How TV can reflect society’s tolerance

[21 May 2008]

By Rick Kushman

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

If you want a sense of the kind of open-mindedness you can see on network TV these days, ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” is a good place to start.

It ended its season this month with a commitment ceremony between two gay men, but that’s only part of it. “Brothers & Sisters” also features - unironically and as complete human beings - a conservative Republican senator who opposes gay marriage and his wife, a staunchly right-wing talk show host.

I know. What is Hollywood coming to? Seriously, it’s hard to know what was more rare on television two decades ago, gay characters or arch conservative ones.

Both are all over entertainment now, and despite politically motivated grumbling from groups on both ends of the ideological spectrum, the reason is simple. It’s because as a whole, American society is generally that open-minded, too.

Despite the rancor and, often, screeching from campaigns, from legislative bodies and before the courts throughout the country, that open-mindedness is an easy thing to see if you understand how popular culture, and particularly TV, works.

Put simply, pop culture - and, again, especially TV - does have influence on attitudes and ideas in America, but much more, TV reflects the ideas that have been accepted by society.

That runs run counter to the arguments of the blame-TV-for-everything crowd, but it’s a near-universally agreed upon principle among network programmers, advertisers and academics who study this sort of thing.

And in light of the California Supreme Court’s ruling last week that gay couples can marry, and with a constitutional ban on gay marriage possibly moving toward the November ballot, that notion - the idea that Americans are far more comfortable with the concept of “live and let live” than their political leaders - adds another layer to the national conversation.

The first thing that’s obvious is that TV and all of popular culture is more accepting of a broader range of images and ideas than they’ve ever been, and that includes showing gays and lesbians as fully rounded people.

That’s why “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” has been a top-rated daytime series for five seasons, why “Brothers & Sisters” is a Top 20 show, and why CBS’ soap “As the World Turns” started a storyline about a gay couple to draw younger viewers.

It’s of course simplistic to say that if media images are out there, then Americans are not bothered by any of them. All sorts of Americans are bothered by all sorts of media images.

But, as Syracuse University professor of popular culture Robert Thompson says, TV and movies and every part of the entertainment industry are first of all businesses. And for any show or movie to succeed, it needs to connect with a fairly mainstream audience.

“It’s not a clear calculus,” Thompson said in a phone interview. “Media and popular storytelling are doing a dance with the real world, and nobody’s leading.

“But you could make a strong argument that popular culture is a great barometer of attitudes, because it has to come out of the marketplace.”

That marketplace includes TV’s complex business model, which won’t let it lead attitudes too much or lag too far behind. It’s built on a complicated, shifting, hard-to-track tangle of entertainment, news, ratings and advertising.

Advertising, actually, is the cornerstone of it all, and advertisers are, in a way, the canaries in a coal mine - the first to feel any controversy. Mass media advertisers are mostly careful, skittish companies that want no part of a culture war. Instead, they’re looking for shows that put viewers in a mood to be persuaded, and protests, controversy, or emotionally charged issues don’t make consumers particularly receptive to pitches for Pepsi or iPods.

“If there’s something in a show that puts off large groups of Americans, that’s when advertisers pull out,” said Jack Myers, a respected advertising and media analyst and the publisher and editor of Jack

“Government and politicians are far behind society on the issues of gays and gay lifestyles,” he said by phone from New York. “The fact that Ellen comes out and announces she’s getting married, and it doesn’t have an iota of impact on advertisers, that shows the ship has sailed for gay lifestyles being a real conflicting issue for the mainstream,” he said by phone from New York.

The networks themselves do the same kind of math. They, too, scurry away from any kind of controversy.

Network execs say they still try for the biggest audience they can get, and moving too far from the middle of the road only cuts down viewership.

One top executive called broadcast TV a “perfect democracy” and people vote with their remotes. If a show or an image offends them, the show fails.

Add all that up, and it explains why TV through the years has been the medium that is most often the slowest to adopt the country’s changing views on race, sexuality or political issues. Look at a show like “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” It was about the Marines and ran from 1964 to 1970, but never mentioned the Vietnam War.

Mary Richards in “The Mary Tyler Moore” show, which aired from 1970 to 1977, may have been the first real feminist lead character on TV, but, as Thompson says, she was forever apologizing for it.

And it took until 1997, almost two decades after the appearance of AIDS and the fights for gay civil rights raised the American consciousness, for DeGeneres to come out of the closet as the first lead gay character on network TV.

If TV is usually a bit behind society’s acceptance curve, it does announce the changes in society’s attitudes not too long after the fact.

“That’s an important thing, too,” Thompson said. “Pop culture is perfectly positioned to do that, because it’s so timid and careful.”

This is not to say media images do not have an immensely powerful impact in all sorts of ways. When people are excluded from the mainstream, whether because of race or culture or sex, they have less reason to feel invested in mainstream culture. On the other hand, when people see themselves everywhere - in shows, in ads, in movies and magazine - it’s easier to feel as if they belong, that they matter to society like anyone else, and that society matters to them.

Most of all, seeing each other on TV breeds comfort and familiarity, not contempt.

“If there’s a group of people no one ever sees on TV or in the culture, it’s easy for other people to be filled with fear and to buy into the mystery and stories with no evidence, which can breed hatred,” Thompson said. “It’s much easier to hate people you don’t know a lot about.”

Thompson talked about his grandfather, a man he called a “died-in-the-wool” bigot for most of us life. Then his grandfather retired, and started watching daytime talk shows.

“He saw Oprah, and Sally Jessy Raphael, and all the rest and he became the poster boy for political correctness and open-mindedness,” Thompson said. “Part of it was that he saw all those people for the first time. `Donahue’ would have lesbians on, and they were kind of normal and kind of nice, and they weren’t so scary anymore.”

As Thompson would be the first to say, boiling down the culture wars and the struggles in America for civil rights to simply the nature of pictures on TV is beyond naive. But media images, and all the places they come from, are a relevant part of the progression, and they belong in the discussion of California’s choices on gay marriage.

And if you ignore for a moment the groups who recruit and raise money by complaining about the media - too liberal, too conservative, too violent, too sexual, too mainstream - and look at popular culture and TV the way the people in the industry do, you can get a fairly optimistic view of the mix of a free market, democracy and a media century.

“The way in which journalism and the media and popular culture work is that we do eventually take certain people and humanize them,” Thompson says. “It’s depressing how long it takes in some cases, but the system of a democratic republic does in it’s ugly, slow, uncomfortable, loud sort of way, does continue to make some progress and media gets some of the credit.”

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