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Volume 11, No. 1—February 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

The History of TV
We asked five scholars to recommend the best books about television.

William Hoynes, professor of sociology at Vassar College and co-author of The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest (Pine Forge Press, forthcoming).

"With the media industry in the midst of rapid change, it's easy to be awed by the newest technologies and overwhelmed by the size of the major media conglomerates. Robert W. McChesney's Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (Illinois, 1999) is an antidote to simplistic celebrations of media choice and to growing cynicism about media power. McChesney sorts through recent changes in the structure of the media industry and explains the corporate strategies that have both shaped and been shaped by the emerging media landscape. The contours of our contemporary media system, McChesney argues, are neither natural nor immutable. Jerold M. Starr's Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting (Beacon, 2000) explains where public television went wrong and why we need noncommercial broadcasting today more than ever. Starr tells the story of a grassroots effort in Pittsburgh to make a local PBS station more accountable to the public. By weaving that tale together with a critique of commercial television and a vision for a more democratic public broadcasting, he shows why television should continue to be of interest to scholars concerned with the health of our public life."

Heather Hendershot, professor of media studies at Queens College and author of Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation Before the V-Chip (Duke, 1998).

"American cultural studies scholars have tended to portray television viewers as discerning participants in what they watch, not as the couch potatoes caricatured in the popular press or the monkey-see-monkey-do viewers imagined by many social scientists. Ellen Seiter's Television and New Media Audiences (Oxford, 1999) departs from the active-viewer paradigm, but not because Seiter thinks viewers are passive. She did an ethnographic study of busy working mothers and found that they barely have time to watch TV, much less offer up interesting political interpretations to an inquisitive researcher. When these moms do watch TV, they feel guilty—and they feel doubly guilty if they park their kids in front of the set, even if the children are watching educational PBS shows. Seiter also interviewed teachers at Montessori, low-income, and fundamentalist day-care centers about their attitudes toward television's commercialism and violence and its portrayal of gender roles. This methodologically canny book insists that qualitative studies of small groups of viewers yield more useful results than quantitative studies of larger groups. The book seamlessly joins ethnographic theory and practice."

Thomas Streeter, professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and author of Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States (Chicago, 1996).

"It's difficult to recommend books on this subject. There's so much good recent work, the subject is so sprawling, and there really is no longer a single thing called TV, if there ever was. That said, I prefer works that explore TV's importance with analysis that is nuanced, subtle, and richly detailed. Steve Classen's Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi Television, 1955-1969 (Duke, forthcoming) makes extensive use of oral and social history to analyze the Mississippi television station WLBT, whose overtly racist broadcasts caught the eye of the then-liberalizing Federal Communications Commission. Purnima Mankekar's Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India (Duke, 1999) is a sophisticated and evocative study of the ways in which lower-middle-class women in postcolonial New Delhi made sense of serials produced by state television."

Mary Beth Haralovich, professor of media arts at the University of Arizona and co-editor of Television, History, and American Culture: Feminist Critical Essays (Duke, 1999).

"Two television histories that shed light on how the television industry continuously negotiates its place in U.S. culture are William Boddy's Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics (Illinois, 1990) and Janet Staiger's Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era (NYU, forthcoming). Boddy chronicles the shift in television programming from New York-based live dramas to Hollywood-produced character-based programs. Drawing on the writings of television critics, the testimony of network executives before federal committees, and the remarks of producers, script editors, and writers, Boddy examines how the television industry wrestled with issues of censorship and control, economics and aesthetics, regulation and misconduct. Staiger's study of hit sitcoms from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—All in the Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, Laverne & Shirley, The Cosby Show—explores the continuing debates about television's cultural role: Is programming relevant or escapist? Should it answer to family-viewing imperatives? How has the culture been influenced by the rise of cable and the VCR?"

Jeffrey Scheuer, contributor to Dissent and other publications and author of The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999).

"The literature about television ranges from the social scientific to the journalistic, but much of the best work lies in between, in books by social and media critics such as Neil Postman, Todd Gitlin, and Robert W. McChesney. Recent standouts include Roderick P. Hart's Seducing America: How Television Charms the Modern Voter (Oxford, 1994; Sage, 1998) and Pierre Bourdieu's brilliant polemic On Television (New Press, 1998). Though there has been a lot of good recent work, some of the best studies of television's impact date from the 1970s and 1980s. One older book is still the preeminent American study of the medium: Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (Quill, 1977). It's a penetrating and readable account of TV's complex technological essence. 'Americans have not grasped the fact that many technologies determine their own use, their own effects, and even the kind of people who control them,' Mander writes. 'We have not yet learned to think of technology as having ideology built into its very form.' His words are still true."

John Palattella

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