The Democratic Potential of Television vs Television as a Site of Hegemony. An Unsympathetic Reading of Gitlin’s Prime-Time ideology
Newcomb and Hirsch argue in 1983 that television, instead of straightforwardly operating as a transmitter of dominant ideology, functions much more like a cultural forum providing space for the discussion of a variety of ideas from multiple perspectives—at least in the US context at the time. I appreciate it that in opposition to "traditional ideological criticism” (p565), Newcomb and Hirsch press the significance of what we might refer to as authorship and as artistic and self-expression in matters of creating content on part of the producers of TV shows (p568), while also emphasizing, to a great extent, the flexibility, openness, and plurality of interpretation i.e. the range of possible meanings to be constructed by different audiences.
The perceived complexity and richness of television is then connected back, even if somewhat indirectly, to the context of capitalism: "only so rich a text could attract a mass audience in a complex culture” (571)—so the richness and complexity are, on the one hand, in quasi-allience with the capitalist, consumerist system, as they are a great way to ensure a large viewership and thereby securing large investments in advertising and sponsorship. We may also argue, on the other hand, that this richness and plurality entail quasi-democratic attributes in the form of a wide access to, and a fairly great ability to create, reaffirm, criticize, and put ideas in circulation via television, which is, consequentially, a potent site for a constant renegotiation of "public thought” (p563).
Hendershot reflects on Newcomb and Hirsch’s optimistic theorization of television in the post-network, niche-marketing era, which latter can be seen as significantly reducing the potential of TV and specific programmes to function as a cultural forum. Contemporary niche TV tends to operate more according to the logic of "self-confirmation", as Newcomb himself comments (see reference on p206). Nevertheless, Hendershot remains hopeful about what she sees as TV’s democratic potential, offering the example of Parks and Recreation (broadcasted by NBC but these days available from various online sources subsequently to its first broadcasting) as embodying and realizing the ideal of an active civic participation in open public discussions.
In sharp contrast with Hendershot, and Newcomb and Hirsch, Gitlin draws a rather dark picture of TV, according to which the latter basically functions, in a servilient and almost seamlessly effective way, as yet another satellite of a seemingly unbeatable giant, the "hegemonic commercial cultural system" (Gitlin, p251). My choice of words and their personifying effect are intentional, and meant to express my perception of (and concomitant disagreement with and slight irritation about) Gitlin’s perception about power as tending towards being monolithic, and the lack of clarification on his part on matters of agency, intention, and loci of power, and thus, ultimately, of causality. Despite Gitlin’s own humble qualification that his essay is "extremely preliminary” (p254), and also, the fact that it was written as early as 1979, Giltin seems to radically underestimate if not ignore factors other than those directly connected to the workings of capitalist-consumerist hegemony—factors some of which have been, if passingly, pointed out by Newcomb and Hirsh just a couple of years later, such as the fluidity and lack of closure of meaning due to the intellectual and artistic variance and at least occasional adventurousness and originality on the part of the many people working in, or reflecting on or reacting to, the TV industry and its products. Nevertheless, Gitlin at least acknowledges the less-than-straightforward quality of transplantation of messages into the minds of the audiences (see p253). Despite this reasonable qualification, however, he does make assertions such as: "By watching, the audience one by one consents. Regardless of the commercial’s ’effect’ on our behaviour, we are consenting to its domination of the public space” (p255). So, even if TV’s force on the audience members’ minds may be not direct in the sense of a total submission to its proximate meaning/message, it is nevertheless complete in the sense of more indirect effects whereby our "time and attention” stop belonging to us, whereby "the social powers” would "colonize” our "consciousness, and unconsciousness” (p255).
In Gitlin’s curious and rather arbitrary logic, TV either reiterates same old ideas and thereby reinforces hegemonic ideology, as you should see in the mechanism of TV’s (relative) stability and constant formulas, i.e. in its lack of change; or, alternatively, when TV does change, well, then such changes "have in large part to be referred back to changes in social values and sensibilities”, on which TV then "capitalizes” when it now prefers to acknowledge such changes and decides to domesticate them (in order to attract viewers and so on). So basically, when TV works in ways that would reinforce the status quo, TV is evaluated by Gitlin as this proactive, powerful enforcer of meaning; yet, when TV problematizes the status quo or raises controversy, its workings are merely reactionary instead of proactive, i.e. in such cases TV is only the mere site to mirror and take advantage of newer social sensibilities already out there... In conclusion, whatever TV does, it remains the evil site of cultural hegemony.
At some point, Gitlin seems to make a reasonable assumption about hegemonic ideology being far from safely fixed and safely reproduced, when he comments on the apparent multiplicity of interpretation: "Indeed, the fact that the same film is subject to a variety of conflicting interpretations may suggest a crisis in hegemonic ideology” (p262). Gitlin then offers an argument that has been pretty widespread among theorists relying on the concept of hegemony: "The hegemonic ideology changes in order to remain hegemonic; that is the peculiar nature of the dominant ideology of capitalism.” Oh really? So there is this ideology, which is willing to tolerate or even actively offer public space for its own contestation by oppositional ideas, and it is, indeed, capable of changing... Put it this way, it doesn’t sound that nasty after all; actually, it is reminiscent of how "democracy” is imagined. Though Gitlin’s argumentation never takes the direction which I just took, nevertheless, at the end of the article, he seems to sense the instability of his arguments, and feels the urge to somehow reassure why and how, capitalism does work as a hegemony, that hegemony is indeed evil and effective in its intricate ways of maintaining itself, and that television is a site for the workings of that hegemony. First, he argues that when social conflicts are brought into the cultural domain, the hegemonic process effectively frames them into compatibility with dominant systems of meaning. Does he mean there hadn’t been significant cultural shifts since the stabilization of the capitalist system as essentially everything stays the same? That would not be what he seems to have demonstrated so far... "Alternative material”, Gitlin continues, "is routinely incorporated: brought into the body of cultural production” (p264). Does Gitlin suggests here that bringing issues into the cultural sphere would entail some sort of sublimation, of emptying out, of passivizing, or deterring it from the routs of real action? So cultural imagery, public thoughts, shifts in public discourses, people’s attitudes and opinions would not have any significant consequence on "real life” or "materiality”?
Second, Gitlin identifies an "ideological core” that would provide us with a foundation for being able to regard capitalist hegemony as a sovereign entity despite all its flexibility and actual changes: "the notion that happiness, or liberty, or equality, or fraternity can be affirmed through the existing private commodity forms, under the benign, protective eye of the national security state” (p265). This core is what "remains”, supposedly, "essentially unchanged and unchallenged in television entertainment.” I do not think this was sufficiently argued for in the essay. In my view, Gitlin actually argues more sufficiently even if indirectly against his own thesis of TV being a satellite for capitalist hegemony, which latter would essentially be unchanged and unchallenged on it.