Among the various prime-time offerings there is a hospital drama, ER, which happens to be one of that network's longest-running dramas and focuses on an emergency room in an urban area. Furthermore, not only does ER feature many non-white cast members, but it portrays minorities in positions of power. It features African-American, Indian, Croatian, and lesbian doctors. In fact, one of the more recent storylines centered on an interracial romantic relationship. Obviously, this program is not geared to appeal towards only white upper-class Americans. On another night, the main prime-time drama centers on a medium that helps solve crimes. Although the medium is portrayed by a white woman, and comes from an upper-middle class background, her boss is Hispanic.
The comedies offered by the network also fail to show a white upper-middle class heterosexual dominance. The days of dominance by comedies like Friends or Seinfeld, which portrayed New York as an upper-class, heterosexual white city, seem to be dead. Instead, comedies offer characters from a variety of backgrounds. One new comedy has a disabled black man as a supporting character. The unusual thing about that show is that they have not resorted to the idea of a disabled person as an object of pity and have not been afraid to shy away from having the character use his disability to his advantage. Another comedy features two homosexual men among its four principle characters. Clearly, major network programming is beginning to reflect the diverse cultural backgrounds to be found in America.
Furthermore, a viewer's options are not limited to those shows offered by the major networks. Flipping through television channels offered by a basic cable package, one finds an almost overwhelming variety of television programming. There are stations offering programming in Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, and other languages that the author could not identify. Just a glimpse at some of the English language stations show a variety of reality programming, a police drama with a diverse cast last, a hospital drama, a comedy about an African-American family, a poker championship, sports programming, nature programming, a historical look at Hitler, a look at the development of slavery in America, a variety of cartoons, and music videos. In fact, glimpsing at the variety of programs offered during primetime, it is difficult to conceive of a group that could not find a program that represents some of the interests and aspirations of that group.
In fact, flipping through various television offerings, it appears that there is only one specific type of programming that actually seems to reinforce the dominance of one class over another: reality television. After watching a week's worth of programming offered on television, one finds it extremely difficult to find a reality program that does not reinforce the dominance of the upper-class. First, there is the idea that most contestants on the reality shows are only participating in the shows because of the promise of a very significant monetary reward. The idea that people would spend a month on a desert island, eat worms, get bit by snakes, or promise to marry a stranger because of the promise of some cash demonstrates the allure of the upper class.
Furthermore, reality programming seems to contain more prejudice and rely on stereotypes to a greater extent than non-reality programming. While most of the programs offering someone a chance to meet a spouse on a television program begin with a somewhat diverse group of potential spouses, the white person choosing the spouse almost always immediately eliminates the non-whites from the pool of potential spouses. In reality programming where people compete against each other for a prize, racial stereotypes are reinforced by the producer's selection of hyper-aggressive black women, and laid-back, almost-lazy or dishonest black men. While this phenomenon has been noted in other situations, it has been exploited in shows produced by Mark Burnett, as exemplified by his casting of Omarosa as the only African-American woman in season one of the Apprentice. Even cable-based reality programs do not seem immune from the lure of the stereotype. One popular home-improvement program regularly features homosexual couples, but the women are undeniably butch and the men super-feminine and prone to fits.
In fact, the most popular reality television program, whose rating suggest it may be the hottest thing on television, makes no secret that it is appealing to the dominant group in America. American Idol openly advertises the fact that its program offerings are determined by voting. Whether or not contestants continue is not determined by technical merit, but by their individual appeal to the American public. Therefore, it is no surprise that many of the contestants reflect upper-middle class American values. In fact, the fact that many mediocre "whitebread" performers outlast more talented, but controversial, performers can be attributed to the dominance of the ruling class.
However, an examination of the results of American Idol tells a different tale. The most recent winner of American Idol was not only an African-American woman, but also an unapologetic single mother who had her child as a teenager. In fact, despite some claims that the voting process was racially biased against minorities, the last two American Idols have been African-Americans. If reality television reflects the desires and whims of a dominant class, then it demonstrates that there has been a radical shift in dominant ideology in the United States.
Furthermore, the Marxist theory of the political economy of media is not confined to television programming. In fact, the theory relies on the economic base of television programming, which means that no discussion of the political economy of television would be complete without a discussion of the role of advertising in programming choices. Given that television programs rely on advertisers for the money to produce their programs, it is obvious that advertisers are going to have some effect on programming, at least on non-cable networks.
However, an evening of television viewing demonstrates that the products being advertised are not limited to those that one would equate with an upper-middle class or upper-class lifestyle. In fact, one hour of television prime-time advertising does not appear to reveal any specific pattern or that it is targeted to the upper class. In fact, the ads seem to reveal a bias towards a younger, and therefore less affluent, demographic. The ads included multiple ads for feminine hygiene products, cars and trucks, beer, erectile dysfunction medication, heartburn medication, cholesterol medication, birth control pills, body wash, and shampoo. While the car ads may have been aimed at the more affluent, it is unlikely that the manufacturers of the feminine hygiene products believe that their product is only used by the upper-class.
Furthermore, the dominant class no longer appears to be able to control advertising through product boycotts. While there is an occasional murmur that a group is boycotting a manufacturer because of advertising on a controversial show, there are other advertisers that are willing to step-in and provide the funding for the programming. The most dramatic example of this may be found looking at the Super Bowl. Super Bowl ad slots have traditionally been some of the most expensive slots in all of network television. However, last year's wardrobe mishap made some advertisers leery of purchasing those slots. However, there were plenty of advertisers for this year's Super Bowl. It is clear that advertisers are looking for an audience and, as long as a show provides that audience, most advertisers will sponsor it, regardless of public outcry.
In conclusion, an examination of television programming and the advertising that supports it refutes the assertion that the political economy of television controls what viewers get to see. A passive viewer may only be offered slightly different versions of the same five shows on the major networks, but all a person has to do is click a button on a remote control to find a diverse offering of television programming. In fact, as smaller networks have demonstrated that minority programming is successful and lucrative, the major networks have scrambled to diversify their television offerings. The result is an America that votes for a conservative president and touts the importance of family values, while watching Desperate Housewives.
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