Our cultural elites have some explaining to do.
Years before he founded People for the American Way, the chief political organ of the New Left, Norman Lear was a television mogul who gained fame as the co-producer of sitcoms about everyman. The same Lear who today works to thwart a conservative Supreme Court nominee spent the 1970s writing and producing innovative, popular series about how the other half lives. His most famous show, All in the Family (1971-79), featured Archie Bunker, a white ethnic who worked as a dock foreman. Only slightly less famous was Sanford and Son (1972-77), about an old black man who owned a junk-collection business; Good Times (1974-79), whose characters lived in a housing project in the Chicago ghetto; and One Day at a Time (1975-84), about a single mother trying to raise two teenage daughters in Indianapolis.
Although Lear’s portrayals of blacks and divorced women were unique, their focus on the little guy was not. From 1978 to 1982, the three major broadcast networks featured at least 21 different series about working-class people. Among them were an assortment of cop shows: CHiPS, Hill Street Blues, Starsky and Hutch. There were series about rural Southerners (Dukes of Hazzard), a waitress mom (Alice), and taxi drivers (Taxi).
The shows won no praise for their verisimilitude, but they did attract the notice of cultural critics for appealing to everyman. In the January 1987 Atlantic Monthly, commentator William Schneider called television “a highly populist medium with a mass audience” in which “little sympathy is expended on big shots, whether they are businessmen, politicians, or hospital administrators.” People like Lear certainly made TV appear populist and scornful of the elite.
Yet if Schneider were to write a similar story today, he would undoubtedly have to change his tune. For one thing, there are far fewer blue-collar shows. By my unscientific count, since 2000 the number has dropped to eight (The Bernie Mac Show, George Lopez, King of the Hill, King of Queens, My Wife and Kids, NYPD Blue, Still Standing, and Yes, Dear). And that’s despite the addition of one major network. Of the shows that do air, most appear on a single network, CBS. Most of the remainder appear on WB and UPN. Had it not been for its new show Earl, the three letters “NBC” might as well have stood for “No Blue Collars.”
This transformation in the nature of prime-time broadcast TV is of more than academic interest. Beyond the obvious cultural importance, it happens to mirror the political decline of liberalism in general and the electoral decline of the Democratic party specifically. With crossovers like Lear running the show, it would make sense that the two are linked–as indeed they are.
No more Archie Bunkers
A sociologist would spot the reason for the decline of working-man TV immediately: Prime-time shows have gone not simply upscale, but upper-educated.
Desperate Housewives, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Law and Order, Scrubs, 24, The West Wing, all of these shows draw their characters from the professional classes, the college-educated and highly skilled people who produce ideas and services in our post-industrial economy. These shows don’t feature single moms, the underemployed, or junkmen as characters. Nor are their story lines about making ends meet, balancing work and family, or fighting The Man. Instead, the characters are often The Man, or Men: lawyers, doctors, and government specialists. They are people who make decisions that influence others. The story lines revolve around competition in the workplace, pursuing new sexual conquests, or trying to save the world.
This is not to say working-class television is dead, because it isn’t. To locate its whereabouts, turn on the set around 10 a.m. and watch for the next six hours. What do you see? Aside from the standard elderly and stay-at-home-mom fare, you also see ads and shows that might only appear after midnight. There are faded commercials for schools that certify executive assistants, medical clerks, or law-enforcement officers (“Enroll today!”). There are somber ads for lawyers who specialize in accident insurance (“Back problems? Spinal cord injury? You have a friend in ——”); cheery ads for loan companies (“No Credit Check. Approval Guaranteed”); and commercials for businesses that reputedly save money for Medicare patients (“I saved $35 a month by calling ——”). And there are nearly a dozen shows set in the courtroom (Judge Hatchett, Judge Joe Brown, Divorce Court) or the loony bin (Jerry Springer, Maury, Montel).
Daytime TV, of course, is no mirror of working-class life; it usually leaves the military, churches, and unions out of the picture. But far more than magazines and most newspapers do, daytime television serves as a kind of bulletin board. It constantly tacks up items having to do with education, health care, and family life-three of blue-collar America’s primary concerns.
If politicians don’t watch daytime TV, at least most of them grasp the importance of working-class concerns. Take President Bush. Almost every time he has departed from conservative orthodoxy, whether to increase education funding or to add a drug benefit to Medicare, he has done so with an eye to the working class.
Call those policies dumb if you want, but give Bush credit for being able to count. In the last two presidential elections, a solid majority of voters, 58 percent, lacked a four-year college degree. Of that figure, voters who have some college education are the largest group (32 percent), but voters with no more than a high-school degree were as large a slice of the electorate (26 percent) as those with a college degree. As Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers observed of these voters in America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, “It’s next to impossible to cement a dominant electoral coalition without capturing the support of a good share of the forgotten majority.” In other words, Archie Bunker is still a force in American politics.
And he’s even more powerful outside of it. By Teixeira and Rogers’ calculations, about three-quarters of American adults lack a four-year college degree. So why do the major networks make so few shows about Archie Bunker and his world?
I put this question to a handful of professors with a specialty in television history. Their answers, understandably, were generally tentative and halting. Still, they can be grouped into three broad categories.
The artistic explanation was that Americans are simply more interested in the lives of the rich than the poor. “Part of it is that we don’t want to put ourselves in the place of a black or white worker,” Michael Porter, an associate professor of communication at the University of Missouri at Columbia, says. “We want a little fantasy life. We don’t want reality.”
Porter added that the turn toward fantasy and away from reality bespeaks a larger change in the American social consciousness. “Maybe we’re not as concerned now about equality and bringing people into the brotherhood of man,” he says. As an example, Porter cites the sitcom Roc (1991-94), about a black garbage collector who struggled to pay the bills and please his family in Baltimore. “It was not a pretty sight,” Porter says. “It was dark.”
A related explanation, and one favored by Hollywood insiders, is that class doesn’t much matter; television producers and writers try to tell good stories regardless of social class. “I don’t think there’s any explanation for it. We look for meaning in it, but there isn’t any meaning in it,” professor Richard Walters, chairman of the screenwriting program at UCLA, says. “I recently read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which was so good I wanted to throw away my laptop forever. The story is about a poor family trying to bury one of their members. But it could have been about anyone, kings or queens. These issues transcend class or whatever.”
One flaw with such explanations is that the networks no longer make shows about the rich. In the 1980s, the networks featured series such as Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest. But ever since, the networks have been focused on another social class: professionals. Even The Apprentice is really about making it in the corporate world, not the lifestyle of Donald Trump. Of course, professionals do well financially but not in terms of leisure or family time. It’s impossible, for example, to imagine two women on ER wrestling each other into a lily pond like Krystle and Alexis once did on Dynasty.
The third explanation is the economic one. Networks are pursuing younger and wealthier viewers, both of whom have more disposable income than their working-class counterparts. As Ellen Seiter, a professor in cinema and television at USC, notes, “The networks have always tried to pursue an upscale audience for certain advertisers. Feeling the pressure from HBO and the massive advertising budgets of companies like telecommunications (cell phones), luxury cars, etc., has exacerbated this. Someone still has to take the advertising for detergent and diapers, but that has been left to daytime.”
This thesis certainly has logic to it. Since President Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, millions of Americans have joined the list of millionaires and deca-millionaires. Advertisers are pursuing these nouveau riche instead of the working and middle classes. Take the batch of ads, for example, for a recent episode of King of Queens. Few of them–McDonald’s, Tums Antacid–seem likely to air during Desperate Housewives.
TV’s class consciousness
Yet the economic explanation cannot fully account for the inordinate number of shows about doctors and lawyers. If the networks were seeking only to maximize their profits, they would air shows about corporate CEOs, business managers, and entrepreneurs. But they don’t. Despite the best efforts of Virgin Music founder Richard Branson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, only Donald Trump has succeeded with a show about the business class. Perhaps another explanation can fill in where economics fails: the cultural one. Screenwriters and producers come from the professional classes. So it makes sense that they would make shows about their own kind.
“They KNOW more about the lives of upscale, urban people,” Seiter observes. “Hollywood has been full of well-educated liberal writers and producers from affluent backgrounds. It is a place where it is important to know others in order to get a break and make connections, so that tends to reproduce itself. It also is a certain amount of risk–long years of waiting for the break–and unless you have a safety net (supportive parents, etc), you can’t afford to do that.”
This cultural explanation is probably the most convincing. At the very least, it explains why Norman Lear would make blue-collar television while David E. Kelley, creator of Boston Public and Boston Legal, would not. Lear, who turned 83 in late July, was a military man: He dropped out of Emerson College in Boston to serve in the Air Force during World War II; he never finished his degree. He may have known some real Archie Bunkers and Fred Sanfords at some point.
Compare this with Kelley, age 49, who probably never befriended an Archie. Kelley attended the prestigious Belmont Hill School in suburban Boston before graduating from Princeton and Boston University Law School. He practiced law before embarking upon a screenwriting career in the 1980s. He is, in short, a product of the modern professional class, educated and successful, but, to judge by his shows, out of touch with people unlike himself. If the Amish could be modern and worldly, they’d look like this.
Interestingly, all this mirrors what has happened in the Democratic party over the last two decades. As television dropped the working man, so did liberal Washington. Thus do liberals gush over polemicist Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?, which blames the working classes for the Democratic party’s decline. Frank believes Kansans vote Republican out of cockamamie regard for traditional morality. Only a disdainfully detached cultural and educated elite could blame the common man, not fellow elites who probably never worked with or befriended a working-class person, for the liberal and Democratic decline.
DOUBLETHINK called Lear repeatedly to ask him to comment on the similarities between Washington and Hollywood when it comes to the working man. Lear never returned the calls.
That doesn’t much matter; we know most of the story already anyhow. At some point, despite making millions from producing shows about the poor and working class, Lear decided that secular and college-educated Americans needed protection from Evangelicals and other middle-America types.
As it turned out, a presidential candidate from Hollywood with roots in the Old Left would take up the mantle. Ronald Reagan decided that the cultural and foreign policy interests of the have-nots were best served by the Republican party. Thus did the little guy come to identify with a different agenda–at just the same time that primetime TV dropped him.
Mark Stricherz, a writer in Washington, D.C., is working on a book about how secular, educated elites kicked Catholics and working-class whites out of the Democratic Party.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire