Considering Contemporary Television’s Ideological Power
Isabel Molina-Guzmán / University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Convening Question:

As we consider the changing landscape of television and new media, TV Studies itself seems precarious. The constant stream of technological development, increasing fragmentation of audiences, and expansion of programming and distribution outlets has called into question the utility of foundational TV Studies concepts like networks, flow, and especially the cultural forum (Newcomb and Hirsch 1983). The sheer quantity of TV production and the variety of ways to consume TV can make it feel impossible to find shared reference points. Older formulations of television as a cultural forum, a place where large national audiences share cultural experiences and hash out complex or taboo ideological changes or differences, have thus fallen out of favor. If television’s representational power is no longer consolidated in or monopolized by a narrow range of dominant institutional voices, television arguably seems more diverse and its power more diffuse and dispersed. Yet, in the contemporary political climate, in which consciously sowing openly affective and ideological division is an effective path to power, it seems that denying the continued cultural power of television is an effective way to dismiss a powerful mass cultural forum still in operation. As Stuart Hall taught us, television representation has real power to create cultural reality, not simply to reflect it. This question asks us to consider, then, how TV scholars can grapple with these new technologies, expanding content offerings, and fragmented audience configurations while still acknowledging a broad or comprehensive sense of the ideological power and influence of TV on audiences?

Panelists and Links to Position Papers:

Laura Brunner, Metropolitan State University of Denver
Isabel Molina-Guzmán, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Justin Owen Rawlins, University of Tulsa
James M. Elrod, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
*Taylor Nygaard, University of Denver

*denotes panel convener

Whiteness, Racial Capitalism and the Ideological Flow of Television

Throughout FLOW’s roundtable conversations, my thoughts kept circling back to Cedric Robinson’s concept of racial capitalism defined as the interdependence between capitalism and racial inequality and violence to produce economic value. [1] Whether the discussion was about production, archiving, texts, gaming, it seemed white normativity and privilege was always in the space, always a question to be, but rarely, asked. “Television” as a form of Western cultural production stabilizes white patriarchal heteronormative privilege thereby preserving Capital, with a capital C. [2]

Televisual Structures of Whiteness.

In the contemporary context, the technologies by which TV texts are produced and disseminated are continually innovated. And sometimes the world on our screens appears radically diverse and inclusive. But the structural conditions of televisual production in all its forms remains embedded in racial, sexual, and gender inequality. As Jodi Melamed observes, “we also increasingly recognize that contemporary racial capitalism deploys liberal and multicultural terms of inclusion to value and devalue forms of humanity differentially to fit the needs of reigning state capital orders.” [3] Industry reports out of UCLA, USC, and Columbia document the people 1) who own the media, 2) who greenlight new projects, 3) who represent actors and cast the programs, 4) who produce, write, or direct, and, 5) the guilds who provide skilled technical labor are dominated by predominantly white, heterosexual, cis-men. [4]

Colorblind Ideology and the Televisual Flow of Whiteness

Colorblindness is the ideological mechanism of inequality by which whiteness is maintained and reified in mainstream U.S. television. It is an ideology evidenced in colorblind and multicultural ensemble casting practices – a casting strategy that uses racial difference to erase racial specificity, engages performances of ethnicity in order to homogenize culture, that makes queerness visible without subjectivity. [5] It benefits from media industries’ strategic use of racial exceptionalism through the visibility of the exceptional few and the social acceptance of hipster racism, implicit racism, and affective inequities in media texts. Both are central components of the culture of civility in which white norms of behavior are reinforced and maintained. [6] The real-world consequence of colorblindness is that it minimizes the need for ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender equity by making difference culturally, socially and politically irrelevant.

Instead of colorblindness, we as media producers, audiences, and academics should demand and advocate for color consciousness. We must “see” whiteness and difference and become conscious of the filters and biases used to make sense of the world and those who are different from us. Contemporary political discourses, rhetoric, actions, and policies are raising the social, cultural, and political stakes of “seeing” television’s ideological drive.

  1. For more on the concept of racial capitalism see Cedric Robinson Black Marxism (North Carolina Press, 1983). []
  2. Jodi Melamed (2015) “Racial Capitalism,” Journal of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association (1) 1, 76-85. []
  3. Melamed, 77. []
  4. See;; []
  5. See Isabel Molina-Guzmán Latinas & Latinos on TV: Colorblind Comedy in the Post-Racial Network Era (2018, University of Arizona Press); Sarah Nilsen & Sarah Turner (eds) The Colorblind Screen: Television in Post-Racial America (2014, New York University Press); and Kristen Warner The Cultural Politics of Colorblind Casting (2015, Routledge). []
  6. For more on heteronormative whiteness and the culture of civility see Bernadette M. Calafell’s (2012) “Monstrous Femininity: Constructions of Women of Color in the Academy” Journal of Communication Inquiry 36 (2), 111-130. []

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