Reading Todd Gitlin’s essay, “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment," felt like watching an episode of Black Mirror. The experience was one of marvelous reverie followed by creeping distress, and Gitlin’s commentary – much like that of the British TV show – is incisive but deeply bleak. Setting out to describe the hegemonic thrust of certain TV programs, Gitlin eventually asserts that major social conflicts are brought into the body of cultural production and made digestible, regardless of whether they began as alternatives to dominant thoughts and assumptions. In fact, it’s the unique nature of the hegemonic system to reproduce and reconfigure itself by negotiating, managing, and overriding these oppositional forms (264). Even though TV may allow for varying currents of thought, those sundry currents are inevitably made to be “compatible with the core ideological structure” (263). Meanwhile, in “Television as a Cultural Forum,” Newcomb and Hirsch echo this conception of TV as a cultural form that relays, reproduces, processes, and refocuses ideology rather than creates it: “Our most traditional views, those that are repressive and reactionary, as well as those that are subversive and emancipatory, are upheld, examined, maintained, and transformed. The emphasis is on process rather than product” (564). Essentially, both essays converge on the idea of TV as “the terrain on which” fault lines in American society “are expressed and worked out” (569). However, Gitlin might understand the cultural forum as powerless to effect change in the face of routine workings of the market and commercial culture.
This feeling of futility permeates the Black Mirror episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” and not just on a narrative level. In the episode, people toil for the chance to compete on an X-Factor style gameshow called Hot Shots. After one character’s friend goes on the show and is bullied into becoming a porn actress, he hatches a plan to draw attention to the corrupting and unfair system in place. Interrupting his own stage act, he holds a shard of glass to his neck and rants about the cruelty of the system, but his moment of uninhibited passion and eloquence is transformed by the judges into a “performance” worthy of his own show. Here illustrated is Gitlin’s position that hegemonic systems override and reconfigure alternative thoughts in order to make them more compatible with the core ideological structure. In this case, real oppositional emotion becomes evacuated of its potency by being labeled and then repeated as a performance. “Fifteen Million Merits” should probably be lauded for conveying this idea, but what’s troubling is that even Black Mirror seems vulnerable to absorption by the system it satirizes. As the show becomes a “legitimated” form of opposition – by being picked up by Netflix, for instance – it just slots neatly into the hegemonic system, which seeks always to commodify new trends. If Gitlin’s conception of the hegemonic system in TV seems plausible, then “Fifteen Million Merits” has portended Black Mirror’s demise by absorption. Or, perhaps Gitlin has fashioned an argument equally as impervious to opposition as the system he describes.