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Watching America:
What Television Tells Us About Our Lives

by S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman
Prentice Hall, 332 pages, $24.95

Almost every entry in the index to this book is a prime-time show. Among the very many: “Amos ‘n Andy,” “Barnaby Jones,” “The Cosby Show,” “Dallas,” “Empire,” “Falcon Crest,” “Gunsmoke,” “Hill Street Blues,” “I Love Lucy,” “Kate and Allie,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “St. Elsewhere,” “thirtysomething.” The Lichters and Stanley Rothman (and their assistants) obviously had to watch lots of television to write Watching America. Worse punishment is hard to imagine, unless one is a television buff, as perhaps the authors are. But the Lichters and Rothman have done an important public service. 

Someone had to analyze the now more than forty years’ worth of prime-time sitcoms and dramatic series, for television says something even when it tries not to. Inevitably, as Aristotle would have foretold, it teaches. “Even the most innocuous sitcom carries messages about how our society works and how its citizens should behave,” write the authors, who succeed as no one else has in identifying the social and political themes and values of prime-time television, and charting their changes over time. 

This is not a book based—as so much television commentary is—on viewing impressions and interviews with producers and artists, but on the methods of social science. In addition to content analysis (which focuses on character traits and activities, and counts their frequency), the authors employ what they call “a holistic approach that examines plots and themes as well as characters.” Studying a randomly based sample of 620 prime-time shows dating back to the early 1950s, they (and their research assistants) took as many as twenty pages of notes on each. Specifically, they focused on the plot, character, and thematic development of the shows; on the background, appearance, behavior, and motivation of each character (7,635 in all); and on the overall social and political themes of each episode. They fed this research into a computer, and out came, more or less, this book. 

 Watching America refers to so many prime-time episodes, and so often, as to test the commitment of even the most dedicated reader. “Shows like ‘Taxi,’ ‘The White Shadow,’ and ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ continued to present integrated casts, but new roles were often on the dark side of the law,” goes one typical passage. “Cops and robber series like ‘The A-Team,’ ‘Knight Rider,’ ‘The Master,’ ‘Simon & Simon,’ and ‘Magnum, P.I.,’ began to present Japanese or Chinese gangs in control of vast criminal operations,” it continues. Lots of passages like these could have been cut. But then the book would have lost much of its authority as an exercise in social science. And it is important that social science confirm what a couch potato schooled in the humanities might have guessed: that (as the authors put it) while prime-time television began as an agent of social control, it has evolved (starting in the mid-sixties) into one of social change; that while it once served the status quo, it now cultivates populist suspicions of traditional mores and institutions; and that while it originally supported, it now tries to demystify, authority. 

The worldview of prime time today, write the authors, is “sexy, sarcastic, sometimes cynical, and apt to cast a jaundiced eye on the very standards and sensibilities the medium embraced so enthusiastically a mere generation ago.” The Lichters and Rothman at first seem unwilling to label this worldview a “less conservative” or “more liberal” version of reality, instead preferring to regard it simply as “populist.” But having observed that populism has “partisan variants,” in both a new left and a new right dating from the sixties, they concede that the “contemporaneous rise of populistic material in television entertainment clearly drew upon the left-wing variant far more than the right-wing.” They eventually come to the point others, unconstrained by the demands of social science, earlier would have made: “Television preaches a kind of Porsche populism that reflects Hollywood’s socially liberal and cosmopolitan sensibility . . . . Television’s America . . . resembles San Francisco’s Marin County—trendy, self-expressive, culturally diverse, and cosmopolitan.” 

 Watching America raises several important questions, chief among them whether television’s America is changing the real America. Only someone who believes that art and education are morally trivial could deny that television’s America must have some impact on those who watch it on a regular basis. The further questions concern how that impact is typically registered, and its degree. The Lichters and Rothman quote two left-wing writers who hope that “all of [their work] together, night after night, year after year, may have a little bit of effect.” The Lichters and Rothman agree with these writers that the impact of Hollywood’s America upon America is cumulative in nature, but they are not able to measure, not in this book anyway, its degree—a difficult if not impossible task. 

My guess is that the greatest impact of television’s America concerns matters involving sex. Survey data show that Hollywood’s creative community—its actors, writers, and producers—overwhelmingly reject traditional restrictions on abortion, homosexual rights, and extramarital sex. Lifestyle autonomy—the same concept ratified jurisprudentially in the right of privacy cases including Roe v. Wade—is the fundamental credo, and it is apparent, as Watching America demonstrates in detail, in show after show. All behaviors are morally equivalent, and rarely are the consequences of particular behavior explored, must less condemned. Prime time, even that part of it ostensibly designed for “family” viewing, is a sex educator, and this season there has been a consistent story line: the loss of virginity on the part of young characters. Hollywood may be against drugs and booze for kids, but not sex. 

The good news about prime time—not reported in this book—is that network television viewership bas declined by 25 percent since 1980. One must hope that Hollywood will get the message—or else that viewership will continue to decline until it does. And one must hope, too, that artists on the other side of the culture war from those who currently dominate Hollywood will find opportunity there. The question for the future is not whether Hollywood will again support the status quo or support authority but whether its offerings will continue to reflect and advance the moral shallowness—indeed the emptiness—of yuppie liberalism.

Terry Eastland is a resident fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a columnist for The American Spectator