aas3 - Racism and Television Victoria E Johnson Although we...

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Unformatted text preview: Racism and Television Victoria E. Johnson Although we typically think of racism and television in relation to specific, stereotypical images or representations of African Americans that are nega- tive or absurd, television is made up of much more than its images. If we are to understand the history and significance of racism in relation to television, we must first understand that television is a broad, social institution. When defined as a social institution, television is understood to be a complex site of power and knowledge within U.S. culture. Television, in this sense, is a multifaceted venue of struggle, conflict, and consensus—through and within which different interests are expressed, fought over, and reinforced. These struggles and tensions can take place at a broad, “macropolitical” level, which is the domain of large institutions, networks such as broadcast- ing’s ABC or cable’s HBO. They are also present at the “micropolitical” level of everyday life: when we struggle over control of the remote, decide between video gaming or watching a favorite program, use television as pun- ishment—as when children who have been grounded are prohibited from viewing—or as reward (e.g., after getting an “A” on a test). That is, we can- not dismiss television for being simple or “just entertainment.” But it is also not all-powerful, monolithic, or beyond our intervention or control. We begin to understand critically television’s social power and potential productivity when we realize that it is a social institution composed of four elements, each of which always operates in tension and in dialogue with the other.‘ Specifically, U.S. television is made up ofindustrial concerns (struc- tural and economic components, including stations, networks, advertisers, etc.); regulatory concerns (legislation, regulatory and legal decisions, and federal policies); textual concerns (program and advertising “texts”—what we see and hear when we watch television); and audience concerns (pub- lic reception and viewer activism regarding texts, regulation, and industrial practices). So, when we think about racism in television, we need to think beyond important images. We need to consider television within its specific historical context: for example, how are the practices of the 1940s different 166 Theater, Film, and Television from those of the 2000s? In what ways are these practices strikingly unchanged?) We must also think about race and racism in television as it is imagined, occurs, reinforced, or challenged in each of these structuring fields. For example, we might ask how Girlfriends (WB, 2000—2006; CW, 2006—2008) meets its network’s economic or profit goals (industry inter- ests) in a particular historical moment when dere gulation policies (regula— tory interests) have led to multimedia mergers multicultural program address (economic issues, reflec sound and image content) when appealing to increa niche, audiences of African American viewers (the int This chapter uses key historical example areas—industry, regulation, Americans, race, and racism in that encourage ted in textual or singly narrow, or ended audience). s to illustrate each of these four text, audience—in relation to African television. Racism itself can be understood in two Stuart Hall and others have suggested, r most typically think of or me ways. First, as scholars such as acism is “overt” in the ways that we an when we use the term in conversation as it refers to institutional or individual policies or practices that are out in the open, hostile, or legally allowable. But racism is also “inferential” scious, unquestioned, “invisible,” might illustrate the : uncon- and, seemingly, “common sense.”2 We se distinctions by thinking about the contrast between the overt hostility and racism of actor Michael Richards’s infamous November 2006 stand-up act in a Los Angeles comedy club, an outburst that was shown across television news outlets and on the Internet. But, during priine—time run, the sitcom Seirtfelh’ (NBC, 1990—-1998) 1‘ African American characters its eight-year arer incorporated of the series’ setting its racist vitriol and into its episodes, in spite in the heart of Manhattan. Ricliards’s rant is overt in illogic, while Seiiy‘ield implied weekly that whiteness reflected the norm of everyday life within the most populous city in the country and that this norm was common sense in the context ofa program about “nothing.” Debates over racism in television have historically coalesced around three key concerns: questions regarding television’s conflicted identity as a medium that serves the public interest but is also organized market-based medium; debates regarding representation, or responsiveness and accuracy of programming and advertisi African Americans; and as a for—profit, the perceived ng images of activism for increased African American visibility, access, and involvement behind the camera, in positions of financial and creative power within the television industry.3 U.S. TELEVISION: PUBLIC SERVICE VERSUS PRIVATE PROFIT? In the immediate post—World War II conte in the United States Were enthusi medium ofTV could be xt, many African Americans astic about the possibility that the new a beacon for civil rights. It was hoped that, through Racism and Television 161 . . . . . all the medium’s images, black America might, for the first time, be'zeen in t ' ' ' ' l contri utions o ' ' ' fore recognized for its critica of its true diverSity and there ’ ‘ 1 .‘a 0 the nation For instance, in 1950, the black press newspaper, The Char g Defender, noted in an editorial: The press, pulpit, and radio have long been noted as'threeugrttilzit: molders of public opinion . . . Now comes. another a Ltliogestined potent trinity of news dissemination—-telev1510nTproba be th tens to become the most powerful of them all: TeleViSIon npw o d, or and iliustrates it—just as it happens and without being doctore [- ‘slanted.’ As a result, television . . . can easily become America s grea est foe to bigotry, malice and racial or religious hatred. This passage, which is representative of much'press abput wig/11:12:11 :1; the time, compares it to a divine pI‘fiSEl’lCE.-T€ICV]S](‘in is a s]: prise it uses be more powerful than its combined media predecessoArs leci;n though images as well as sound to communicate to the public. AIl( , ecan life and films of the period could tell about and illustrate African THC]; mEdium culture, television was perceived to be a more intimate, every ay care- that seemed more truthful than film. Whereas-motion picturesdiiitgrge less fully edited long after they were filmed, tel-ev1s1on was pews“; Because “doctored” and more immediately responswe to issues of t e ay. t thful it was not “intervened with,” television seemed to promise to be 3511:: and crusader against social injustice and a weapon-in the expo elimination of racism and resulting inequities in soc1ety.. era Television was hailed as the answer to social problems in ihe pot-wit: go for groups other than African Americans. And yet, arguab y, treizin tihan group for whom this hope was more prominent or more. p I 1_imdgraCial black Americans, who had endured not onlgflaverylgiils:gu::::izgd status ' 'nd sociall and governnienta y con i i ‘ , :viftlfiiigihjliiiiitcd States}: but also a history of representation in the artsgatmtg media that had stereotypically portrayedblblacks-psbipgerégrtfiiixggggaémn- 'hite cultural norms. The pit 1c mm a 1-1 . . , ’ Egaliinijiiihwthe conclusion of World War ‘II, in which black ltlropgfciii: valiantly fought in the name of the Unfitehd twg;e them- ' ex osure of the atrocities o t e o — :eige:}i:)otefi in racism—black veterans and lgdegsljsnéiglgbiiiivirgajiliy ' ' =‘ oted ho e for a ost-war 0U. -“ , I bfifiiicerrhlcans owls: Nazisri: and fascism abroad and rac1sm at thntich hopes for television were not unrealistic, cgnSiderintgdtgg medium’s definition as an instrument of public service an ltStFZicogding cal capabilities for truly national education and enlightcnmen . , 168 Theater. Film, and Television to the Communications Act of 1934—whose principles remained intact until the Telecommunications Act of 1996—br0adcast television stations each served. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was responsible for regulatory oversight of the public interest standard. Those who embraced this idea—that television was essentially a public service medium and educational tool—-—believed, by extension, that part of televi- sion's mandate was to challenge status-quo ideas and to give voice to underrepresented interests in society so that the broader culture might be exposed to competing ideas and concerns, air those concerns in public, and engage in rational debate that might lead to enlightened awareness and change. This commitment and belief are still present when controver- sies arise regarding the representation ofAfrican American identity within this public forum. And yet, broadcasting was also organized as a for-profit venture, which was subsidized through commercial advertisement benefited corporations. Historically, s and broadcasting—beginning with radio broadcasting—— emerged in an era, the 1920s, when big business and market forces were promoted and embraced as acting in the best interest of the public. Addi- tionally, corporate culture was presumed to reward those who produced what the public wanted and who, it was argued, did so with a level of qual- ity control that only big business capital and muscle could provide. Adver— tising was the language through which th introduced to the era’s reigning ideals regarding corporate culture and the public interest. As it boomed in the 19205, advertising gave a lan- guage and imagery to American desires to conform to a new national ideal, to embrace market or consumer solutions to larger personal and social problems.“ Struggles to balance public service and profit- about television and its cultural purpose from its public interest would seem to encourage the unheard voices e American public was making marked debates inception. Service in the transmission of typically for a broader, mass national public. As a market-driven medium, however, television often appears to value only the audiences and interests that are the most profitable—generally representing a narrower audience of middle-class and upper middle-class urban professionals who are predominantly white. The literal (market) and symbolic (representa- tional) value of blackness and of African American audiences is often trapped at the center of this paradox. Until the early 19505, television remained primarily a local concern. When the United States entered World War II, the 20,000 television sets in use. Half of these most of the others in the urban Northeas Angeles. During the war itself, only six re were only about were in New York City alone, with t and some in Chicago and in Los existing stations in the country Racism and Television 169 I) I”) 1 VII! 6. {July l l)ell€nt ()f the AIHCI' C 1’1 I Had regular b oadcast SCI‘ , lcafl actually a teleNiSiOII xiet: alldl altllc ng1) t. [1L El h: 5‘ ‘ W ' t untl 6 Cal]? . ea (11!) 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S - I 0 - i ‘ l Inc Cases In Stantlal" g, ‘ becal 3 more prOfital)lE, 1‘6 1 (i i ll} Ill. edll( 3.1 pp I I ‘ ' I he Coulltry n t . t ' ' l) 1 ' d lnlgl‘dtlon t 1 ll.“ 1 305 “Dual ()I‘tul’l 1.165, (In . and [elevibion Producels «1nd SPOHSOrS had to begll'l EOICOnSHICI T116 ! . . . ‘ 116W Value Of this audience, ":8 IIIIEreStS, and ltb Consumer (16511138. TELEVISIBN REPRESENTATION AND STRUGGLES OVER STEREDTYPINE AND AUTHENTICITY Typically we each like to believe that, with the progrgsslilon 0:1 DRE; 'j' —-— hat our culture grows more en 1g tene . - comes politlcal progress t . - I h t underlmes ' ” ' ‘ " the way of thinking t a “teleolo 1ca1 approach to history is ‘ ‘ ’ ’ d aSSHIUPEUIIS that—in the 1950s when programs such as A1105 Lil-th ((‘BS 1951—1953) and Beulah (ABC, 1950—1953) were on t e at; blaCk majority audience was overtly racist, unenlightened, and unaware o f GM- American culture and equality, in comparison to the l1::reslt:int eriér that ' con. ' ‘ 986—present, synd1cated). But we s on friends and Oprah (1 v t f I bit may occur " ' th the passage 0 time, han e does not necessarily occur wi ' I T in criTical historical moments, in a climate of conflict and struggle between etin social ideals and expectations. _ coTnpq it: of utopian hopes for televismn, early network prograrrlirntng generally adopted the same logic and strategies of historically iase 170 Theater, Film, and Television depictions of race, class struggle, gender, and ethnicity from film, vaude- ville, and radio before it. As the Civil Rights Movement began to thrive, while such older representations continued on television screens, many argued that network television had abandoned its public service responsi- bilities for sheer profit-making motives. Images that were familiar from past entertainments were, apparently, commercially viable even if they were not palatable to some members of the audience. When we consider how such television images make meaning and how we read television images, we think of television as an ideological site of cul- tural representation. As scholar john Fiske has argued, when we think of television images and their power to “represent,” we are talking about television as a medium that, more often than not, tends to reproduce and maintain society’s generally accepted and dominantly promoted beliefs—— what we often presume to be the cultural “common sense.”8 This idea implies that the television text encourages the viewer to identify with par- ticular points of view that each vieWer may accept or reject, in whole or in part. Reading and interpretation, or the meanings that people make of tel— evision texts, are, in this sense, largely dependent on individual identity and the context within which the images are readf’ What makes televi- sion—-—and most popular cultural artifacts—so worthy of study is the para- doxical ability to allow for various possible reading positions in relation to fairly consistent ideological ideals. That is, while privileging dominant ide- ology and rewarding viewers who can manage to conform to or identify with the most comfortable, common sense reading of the text, television programs and many advertisements also contain enough diverse elements to draw those outside this imagined, dominant ideal to find pleasure and meaning in such texts. The meanings that surface and circulate on televi- sion always exist in conversation with broader cultural ideals and expecta- tions in a given historical period. Television does not create these ideals on its own, but it contributes to their larger social impact. When people refer to representation in television, they are generally referring to the ways in which visual images and sounds create certain kinds of assumptions about the identity and characteristics of particular groups of people within society. For instance, there are frequent debates over tele- vision’s representation of women or ofthe family, as well as of the represen- tation of African American culture. Debates over representation fuel many of the most fiercely pitched battles over television in our culture and point to the power that television images are presumed to have, as well as to the way that viewers are often presumed to be influenced by those images— influence that supposedly carries over to their attitudes and actions in pub- lic, outside of the home. There is a very strong assumption within our culture that what we see on television shapes our perception of people in Racism and Television 171 the world. Debates over representation in television are, in this way,balso debates about the medium itself. They imply certain assumption:1 ab otut how viewers relate to the medium and interpret its images. These e a es tend to take as their premise that viewers typically perceive of telev1510n as ' n of the world in some real way. . a rTfti‘fgytrigion typically presents us with a few images that stand :in fotrt: whole group of people. These few images, because they are broa cas t the nation at large, appear to give recognizable and fixed identities ot cultural groups that, in reality, are complex and varied. This arégiirprpgid applies to all other popular media as well, such as the alIw:Ul;now images of supermodels gracing the pages of glossy magazmes ral these images to be untrue and not representative of women in gene , but, at the same time, many of us invest in the Ideals of beauty, success, glamour, and individual achievement that those same images”repres:.n; Such images seem to ratify the broader “American Dream on w to ' ' ' . ican Americans ' much of the nation’s life and culture are founded Afr have always had a somewhat critical or self-conscious relatitinto' thistiig— ology, based on the legacy of enslavement and institutiona ractsm this, historically and systematically, have discouraged equal access to drgaizlr‘eotypes survive and thrive in our culture largely because of thgir ambivalence. Their power lies in the fact that, although they appear to k11x the identity of a group through a set of highly charged, v1s1ble,bc1u1c g understandable traits; in doing so, they make the other an o _]ect pd desire as well as an object of contempt. Early m teleyision historiy, examples of such stereotyping included Amos ’12 Andy sstumbling ea mg men and also Beuiahis “mammy” character. Both of these stereotype:l con tinued long and popular traditions from eighteenth- and pinetgegt -cen; tury American arts and culture, as fixtures of traveling minstre s Dows, o- vaudeville routines, and, later, as stock characterizations in motion Cpic tures and on radio programs. These were characters that function? I tto defuse any sense that black Americans had either legitimate comp am 8; about their oppression within American culture or that, given equa standing and opportunity, they would be able to capitalize on it. h as In the postwar American context, critics argued that programs suc i221.- Amos ’n’Andy and Beulah, by reenergizing and repopularizmg charactgil' k tions inherited from older media forms, undermined contemporarly ac t legitimacy and power and effectively encouraged the Ainericaln’cu titjlrt: 1;: large to underestimate the role and demands of black Americipis ed or burgeoning Civil Rights era. In this sense, stereotypes are n‘ijofi iz dom- prominent at particular moments in history because they help e use inant cultural anxieties or fears in times of transuion. 112 Theater, Film, and Television Alvin Childress (as Amos Jones), Tim Moore (as George “Kingfish” Stevens), Johnny Lee (as Algonquin J. Calhoun), and Spencer Williams (as Andrew Hogg Brown) in The Amos ’n’Andy Show, 1951—1953. CBS/Photq‘ést Although we could also point to the one—sided portrayals of doddering white suburban fathers, or of white housewives who wore pearls as they vac— uumed in 19505 situation comedies, as stereotypical representations of unreal whiteness, there was a significant difference between such stereo- types and those in Andy and Beulah. These portraits of suburban placidity and frivolity were idealized within dominant culture as epitomizing the American Dream, whereas Amos ’n’ Andy’s and Badges characters were, conversely, made fun of—-they were disempowered in relation to dominant cultural ideology. Seen as incapable of attaining the American Dream, African American characters in early television comedy stood in as symbols of what not to do and be—as that which threw the proper pursuit of the American Dream into relief by contrast. And yet stereotyping also functions to underscore feelings of inadequacy, lack, and genuine desire—the sec— ond part of the ambivalence that is the source of the stereotype’s power. Beulah’s character, for instance, is clearly far more interesting than her white employers, the Hendersons. It is only through her that the Racism and Television 173 Hendersons, by association, come to life. But, consideripg the broader social context of segregation in the early 1-9503, Beulah s attralfuveiies: and power also had to be contained. 80, in the series, Beulaafflis t1.ep within a carefully contained place in the kitchen and in her 1 1:10;][ with the Henderson’s child, Donny, rather than assoc1ated With the a :11 world or the public space outside the home. Beulah thus liberates (i Hendersons, while staying well within her place as a stereotylplicak mammy. Beulah was also the first sitcom to star and be named for ac1 ac woman. Equally, the program was co-produced by its .stars an 'was tremendously popular and therefore lucrative for the African American Diahann Carroll (as Julia Baker), Lloyd Nolan (as Dr. Mor- ton Chegley), and Marc Copage (as Corey Baker) mJuha, 1968—1971. NBC/Photofest 114 Theater, Film, and Television actors in its cast. So, the program’s stereotyping was read in multiple and conflicting ways by the audience ofits time. Some readers of Ebony mag- azine, for example, responded that Beulah was an absolutely necessary first step to greater equality in television of the future and that it. was a thrill to see an African American character on screen every single week within a prime-time schedule that was otherwise almost exclusively white in its composition. So, when thinking about stereotypical images, we have to understand that representation on television is always conflicted, com- plex, and political. In the 19605, new images of African Americans began to appear in prime- time television; these images struggled to evade stereotypes while also avoid- ing engagement with topical social issues. For example, scholar Aniko Bodroghkozy has studied the series Julia (NBC, 1968—1971) as a program that was symptomatic of the larger social dialogue or constellation of racial tensions and reconfigurations in American culture of the late lgfills.m_]ulia entered into dialogue with a larger social and cultural struggle over “what it meant to be black" and “what it meant to be white" at the end of the 1960s in America. In the context of the ratification of the Civil Rights Act, the emergence of the Black Panthers, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Mar- tin Luther King jr., and the urban uprisings of the late 1960s, for many Americans, this was a revolutionary time. Bodroghkozy argues that 1968 was a time in history when many viewers were looking for more realism in their programming—programs that reflected these larger social tensions. In this regardnjuh'cr was caught in a bind. As noted by historian]. Fred MacDonald, whenever a black entertainer appeared in national media in the 1960s, he or she was expected to represent all African Americans, embodying the panorama of black life from suburbia to urban core.'1 This burden of representation meant thatjulia.———whose lead character, played by Diahann Carroll, was a middle-class single mother, registered nurse, and widow of a Vietnam War hero—was often interpreted as inau- thentic, to both black and white audience members. To many African American viewers, Julia didn’t appear to assert herself as black; among many white viewersJulia seemed too successful—criticisins that very thinly masked white. America’s discomfort withjulia‘s ease in integrated environ- ments and her material success within the framework of the American Dream of individual achievement. Bodroghkozy's study of viewer responses tofulia concludes that, among other things, the series underscored that the increasing anxiety over the gradual eradication of traditional racial hierar- chies at such a revolutionary moment in US. history—a marked anxiety, particularly, over whiteness as an increasingly indeterminate terrain. The late 19605 had brought a great deal of social upheaval, much of which was shown in television news reports and documentaries. In particu- lar, events involving issues of race, gender, and generational clashes had Racism and Television 175 awakened advertisers and network executives to the fact that American cul- ture was full of different groups with varied interests, rather than being a homogeneous audience. Equally, there was growing awareness that these groups did not necessarily watch the same programming at the same time——that the television audience itself was mcreasmgly segmented. Advances in the Civil Rights Movement of the 19605 ushered in integration and affirmative action legislation and led to an increased awareness of the economic viability of a thriving African American consumer class that was increasingly attractive to national advertisers. New rules in broadcasting in the early 19705 encouraged changes in the ways that networks acqun‘ed, promoted, and scheduled prime-time programming. I Television producers responded to such soctal upheavals and shifts by trying to create socially relevant programming. As the 197I0s began, the net~ works’ share of the expanding, well-educated, urban, socrally activist youth audience was shrinking. In this climate, networks were willing to give‘a chance to ethnically, racially, and economically diverse variety series and 51t- coms. The resulting programs, created largely by independent producers such as Norman Lear, included The Flip Wilson Show (NBC, 1970—1974), Levar Burton in ABC’s miniseries Roots, 1977. ABC/l’l'zotqfésl 176 Theater, Film, and Television Good Times (CBS, 1974—1979), and Thejtflfersons (1975—1985). Instead of going after all of the viewers with such programs, however, some networks began to strategize to get the right kind of viewers—to target a group of particularly lucrative viewers. This became a battle over demographics. By 1970 it had become clear to networks and advertisers that the young adult, urban, and, particularly, female audience between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine was the ideal demographic market. “Then demographics are emphasized, rather than ratings, the portion of the audience that a pro- gram attracts from its target demographic becomes more important than the total, aggregate number of viewers tuned into a program. And yet, in the late 19705, Roots (ABC,january 23—January 30, 1977) and Roots: The Next Generations (ABC, February l8-February 25, 1979) literally invented the miniseries form and captured the unprecedented attention of a mass, multiracial, multigenerational nation of viewers while focusing on slavery—an American institution that had typically been suppressed from public discussion. was the mass, mainstream U.S. audience ready to embrace fully programs that were focused on African American life and culture? In the 1980s, The Cosfga Show (NBC, 1984-1992) came to be both praised and critiqued as the epitome of mass-audience, post-Civil Rights era repre- sentations of race. The Cosby Show was the first predominantly black—cast sit- com to portray an affluent, intact, African American nuclear family. Cosby ’s enormous mainstream popularity reinvigorated debates over authenticity in television portrayals of black life and culture. Why, for example, did more class-diverse and issue-engaged programs that were seriocomedic and dramatic, such as Frank’s Place (CBS, 1987—1988), South Central (Fox, 1994), or Under One Roof (CBS, 1995)—each of which overtly addressed the social problems, continuing racial discrimination, and class struggles that The Cosby Show assiduously avoided—die quickly during the same era in which sitcoms such as Cosby and TheFresh Prince ofBei Air (NBC, 1990—1996) were so beloved? In the first few seasons of The Cosby Shaw’s run, television had begun to undergo the first radical change to its structure since its inception. The first challenge to the Big Three networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) came in the late 19805, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation launched the Fox Network. The Fox Network built up its audience by targeting typically utiderserved viewers—particularly, youth and urban African American audiences. From 1987 on, the Fox Network challenged the classic “Big Three“ broadcasters, with fast-paced programs featuring diverse and all—African American casts (such as In Living Color, 1990—1994; Roe, 1991—1994; and Martin, 1992—1997). The Big Three continued to have their dominance challenged and their audience eroded with the late 19805 and 1990s emergence of Weblets—UPN, the WB (now combined as the Cwl—challengers such as the Spanish language telecaster. Univision, and Racism and Television 171 family-friendly start-ups such as FAX—TV (now Ion). Using the same strat- egy that had been initiated by Fox, these new networks targeted ur an, youth, and underrepresented audiences to build their early. economic base, from which their schedules have expanded to reach Wider, mOie mainstream audiences. A Although programs in the late 19905 were targeting and, therefore, sup- posedly speaking to and for African American audiencesithose featui ed on Fox were consistently under fire for repackaging old minstrel stereotypes for a rapidly nearing new millennium. The question of allthellilCILy—DJ appropriate representation versus black access, exposure, and Widesprea' mainstream acceptance within television production and broadcasting—1s one that is revived every year regarding the few shews that feature predom- inantly black casts. Artist and scholar Marlon Riggs powerfully identified the core dilemma that is central to this ongoing debate. In ColorAriyustment (1993), his video history of African American representation in US. telev1« sion, Riggs asks whether any Inedium whose reason for being is to sell the American Dream of free-market consumption and class rise can ever possi— bly include those who have been excluded from that dream on a'systeinatic basis: could television authentically address black life and still sell the American Dream? _ Overall, questions of racism and television representation focus on how television participates in the development and ongomg dCfiITILIOI: of a national culture and citizenship ideals. When television appears to natu— ralize” certain images as “common sense" embodiments of the American Dream and demonize or caricature others, it often becomes central fig- ure in crises regarding national identity and representational ideals Within the broader culture, beyond the television screen. VIEWERS TALK BACK: PUBLIC ABTIVISM AND ALTERNATIVE TV Television history is marked by ongoing activism and agitation for change. African American and allied protests over representation and reg— ulatory oversight, as well as participation in the production'a'nd promotion of alternative media forms to mainstream commercial televismn, have been vital in intervening in and remedying racist practices in television. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was particularly active in the protest against Amos ’ri’Aridy in the 1950s and has remained active as a watchdog group that monitors each new series in development to the present day. In the case offimos ’71. ’Andy, the prtigraiiils supporters argued that, as the first program in prime-time telewsmn Wit 1 an all»black cast, the series gave talented African Americans unprecedented access to television careers and to a vast viewing audience. The program 3 critics argued that it misrepresented the lives of black Americans by 178 Theater, Film. and Television portraying the central characters as buffoons. The NAACP argued that such inauthentic representations had a direct impact on the continued oppression and exclusion of African Americans from equal rights and jus- tice in the world beyond the television screen. Within two seasons, the NAACP was successful in getting Amos ’n ’Andy removed from CBS’s prime- time schedule, although the series continued to be popular in syndication through the early [9605. The 1960s represented a new moment in terms of television history and public activism. Although public interest had always been a considera- tion—the basis on which all stations were licensed—it was only in the 19605 that the notion of public interest extended to the co “standing,” or participation in the regulatory and license renewal proceed- ings concerning a local station or licensee. Public standing was instituted as a result of a court case that began in 1955: a group of citizens from jackson, Mississippi, made the first ofa long series ofcomplaints to the Fed- eral Communications Commission (FCC) about the conduct of local sta- tion VVLBT.l2 WLBT was accused of blatant discrimination against African Americans, who formed 45 percent of the station’s viewing audience. The public who complained to the FCC had taken careful notes and provided detailed accounts proving that the station used airtime to promote a segre- gationist philosophy and, in general, had denied the use of its airwaves to any proponents of civil rights causes, such as political candidates service announcements by local inte had deliberately cut off a network program about race relations on which the general counsel of the NAACP appeared. Initially, the FCC dismissed the citizens‘ complaints, saying that they had no legal right to participate in a licensing decision. By 1964, the United Church of Christ. (UCC) had joined the campaign against WLBT, providing legal services and funding to the Citizens ofjackson in their plight. The UCC petitioned the FCC, on behalf oflocal groups, for the p in the license renewal application, but the FCC again rejected the petition, saying that the citizens had no legal standing. In spite of licensing renewal reg- ulations—-—which asserted that stations had to prove that they served in the public interest-—those populations who were injured and silenced by the sta— tion’s business practices were silenced in the regulatory process as well. The FCC said that only other broadcasters could have standing in licensing hear— ings that challenged current broadcasters. The UCC filed a complaint against the FCC with the US. Court oprpeals. The Court determined that the FCC had no right to bar the public from renewal hearings or to renew a license automatically, without a hearing. The FCC held a hearing but renewed VVLBT’S license anyway, which led the UCC to return to court. In 1969 the Court finally ruled that the FCC had to cancel W1.BT’s license and appoint an unbiased, interim operator until a new permanent licensee could be found. ncept of legal or public ermission to intervene rest groups. In one example, VVLBT Racism and Television 119 In total, the case against WLBT and challenge to the FCC t'ook'ovegs: quarter of a century to decide. But, in the end, it’proved the etieipiyslrICEd of public activism in relation to a broadcast station 5 periolrinance. St It also the FCC to practice its stated regulatory standard of pu ic lllltet‘e . [wags- put local stations on the alert that licensing renewal was no ‘ongelr, I ta] gt sarily automatic. The WLBT case is con51dered to have been a rea ca] [:26 for the wave of public activism that emerged around broadcai‘png ii thc late 1960s and early 19703 and that continues to this‘t‘lay. Fo owmfg W- case, several public interest groups formed for the specdic purpose 0 se ' ' watchdo s. mgliis iggglilfdl(lorporagon for Public Broadcasting was created by the Public Broadcasting Act to be a partnership between the goverplinepit (through congressional appropriationsl and corporations (‘thTZLIgJP phc vate donation) to provide for the administration of funding for t eblu L ]- Broadcasting System (PBS), which distributes programming for it e t evision stations. The Act’s mandate was to “fac111tate the full deve oprncnd of educational broadcasting in which programs of high quality, obtaine from diverse sources, will be made available”.to partic1pat1ng stations. Scholar Christine Acham has discussed the promise that PBb held for 1121.111}! African American viewers and members of the television news and. pro uc— tion community in her history of Black journal, which began airing PBS in 1968. Black journal represented a rare nonliction program_ e i- cated to black issues and, crucially, produced by Airican ‘AfllClficzin'Si According to Achain, Black journal “boasted a 7:) percent black It: 111::- crew and a 95 percent black production crew, an unprecedente rence on a nationally televised program?” Additionally:Blurkfourna 1 e1: resented a “site of black cultural resistance because ll was posmone within this mainstream forum yet still produced critical‘black news covgr- age"14 that challenged much of the style and content of reporting on t 1e traditional “Big Three” networks of NBC, CBS, or ABC. 7 ‘ “c- Perhaps PBS’s biggest success, howeveriwas a program thatunaf1 ex‘pere itly designed to target “underprivileged inner-City ehlldPIi—‘Efil bw’ filcmld imagined to be primarily African American and Latino: e Slap”. re- of ]oan Ganz Cooney and the Carnegie Corporation, .Sasgpte . .I p '1 Iniered in 1969 with the goal to “diminish the disparity in edpcattiprlia «Opportunity created by poverty” through the colorful, Iquicl accpvegtg: catchy musical appeal of television and, further, of coAmirpfrflaThe shogy ing (“today’s program is brought to you by the. letter ’)I. cu].ture incorporated soul music and references to African American t5; featured a diverse cast of humans and a inultihued cast of muppe _ who lived together in one neighborhood. The show s tremendousdpop: laritv with an entire generation across race, class, gender,danl l-gga] graphic lines has remained a model for progresswe, e uta io 180 Theater, Film, and Television television and for successors such as Little Bill (Nickelodeon, 1999—present) and Dora, The Explorer (PBS, QOOO—present). Until the 1990s, cable television was not a serious competitor to the Big Three networks. Cable began as an alternative way for broadcasters’ signals to reach viewers who lived in areas too mountainous, too rural, or too densely populated to receive over-air broadcast signals. Indeed, cable is almost as old as network television itself. However, throughout the 19805, deregulation policies allowed for cable to expand and compete directly with broadcasters by offering channels that were exclusively “on cable” and that provided competing programming. By the summer of 1997, for the first time, basic cable channels (such as CNN, ESPN, Lifetime, etc.) had captured a larger portion of the prime-time viewing audience than the broadcast net- works. Cable promised to offer programming that was targeted to popula- tions that had typically been underrepresented in over-air broadcasting. Among the first cable networks, for example, CNN offered a format of twenty-four—hour news updates. The principal anchor of CNN, from its incep- tion, was African American journalist Bernard Shaw. Black Entertainment Television (BET) was founded in 1980 by Robert L. Johnson and a group of investors with the explicit goal of providing black-focused entertainment. Cable and satellite TV proponents argue that, by offering specialized “neighborhoods” that address particular communities, these technologies have the capacity to democratize popular culture, opening up the air- waves to previously unheard voices and, simultaneously, addressing and incorporating new audiences into those communities. On the other hand, others maintain that these technologies fragment the American public into segregated, atomized interest groups, encouraging existing precon- ceptions about race and identity. Do newer media, including the Internet, encourage viewers to remain in their own, preestablished comfort zones, choosing their media “homes” from those that mirror their already- familiar everyday life? Or do these media encourage viewer or users to seek out actively and explore new venues and cultures that might chal- lenge their existing worldview? TELEVISION IN THE 20005 AND BEYON0 Since the mid-1990s, one of the clearest trends in media ownership is its increasing concentration in fewer and fewer hands. The major media com- panies own vast portfolios of products, spanning the range of media for- mats and delivery systems. While concentration of ownership has been occurring, conglomeration has been taking place. That is, media c0mpa~ nies have become part of much larger corporations that own a collection of other companies that. may operate in diverse business areas. An example of the importance of race images and African American audiences to this Racism and Television 181 new business context is the case of ESPN and its Original Entertainment Programming division. I _ ' ESPN Original Entertainment Programming (EOE) includes origmal dramatic programming and reality series that are produced to run on each of the networks’ multiple outlets. EOE has recently focused on hip- hop style and culture to ally its programs and ESPN networks with a “styl- ish, youthful . . . sensual” imagination of black culture and black cultural authenticity that ultimately emphasizes its featured athletes’ and audI- ence’s investment in the structural rewards that come from working within dominant cultural institutions (such as the professional sports team). According to the ESPN Original Programming Sales and Market- ing Department, its series are designed to appeal most to “Afr1can American and Hispanic scene—makers and other 12- to 24-year old male urban hipsters?” This is a generation of viewers that ESPN—and its cor- porate parents, ABC/ Capital Cities and Disney—understands to be- innately comfortable with integration and with the cross-promonon of video gaming, music, film, fashion, and sport through hip—hop address. EOE is essential to the future of the network and to its expansion, glob- ally, however, as a “gateway” for young, urban audiences to become part of the corporation’s “family” of media interests. ESPN includes not only its multiple television networks and programs (most of which are global in reach) but also encompasses ESPN Internet, ESPN Wireless, ESPN Print, ESPN Radio, ESPN Gaming, ESPN Music/Recording division, and ESPN “Built Environment" destinations, including ESPN Sports Zone restaurant and entertainment centers. With Disney and ABC/Capital Cities, ESPN has an extended reach wherever Disney and ABC are also present in the market. Through EOE to a young, urban population, ESPN can offer sponsors an entirely different audience than that of its news and information pro- gramming. Through these programs and their hip-hop appeals, ESPN can promise sponsors that it will deliver these emerging consumers to advertisers across all of its “platforms”: From Original Programs, ESPN “sells through" to ESPN’s multiple networks, to ESPN.com on the web, to ESPN The Magazine in print, and to ABC Urban Advantage Radio Net— works, as well as to EA—Sports’ ESPN-partnered video games. Consistency in both target audience and overall mode of address across these plat— forms is ensured through the hip-hop aesthetic that is common to each. Essential to this strategy is ESPN2’s Friday Night Block Party of program— ming. Scheduled with all-new programming during summer, followed 'by heavy reruns across ESPN’s family of networks throughout the remain- der of the year, The Block Party currently includes Friday Night Fights box- ing, the AND-l-sponsored reality program about the Mixtape Tour Streetball league, called Streetball, as well as alternating rotations of The 182 Theater, Film, and Television Life and The Season, both of which are documentary series that go “behind the scenes” for a day in the life ofa professional athlete or ama- teur team, respectively. During the summer of 2003, hip-hop artist and actor Mos Def was brought in to host The Block, which, since its inception that year, has been explicitly identified with hip—hop as a strategy to attract heavy view- ers of the emerging target demographic (the “super fans”) as well as those that ESPN/ABC’s Sports Customer Marketing and Sales Depart— ment identifies as “light consumers of ESPN” or those “new to the net- work,” who will be attracted by the featured mix of “athletes and celebrities in hip—hop, sports, and entertainment.“ In the main, EOE posits that blackness, masculinity, hip-hop, and professional sports celebrity are innater interrelated. And yet, in this multimediated, highly commercialized media environ- ment, Internet technology and the rapid explosion in relative affordability of video production technology have encouraged viewers to become image producers in their own right. The Internet now regularly provides a forum for “homemade television” that can stream into homes around the world. Such productions allow for immediate response and critique of main— stream media in ways that encourage alternative views and images to be heard and seen. Following Hurricane Katrina, for example, the Web site “The Black Lantern” (http://mvw.theblacklantern.com) posted a short, downloadable film that combined footage from the pro-Confederacy silen [- era film, The Birth of/l Nation (1915); hip-hop star Kanye West’s commen— tary taken from a television fundraiser in which he stated “George Bush doesn’t care about. Black people;” and news footage from the around-the- clock coverage of the storm and its aftermath—all set to a remix of West's smash hit single “Colddigger,” as crafted by “The Legendary KO.” The video, titled “George Bush Doesn’t Care about Black People,” offered a powerful critique of federal response to the disaster while also clearly con- textualizing that response as part of a larger, national history of systematic oppression and inequity. Despite the exciting possibilities of new media technology and routes to individual modes of production, among the estimated 70 percent of the U.S. populalion not defined as “part of the technological elite”—a segment of the population that is disproportionately black and Latino, rural and Southern—more than 96 percent have more than one televi- sion set within the home. As of 2006, despite competition from the Inter- net and mobile technologies, “Americans are watching more television than ever,” with a television set on in households an average of eight hours and fourteen minutes each day.'7 It is therefore critical to continue to acknowledge and interrogate actively the ways in which television remains central to the broad majority of Americans’ everyday life as the Racism and Television 183 key resource for neWS, entertainment, and the imagination and debate over identity of all forms.18 NOTES 1. This model of television as a social institution is one that is used by‘several prominent television studies scholars, including Aniko Bodroghkozy, :“Is:l"his You Mean by Color TV?’ Race, Gender, and Contested Meanlngs Ill-NBL SJ’ltlIft, Hm Private Screenings: Television and the Female Cons-timer, eds. Lynn Spigel and Denise Mann (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 142—1b7; Steven D. Classen, Wetchingjim Grow: The Struggles Over Mississippi Tl”: 13955—1976}l (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004); Michael (lurtin, Redeeming the Wasteland: letevmon Doc- umentary and Cold. War Politics (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1995i); Herman Gray, Watching Race: Tialeoision and the Struggle for ‘Blnchness’ (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1995); Michele Hilmes, Only Connect: A Cultural HZSIOU' of Broadcasting in the United States, 2nd ed. (Belmont, (11.4: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007); and Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV (Chicago: Univers1ty oi Chicago Press, 1992). . 2. See, for example, Stuart Hall, ed., Representation: Calla-ml Rgbretentntion and Signifying Practices (London: Sage Publications, 2003); George. Iiipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia. Temple University Press, 1998); Michael Omi, “In Living (Jolor: Race and American Culture," in Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, eds. Sut jhally and Ien Ang k: Routled Ire, 1989), 11 1—122. (NéTéfalso Victoria E. Johnson, "Television and Civil Rights," in Civil Rights the United States, Vol. 2, eds. Waldo E. Martin and Patricia Sullivan (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2000): 7l9—7‘21. ' y ‘ a, r ‘ I 4. Albert Bartlett, “Television May Well Be the Handiwork of God, the Chicago , U cler ul'l,1950):20. 00”; Sets,I rdgarding the hopes for a “Double-V," Fred MacDonald, Blacks and White TV: African Americans In Television Since 1948, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Nelson Hall Publishers,- 1992); and Thomas Cripps, “Amos ’n’ Andy and the Debate. over American Racial Integration,” in American History/American Television: Interpreting the Video Post, ed.]ohn E. O'Connor (New York: Ungar, 1983): 33—54. . I 6. For further expansion of these ideas, see Roland Marchand,‘Ao‘vertiszng and the American Dream (Berkeley: University of California Press, with); and George Lipsity, “The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethinc1ty in Early Network Television Programs,” in Private Streenings, Spigel and Mann, 71—109. _ 7. For these statistics and data, see Sidney W. Head, Christopher H. Sterling, and Lemuel B. Scofield, Broadcasting in America: A Survey of Electronic Mt’dttt, 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifllin Company, 1994). 8. ]ohn Fiske, Television Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989). y ‘ 9,.Stnart Hall, “encoding/ decoding,” in Culture, .Media, Language: ‘Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972—79 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1980), 128—198. I 10. Bodroghkozy, “Is This “That You Mean,” in in Private Screenings, Spigel and Mann, 142—167. 184 Theater, Film, and Television 11. J. Fred MacDonald. Blacks and White TV: Afiimn Americans in Television Since 1948, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Nelson Hall Publishers, 1992); and MacDonald’s One Nation under Rik-(Jinan: The Rise and Decline ongtwmk TV(Chieago: Nelson Hall Pub— lishers, 1999). 12. Classen, Watching jim Crow. 13. Christine Acham, Revolution Rlevised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 41. 14. Ibid., 42. 15. Kathleen Collins, “SesameStreet: Children 's Educational Public Television Pro- gram,” in Enqciopedia of Tklwision, ed. Horace Newcomb, 2nd ed. (New York: Fiurov Dearborn, 2004): 2056. 16. Quoting ESPN/ABC Sports Customer Marketing and Sales Department. 17. josh Getlin, “Time Spent Watching Television Increases,” Las Angeles Times (September 22, 2006): C3, 18. As noted injohn B. Horrigan, “Consumption of Information Goods and Services in the United States,” Pew Internet is" American Life Project (November 23, 2003), http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Info_Consumption.pdf, also in U.S. Census data. ...
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