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.