Butsch - Ralph, Fred, Archie....

Butsch - Ralph, Fred, Archie.... - Ralph Fred Archie and...

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Unformatted text preview: Ralph, Fred, Archie and Homer Why Television Keeps Recreating the White Male Working-Class Buffoon RICHARD BUTSCH Strewn across our mass media are portrayals of class thatjustify class relations of modern capitalism. Studies of 50 years of comic strips, radio serials, televi- sion drama, movies and popular fiction reveal a very persistent pattern, an underrepresentation of working-class occupations and an overrepresentation of professional and managerial occupations among characters.1 My own studies of class in prime-time network television family series from 1946 to 1990 (Butsch, 1992; Butsch (it Glennon, 1983; Glennon ti: Butsch. 1982) indicate that this pattern is persistent over four decades of television, in 262 domestic situation comedies, such as I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch. All in the Family and The Simpsons. In only 11% of the series were heads of house portrayed as working-class, that is, holding occupations as blue-collar, clerical or unskilled or semiskilled service workers. Blue-collar families were most underrepresented: only 4% (11 series) compared with 45% of American families in 1970. Widespread affluence was exaggerated as Well. More lucrative, glamor- ous or prestigious professions predominated over more mundane ones: 9 doctors to one nurse, 19 lawyers to 2 accountants, 7 college professors to 2 school teachers. Working wives were almost exclusively middle-class and in pursuit of a career. Working-class wives, such as in Roseanne, who have to work to help support the family, were very rare. Particularly notable was the prevalence of servants: one of every five series had a maid or butler. © 1995 by Richard Butsch. AC3 £104 1V BY NIGHT The working class is not only underrepresented; the few men who are portrayed are buffoons. They are dumb, immature, irresponsible or lacking in common sense. This is the character of the husbands in almost every sitcom depicting a blue-collar (white) male head of house, The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, All in the Family and The Simpsons being the most famous examples. He is typically well—intentioned, even lovable, but no one to respect or emulate. These men are played against more mature, sensible wives, such as Ralph against Alice in the Honeymooners. In most middle-class series, there is no buffoon. More typically, both parents are wise and work cooperatively to raise their children in practically perfect families, as in Father Knows Best, The Brady Bunch and the Bill Cosby Show. In the few middle-class series featuring a buffoon, it is the dizzy wife, such as Lucy. The professional/ managerial husband is the sensible, mature partner. lnverting gender status in working-class but not middle-class sit- coms is a statement about class. HOW DOES IT HAPPEN? The prevalence of such views of working—class men well illustrates ideological hegemony, the dominance of values in mainstream culture that justify and help to maintain the status quo. Blue-collar workers are por— trayed as requiring supervision, and managers and professionals as intelli- gent and mature enough to provide it. But do viewers, and particularly the working class, accept these views? Only a handful of scattered, incidental observations (Blum, 1969; Gans, 1962; Ihally & Lewis, 1992; Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974) consider how people have responded to portrayals of class. And why does television keep reproducing these caricatures? How does it happen? Seldom have studies of television industries pinpointed how specific content arises. Studies of production have not been linked to studies of content any more than audience studies have. What follows is an effort to make that link between existing production studies and persistent images of working-class men in domestic sitcoms. in the words of Connell (1977), ”No evil-minded capitalistic plotters need be assumed because the produc- tion of ideology is seen as the more or less automatic outcome of the normal, regular processes by which commercial mass communications work in a capitalist system" (p. 195). The simple need to make a profit is a structural constraint that affects content (see also Ryan, 1992). Let us then examine how the organization of the industry and television drama production may explain class content in television series. I will look at three levels of organization: (a) network domination of the industry, (b) the organization of decisions within the networks and on the production line, and (c) the work community and culture of the creative personnel. I will trace how these may explain the consistency and persistence of the portrayals, the underrepresentation of the working class and the choice of the particular stereotypes of working-class men in prime-time domestic sitcoms. pun..- Raiph, Fred, Archie and Homer 405 Network Domination and Persistent Images For four decades ABC, CBS and NBC dominated the television industry. Of television audiences, 90% watched network programs. The networks accounted for over half of all television advertising revenues in the 1960s and 19705 and just under half by the late 19805 (Owen (S: Wildman, 1992). They therefore had the money and the audience to dominate as almost the sole buyers of drama programming from Hollywood producers and stu- dios.2 During the 19805, the three-network share of the audience dropped from about 90% to 60%; network share of television ad revenues declined from 60% to 47% (Owen (é: Wildman, 1992). These dramatic changes have gener— ated many news stories of the demise of the big three. Cable networks and multistation owners [companies that own several local broadcast stations) began to challenge the dominance of the big three. They became alternative markets for producers as they began purchasing their own programs. But program development is costly; even major Hollywood studios are unwilling to produce drama programs without subsidies from buyers. Nine networks have sufficient funds in the 19905 to qualify as buyers of drama programming: the four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) and five cable networks (Disney, HBO, Showtime, TNT and USA Network) (Blumler 8c Spicer, 1990). But ABC, CBS and NBC still account for the devel- opment of the overwhelming majority of new drama series, the program- ming that presents the same characters week after week—and year after year in reruns. This is the case in part because the broadcast networks still deliver by far the largest audiences. Even in 1993, the combined ratings for the 20 largest cable audiences would still only rank 48th in ratings for broadcast network shows. The highest rated cable network, USA Network, reached only 1.5% of the audience, compared to an average of 20% for ABC, NBC and CBS. The larger audiences translate into more dollars for program development. And producers still prefer to work for the broadcast networks. When sold to broadcast networks, their work receives much broader exposure, which enhances their subsequent profits from syndication after the network run and increases the likelihood for future purchases and employment. Moreover, whether or not dominance by the big three has slipped, many of the same factors that shaped their programming decisions shape the de- cisions of their competitors as well. The increased number of outlets has not resulted in the innovation and diversity in program development once expected. Jay Blumler and Carolyn Spicer (1990) interviewed over 150 in- dustry personnel concerned with program decision making and found that the promise of more openness to innovation and creativity was short-lived. The cost of drama programming limits buyers to only a handful of large corporations and dictates that programs attract a large audience and avoid risk. How has this affected content? Using their market power, the networks have maintained sweeping control over production decisions of even highly successful producers from initial idea for a new program to final film or tape (Bryant, 1969, pp. 624-626; _ 40.5 TV BY NIGH? Gitlin, 1983; Pekurny, 1977, 1982; Winick, 1961). Their first concern affecting program decisions is risk avoidance. Popular culture success is notori— ously unpredictable. making decisions risky. The music recording industry spreads investment over many records so that any single decision is less significant (Peterson S: Berger, 1971). Spreading risk is not a strategy avail- able to networks (neither broadcast nor cable), because only a few program- ming decisions fill the prime-time hours that account for most income. Networks are constrained further from expanding the number of their decisions by their use of the series as the basic unit of programming. The series format increases ratings predictability from week to week. Each de— cision, then, represents a considerable financial risk, not simply in produc— tion costs but in advertising income. For example, ABC increased profits from $35 million in 1975 to $185 million in 1978 by raising its average prime—time ratings from 16.6 to 20.7 (personal communication, W. Behanna, A. C. Nielsen Company, June 1980). Because programming decisions are risky and costly and network execu- tives’ careers rest on their ability to make the right decisions, they are constrained, in their own interest, to avoid innovation and novelty. They stick to tried—and-true formulas and to producers with a track record of success (Brown, 1971 ; Wakshlag & Adams, 1985). The result is a small, closed community of proven creative personnel {about 500 producers, writers, directors) closely tied to and dependent on the networks (Gitlin, 1983, pp. 115, 135; Pekurny, 1982; Tunstall &r Walker, 1981, pp. 77-79). This proven talent then self-censor their work on the basis of a product image their previous experience tells them the networks will tolerate (Cantor, 1971; Pekurny, 1982; Ravage, 1978) creating an “imaginary feedback loop” (Di- Maggio & Hirsch, 1976) between producers and network executives. These same conditions continue to characterize program development in the late 19805 (Biumler & Spicer, 1990), as the new buyers of programming, cable networks, operate under the same constraints as broadcast networks. To avoid risk, network executives have chosen programs that repeat the same images of class decade after decade. More diverse programming has appeared only in the early days of an industry when there were no past successes to copy—broadcast television in the early 19505 and cable in the early 19805—or when declining ratings made it clear that past successes no longer worked (Blumler r3: Spicer, 1990; Turow, 1982b, p. 124). Dominick (1976) found that the lower the profits of the networks, the more variation in program types could be discerned from season to season and the less network schedules resembled each other. For example, in the late 19505, ABC introduced hour-long western series to prime time to become competitive with NBC and CBS (Federal Communications Commission [FCC], Office of Network Study, 1965, pp. 373, 742). Again, in 1970, CBS purchased Norman Lear’s then controversial All in the Family (other networks turned it down) to counteract a drift to an audience of undesirable demographics [rural and over 50). Acceptance by networks of innovative programs takes much longer than conventional programs and requires backing by the most success- ful producers (Turow, 1982b, p. 126). Roseanne was introduced by Carsey- Werner, producers of the top-rated Cosby Show, when ABC was trying to . a at}. mi Ralph. Fred. Archie and Homer 407 counter ratings losses (Reeves, 1990, 153-154). Hugh Wilson, the creator of WKRP and Frank’s Place, described CBS in 1987 as desperate about slipping ratings; “Consequently they were the best people to work for from a creative standpoint" (Campbell & Reeves, 1990, p. 8). Network Decision Making—Program Development The second factor affecting network decisions on content is the need to produce programming suited to advertising. What the audience wants—-or what network executives imagine they want—is secondary to ad revenue. (Subscriber-supported, pay cable networks, which do not sell advertising, also do not program weekly drama series.) In matters of content, networks avoid that which will offend or dissatisfy advertisers (Bryant, 1969). For example, ABC contracts with producers in 1977 stipulated that no program or pilot shall contain . . . anything . . . which does not conform with the then current business or advertising policies of any such sponsor; or which is detrimental to the good will or the products or services of . . . any such sponsor. (FCC, Network Inquiry, 1980, Ap- pendix C, p. A—Z) Gary Marshall, producer of several highly successful series, stated that ABC rejected a story line for Mark (5’ Mindy, the top rated show for 1978, in which Mork takes TV ads literally, buys everything and creates havoc. Despite the series’ and Marshall’s proven success, the network feared ad- vertisers’ reactions to such a story line. An advertiser’s preferred program is one that allows full use of the products being advertised. The program should be a complimentary context for the ad. In the 19505, an ad agency, rejecting a play about working-class life, stated, ”It is the general policy of advertisers to glamourize their products, the people who buy them, and the whole American social and economic scene” (Bamouw, 1970, p. 32). Advertisers in 1961 considered it ”of key importance” to avoid, ”irritating, controversial, depressive, or downbeat material” ( FCC, Office of Network Study, 1965, p. 373). This requires dramas built around affluent characters for whom consuming is not problematic. Thus affluent characters predominate, and occupational groups with higher levels of consumer expenditure are overrepresented. A third factor in program decisions is whether it will attract the right audience. Network executives construct a product image of what they imagine the audience wants, which surprisingly is not based on actual research of audiences in their homes (Blumler & Spicer, 1990; Pekurny, 1982). For example, Michael Dann, a CBS executive was "concerned the public might not accept a program about a blue collar worker” when offered the pilot script for Amie in 1969 (before All in the Family proved that wrong and after a decade in which the only working—class family appearing in prime time was The Flintstones). On the other hand, in 1979 an NBC executive expressed the concern that a couple in a pilot was too wealthy to appeal to most viewers (Turow, 1982b, p. 123). — 408 TV BY NIGHT With the exception of the few anecdotes I have mentioned, almost no research has examined program development or production decisions about class content of programs. My research found no significant differences between characters in sitcom pilots and series from 1973 to 1982, indicating that class biases in content begin very early in the decision-making process, when the first pilot episode is being developed (Butsch, 1984). I therefore conducted a mail survey of the producers, writers or directors of the pilots from 1973 to 1982. I specifically asked how the decisions were made about the occupation of the characters in their pilot. I was able to contact 40 persons concerning 50 pilots. I received responses from 6 persons concerning 12 pilots. Although this represents only a small portion of the original sample, their responses are strikingly similar. Decisions on occupations of main characters were made by the creators and made early in program develop- ment, as part of the program idea. In no case did the occupation become a matter of debate or disagreement with the networks. Moreover, the choice of occupation was incidental to the situation or other aspect of the program idea; thus it was embedded in the creator’s conception of the situation. For example, according to one writer, a character was conceived of as an archi— tect "to take advantage of the Century City” location for shooting the series; the father in another pilot was cast as owner of a bakery after the decision was made to do a series about an extended Italian family; in another pilot, the creator thought the actor “looked like your average businessman.” The particular occupations and even the classes are not necessitated by the situations that creators offered as explanations. But they do not seem to be hiding the truth; their responses were open and unguarded. It appears they did not think through themselves why this particular class or occupation: rather, the occupations seem to them an obvious derivative of the situation or location or actors they choose. The choice of class is thus diffuse, embed— ded in their culture. This absence of any awareness of decisions about class is confirmed by Gitlin’s (1983) interviews with industry personnel about social issues. Thus the process of class construction seems difficult to document given the unspoken guidelines, the indirect manner in which they suggest class and the absence of overt decisions about class. Class or occupation is not typi- cally an issue for discussion, as are obscenity or race. To examine it further, we need to look at the organization of the production process and the culture of creative personnel. The Hollywood Input—Program Production Within the production process in Hollywood studios and associated organizations, and in the work culture of creative personnel, we find factors that contribute to the use of simple and repetitious stereotypes of working- class men. An important factor in television drama production is the severe time constraints (Lynch, 1973; Ravage, 1978; Reeves, 1990, p. 150). The production schedule for series requires that a finished program be delivered to the ...._.,_......._ ..—_.._..___.__u..m_..._....w-. , ..-.... .. , ..._._.. ..._..__.m_.i.u....w.w_n.___q_.....__ .. ........_._.._ .._........._. Ralph. Fred. Archie and Homer 409 networks each week. Even if the production company had the entire year over which to complete the season’s 22 to 24 episodes, an episode would have to be produced on the average every 2 weeks, including script writing, casting, staging, filming and editing. This is achieved through an assembly line process in which several episodes are in various stages of production and being worked on by the same team of producer, writers, director and actors, simultaneously (Lynch, 1973; Ravage, 1978; Reeves, 1990). Such a schedule puts great pressure on the production team to simplify the amount of work and decisions to be made as much as possible. The series format is advantageous for this reason: When the general story line and main characters are set, the script can be written following a simple formula. For situation comedy, even the sets and the cast do not change from episode to episode. The time pressures contribute in several ways to the dependence on stereotypes for characterization. First, if ideas for new series are to be no- ticed, they cannot be "subtle ideas and feelings of depth” but, rather, “have to be attention getters—«loud farts,” in the words of a successful director (Ravage, 1978, p. 92). Also, time pressure encourages type—casting to obtain casts quickly. The script is sent to a ”breakdown" agency, which reads the script and extracts the description of characters that need to be cast. One such agency, employ- ing six persons, provided this service for the majority of series (Turow, 1978). These brief character descriptions, not the script, are used by the casting agency to recommend actors, particularly for minor characters. Not surpris- ingly, the descriptions are highly stereotyped (Turow, 1980). Occupation— and by inference, class—was an important part of these descriptions, being identified for 84% of male characters. Producers, casting directors and casting agencies freely admit the stereo— typing but argue its necessity on the basis of time and dramatic constraints. Type-casting is much...
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