“Cultural hegemony operates through the solutions proposed to difficult problems. However grave the problems posed, however rich the imbroglio, the episodes regularly end with the click of a solution: an arrest, a defiant smile, an I-told-you-so explanation. The characters we have been asked to care about are alive and well, ready for next week” (Gitlin, 262).
As Todd Gitlin writes in “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment”, there can’t really be any change with weekly, scripted television programs because the structure of the show demands there be a return to stasis at the end of the program. However, this brings me to the question: is television really the best setting for social/political change? Or is the dominant hegemony of the structure of television keeping the medium from becoming a medium of change? Television shows us that no matter how “deeply the problem is located within society, it will be solved among a few persons: the heroes must attain a solution that leaves the rest of society untouched” (Gitlin, 262). But today in the post-network, cable, streaming environment in which television exists, can we still say this holds true?
While Gitlin says the dominant social ideology is preferred by some features of TV programming, at the same time some alternative and oppositional values are also normalized by television, although these oppositional views still try to fall within the majority of the viewing audience’s taste (254). Because of the ad based revenue structure of network television, networks at the time had to tread a careful line between supporting the dominant norms and covering controversial topics, all while still attracting the largest possible audience. This structure made television a medium not well suited for these kinds of discussions. As Gitlin asks, “how do the formal devices of TV prime-time programs encourage viewers to experience themselves as anti-political, privately accumulating individuals? And how do these forms express social conflict, containing and diverting the images of social possibilities” (Gitlin, 253)? The answer to these questions is that television did not encourage viewers to express their views.
In contrast to Gitlin, sits the theory of Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch. In their essay “Television as a Cultural Forum” they express the idea that television can function not as a means of promoting and sustaining the hegemonic ideals in society, but that television programming can function as a forum which introduces questions and brings them into the social/mass consciousness. As Newcomb and Hirsch said, “the concept of cultural forum, then, offers, a different interpretation. We suggest that in popular culture generally, in television specifically, the raising of questions is as important as the answering of them” (565). For Newcomb and Hirsch, television also does not serve as a method/means of social or political change. As they said, “indeed it would be startling to think that mainstream texts in mass society would overtly challenge dominant ideas. But this hardly prevents the oppositional ideas from appearing. Put another way, we argue that television does not present firm ideological conclusions- despite its formal conclusions- so much as it comments on ideological problems (Newcomb and Hirsch, 565-566). So for them, television functions as a means for these oppositional views to be voiced which then inspires conversations among viewers.
As Heather Hendershot states in her essay, “Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum” the ideas of Newcomb and Hirsch are still valid, although in this new media environment of cable, streaming and explosion of narrow-casting, the ways in which television functions as a cultural forum have changed. I tend to agree with Hendershot’s analysis, in that there is still a place for television to function as a forum to discuss society’s problems. As she explains, the television programming of the 1970s, which Newcomb and Hirsch studied, gravitated toward “issues in which we were all interested” (Hendershot, 204). However, as Hindershot goes on to say, “in a fragmented, post-network environment, most TV targets rather specific, narrow interests…But in the pre-cable days, programs did generally seek out large groups of viewers, not atomized constituencies” (204). So, thinking back on these three readings I believe we can trace a very clear trajectory of the types of issues covered (or not covered) on television. In fact as Gitlin says, “the hegemonic ideology is maintained in the Seventies by domesticating divisive issues where in the Fifties [TV] would have simply ignored them” (256). However, today television does not shy away from these same kinds of issues, and in fact many shows keep these topics front and center.
It is interesting to contrast a show like Scandal with Father Knows Best or All in the Family in which the protagonist is a strong, independent female character. Early in the fifth season, Olivia Pope is shown essentially running the country because of her complete control over President (and boyfriend) Fitzgerald Grant. At different times throughout the series, President Grant is characterized as being indecisive and almost childlike in the way he is constantly relying on the women in his life to get him through difficult situations. Unlike the episode of Father Knows Best (S2 E30, “Betty Girl Engineer”) in which Betty’s feminist ideals are eventually reigned in and the hegemonic status quo of male/female power dynamics is re-established, or like in All in the Family (S3 E24, “Battle of the Month”) in which the issues are clearly voiced, but no real resolutions are reached, Scandal does not discuss issues revolving around women’s roles in society. Instead, Olivia and the other female characters are simply shown taking what they want from life. There is never a discussion on whether or not a female has a place in politics, but as Eli “Papa” Pope loves to say, “it’s all about power” and whoever has the power, has the control. In this new television environment, there are many examples of women taking what they want out of life regardless of traditional gender roles. So maybe the conversation has shifted so far from the early days of television into a realm in which these types of roles are accepted. And while the 70’s television of Newcomb and Hirsch, limited by network confines, was only able to begin discussions about hot topics, maybe today television will serve as an example of what society could be like.