Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Streaming Cultural Forum- Core 1 Katherine Robinson

 Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch argue that television is a forum of public thought. Television has taken the place of cultural ritual as a location of cultural debate and negotiation (563-4). Television does not so much indoctrinate or perpetuate cultural hegemony, as argued by Todd Gitlin in “Primetime Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment,” as provide an apparatus for the discussion of timely cultural issues. Conflicting, multiple meanings can be read into television programs, allowing different groups to collectively consider a topic in the common space of broadcast television (569). Television is the modern bard, allowing a variety of cultural meanings and conclusions to be gleamed from one common product (571).

Heather Hendershot points out in “Parks and Recreation:The Cultural Forum” that Newcomb and Hirsch’s argument is rooted in the network era. She asserts that the decline of mass viewership has resulted in a loss of television’s status as a universal, confrontational force (205-6).  Television shows like Parks and Recreation still tackle controversial topics, but they do so for a niche audience. It is difficult to assert that television is a forum for differing interest groups to collectively confront cultural topics when most interest groups are not watching the same programs. Even so, Hendershot asserts that contemporary niche shows like Parks and Recreation still provide a kind of cultural forum by presenting a variety of conflicting viewpoints on cultural topics and refraining from asserting a definite opinion (211).

I argue that Hendershot’s assertion that television no longer holds the mass viewership necessary to function as society’s bard is itself rooted in the era in which it was written. With the emergence of streaming television, we have seen a resurgence of  a mass debate around television programs, albeit not always immediately post-release. For example, Netflix’s recent Making a Murderer (2015) engages controversial cultural topics and has quickly engendered a huge amount of debate from many different groups. Whether viewers agree or disagree with the program, Making a Murderer has served as a touchstone for topical debates. Viewers may not all watch the show at the same time or in the same way, but they are able to gleam multiple meanings and utilize both the program and the conversation around it in negotiating their position in the zeitgeist. The “flow” and “strips” of television may have changed, but its position as a cultural forum remains intact.


  1. I'm going to counter this and err on the skeptical side of TV's role as a public forum. I read Cass Sunstein's Republic.com 2.0, which similarily deals with the changing media landscape, though anchored from how it affects political discourse rather than viewership of shows.

    Sunstein's main point is that in the era of personalized media, we no longer are required to deal with differing political views. You can have all you news from your favorite left-leaning author or Glen Beck. Even social media allows us to block discomforting material and limit our posts to be seen by only our like-minded friends who are eagerly readily to validate your opinion. Sunstein uses this argument to suggest it a cause for our increasingly polarized political landscape (our leading presidential nominees are a democratic socialist on the left and a fascist [hopefully performance artist] on the right should be enough of an indication of where we are right now in our polarity).

    Bringing this idea into TV, in a post-network landscape, we don't have to watch shows we don't want to. Why should we think that niche television is nothing other than masturbatory to our political inclinations at this point? Shows like Transparent or Orange is the New Black may make our bleeding liberal hearts feel warm, but do they really have the far-reaching impact we like to think they do on the general public? These shows are already forced to contend with a smaller viewership pool since they are distributed on platforms that do not have to cater to (pejoratively) the lowest common denominator or (respectfully) the other end of our political spectrum.

  2. When it comes to the question of “public forum” vs “hegemonic process,” I haven’t quite come to a complete and fully thought out opinion, but here’s where I currently stand on the idea of television as a public forum in our current media landscape:

    Although I think that contemporary television does act, to some degree, as a public forum, I agree with Christian that, because of the volume of programming choice and niche markets, its ability to operate as a space where questions are raised and disseminated is significantly dulled. Viewers watch or subscribe to a very specific type of programming based on their preexisting ideals, thus limiting the amount of impact a television show can have on that individual’s established notions. Because current shows are written and produced in this moment in time (unless you’re watching re-runs of older shows), the content of any given program is absolutely impacted by contemporary issues, and they do have relevance in regards to acting as a public forum. But, I’d say that in many instances these shows are “preaching to the choir” rather than raising questions that challenge the viewer’s opinions on cultural traditions, religion, family structure, race, gender roles, etc.