Should we thank the GOP for quality TV?

GOPTVIn the comments section of my blog post "right-wing TV," Scott Lahti disputes my claim that "Each of the three golden ages began while Republicans were in the White House."

I will not argue over the question of when a golden age of television begins. It will always be a matter of opinion, not necessarily marked by the beginning of a particular TV series. I should have said that each of the three golden ages took place or flourished under a Republican president.

He also draws our attention to some details that Professor Thompson got wrong in the page and a half I quoted from his book Television’s Second Gold Age about the relationship between Republican presidential administrations and the quality of television drama.

Scott is correct about Laugh-In debuting while LBJ was still president, and about Hill Street Blues debuting five days before Reagan’s inauguration, not after.

But I’d like to argue that the connection that Professor Thompson draws between "conservative Republican" administrations and creative freedom on the small screen is valid.

I’m not saying that the GOP can cause television shows to become better. I’m not saying that a Republican in the White House is a prerequisite for artistic achievement on TV. I don’t even agree with Professor Thompson’s implication that conservatives support the free market (although many do talk that way). But I do think he is right to see a connection between government regulation and bad TV — and the Democrats have consistently opposed the free market while favoring a greater role for government in almost all aspects of the economy, including entertainment.

When voters want less interference from government, they tend to put their support behind the Republican Party. Such a mandate, even if it’s more perceived than real, can affect the climate of legislation and regulation well before it brings Republican candidates to office.

Similarly, it was the New Frontier mentality that brought JFK to the White House. His election did not cause greater support for big government and the rest of the left-liberal agenda; it was the agenda — which already had popular support during the Eisenhower administration — that won Kennedy the election.

InvisibleHandCoverIn his new book, The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, Paul Cantor has a chapter on Gene Roddenberry and the TV western Have Gun — Will Travel. In it, Cantor shows that Roddenberry was developing in the 1950s the type of "New Frontier drama" that his show Star Trek would come to epitomize in the late 1960s. The particular brand of liberalism that Gene Roddenberry and much of Hollywood stood for was not only about greater tolerance and civility across the lines of color and ethnicity; it was also about suspicion of local customs and authority, trust for the enlightened intervention of outsiders, and the benevolence of central government — so long as the right people are in power.

(This message didn’t start in the Eisenhower era either; you can see its New Deal version presented blatantly and, to modern eyes, very awkwardly in the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath. I remember watching the scene about the government’s benevolence and waiting for the punchline that never came.)

Again, "Kennedy liberalism" was on the rise before Kennedy was president, and that was showing itself in Eisenhower’s Hollywood, during the “First Golden Age of Television.” The TV writers of all three golden ages leaned left. I assume this is in part what Professor Feuer means when she states that "Quality TV is liberal TV."

And Professor Thompson agrees with that description. The irony he is emphasizing to his readers is that left-liberal writers come to take their artistic freedom for granted under Republican administrations and focus the political content of their scripts on the other aspects of Republican policy they oppose — usually social, but sometimes also economic. The threat of government pressure on the content of TV shows, however, has come from two Democratic administrations: Kennedy and Clinton — as conducted by Newton Minow and Janet Reno, respectively.

On the other hand, two important periods of deregulation did begin under two other Democrats: Johnson and Carter. And you’ll note that it is these two Democrats who come up in the dates Scott disputes, first with Laugh-In in LBJ’s final year as president, then with Hill Street Blues in Carter’s last five days in the White House.

Jimmy Carter started the deregulation trend that everyone remembers his Republican successor for — something I address in my Freeman article "Putting Hedy Lamarr on Hold." What I didn’t know until I read Thompson’s book is that LBJ should also receive some credit for putting a halt to the activism of JFK’s FCC:

Television's Second Golden AgeWhen Minow resigned from the FCC in May of 1963, Kennedy replaced him with E. William Henry, a former campaign aide to Robert Kennedy and someone fully committed to Minow’s agenda. But when Lyndon Johnson took over the presidency upon Kennedy’s death that November, the regulatory climate changed considerably. Johnson was himself a broadcaster with properties worth millions. He made it clear that controlling and harassing a thriving business like television was not something his administration was interested in doing. The New Frontier dramas were soon gone; The Beverly Hillbillies went on to become one of the most popular series of all time. (Television’s Second Gold Age)

So it’s not really about Republicans versus Democrats. It’s about deregulation versus growing intervention, about the rising quality of television programming under more laissez-faire governments and the skittishly safer TV shows that are aired under an activist FCC’s sword of Damocles.

Libertarians love to debate whether or not the Left is worse than the Right. Even among many libertarians, the Democrats and Republicans become stand-ins for what is already a simplistic map of political ideology. Many libertarians, including me, make a habit of pointing out what false friends the Republicans are of the free market (and, by the way, what unreliable allies the Democrats are in the battle for "civil liberties").

Unfortunately, for the popular imagination, the major players in our two-party system have come to represent the choice between more government and less. The irony Professor Thompson is emphasizing is that less government makes for better TV and a safer creative environment for left-leaning TV writers.


3 Responses to Should we thank the GOP for quality TV?

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    Should we thank the GOP for quality TV?

    David Hawkes in 2008, on Fiction Sets You Free: Literature, Liberty, and Western Culture by Russell A. Berman:

    “Today … a new breed of politicized critic is emerging, full of the passionate intensity that springs from a righteous sense of historical vindication. They tend to be American, and to define their politics in opposition to what they regard as the effete intellectual culture of old Europe. They point out that neoclassical economics has implications for literature that are at least as suggestive as those offered by the Marxist tradition, and they argue that the social and political triumph of the market ought to be reflected in humanities departments. They unabashedly apply their political agenda to their intellectual endeavours, they eagerly proselytize to a receptive, youthful audience, and they appear to herald a new era of overt political advocacy in literary criticism …

    “Economic determinism is the key to Berman’s strategy … Like the most doctrinaire dialectical materialist, he insists that cultural trends are epiphenomenal reflections of economic interests … European readers may find it difficult to envisage the thought processes that have led to such outlandish conclusions. But in the US, people hear demotic versions of these arguments daily on the radio, and academics are also accustomed to debating the theories of Ayn Rand with libertarian undergraduates …

    “If it is true that the dynamism of market exchange imbues the work of art with its own spirit of freedom, then we might expect that texts produced in a market economy would be markedly superior to those written in a feudal or socialist society. We would also expect that works written with an eye to the market, those which incorporate the demands of the market into their content, in short those books whose processes of production are commercialized, would necessarily be better than those that take no account of market exigencies. And yet we find no such thing. Rather the reverse …

    “These are ideas whose time had surely come. The cultural dominance of the market seemed until recently so strong that it would be surprising if a militantly pro-capitalist literary criticism had not emerged.”

  2. Pingback: When Evil Institutions Do Good Things: The FCC’s PTAR Law

  3. Pingback: When Evil Institutions Do Good Things: The FCC's PTAR Law |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: