Geography of Popular Culture 2017 – Blog #3 Posted on September 4, 2017 by saorsa2014 Discuss the early TV industry and the ways in which it reflected early post war American life. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading... Related
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The first widely distributed programs that could be broadcasted directly into people’s homes were radio shows. These radio programs became family events, with everyone sitting around the radio listening. When television became mainstream, the same thing happened: the whole family would watch together. For this reason, among others, television shows portrayed characters who were the American idea of ‘wholesome.’
In the early days of television, America was a nation recovering from both the Great Depression and World War II. It was a relatively prosperous time, at least enough so that most people could afford a TV. This period of stability also came with a growing middle class. Members of this middle class were frequently the ones in control of the television stations, meaning that they got to pick what was broadcasted. Eventually, middle class culture became the popular culture. They did this by choosing and producing programs that reflected their morality. Television shows incorporated the ideas of the nuclear family, heteronormativity, racial status quo, and their consumption aspirations.
Families shown on TV during this early post-war era in America were always nuclear. The dad worked all day, while the mother stayed home and took care of the children. They were never homosexual, and never even thought about being so. There was also no mention or implication of sex. TV companies went as far as to depict a married couple as sleeping in separate twin beds, such as on I Love Lucy. The middle class idea of the racial status quo was also propagated through TV. Most actors on TV were white, such as in all of the photos in this blog post, and characters who were not white were often portrayed in a bad light.
Families and characters on TV also represented the middle class consumption aspirations. The middle class is essentially defined by their desire to be upper class. All of their ideas of morality, money making, and how to spend the money made were designed in an effort to elevate their status. The American Dream is prevalent throughout early post World War II television programs. Characters are portrayed with a single-family home, a car, etc. This image reflected what goals American citizens were aiming towards in their lives.
In television shows at the time, the bad guy was typically an outsider. Communism was a common antagonist in war shows, reflecting how America and Russia were gearing up for the Cold War. In shows such as The Roy Rogers Show, American Indians were frequently shown as the bad guys, representing the middle class prejudice on racial status quo. Outlaws were also usually the villains in The Roy Rogers Show, representing the high level of revere that Americans were supposed to show for lawfulness.
The early American television industry portrayed characters according to middle class morality, including the nuclear family and the American Dream, reflecting the aspirations that the majority of the American population had at the time.
Television’s origin as family entertainment, dictated the “America” represented in post-war programming. Coming off the heels of World War II and the Great Depression, the American economy was strong relative to our global neighbors. This prosperity manifested itself in the consumerist tendencies of the American middle class. Middle class families began to sprawl across the United States, migrating from urban to suburban environments. Quickly replacing the radio as a household center-piece, families would gather around the television set to watch serialized programs.
A hallmark of post-war television programming was the portrayal of “traditional family values”. Characters at the center of prime-time shows, like the Cleavers on “Leave it to Beaver, were presented within the structure of the “nuclear family”. The hetero-normative Mr. Cleaver went to a generic white-collar job while his docile wife stayed at home with the children. Each family member was assigned an extremely specific role play. The boys, Wally and Beaver, were honest and earnest, brimming with middle class morality. This “morality” extended to June and Ward Cleaver, who’s marital life was portrayed as quasi-celibate. Deviation from these nuclear roles was portrayed as leading directly to unhappiness and turmoil as seen by the character of Chopper in “Leave it to Beaver”. The absentee father, abandoning his role at the helm of the ship causes his son to act out.
Post-war television programming also took on the meta-narrative of consumption culture. Following the capitalist ideological superstructure, television promoted consumer aspiration under the guise of the “American Dream”. As American families began to abandon cities in favor of suburbs and subdivisions like Levittown were constructed, commercial media began to play out the American sprawl on the small screen. The meta narrative produced a media landscape that fit perfectly within the capitalist ideological superstructure proposed by radical cultural geographers. Television shows promoted that “traditional families” were homeowners who lived in houses and not apartments. Media also portrayed success in life as the ability to consume, larger homes and better cars equaled happiness and a fulfilling life.
At the intersection of mass consumption and middle-class values in the television medium was advertisements. In addition to the consumerist message of popular television shows, advertisements served to exclusively promote the idea that Americans needed, and deserved, more. Advertisements often trailed traditional television programming in progress. While American television moved away from the strict hetero-normativity of the post-war era beginning with Will and Grace in the 1990s, advertisements did not progress on this front until the 2010s. This is largely due to the fact that advertisements are produced to offend the least amount of people as to sell a product. Advertisement played a key role in both the mass production of television and the construction of the cultural landscape. Without advertisements there is no commercial media.
Post-war commercial media in the form of television depicted a righteous, consumption-oriented middle-class America. The prevalence of television sets in American households due to economic prosperity broadcast this message to a large portion of the American population, factoring in to the standardization of American and eventually Global culture.
Very nice discussion of TV and mass culture.
The television is easily one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. Since its introduction, it has become a means of connecting people across the globe with entertainment and information. Where families would once gather around a radio to listen to news reports and to hear stories of mystery and adventure, television now brought the spectacle of the movie theater into the living room. The first commercial televisions were first introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and could cost up to five hundred dollars. Over time, televisions became more affordable and more and more production studios began to take advantage of the new medium. Television continued to advance and evolve until the onset of World War II. When America entered the conflict, so too did companies such as RCA who, rather than focus on its NBC studios, began to develop technology for the war effort. After the war ended, with veterans returning home and starting families, television was set to become the most prominent form of entertainment in America.
The years following the Second World War came to be known as The Golden Age of Television. TV sets became increasingly more affordable and widespread across the nation. Programming began to evolve from a handful of programs which were broadcasted in, more or less, the same format which was familiar to radio viewers, to a varied mix of content that better took advantage of the new visual medium. Programming was created that tended to show an idealized version of America, and just as often aimed to sell commercial products as simply entertain. With the ability to so directly advertise this idealized American way of life, television was uniquely able to influence the social landscape of the post-war United States.
Through shear saturation, the television industry has managed to shape entire generations of Americans to believe and act and consume in a very particular way. By observing interpersonal relationships and other social cues on television, young people are exposed to a very specific outlook on life and the American ideal, shaped for them by TV execs and ad agencies. In fact, advertising came into its own during this time and was developed into as much a social science as a method of motivating consumers. The government, too, saw how effective television was at conveying ideas and motivating individuals and began to use TV as a way to fight communism and promote the American Dream. Television is still a prominent issue today, as generations are shaped and grow up in its eerie glow. While the internet has altered the way we view entertainment, the problems that we face in relying on the same handful of large multi-national interests to serve us our culture are sill ones which we must contend with daily.
Today, almost every American household owns a television set, if not two or three. Watching TV is such an integral part of American society. It not only provides a source of information but also an endless supply of entertainment. Before TV, a family would sit around a radio and listen together for entertainment. When the television was invented, it replaced the radio as the primary source of entertainment for the family. It did take some time for the TV to become a part of every American household though. In 1945, there were only about 44,000 TV sets, most of which were in New York. At first, TV’s were restricted to urban areas as well as to the well-to-do, but it did not take long for the TV to become easily accessible and affordable and to reach most of America. While only 0.4% of homes had a TV in 1948, 83.2% of homes had one in 1958. The rapid increase in the number of homes with TV sets is partly due to the economic boom that followed the end of WWII. Most families could now afford a television and be a part of the culture that it created.
As more and more people began to watch TV, producers were able to disseminate American ideals to an audience that was constantly increasing in magnitude. Early American television constantly reinforced the traditional values of the nuclear family, heteronormativity, racial segregation, and the American dream. Because of the previous struggle of the Great Depression and the hard times of WWII, American television shows focused on the happy, middle-class family with their ideas that conformed to the status quo. Shows such as “Bonanza” and “Leave it to Beaver” portrayed idealized, middle-class families that fit into the normal social construct. Shows that conformed to these ideas were ubiquitous in the years following WWII and they all implanted the “moral” American ideas into the brains of all TV watchers. The social boundary was not pushed until later on with shows like “The Lucy Show”, in which an interracial marriage caused social unrest. Because television relied on advertisement, it had to remain political and socially “moral”. If a station was to produce shows that pushed the boundaries, the advertisement agencies would not pay them to show their ads. Because the middle-class provided the majority of TV watchers, the middle-class values previously mentioned were what was presented in TV shows. Networks and producers had to be careful not offend the mass consumers. This aspect is what controlled the content showed on television.
Not only were certain American ideals reinforced through television, but consumerism was as well. Advertisers took advantage of this new medium to target the middle-class consumers. Because Americans had more disposable incomes after the war, advertising became very effective. People were now able to afford the simple luxuries that they were deprived of during the Great Depression and the war years. Advertisers did not just promote their product, but a lifestyle. They constantly bombarded consumers with ads that portrayed a comfortable and affordable lifestyle, which made them think that they needed to keep buying things in order to have that lifestyle. This led to the idea of hyper-consumerism. Americans had to keep up with the latest goods and buy the newest products in order to be a part of the American lifestyle.
After World War II, the television industry exploded with popularity across the United States. The television eventually replaced the radio as the prominent center of entertainment in the American family household. Today, the average American consumes multiple hours of television per day, so it is not surprising that the television industry has an astronomical impact on the American life; and vice versa, what we see on television is a reflection of the morals, perspectives, and metanarratives of the status quo in the United States.
Almost immediately following the war, the color television was invented in the early 1950’s. Initially, these televisions only had access to a few broadcast network stations. However, in the 1960’s, cable and satellite television were invented giving viewers the option of more stations and access to obscene and explicit television content. These television provider options were originally intended for isolated populations, but both have grown and spread tremendously from their creation to present date. Today, the television industry is mostly owned and operated by a handful of 21st century media conglomerates. For example, The Walt Disney Company controls ABC and ESPN. Time Warner Cable owns Home Box Office (HBO), TNT, CBS, CNN, etc. CBS operates Showtime and Viacom. And NBC owns Hulu, USA, Bravo, etc.
As for television content, initially, the television industry only consisted of broadcast network stations which were under censorship by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC enforced rules that limited the extent of explicit language that could be used on television. In the 1970’s, American comedian George Carlin became iconic for listing the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. For this reason, earlier television was considered drastically milder in appropriateness than what we see today. Early television shows such as Leave it to Beaver, demonstrated the ideal American family structure in the 1950’s. Specifically, this television series reinforced the postwar American metanarratives of the patriarchal household and the sequestering of women. In Leave it to Beaver, viewers are exposed to Ward who is a college-educated, middle class, working man who is married to a woman. Ward’s wife, June, is a stereotypical, female homemaker who raises the children and takes care of the household while her husband is working an office job to pay for their living expenses. The television series emphasizes principles such as the importance of education, the happiness associated with traditional marriages, and the model structure of American families. Leave it to Beaver reflected the idealistic middle-class American family, but at the same time, it served as propaganda. It served as the standard for what all Americans should strive towards by exaggerating and glorifying the middle-class lifestyle. This model of propaganda is an example of positive feedback that has shaped American metanarratives and defined morals and values in the United States. Put simply, television showed Americans how to live, and then, in return, when Americans watched television, they would expect to see that lifestyle displayed on the screen.
However, the United States has progressed drastically in perspectives regarding social equality since World War II, and those changes are extremely evident in the development of the television industry. For example, in 1968, Star Trek allowed an African American female to become first officer. This was revolutionary. Further, Star Trek allowed this character to be involved in the first televised interracial kiss. Although, initially, this was not popular in certain regions of the United States (ie. the South), it, in a sense, “eased” America into accepting or at least tolerating social change. This pattern of utilizing the television industry as means of an outlet for redefining American metanarratives escalated with the creation of satellite and cable television because the FCC’s guidelines regarding obscene language and content never applied to non-broadcast forms of television. For that reason, we now have popular television series such as Amazon’s Netflix original series Orange is the New Black which shows interracial lesbian sex scenes with full blown nudity. Talk about progression! Not to mention, television streaming services’ popularity have increased in recent years due to their lack of advertisement, and since they are unregulated by the FCC, this leaves the creation of American metanarratives in the hands of 21st century media conglomerates mentioned previously. For that reason, the current model of control over the television industry allows for a future full of uncertainties. Now, these modern media companies have the resources and ability to write and control the metanarratives for the United States in the future.
During world war II, TV production was suspended as the US’s industry was focused on the production of war time materials. Once the war was over, however, the TV industry expanded rapidly with the west coast gaining its first station in 1951. With the invention of the video recording system in 1956, programming could be sent instantly over network lines throughout the entire country, and at this point, Americans all across the US were all able to watch the same shows and share in popular culture. With a flourishing economy and the rise of the middle class, by 1960, eighty-seven percent of American homes had a TV. By this time, television had taken the place of the radio as the center of evening entertainment in the American home. Instead of gathering around a radio to listen to the evening’s radio dramas, after dinner had been eaten, the whole family now gathered around the TV to watch the evening’s episode of I Love Lucy or Bonanza. Sitcoms and comedies were very popular early on as they are still today, and American metanarratives of the 50’s and 60’s were displayed throughout them. Because TV shows had specific, American metanarratives that were shown across the country, there was a huge cultural impact. The consumption of American TV, many hours a day for a great percentage of the US population, leads to the continual “cultivation” of American ideals. These ideals or metanarratives that were constantly fed to Americans were the ideas of what the American family looked like. A true American father was an educated, working man who was to be respected by his wife and children. The mother was to stay at home and maintain the household while her husband was at work, and of course, there was never any mention of sex. They even went so far as to show a married couple sleeping in separate beds suggesting that a married couple didn’t even have sex. In the beginning of TV, there were most definitely no gay characters as this would go against the status quo of heteronormativity. All of these American metanarratives displayed in shows like Leave it to Beaver were shown over and over to people across the country, and when an idea is given to you over and over, you can only sit there while it becomes part of your thinking.
These portrayals of the status quo weren’t challenged until shows like I love Lucy introduced an interracial couple, and there was a lot of criticism because of it. As TV history has progressed, however, TV shows have constantly pushed the American status quo and metanarratives that began in the early post war American life. Since then, gay couples have been introduced, sex has slowly made its way from couples sleeping in different beds to teenage characters having sex outright on screen, and people of all races and ethnicities are casted for TV roles. American TV has come a long way since it first arrived in the mid-1900’s, and even today, the social boundaries are constantly being pushed to include more and more socially progressive ideas.
Television is essential to the “American image.” The “American image” is essential to television. Following World War II, the TV industry has continued to grow and encompass more and more viewers. Currently, with rapid leaps forward in technology and platforms, the TV landscape is becoming a little harder to define but no less important. Currently, the average American adult watches five hours and four minutes of TV a day. The majority of TV viewership statistics come from those who watch television live as it originally airs. The majority of these viewers are people over the age of 50 who watch around 50 hours of TV a week. People under the age of 34, however, only watch about 26 and a half hours of live TV a week. These are the viewers are jumping ship to streaming services and “cable-cutting” techniques. But the older generations are hanging in strong with live TV. Why is that? If we explore the post World War II television landscape these “Baby Boomers” and older generations experienced, we may find the answer.
Full-scale commercial television broadcasting did not begin in the U.S. until 1947. Before this, TV was a niche market that was only available in areas large enough to support the expenses of early, crude television development. Following the war, there was a noticeable demand for live news footage as Americans had grown accustomed to news reels from the war that were shown in movie studios. Early television companies (most of which were early adopters from radio companies with the funds to sink into the technology) used these newsreel companies with their own newscasters who read off the news similarly to the way they had on radio. Much of the early scripted television programs were also adopted from radio such as The Jack Benny Show or Amos ‘n’ Andy. Similarly, to radio, these programs also had corporate sponsors for the length of the program as opposed to segmented commercial breaks. Not only was there a demand for television programming following the war, there was also money for it. Following the war, America was swept by a growing consumer culture (and production infrastructure) and middle-class Americans experienced an economic boom that allowed them to purchase new and affordable technologies. Black and white television sets proved to be the most expansive invention to enter American homes with almost half of U.S. homes owning one by 1955. The incredible amount of programming that was advertiser-dependent reinforced this consumer culture through every viewer.
When TV began to take deep strides away from radio formats, it found its “Golden Age.” In the early 1950’s, NBC president Sylvester Weaver developed the notion of the “spectacular” which were massive event programs which attracted millions of viewers at once. He also pioneered the magazine-format program with Today and the late-night talk show with The Tonight Show. At the same time, NBC and the other broadcasters like ABC were finding success with television created for children like Howdy Doody and The Mickey Mouse Club. Serialized dramas and comedies also found a foothold in American culture. Viewers would tune in week after week to watch familiar characters on I Love Lucy or The Roy Rogers Show. Live television truly was a spectacle event that installed itself into the viewer’s home as a never-ending stream of information and entertainment. Those that grew up with this culture are hard-pressed to turn away from it.
Storytelling has always been a mode of transmitting images, ideals, and metaphors about a culture, which is an “integrated, bounded and in-place ‘whole way of life’”. Common discussion about culture and more specifically popular culture emphasizes that whatever is expressed in these cultural narratives become a part of the culture’s collective memory and identity. Nothing did more to shape the narratives and identity of America in post-World War II life as the representations of American life on television. With 87 percent of American households owning a television within the first 10 years following the war, the opportunity to have a shared distribution of information, stories, and entertainment was tremendous. Effectively, the men and woman controlling the distribution of the content through the major broadcasting companies of the time (ABC, CBS, and NBC) held the power to shape the narratives of American Life through the “development of the media of mass communication”.
The early post war narratives trended toward entertainment as opposed to a source of news and information while also giving way to advertisement demands with a sentiment expressed by CBS executive as an “obligation to the majority”. Therefore, the cultural narratives that played out on the screen reinforced the norms of a middle class family, defined what was pro-America, and generally portrayed America as a land of opportunity and lawfulness. This was in contrast to the prewar years which had more diversity including a wider range of ethnic and racial minorities, gender representations, and cultural influences. The early years after World War II were a shift in cultural identity and the programming of that time show “a discernible tension between the ideals of domesticity and security, on the one hand, and on the other, the impossibility of recapturing the prewar past.” These broad strokes of American life were generalized into some distinct genres of TV: the situational comedy (sitcom), the Western, and variety shows.
Sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver painted a picture that typical American life was a Caucasian nuclear family living in a suburban house. Shows of this type tended to avoid portraying existing social issues such as poverty, civil rights, or marital or domestic issues. The episodes usually ended with a “strong moral lesson.” Even though at the time the 60% of the United States were “middle class”, the life of poor immigrant or ethnic communities were not represented on screen or only with rare exception.
The Western dealt with the narrative that law and civilization in postwar America was valued above all else. By the mid 1950’s, the Western was a beloved genre with shows like The Roy Rogers Show depicting that good guy (the lawman or cowboy) will always beat “the bad guy” (the outlaw, con artist, or often a Native American). The morally right cowboy reinforced the ideals that American life was conservative, fair, and equal. By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the Western did attempt to address some social issues like civil rights, religious doubt, and portrayal of violence.
Variety shows and game shows were another popular genre during the 1950’s. The variety show form was an adaptation from live vaudeville type shows and had a live host with guests ranging from musicians, celebrities, and trained animals (The Ed Sullivan Show). The game show or quiz show was another variation of entertainment that portrayed mostly white contestants as knowledgeable. Both show types had a large amount of censorship, for instance the filming of Elvis Presley from only the waist up as not to encourage a negative influence on America’s youth. In the late 1950’s it was revealed that the quiz show Twenty-One was rigged and was supplying answers to contestants. Both of these examples demonstrate the attempts made by the broadcasting companies to control the messages portrayed about white, conservative, middle-class American and maintain an American idealism of morally good.
Sitcoms, Westerns, and variety shows of the first decade following World War II all reinforce the narratives that the broadcasting companies felt important to represent on screen to the American masses.
Chris Barker, Television, Globalization and Cultural Identities. Chapter 2
In the United States, TV started by broadcasting. Companies such as CBS and RCA, or more commonly known as NBC, began looking at broadcasting as early as the 1920s. On October 30, 1931, NBC started work on a TV antenna and transmitter on top of the Empire State Building and conducted an it’s first experimental broadcast on December 22, 1931 (Ellerbee). RCA leased the 85th floor of the newly completed Empire State building to experiment with TV broadcasting (Ellerbee). This experimentation led to both companies making waves in the early TV industry, with shows like The Ed Sullivan Show for CBS and with RCA introducing color television in the 1950s and 1960s.
TV sets, stations, and networks existed before World War II, but it wasn’t until after World War II that they gained much prominence. Before World War II, there was the Great Depression and then the war, during which time TV production was suspended. The post World War II prosperity led to a larger middle class and gave people more money to spend. With that money rose the amount of people buying TVs. In 1947, there were about 44,000 TVs. By 1949, there were 940,000 and by 1953 20 million (Clifton). By 1948, RCA and CBS were running regular broadcasts (Clifton).
Television reflected the convergence of commercialization and culture. High culture, while not commercially viable, was sought after by the middle classes. This conundrum meant that pop culture would often reflect what the middle classes sought. Moreover, TV had to reflect before showing things to audiences and usually tried to find things that would be the least likely to offend. Using what would be least likely to offend meant that TV networks largely focused on middle class values. During early post war American life focused primarily on middle class families. These families, portrayed in shows such as I Love Lucy would reflect these middle class values. For example, couples were rarely portrayed as sleeping in the same bed on TV, as sharing the same bed gave viewers the idea that the couple had sex. Even after a married couple had children, they still rarely shared the same bed. These shows also reflected heteronormativity. These shows always involve a husband and wife who may not have kids at the beginning of the show but usually do by the end.
These TV broadcasts also gave advertisers new marketing area. This situation fit post World War II life in America because more and more people were becoming middle class and had money to spend. With more money to spend, people could afford luxuries like televisions they previously couldn’t. Televisions’ affordability along with the fact that the system used by television companies required advertising made TV perfect for marketing. With television, consumers could now see the product or products. This visual helped advertisers convince people that they needed things even if they didn’t. For example, an advertisement could suggest how much better a newer version of an old product was. This idea would create a need for the newest model of products even when consumers already had them, driving consumerism further and further. Advertisers also needed to stay away from marketing their products in ways that wouldn’t sell; this need meant that advertisers also relied heavily on middle class values. This meant that, for example, advertisements for a vacuum-cleaner would be marketed toward women because middle class women were expected not to work and that all women were supposed to do household chores.
Jacob Clifton “How did World War II affect television?” 11 March 2011.
HowStuffWorks.com. 13 November 2017
TV has always been an integral part of the American life since its inception, but began to really gain traction with its popularization post WWII. The booming economy coming off of WWII meant that most American homes could now afford to own items that were once considered as lavish or luxuries, such as the TV. As the TV began to be proliferated throughout American homes, the effects of programming and poplar culture began to be reflected through this new technology. The most prevalent of these American values that were pushed and portrayed during this time period were that of the nuclear family and “traditional American values.” This was typically portrayed as a white, middle class family living in the suburbs with a hard working father and a stay-at-home mother who took care of the house and children while the man financially supported the family. In these portrayals there was also no mention of sex of any kind as well, some shows going as far as showing married couples sleeping in separate beds. Almost all characters in these shows were white also, especially the main characters. The “bad guys” in these programs were also segments of the American, or world, population that had been “othered” by American culture and government as well. This included groups such as American Indians, Russians/Communists, and people who had spent some amount of time in jail or prison. Any deviation or failure to apply to these core values and beliefs was shown to cause conflict in the show, and could only be resolved by coming back and adhering to these ideals.
Post-War television also heavily promoted consumerism as well. Coming off of the massive production boom that was WWII, the American economy was steaming ahead with tremendous force. The American government saw this and wanted to capitalize on it with the new technology that was the family TV set. In order to achieve this, these popular shows portrayed that in order to be an accomplished and happy person, you needed the ability to consume more. This meant showing families owning homes, buying new homes, buying new cars, or getting their children the latest and greatest toys.
The television was one of the greatest revolutions for being able to broadcast ideals and agendas directly into American homes, and the government quickly acknowledged this and capitalized on it. In post-war America of the mid 1900s, the television was used by media powers to portray what a “good American” should be: a white, hetero-normative homeowner living in a nuclear family with a stay at home mother who supports the military and goes to church on Sunday.
After World War II, Americans had more time for leisure activities and mass consumption of popular culture. Radio was the first innovation that allowed a family to gather for entertainment in their homes, but the television’s visual performance soon transcended that of the radio. In the 1930s, televisions were not widely used because they were expensive, but the economic boom after the war changed that, allowing for almost half the homes in the United States to have televisions. People began to move out of the cities and settle down in suburban areas to a family during post-war peace, where many middle class families had access to a television in their homes. The first popular shows to come out were serialized sitcoms that portrayed the “ideal” American family, which was targeted to the middle class consumer. Shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, showed white suburban middle-class families with each family member fitting into specific roles to portray the “American Dream”. The father was wise and hardworking, the mother was a happy housewife, and the children were wholesome with a dash of mischief. Heteronormativity was very common and highly important in early television to portray the ideal American life. There was rarely any other race in early programming, and there was never any comingling between races. Even in the traditional white nuclear family, man and wife were never shown in a sensual light. In I Love Lucy, Lucy and her husband are even seen sleeping in separate twin beds in their bedroom. Many shows were set in suburban areas where nothing too bad ever happened to the characters. If there was any trouble it was something that could be solved by the end of the thirty-minute episode showing that being an American gives people a nice level of safety. The underlying messages that individualism and the nuclear family were valued above all else were central to the shows, especially to contrast the feared Communist collectivism as the United States was heading into the Cold War. Early television steered clear of heavier political and worldly issues focusing on shows that would be popular with the general family audience.
Television was not only used to portray the ideal American family, but was instrumental in the advancement of advertising. Consumer culture was at an all time high after the Great Depression and World War II. Americans had more financial leeway, which allowed them to splurge on items they wouldn’t have been able to buy during the war. Television advertising allowed companies to show a visual representation of their products to a growing audience, while the money from the cable networks gained from advertisers kept the television industry going. Advertisements along with the television shows depicted what the ideal American life should be like, and what citizens should strive for. It shows success being measured by how big a family’s house it and how much “stuff” a family can own. The mentality that “more is more” is a big part of the American consumer culture that the television industry played a key role in creating.
In the 1940s, following the end of WWII, would bring an era of nationalism into American life. The suburbs were growing with the birthing of the baby boomers and introduction of the G.I. Bill among other factors. Women now headed back home and there was a push for domestication and nuclear family life from advertisements of family cars to recipe books for the whole family. A new factor that would have a lasting impact on American culture and consumption was the television. Now replacing the radio as a source of family entertainment, the television soon made its way into nearly every middle to upper-class American home. Large broadcasting companies sought to make a huge profit with the rapid rise of TV popularity.
Early broadcasting happened on six channels and was geared toward the wholesome middle-class family. Shows included Variety Shows, family comedies and the advent of the game shows. Popular programs included Howdy Doody, I Love Lucy and the Roy Rogers show. These shows were made to reflect the American ideal, reinforcing the Christian/American morals and creating idealistic archetypes, such as the wholesome wild west (as shown in the shows like The Roy Rogers Show and Gunsmoke) and the happy nuclear family in the suburbs (as shown famously on Leave it to Beaver).
Western Shows, In addition to celebrating American culture and a somewhat stretched American history, reinforced many cultural principles. Gender norms and racial stereotypes were a large part of what painted a very simplistic, black-and-white, moralistic shows. The accented and dark “bad guys” were always bad and the well-spoken, white, male “good guys” were always good. Often the woman would be the love interest or the damsel in distress, and the “good guys” always won in the end. These were positive messages, with a rosy outlook on life, something that made the viewers at home feel good. Western Inspired shows, such as Howdy Doody, were popular all-American shows that continued to reinforce this American ideal in more comedic ways.
Another new aspect of the family television were advertisements. Programs were sponsored, and advertisements could be shown in flashing images and sound right to the American home. This new form of advertisement kicked off the wave of ads that only continue to be viewed at an even higher rate, especially by children. This had no small part in contributing to one of the hallmarks of American culture: consumerism.
Before the advent of television broadcasts, radio was the primary method that Americans received programs through. Whether it was news, sports, or music, American families would huddle around the radio at night eagerly awaiting the nightly broadcasts. During World War II, this was even used by President Franklin Roosevelt during his famous “fireside chats” where his voice was broadcast directly into every American home. Through this common activity, the notion of what it meant to be American began to include participating in these large scale social events. Following the Great Depression and WWII the American economy took off. The middle class grew larger than ever before as new wealth was pouring into the country. New consumer goods were being constantly introduced to a public that could now afford to buy them. Among these consumer goods was an invention that would shift what many American perceived to be American values, the television.
Although the first networks (CBS and NBC) were founded in 1931, they primarily provided services in New York. It was not until 1951 that the first stations were established on the west coast. The 50s brought about some of the first popular television programs, such as the Roy Rogers show which is displayed in the middle left image of the collage. A western, the Roy Rogers show mixed modern innovations like automobiles with the western setting. Syndication soon became the go-to method for running television programs, and the series serves as an early example. It ran for 100 episodes on NBC between 1951-1957. The show also preached moral lessons, often with “a Christian message” intertwined within the episodes, as Roy Rogers and his buddies defeated “bad guys” such as Native Americans. This appealed to post-war American idealism, which preached that America was this morally fortuitous body whose job it was to moralize others, playing into the Cold War rhetoric that was common at the time. Although I am not quite sure what show it originates from, the image in the bottom right is another fantastic example of how the Cold War and guns were now a part of American life.
Collective family TV watching replaced radio show listening as the television rapidly dropped in price. One of the most popular genres of primetime viewing during the time, and still to this day, was game shows. What’s My Line?, pictured in the top left, was another early example of syndication. Within the show, celebrities would try to guess guests’ jobs. This show portrayed Americans as hard working, diligent people. The show was also known for its dress and style, which pushed the American middle class narrative. Originally, business suits and street dresses were common for both contestants and hosts, but as the show went on, the guests began to dress more formally. Through their style of dress, celebrities could shape American ideas of what was fashionable, contributing to what we consider the “pop culture” of the time.
Very nice work.
Once the radio became a staple in the American household, the average family stopped going out for their entertainment and started staying put in their living rooms enjoying the entertainment finally being brought to them. They no longer had to think about what parts of culture to consume, and it became fed to them in simple packages with lots of fine print along with it.
The radio was replaced with the television and, in 1931 regularly scheduled programming allowed for viewers to create a routine for their evening entertainment. The first broadcasts were merely radio shows with still pictures to accompany them, but soon the development of NTSC standards allowed for the pictures to start moving and the television programs as we know them began to develop.
By 1945, there were still very few televisions in the United States. Only 44,000 sets and about 30,000 were in New York alone, and none could be found west of Ohio. It wasn’t until 1951 that we got the first west coast television station.
Soon after, in the 1960s, cable services began to take over broadcast, but it started as a subscription based service. Once cable was the norm and no longer just subscription channels, satellite crept up on its heels. Satellite was originally for isolated populations and premium stations, but was far too expensive for most people to even consider.
So, cable became widely accepted as the way to consume television programs. Once TV stations were scattered across the whole United States, the market became large enough to generalize the types of programs being shown. The content became repetitive and similar. Families were shown to be the typical nuclear style with a hard-working father and a stay-at-home mother. These families were heteronormative and very, very white. They lived the American Dream in a single-family home in a suburban neighborhood. These programs were created to be socially and politically safe so that they could be marketed to as many viewers as possible—so that the narrative of what is considered normal could be fed to as many viewers a possible.
There were no gray areas in these television shows—except in their coloring. The good were good and the bad were very bad. There was a clear right and wrong being shown to the American masses, and those who questioned what was right must be bad.
The longer TV shows when on, the more product placement began to crop up. Companies saw these popular television shows as a way to subtly push their products into people’s living rooms and everyday lives. They became another form of advertisement, and they furthered the narrative of constant consumption that is still thriving in American culture today.
The American culture around television started with the audio captivity of radio programming, and quickly progressed to full color sitcoms of yet another white family consuming branded products in their suburban house kept clean by Mom while Dad works all day. Time may have passed, but not much has changed.
On March 25, 1925, John Logie Baird broadcasted the first public demonstration of televised silhouettes in motion. From then on, television has revolutionized how families have consumed entertainment together. Prior to televisions becoming a common household commodity, many families spent leisure times together in other ways. They would huddle around a radio to listen to news, sports, music, or other forms of entertainment. They would also play their own music if they were fortunate enough to own an instrument such as a piano. However, the economy prospered after World War II and many families found themselves with the financial willpower to afford to purchase a television set. Television soon became the primary mode of in-house entertainment, and the television industry saw huge amounts of dollars roll in.
Since the highest percentage of people that owned a television in early post World War II America were white, middle-class Americans, the metanarratives of the shows during this time were reflective of what these people would want to see. All families depicted on television during this time were nuclear. They consisted of two white parents, a father that worked a hard job and a mother that stayed at home and took care of the children. To appease religious organizations, sex was left out of television to the point where it was never even implied. “I Love Lucy” even went as far as to show a married couple sleeping in separate beds. At this time, there was also a lack of diversity on television. There was no mention of homosexuality and little depiction of African-Americans or any other minority. It was not until the 1990s that homosexuality started to really be portrayed on television, thanks to “Ellen” and “Will and Grace”. When African-Americans would be portrayed in television, they would often be from wealthy, upper-class families and would still be mostly segregated from white families.
The metanarratives of post-war television also dealt with the new consumerist society that the post-war economic boom created. Upward socioeconomic mobility was desired and this was displayed in television through the American dream. The American dream is the idea that anybody from any socioeconomic class and background could change their fortunes through hard work and opportunity. The landscape of the country changed, as many families moved from rural areas to suburbs in pursuit of greater opportunity. These changes in geographical layout were reflected in the television shows of the time. Television also brought a new avenue for advertisement. Advertising companies now had the ability to get their advertisements directly into most American homes. This meant these people who were middle class that already had a desire to move upwards socioeconomically were force-fed the images of consumer items that would help them to boost their socioeconomic status.
Post-war television was ultimately a reflection of post-war life for the average, middle-class, white family living in the suburbs. However, it did not reflect the lives of all as for years minority groups were under-represented if they got any representation at all. It also helped to solidify the idea of the American dream, which advertisement companies would capitalize off of for many years.
Post World War II the “American Dream” was bombarded into a population celebrating the end of a turbulent era. Highways became freeways, cars became available to large groups of people that now were exiting the busy overcrowded inner cities for a new expanses of land in which urban developments offered a more revitalized version of the “dream”. Most people found prosperity during the time of peace that engulfed the nation after the war —African Americans in inner cities and the south as well as minority groups continued to find themselves struggling to achieve the dream that seemed to be for grabs to all. What propelled that idea was television. Television replaced that voice on the radio with an image, whether of a person, persons, product or places, that could be either part of obtaining the dream or the ideal representation of what dream should be.
Television influenced the massed from the get go. It helped to preserve the status quo of a white majority and a jolly, wholesome, conservative America. Shows were developed around the upcoming middle class family, living in a nice detached home with a white picket fence, owning a car, the fashion of the day, and with “Dad” as the sole income provider, “Mom” as the ever submissive and efficient homemaker, “Timmy” as the all-American boy, respectful in every way and into all things masculine, and finally “Barbara”, the ever so feminine and delicate girl, in need of protection for the male figures in her life, who had a hard time grasping serious concepts but always interested in the latest musical developments and fashion. Sickening in many ways — that constant shoving down your throat that that constitutes the narrative to be followed — but that was the meta narrative of the time. Also, only white families were showcased in favorable conditions while the existing racial divided was kept out of the public eye.
Let’s go back to the “Dad” role as presented at the time to the masses. “Dad” was the smartest person in the family. He was the spiritual leader as well as the dispenser justice when necessary. He was the ideal masculine figure: pipe in mouth, martini in hand, and dinner ready before him. He dressed properly and found the time to be a good coach for sports and life for his kids. Golly good dad.
Moving on with the topic. Shows also revolved around entertainment. Variety shows emerged as well as game shows that gave the “Average Joe” a chance to get closer to that American Dream and help the audiences forget the recent wars . Each night families gathered in front of the television set to spend quality time while watching these advertising masterpieces as the unnecessary want for products were downloaded into people’s brains, reinforcing that materialism was the gateway to a better and happier life.
So much wholesome-ness was ever so present on television every day that many did not dare the challenge the status quo until decades later, when racial tension hit its climax and the civil rights movement spread all across the country.
Good work .
TV has become such an integral part of American life, it has become associated with American culture. It is not an uncommon activity for a family to gather around the TV nightly as they all watch a beloved TV show. It is almost considered taboo for a person to not have any TVs in their household. Before TVs were created, families would all crowd around the radio set to hear programs or the news. But after World War 2 ended, the TV gained popularity and eventually reigned supreme. The American economy boomed after the war and so more people could start affording luxuries such as TVs. Advertisers already had taken note of this opportunity to reach several different markets and a vast amount of people with the radio, but now they had the chance to show their products on television screens. As previously mentioned, the economy was booming so people had money to start spending so the advertisements were perfectly timed to sell. People were investing in a social status with their TVs and the products they were buying, such as cars.
American society also was shaped through television post World War 2. Shows such as “Leave it to Beaver” and “Bonanza” portrayed the typical all-American family that every family should strive to be. They were patriotic, wholesome, and hardworking. The father was the patriarch who provided for his family and was the head of the household, the mother was the homemaker who cared for the children and always listened to what the father had to say. The children were respectful and only messed up in humorous ways. Blaring themes of nationalism, heternormity, and religion swept across all the shows post World War 2. Topics such as gender, sex, and race were not openly talked about on television because it would go against the “wholesome” image the TV shows had created. Gay people couldn’t be shown on TV for fear of the unconventional. Very few people of color appeared on TV shows, and interracial couples were nonexistent, besides Lucille Ball’s on and off-screen Hispanic husband Desi Arnaz, due to the fact they went against the conventional status quo. TV was portrayed as the perfect family activity that was intended for your good ole all-American family. TV shows were supposed to be a way for Americans to forget about the horrors of the recent war and taken to a happier place as an escape when they watched TV shows. It wasn’t long though before that changed though. In 1952 Joseph McCarthy won a place in the Senate, and he helped usher in a period of fear and paranoia among the American people with the Cold War as the main reasoning. Some TV shows, as well as movies, began conveying the message of anti-communism and to trust no one, not even your neighbor, because they could be a Russian spy. With the Civil Rights movement and the fall of the Soviet Union, TV began breaking some minor barriers by casting people of color and not portraying Russia as the enemy. Even with developments there are still many obstacles to overcome before TV is completely caught up with modern times. There is still the conventional American meta narrative that has had some recent revamping, but still needs to break the all-American mold.
The television industry usually produces shows whose metanarratives are indicative of the beliefs held by viewers of that time. The early television industry in post war America is no exception to this. Notable ways these shows reflected life during this time are the depictions of traditional family dynamics, the racial status quo, and how these play into the American Dream.
One family dynamic that is particularly interesting because of how it has evolved over the years in the roll which women play within society. In post war America, women did not have jobs outside the home and instead, were homemakers who cared for their children. Shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show illustrate this perfectly. Furthermore, sex was so taboo at the time that even though women were known to be mothers, showing a pregnant stomach on camera was avoided. Not only that, but it was not uncommon for couples to be shown sleeping in separate beds in order to even imply that the couple had sex. It should also go without saying that couples portrayed in television were exclusively heteronormative. It is not until the turn of the century, in fact, that television deviated from this. The role of women within the family and society developed faster, though, with women being shown working and sometimes even divorced. These changes are primarily due to change of attitudes in America following the sexual revolution and the equal rights era.
In terms of the racial status quo being depicted, one simple google search will show that television during this time were basically completely white. The one exception being Ricky Ricardo, played by the Cuban actor Desi Arnaz. This continued to be the case until about a decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with shows like Sanford and Son slowly begin to appear. Even then, though, the characters are portrayed in questionable ways that do not portray people of color outside of the stereotypical concepts of race (namely white) Americans held during this time.
The above mentioned ideas say volumes about the pursuit of the American Dream, which was a prominent ideal held in post war America and also now to a somewhat lesser extent. Essentially, viewers are being told that you cannot achieve the American Dream if you aren’t heterosexual, if you aren’t white, if you aren’t a man, if you engage in sex outside of marriage or for reasons other than having children. The result is feedback loop is then created where the norms within society dictate television and in turn, television dictates the attitudes of society.
Inigo M. = Dan Roberts (: | )