a factor in the fall of communism (a form of government in which the state controls all property and means of producing wealth) in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many historians believe that TV images of the political freedom and economic growth in the United States and other democratic countries contributed to the political changes that caused Communist governments to fall from power in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other nations.
American television has also come under criticism, however, for sending mindless entertainment and pushy commercial messages to other countries. Many people and governments around the world have taken offense at the amount of sex and violence shown on American TV. Others have complained that the spread of American popular culture threatens to destroy unique local traditions and ways of life in other countries. In this way, American television programs have contributed to feelings of envy or hatred toward Americans in some parts of the world.
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