Consensus TV: Television History and Market Fragmentation

I regularly listen to the The Bowery Boys, a  New York City history podcast. The two hosts,  Greg Young and Tom Meyers are fun, breezy guides through the city’s history and this summer they are focusing on NYC’s role in the history of television.  I encourage everyone to listen–they make great companions for those interminable minutes spent at the gym, for example.

I have learned a lot about early television history from them, from early items such as the “mechanical television,” to the fact that Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is housed in 30 Rock’s Studio 6B, where the Howdy Doody Show was originally produced, proving that history is cyclical.  But though New York and Los Angeles were from the early days major centers of television and radio production, various cities produced much more of their own regionally specific programming in the early decades of the medium. To me, this less-remembered period of television reveals a lot about the current fragmentation of the media landscape and what it might provide us as consumers going forward.

Regional markets have always and still do produce their own programming, specifically news and local interest work. But if you moved from various media marketplaces in the middle of the 20th century, you would come across some distinctly different material.  Yes, everyone showed I Love Lucy and the Tonight Show, but there were more irreverent and community specific productions as well.  Let me take my hometown of Detroit as an example.  Though by the 1980s (my childhood) the television markets had already significantly homogenized, there were still elements distinct to Detroit area television. There was local UHF stations like WXON 20, where I watched a lot of B-movies with Vincent Price. There were also local children’s programming (a common local TV production, it would seem)–in Detroit, we had Soupy Sales. And in daytime, there was the daily morning show  Kelley and Company, a Detroit-area version of Live with Regis and Kathy Lee, though it preceded them by several years. Anyone from other states would not know its hosts, married broadcasting team John Kelley and Marilyn Turner, but they were local celebrities.  Turner was the face of Clyde’s Carpet, a local discount carpet store.  Her oversized portrait hung in each of their outlets, much like photos of the Pope or John F. Kennedy in certain American Catholic homes. Their show ended in 1995, an era where many such local shows seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur.

This local programming (some of it very good) is an antidote to our lamentations about the fragmentation of the marketplace.  Similar to the consolidation of American media that happened in the late 19th century (as discussed in Alan Trachtenberg’s The Incorporation of America), television has undergone its own significant consolidation over the decades. This produces (or rather produced) shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and ER, the kind of shows “everyone” was watching, but that also narrowed our media vision–not only was television produced exclusively in two locations, it also aggressively reflected those locations, to the silence of other communities.

But things have tipped in the other direction, as is obvious.  A proliferation of cable options, web series, and new shows from streaming providers like Netflix and Hulu. The media also micro-targets audiences: BET for African Americans, Logo for the LGBTQ community, Spike for victims of massive head trauma . This micro-targeting can be a mixed blessing.  Sometimes it produces media for under- or poorly-represented groups, while also inhibiting crossover.  Is the gay, African-American TV show Noah’s Arc a better fit for BET or Logo?  I suspect it’s gay black cast doesn’t want to have to ask such a terrible question. But U.S. national identity and consensus are fictions, and the local productions of the past reveal that as much as specialty television programming today does.  To lament the death of the water-cooler show for its ability to unite us misses both the needs of the present and the realities of the past.  It appears to me (and this is a tentative reflection) that there was perhaps only a 30 year period of what I will call “consensus television,” a highly centralized, and nationalized, production of media that was consistent across all marketplaces. The early years were more of a heterogeneous mix of these national shows with local programming; the current marketplace is no longer regionally specific, but produces other forms of community specificity that are consumed alongside major national productions.

I think this is a more healthy balance for us as TV watchers.  BET and LOGO exist precisely because the 20th century consensus media did not represent those groups either often or well.  Being the lone African American in a group of white friends might make a white audience feel some sense of “diversity”, but doesn’t represent black life in ways that are either accurate or complex.  And though earlier local programming was not a bastion of diversity either, it still sent a message that there were smaller communities within the United States with specific needs as media consumers. We have divorced this need from any sense of regionalism but the fragmentation of the marketplace has produced new places to find yourself politically and socially.  In the news media this is decried as a kind of political parochialism, where people simply seek out what they already know or want. I’m suspicious of that criticism but wish to save it for another day. One can also question whether being a minority community who gets micro-targeted, which works to the benefit of advertisers as much as, or more, than the audience, is a liberatory move either. But I think its a possible step in a more correct direction.  Though the mainstream media will produce the occasional Cosby Show or Will and Grace, such shows are rare token gestures to the breadth of experience.  The myth of consensus is based on silencing voices on various levels, and being able to turn away to other media sources gives viewers a fraction of control back.

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