THH Episode 50: Giving Voice: Allison Perlman

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Transcript for Giving Voice: Allison Perlman

Beckley: Hi, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is giving voice and I’m here today with Dr. Allison Perlman, associate professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Perlman.

Perlman: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.

Beckley: Course, and I obviously brought you on because you are interested in film, media studies, the history of television and broadcasting. And we definitely touch on, obviously, the history of the technological side of TV in our episode about Philo Farnsworth, and we also talk about some of his expectations for the television, he kind of had these lofty ideals that he wanted television to be able to meet. And we kind of talked about the idea of television giving us a way to share human moments in a way that we never could before, or at least not in the same way with newspapers and radio and things like that. We touch on that. And we talk about the Vietnam War and the Beatles Ed Sullivan appearance, things like that were really moments in time that kind of brought Americans together. And I was wondering if you could kind of talk about other ways that broadcast and television has have shaped our society?

Perlman: Sure, I think there are certainly events like you’ve described of moments of celebration, or trauma or rupture that allowed people especially in the mid decades of the 20th century, to collectively feel a sense of shared community through simultaneous viewing practices. And this is something quite extraordinary. So one of the events that often is a hallmark of TV history, and especially its national importance, is the television coverage of the assassination of President John Kennedy, which happened in November 1963. And that’s important from the history of televisions perspective, because by the early 1960s, over 90% of American households had television sets. And most communities would have maybe two to three television channels. Larger cities might have somewhere between four to seven, potentially in really large cities like LA or New York. And so when people were sitting down in their living rooms at night, they had few options about what to watch if they wanted to watch television. And most of those stations were affiliated with national networks. And so when something like a presidential assassination happens, all television channels are trying to report as quickly as they can to their viewing public what’s going on. And so everyone simultaneously, is receiving similar news and then experiencing a shared grief. And this is somewhat remarkable, because even though I think there had been a strong sense of nation and national identity before the emergence of radio and TV, one of the things that the medium does, is it connects people who might never meet, who might live in very different regions who might have very different politics, in a shared collective memory of these tremendous traumatic events like an assassination. We also, you know, have celebratory events that television can bring into household simultaneously – inaugurations of new presidents, Royal weddings in the 1980s, in particular, with the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. And so on the one hand, one of the things that TV can do is in these moments of anomaly, you know, something really wonderful, something really tragic, can bind a shared national and sometimes even global community through a shared viewing practice. But one of things that’s always been interesting to me about television, especially in this period, it also creates a sense of collective identity through shared experiences of entertainment texts, in a way that I think would be almost inconceivable to us today. But a show like I Love Lucy was viewed by over half of the country simultaneously. And so if you grew up in Indiana, if you grew up in Maryland, if you grew up in California, you would have had the experience of watching Lucille Ball’s antics each week and would have been exposed to the comedy that she and her husband Desi Arnez is put together about this couple in New York and the antics of a wife being frustrated was staying at home all the time. And so even just the quotidian aspects of television, they everyday viewing of it helped to bring together a sense of collective identity through the consumption of shared narratives.

Beckley: That’s so interesting, I never really thought of television as a tool of nation building, and that way of like, creating a national identity almost, especially I think that looking at it through a modern lens. I think it’s not controversial to say that television is at least a factor in some of the divisions that are kind of racking our nation right now. It seems like we’ve kind of run the gambit of it bringing us together, and then maybe now with 24 hour news coverage and things like that, that it’s kind of bringing us apart a little bit now, which I think we hit on a little bit in the episode as far as, yes, it’s created unity and also created division. Just think that’s an interesting dichotomy that has been created through one medium.

Perlman: Yeah, well, a TV itself has changed so dramatically from when it first emerged as a mass commercial device, right after World War Two, to what we think of as this thing called television today, which is diverse and capacious and can be watched on a computer or a smartphone or a television set. And so in this earlier period of what we will think of as broadcasting, where television meant sitting in front of a box, plugged into an electrical outlet, in your home with an antenna on your roof to be able to get a broadcast signal, there were far fewer, far fewer options than what we had today. And there was primarily stations that were affiliated with national networks that were trying to bring in the largest possible audience. And so there’s a, I think, a certain nostalgia that we can have for a period of almost consensus values that were being being disseminated through television, because there was this desire not to offend anyone to be able to articulate viewpoints or perspectives that most people would see as intellectually or politically defensible, to try to attract the largest audiences, in particular, to be able to charge the highest advertising rates to sponsors that are allowing the shows to come on the air. And so I think there there was a way that television could act as a unifying device. There are a number of TV historians whose work I admire and in whose work I affirm that also see that moment as building consensus through moods of exclusion as well, right. So television networks, and television stations were overwhelmed well, and television stations in particular, were almost exclusively run by white controlled entities, exclusively run by men. Their imagined audience tended to be a white middle class family. And so how they imagined what are the values? What are the politics, what are the issues that matter to this audience, were based on a collective sense of the nation that was tethered to a very particular understanding of the TV viewer. So if you were a poor person, if you were a socialist, in particular, if you were a worker who was active in your union, if you were a Black citizen seeking certain kinds of civil rights that didn’t line up with sort of a consensus views of what legitimate forms of civil rights activism took, your perspective, your values, your stories, would be somewhat invisible on on television, and so when cable expands in the 70s, and especially in the 1980s. And then when we get the capacity for over the top streaming video in the 21st century, and we have this diversity of options, there is this hope that this will lead to a diversity of stories, diversity of perspectives, and a sort of better understanding of the diversity of the national community through different people being able to create different stories and share different perspectives. But I think what happened that might have been unanticipated in these utopian discourses about how expanding our viewing options is going to make everything better, was the way that it could foster political polarization, informational and opinion silos and that in fracturing, the collective community that broadcast television brought together it wasn’t that we started to know each other better and all of our complexity and diversity, it’s that we started to understand each other less because we were anchoring ourselves in particular ideological or political viewing habits.

Beckley: Yeah, that’s so interesting that like, almost by diversifying the, you know, options for viewers, you kind of, it’s so easy to find yourself in a silo and an information silo now that all of the media I consume, whether it be television, or the websites I go to, the YouTube videos I watched, they all affirm my own beliefs. So it’s very easy to believe that everybody holds those beliefs and therefore any beliefs that aren’t my beliefs are crazy because, of course, everybody that I know thinks this way. And I think that it’s easy to forget that when you’re caught up in your own silo.

Perlman: Yeah. And it’s what’s fascinating to me is it in some ways, we’ve returned to a 19th century model of media, where, you know, through much of the 19th century newspapers were explicitly partisan, you know, so you had no expectation of norms of journalistic objectivity when you read a newspaper, because they were run by political parties, or they were run by businessmen who had strong ties to political parties. And so, so there was this very robust news environment, but it was explicitly partisan and explicitly ideological. But I think most of us grew up in a period where norms of journalistic objectivity, the sense that there was, like news to be reported, or sets of opinion that could be discussed that most people would agree upon, or had a shared sense of their veracity of that that was presumed to be the norm, I think from I would say, for most of my, you know, lived lived history. And what we’re seeing now is a really different paradigm. You know, it’s one that has a historical precedent, but it can feel a little bit disconcerting if you had grown up in an era of broadcast television, broadcast radio, nationally circulating newspapers that in some ways have similar political, but not so much political perspectives as similar commitments to notions of journalistic objectivity and producing news for an ideologically neutral audience.

Beckley: Yeah, and I think that yeah, it seems I’ve noticed the similarities between politically driven media, you know, newspapers, outright, like this is the Post Democrat or the Monthly Republican or you know, what have you. And then now we have, it seems like political parties have their own news stations, or somewhat, at least, to some extent, I suppose. But kind of circling back around to Farnsworth kind of ideal for television, I just want to get your impression of if you think that any of his ideals were met. And so basically, he has a quote, where he’s saying that he believes that television could increase literacy, facilitate the sharing of cultures and even prevent wars through global discourse. And obviously, that last one especially is quite a quite a big ask, but I was wondering if you could, like, just kind of evaluate if you think any of that has been met in any way? Or if we’ve kind of like, totally missed the mark.

Perlman: Yeah, well, certainly I think one of the successes of public television has been its role in providing early childhood education, to children who otherwise might not be able to go to a pre-k program. And really historically, like whenever PBS’s budget has been threatened by members of Congress who no longer see a need for federally supported broadcasting, Sesame Street is always the best way to mobilize people to say, actually, television and public television is really crucial, because of how crucial a show like television, excuse me, like Sesame Street is to enabling all children that have access to TV to get this form of early childhood education that will set them up for success as they enter into their formal schooling. And there had been just so many experiments with educational television prior to Sesame Street, that similarly were trying to use the medium as a way, for example, to supplement curriculum in schools to provide subjects to students that school districts didn’t have sufficient teachers to provide. There’s a long history of thinking about television as a way to democratize access to certain forms of cultural expression, that either by location or by income, you might not have the ability to access, Symphony, opera, theatre, and so on. And the public television sector, historically, there’s always been a segment of that community that’s been very invested in those values of seeing television as primarily an educational medium, that can use its technological capacities to be able to give people access to teachers to forms of cultural expression, that otherwise would be inaccessible to them. So I think it’s it’s always been an element of US television history. It’s never been, like blockbuster rating. Lots of people. Were excited to watch, you know, the opera on PBS and to watch you know, The Love Boat on ABC, but, but it’s always been, I think, for folks who, who desire that kind of programming. There’s always been a community of people who have been very intent to try to provide it to them. There was an early experiment in the 1960s that I’m very interested in, called inter tell, which was a transnational television consortium of five broadcasting companies from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. And their very goal was exactly what Farnsworth was intending. These were people who in the early 1960s, were very concerned about the Cold War and this global cleavage between communist and capitalist nations. They were especially concerned that a Cold War was taking place, and the nuclear age where combatants had the capacity to, you know, basically devastate human life. And they were concerned about just the uneven effects of World War II and nations across the world. And they thought that if you could create television programs, especially public affairs, documentaries, that explained national cultures of different countries across the world, and if you distributed them globally, you would create shared cultural understanding. And this would be to world peace, you know, and so there was a sense that the problems of the world are based in people not knowing about one another, not being able to apprehend or appreciate cultural difference. And so if you could just use television, to make people legible to each other, there’d be no more war, you know, and we could solve global problems. And it didn’t work. But it was a very utopic understanding of how television as a technology could work.

Beckley: Absolutely. And I must say that Sesame Street, I have a seven-month-old at home, big hit in our house still so still going strong, which actually kind of leave then to my last kind of question, with like, streaming, I know that you’re a historian, so this might be out of your wheelhouse. But with streaming and the Internet, and all these other ways to access what used to be only accessible through broadcast, including Sesame Street now being owned by HBO, things like that. Do you see an ongoing need for broadcast television? Do you think that that is something that is kind of going by the wayside? Or do you think that there is that niche niche or people that still need access to that, and will continue driving enough demand to keep it around?

Perlman: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, local broadcast stations are often the conduits, or the historically had been the conduits for national network programming. And although certainly almost all of the national networks have their own streaming apps now, right, so So obviously, you can access NBC programming through peacock or CBS programming through Paramount plus, often the argument on behalf of local broadcasting has been focused on local news reporting. And I think that there’s been such a seduction of being able to access programming from across the globe. And anytime you want. And sites like Netflix, or Hulu have these vast, incredible libraries, where there’s so much content you can view at all times. That’s an incredibly seductive model of what we ought to be using our televisions for. But for many people, local news from local TV stations is still a pretty important way for them to learn about their communities. And in a moment where newspapers are folding left and right, and we do see a few newspaper chains owning many of the local newspapers that still exist. There’s a, I think, a legitimate anxiety over who is going to support the journalists that are reporting on local school board issues that are following local municipal decisions about you know, how to regulate public utilities, or how to deal with concerns over housing or how to support unhoused people or you know, or whatever issue is, is very live and urgent for local communities. And that’s a topic that Netflix is not going to fund, you know, or that Hulu is not going to support or that HBO is really not very interested in. And so there is, I think, a civic need for local broadcasting. Whether there’s an economic model to make sure that those stations survive is a bigger question that we probably collectively have to think about, along with trying to figure out the best way to support local journalists who might want to write for local newspapers and, you know, have beats that they’re experts in and they know the local officials and they know the local community leaders to be able to inform people citizens about what’s happening in their own communities. And so while there’s so I’m I myself am so enraptured by Just the tremendous range of content is accessible to me all the time. The local aspect of broadcasting, which has always been central to its public service obligations is the one facet of the local station that I think we need to be really focused on in terms of the future of broadcasting.

Beckley: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Allison. I really appreciate your time. And I am sure listeners will as well. Thank you.

Perlman: Great. Thanks so much, Lindsay. It was great.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Dr. Allison Perlman

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