The first television was introduced 75 years ago. UBC’s Tiffany Potter looks at how it changed us, and how it will change in the future
Television was first introduced to the American public at the New York World’s Fair on April 30, 1939. Tiffany Potter, an English lecturer with expertise in popular culture studies, discusses the impact on a generation of kids, and society, and encourages readers to stay tuned for a Golden Age.
Have viewers adjusted the amount of television that they watch over time? Do we watch more or less television now than before?
During the 1950s there were a relatively small number of televisions with only a couple of channels. But television viewing increased, and depending on the data that you use, around the early 2000s the average consumer viewed two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half hours of television per day. Some statistics also indicated that televisions were on for seven hours per day, but not watched actively.
Now television has reached a pinnacle. Technology has shifted and viewers, particularly those under 30, are not necessarily consuming television through the actual object. They are consuming television through streaming on their computer and phone. Television viewing in the traditional sense has actually declined again in the recent decade. When it comes to consuming programs through streaming, the total consumption continues to increase but is being dissipated between the thousand-channel universe and YouTube.
Does television reinforce or challenge stereotypes and inequality?
Television does all kinds of things at once. Sometimes it creates stereotypes unconsciously. One example comes from ER, where women doctors just disappear from the series but a male doctor requires a five-episode arc describing his great nobility before he departs. Television accidentally endorses stereotypes because they have to. In order to achieve a realistic scenario, producers have to replicate the way that society is.
At the same time, television can present to us a version of our culture. It isn’t what our culture actually is, but it is close enough to either critique it or to show an ambition.
The very best example of that is the way that television has absolutely led North American culture, particularly American culture, in it’s relationship with same-sex desire and homosexuality. The most famous example of this is when Joe Biden talked about how Will and Grace helped him understand that gay people aren’t actually any different. The exact same thing has happened with Modern Family, which portrays a gay couple, and Glee, which features gay and transgender adolescents. In parts of North America homosexuality had been accepted for 20 to 30 years but in big swaths of Middle America it was not. Television helped to create a norm in this example.
We have created a television universe that tells us that all human relationships–heterosexual, homosexual, or whatever kind of love it is–are normal. Now we’ve got America following with gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws.
The ‘Golden Age’ of television is considered to be during the 1950s, but some critics say that the real Golden Age is happening right now with shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Mad Men. What do you think?
We are most definitely in a new Golden Age. The first Golden Age was back in that three-channel universe, when viewers watched less television. There wasn’t always something on that everyone was interested in, but because there was less programming each got more attention. Everybody watched and talked about the same things and it helped contribute to shared societal values.
Now, niche producers like AMC, Showtime, HBO and Netflix exist. They can produce for a small, identifiable and thus marketable audience, and they can put the money into short-run series because they know that they can create a marketing niche. The number of producers has expanded so programs such as Breaking Bad emerge, which of course was brilliant, and The Wire, which was even better.
I would agree that we are in a second Golden Age. And yes, like any Golden Age, a lot of dross exists. But what television does well has never been better.
Tiffany Potter teaches 18th-century studies in the department of English at the University of British Columbia. She is also the Acting Associate Head, Curriculum and Planning, the coordinator of the first-year English program at UBC, and is the co-chair of the English PhD Co-op working group.