September 16, 2013 5 Comments
That turns out not to be identical to the claim that good TV is left-wing, still less that left-liberal TV is always good.
While researching the various "golden ages" of television drama (our present "new" golden age of television turns out to be the third, following the 1950s and the 1980s), I started to come across the term Quality, with an initial cap, and discovered publications and conferences dedicated to the study of Quality television — publications and conferences in Britain with American academics writing and speaking about American television. Go figure.
In his book Television’s Second Gold Age, communications professor Robert J. Thompson explains that in the 1980s, "Quality television came to refer to shows with a particular set of characteristics that we normally associate with ‘good,’ ‘artsy,’ and ‘classy.’"
"By 1992," Thompson writes, "you could recognize a ‘quality show’ long before you could tell if it was any good."
An organization called The Viewers for Quality Television defined the genre this way:
A quality series enlightens, enriches, challenges, involves, and confronts. It dares to take risks, it’s honest and illuminating, it appeals to the intellect and touches the emotions. It requires concentration and attention, and it provokes thought. Characterization is explored. And usually a quality comedy will touch the funny bone and the heart.
In his list of criteria for Quality TV, Thompson also mentions politics: "The overall message almost always tends toward liberal humanism. So consistent have these shows been in this regard that it is hard to imagine a right-wing ‘quality TV’ series."
This struck me as ironic for three reasons:
Each of the three golden ages began while Republicans were in the White House;
As I mentioned in my blog post about Rod Serling, JFK ushered in the era of left-liberal activism from the FCC, thereby suppressing risk-taking in television and replacing it with short-lived politically correct "New Frontier" dramas and longer-lasting rural comedies, such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hee Haw.
Something I read in the Atlantic:
Question: "The new era in television presented viewers with a ‘humanized red state,’ featuring male leads who were working-class, gangsters, firemen, and Republicans. How did these ideas fit into America’s cultural/political context in the late ’90s?"
Answer: "If you look at the first wave of shows, which happened at a time when the right was ascendant in American politics, in which we were in an anxious state in the world, and the question of American power and male power was very much front and center, if you look at those heroes, they were not HBO’s audience. They were not your average coastal, generally liberal viewer. I’m generalizing tremendously, but I think that there was a way in which, sub-textually, it was comforting to recognize that the monsters among us could also be human. It’s your Tony Soprano/Dick Cheney. The attraction/repulsion to that was in the air. I think it’s striking that post-Obama, what you have on these shows are things like Girls and The Newsroom which are showing the audience themselves. I’m not totally sure I understand why, but it’s notable that the mission of showing the viewers something other than themselves seems to have evolved into something else."
I’ve never seen either Girls or The Newsroom. Maybe they will be remembered well. But in the same way that the "Second Golden Age" is exemplified by Hill Street Blues, this "Third Golden Age" is already remembered for The Sopranos.
It turns out Brett Martin isn’t the only one to notice a connection between the waxing of quality television drama and the ascendency of the Right.
In the last chapter of Television’s Second Gold Age (and remember, this book was written before the present "Third Golden Age" and its "humanized red state") Professor Thompson writes in his final chapter, "The Future of Quality," about the correlation between Quality TV and the GOP. His thoughts are worth quoting at length:
Finally, it may also not be a total coincidence that the quality drama hit its lowest point in over a decade just as the Ronald Reagan-George Bush era was drawing to a close in 1992 and as a Democratic president was returning to power. For all of its progressive and experimental content, in fact, quality television drama had flourished during the Republican regimes of Reagan and Bush. The return of the Democrats to the office in 1993, on the other hand, put new pressures on the creators of quality dramas.
The Reagan-Bush years not only included no significant threats of possible new content regulations that would affect prime time, but they also promised the dismantling of many economic regulations already in place. As ironic as it may seem, the healthy development of quality dramas in the 1980s was consistent with the deregulatory spirit that Mark Fowler and Dennis Patrick, both FCC chairmen appointed by Reagan, stood for. While Hill Street Blues was already being filmed before Reagan won the election, it premiered and developed in an environment where its creators could work unencumbered by a content-conscious FCC. Furthermore, the free-market philosophies inherent in deregulation fostered the growth of cable services that ultimately pushed the networks toward quality. Fowler looked at modern television not as a service to the public but as a business like any other. ‘Television is just another appliance,’ he said in 1984. ‘It’s a toaster with pictures.’ Seen as just another business, network TV was given tacit leave by the FCC to do whatever it took to compete in the marketplace. Since that marketplace now included cable, part of what it took to compete was the sexual subject matter, the adult language, and the occasional violence that cable was offering and that the quality drama depended so heavily upon.
It may be significant to note that quality television drama flowered during two periods that were dominated by firmly established conservative Republican presidential regimes. Most of the first golden age came and went with the Eisenhower administration, and another began with the debut of Hill Street Blues, five days after the inauguration of Reagan. The great anthology dramas of the 1950s (Playhouse 90) soon gave way to the rural comedies of the 1960s (The Beverly Hillbillies) when Kennedy moved into the White House, and the gritty realism that characterized Steven Bochco’s 1980s TV series (Hill Street Blues) was held up to a great deal more scrutiny when Bochco went for an encore (NYPD Blue) during Bill Clinton’s first fall season as president. Dan Quayle and Robert Dole’s attacks on Hollywood notwithstanding, conservative Republican presidential administrations seem to have been very good for good television. Some of the most daring, revolutionary, and indeed, liberal shows — Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues — all debuted and prospered while a Republican was president.