“Don’t Know Much About History”:
What Counts as Historical Work in Television Studies

by: Aniko Bodroghkozy / University of Virginia

What counts as television history? This was a question that animated the roundtable I proposed at the first Flow conference this past October and it's a question that continues to gnaw at me. Television studies in general, and Flow in particular, tend to be rather preoccupied with the contemporary. When's the last time you read an article in Flow that engaged historically with some aspect of television in the past? It's not surprising, I suppose, considering the present-mindedness of the medium we study. The roundtable topic I submitted was the only one that explored questions of history and I frankly did not expect a large turnout. However, our room was packed solid with conferees, so I'm starting to believe that the historical study of television isn't as much the unfashionable niche area within the field as I was beginning to think it was.

Some of the debate and discussion got me thinking about how I would want to define what rigorous academic study of this medium, its audiences, its industries, and its contexts in the past should encompass. Perhaps one shouldn't even attempt to define (and thereby perhaps proscribe) what counts as studies in television history. But I'm willing to weigh in because I think it's important if we want our scholarship to be taken seriously outside our growing, but still young, field. I think it's important that more traditionally credentialed historians (you know: those tweedy folks who populate history departments) accept that what we do does, in fact, conform to the craft of history. I'd at least like to get recognition from cultural and social historians. To me, this suggests the primacy of archival research. I raise this issue because there was some stimulating discussion during the roundtable about whether one needs to engage in archival research in order to do historical work. Well, I'm willing to go out on a limb and stake my vast reputation in the field on the assertion that, yes, ladies and gentlemen, some form of rigorous mucking in the archives (or at least in libraries with holdings of primary documents such as archived newspapers and journals) is a prerequisite for historical research. Symptomatic readings of televisual texts and close readings are all well and good and often necessary to any historical inquiry, but, as panelist Elena Levine pointed out during the discussion, one needs to account for historical context. How does an historian reconstruct context? Archival research. Why not limit oneself to studies of television texts from the past? Well, one can do that, certainly. Just don't call it historical work. It's textual analysis and can be an entirely worthy form of television criticism. I doubt our colleagues in history departments would recognize such work, though.

So who cares whether historians (who tend to be rather conservative, traditional, and suspicious of popular culture) recognize the importance of studying television historically? Why can't we as television scholars just blaze new scholarly trails, deconstruct and redefine traditional paradigms, and in general do what makes sense to us for our objects of study? My answer may have something to do with the fact that I teach at an institution that fetishizes its traditions and isn't known for being on the scholarly cutting edge. As with the Ivy League (to which my institution aspires), the most prestigious universities in this country don't tend to embrace newer areas of scholarship easily or quickly. Only recently has film studies managed to establish any form of beachhead in some of the Ivies. Television studies has a much longer way to go. And maybe we shouldn't care whether television studies is accepted by the Harvards, Princetons, and Yales. However, the Ivies and the wannabee Ivies are the institutions that bestow legitimacy to emergent fields. One of the reasons I managed to get hired and tenured at a wannabee (public) Ivy is because my scholarship was seen as acceptable historical work by historians who sat on my hiring and tenuring committees. The institution may have been a tad worried about the television studies part (film studies raises far fewer anxieties here) but because faculty and deans could confidently assert that, yes indeed, she is an historian and Mr. Jefferson, Our Founder, would recognize that as a legitimate field of study at his University, things went well for me.

I raise this bit of autobiography only to suggest that we do need to be thinking institutionally when we consider how we define not only our field but also what counts as rigorous scholarly work. I'll leave it to others to explore what that would mean for narrative, aesthetic, industry, audience ethnography, and other modes of analysis of television and media. But I'm pretty confident about what counts as rigorous television history. If I go to the endnotes and works cited sections and don't see evidence that the author has examined collected papers, newspapers and journals, or other primary documents of whatever era of the past is under examination, it's not history.

Image Credits:

Please feel free to comment.

Bring the War Home: Iraq War Stories from Steven Bochco and Cindy Sheehan

FX\'s Over There

FX’s Over There

American television has been telling two separate but interestingly related stories about the war in Iraq this past month. One is Over There, producer Steven Bochco’s highly touted new series for the FX cable channel which purports to be the first dramatic television series depicting a war while the country is still engaged in combat. The other is the non fictional story the cable and broadcast news shows have been telling about Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain American soldier who has been protesting outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas during his rather long summer vacation. Both these stories are instructive for what they suggest about how this war is being made sense of right now. They also provide instructive comparisons to the way U.S. television handled the last war-as-quagmire into which Americans found themselves sinking.

Publicity and commentary about Over There have made much of the fact that the series depicts fictional US soldiers while their real-life counterparts are still fighting and dying. Let’s remember that M*A*S*H also debuted while the war in Vietnam raged. Of course M*A*S*H wasn’t actually about Vietnam, even though, of course, it was. However, as I’ve written about elsewhere, prime time TV, especially during the so-called “season of social relevance” of 1970/71, but to a lesser extent before that as well, did acknowledge and represent versions of the conflict, albeit largely about the “war at home” (Bodroghkozy, 2001). It took the entertainment divisions of the networks a significant number of years before they decided that they needed to take notice. Nevertheless, Over There is not as remarkable a moment in TV programming history as many observers seem to think. What is novel about the series is its attempt to portray ripped-from-the-headlines combat, and to do it without the cover of comedy or without displacing the events into an easier-to-manage past.

As sentiment about the Iraq war have been getting increasingly polarized of late, it is interesting to look at the debates that have gathered steam about whether the show is fundamentally pro or anti war in its portrayal of the conflict.

Commentary is all over the map: The show is antiwar. The show is pro war. The show is inaccurate. These conflicted and clashing readings may be exacerbated by Bochco’s insistence over and over again that the series does not take a political position about the war. Larry Gelbart, M*A*S*H’s producer, was similarly reluctant to admit that his show had a political stance about the specific situation in Vietnam (Gitlin, 1983, p. 217). In both cases, we have classic cases of the “polysemic” text, although the preferred anti-war encoding of M*A*S*H seems hard to miss, even though some viewers apparently negotiated readings that were positive about military service (Gitlin, p.217). Bochco’s series is in some ways not unlike Gelbart’s show in its representation of war and its personnel (whether soldiers or doctors). Both shows focus on daily life and “muddling through.” The grunts of Sargeant Scream’s unit do so grimly, doggedly, and humourlessly. The doctors and nurses of the 4077th did so with jokes, wild antics, sex, and an appreciation for the absurd. In both cases, the reasons for the war are largely unexplored. By focusing so closely on the “grunts’ eye view,” Over There gives us a war that is mostly about staying alive and seeing enemies everywhere since there is no defined battlefield. All Iraqis could be terrorists, much like all Vietnamese could be VC. The show’s representational strategies owe a great deal to the visual codification of the Vietnam war, especially in cinema. More generally, it’s a war with no articulated purpose, rationale, or definition of victory. A conversation between two characters (one Arab American) let’s us know that both enlisted because of 9/11; episode three gives us a jihadist terrorist to hate. But are these troops in Iraq to fight a war on terrorism? The show doesn’t tell us. In the interests on avoiding “politics” Bochco and his team have managed to give us a Vietnam-esque war, both visually and thematically. It isn’t absurdist the way that M*A*S*H’s “Vietnam” was (war on godless communism — yeah, right!), but it certainly isn’t heroic.

The series’ inability or unwillingness to posit a clear purpose for the war connects it neatly to the other major Iraq story that television and other media outlets have been following intently this summer. The Cindy Sheehan story is a narrative of the home front and one that is probably easier for television to tell than the one Steve Bochco wants to tell. (Ratings for Over There, which started very strong for a cable offering, have sagged since the premier.) The costs of the war are effectively personalized in the figure of the grieving, but strong mother. Soap opera-ish drama gets injected into the story by the continuing question of whether an emotionally callous president will meet with this lone embodiment of suffering motherhood. The story also produces great visuals of emotional impact such as the tiny crosses representing dead soldiers that Sheehan’s supporters at the Camp Casey encampment erected. The dramatic visuals were only enhanced when the crosses were mowed down by opponents of the protest. The melodramatic qualities of this story are then further enhanced with the failed attempt to “swift-boat” Sheehan. Our heroine must suffer, and suffer, and suffer some more. That Sheehan needed to attend briefly to her own mother’s medical crisis and that her husband filed divorce proceedings against her only solidifies her status as a quintessential melodrama heroine.

This is the kind of war story that television knows how to tell. This is the kind of war story that audiences may find more compelling. Like Over There, the Cindy Sheehan story begins with the premise that there is no clear rationale for the war. The problem with Bochco’s series is that it takes this as given and then proceeds with the assumption that the narrative doesn’t need to grapple further with this matter. Sheehan’s story is a “successful” one because it doesn’t accept the “muddle through” theme. Sheehan’ story is a quest to find meaning and truth: why did her son die? That her quest galvanizes large numbers of supporters who either join her vigil or who support her with candle lit vigils from afar only increases the poignancy of the story. Over There just cannot compete with the legible “moral occult” Sheehan’s Iraq story constructs.

The Bochco series and the Sheehan story share another similarity: both focus entirely on the Iraq war as a story about military personnel: soldiers and their families. American civilians and those not in some way connected to military life are irrelevant to the story. Over There‘s major home front story involves a member of the squad whose leg was blown off by a roadside bomb. In episodes to date, we see him struggling with the VA hospital and his diminished sense of masculinity, while his loving and supportive wife provides nurturance. Other home front stories also concern themselves exclusively with the loved ones (faithful and not) of the troops overseas. Sheehan’s story is remarkable for the emphasis on “Gold Star Families” as the representatives and activists of this new antiwar movement. Those who have joined Cindy at Camp Casey and make the news are mostly other military moms. Those who are trotted out to provide a counterbalance to Cindy’s arguments are also mothers of soldiers.

These narratives suggest that both the fighting of this war and the protesting against it are jobs for non-civilians and their loved ones. The role of civilians (either those who may support the war or those who oppose it) is a vicarious one: you can watch.

The war in Iraq has been an odd kind of non-event for most Americans. Unlike World War II, the Iraq war has not resulted in total war mobilization by the entire population. Unlike Vietnam, all able-bodied young men (and their families, girlfriends, and wives) don’t need to confront the prospects that they may be drafted to fight this war. The war is already rather fictitious to most Americans. Aside from news coverage (which one can avoid and which gets easily knocked off the headlines by natural disasters like the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina or by human disasters like Michael Jackson), little in Americans’ daily lives forces them to confront, engage with, or acknowledge that there’s a war going on. I suspect that there may be a certain amount of unease about that. Shouldn’t we be sacrificing something for the war? Aren’t we supposed to be doing something? If we support it, shouldn’t we be participating? If we oppose it, shouldn’t we be protesting in the streets?

To some extent Over There and Cindy Sheehan’s narratives provide a simulated way by which Americans can use their TVs to pretend to be involved with this war. Consider the audiences for the Bochco series. Why would anyone want to watch a relentless, graphically violent fictionalization of a war that, especially recently, has generated significant up ticks in the number of U.S. casualties? I’m wondering to what extent watching this show allows some viewers to experience emotionally and viscerally a war that otherwise is largely a nonevent in most Americans’ experience. Bochco’s series gives audiences something to do: they can go to Iraq vicariously with the troops. They can identify and empathize with these fictional stand-ins for the real troops and feel patriotic doing so. In a hyperreal war fought on television (although not cleanly and according to a predetermined script, a Baudrillard’s Gulf War), and fought by a professionalized military not needed a civilian population to assist, what else can the folks back home do to feel involved?

And what about those who oppose this war? Considering how quickly the war has become unpopular and considering how widespread the dismay and disillusionment has spread about both the reasons for the war and its winnability, the lack of an activated grassroots protest movement seems odd. However, if the war, for the majority of Americans, is a hyperreal conflict fought on television, then perhaps it makes sense that when antiwar activity finally does erupt, it does so as a made-for-TV soap opera. And because the majority of Americans really aren’t involved, our antiwar activists could only be those connected to the institutions of militarism. Those of us who hate the war, but really aren’t affected by it, align ourselves with Cindy and turn her into our heroine. She and the other grieving Gold Star mothers become our televisual surrogates. They organize a hyperreal antiwar movement made up largely of military families, the only Americans actually impacted by the growing carnage in Iraq.

Will this hyperreal antiwar movement centered around one melodramatic heroine develop into an actual movement with grassroots mobilization among citizens not directly connected to the military? Or will it remain a media event like the professionalized war it protests? I suspect we will mostly remain spectators, voyeurs, tricking ourselves into believing that we are actually engaged with and involved in this awful drama of human slaughter.


Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Bodroghkozy, Aniko. Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion. Durham, NC. Duke UP, 2001.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1983.

Image Credits:
1. FX’s Over There

Over There homepage
Cindy Sheehan website

Please feel free to comment.

Media Studies for the Hell of It?: Second Thoughts on McChesney and Fiske

by: Aniko Bodroghkozy / University of Virginia

Robert McChesney John Fiske

Robert McChesney (left), John Fiske (right)

I’ve been thinking about a somewhat inflammatory polemic that Robert McChesney (above, left) wrote almost a decade ago in which he skewered unnamed Postmodern and Cultural Studies-influenced media historians for producing “politically timid and intellectually uninteresting and unimportant” and “trivial” work (McChesney: 1996, p. 540). He argued that, given the policy and regulatory decisions — such as the recently passed 1996 Telecommunications Act — that were likely to fundamentally reshape the communications landscape, media scholars needed to be providing historical scholarship (and by extension, one assumes, non-historical work as well) that intervened and provided context for these policy debates (p. 550).

The work that McChesney characterized as “trivial” tended to focus on audiences and the “discovery” that “they do not necessarily swallow whatever the corporate masters feed them” (p.544). Clearly McChesney was mopping the floor with the scholarship of John Fiske (above, right), his students, and those influenced by Fiske’s work on popular culture and television. The piece also seemed to be excoriating Lynn Spigel’s hugely influential cultural history of suburban families and the introduction of television in the postwar era (Spigel: 1992). McChesney may have been coy about “naming names,” but it was pretty clear who he was talking about.

For a young scholar like me this was far more than an academic battle among competing intellectual paradigms. If you were a grad student in the Telecommunication section of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1990s, this was about you. In the early 1990s McChesney was a junior faculty member struggling to get tenure in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department one floor down from Comm Arts in Vilas Hall. Upstairs on the 6th floor of Vilas Hall, John Fiske ruled. Brought into the department in 1988, Fiske was a star. His brand of “affirmative” Cultural Studies was the emergent paradigm, McChesney’s hoary old “political economy” appeared residual. In Fiske’s terminology the “financial economy” that scholars like McChesney, Dallas Smythe, Herb Schiller and the like focused on wasn’t the end of the game. Scholars needed to pay attention to the “cultural economy” of audiences and its meanings and pleasures (Fiske: 1989, p. 26). Grad students on the 6th floor of Vilas, such as me, would genuflect in front of the financial economy of television, but then quickly move on to the really fun, interesting, sexy, and cutting edge stuff we could analyze in the cultural economy. Political economy scholarship and policy studies were like broccoli. Good for us as media scholars-in-training, but not tasty. We taught issues of ownership and control and media concentration to our students because we knew it was important for them to understand how the media industries were configured. These issues were never central, however, and certainly not in our own developing scholarship. Cultural studies made a more satisfying meal and it seemed more well balanced.

Fast forward to 2005. John Fiske is retired from academe and runs a successful antiquing business in Vermont and writes about 17th century oak furniture. Robert McChesney is now the star. He writes best selling books (McChesney 1999), gets compared to Thomas Paine and Paul Revere, heads up one of the most dynamic of a growing number of media reform organizations, Free Press, and has managed to make political economy of the media sexy. It’s feeling to me that McChesney’s paradigm is now emergent and cultural studies residual. (Here in Flow, some of the most stimulating and well-responded-to pieces have been columns on media reform from Tom Streeter and Mike Curtin).

Let me pose a question bluntly: to what extent does it matter whether TV audiences can or do perform negotiated or resistant readings of Fear Factor or Punked or The Apprentice or Desperate Housewives? Are audience agency and receptive practices important right now? In the past, one could argue (and I certainly have) that television as popular culture functioned as an important cultural terrain for mediating and negotiating significant social change (Bodroghkozy: 1992, 2001, 2004). Fiske’s argument that popular culture was “on the side of the subordinate” and had politically progressive (albeit not “radical”) possibilities made sense within the context of television programming in the 1960s and 1970s. A mushy form of liberalism was hegemonic common sense throughout this period. Even the Reaganite 1980s could not significantly overthrow the cultural impact of the social change movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Jane Feuer found the pervasive self-reflexivity of 1980s TV to constitute a “postmodern form of complicitous critique” (Feuer: 1995, p. 9). By decoding reception practices during this period, critics and scholars could actually produce useful information about the cultural handling of larger political and societal forces.

And with broadcast television of the 1990s, we saw a new “Golden Age” of quality and popular prime time fare. A commentator on Public Radio International recently extolled 1990s TV observing that “in the ’90s the best shows were also by and large the most highly rated shows. That had never happened before. And mainstream TV was arguably superior to mainstream motion pictures. That had never happened before either.” I could have deconstructed this “high culture/low culture,” canon formation talk, but instead I sat in my car nodding vigorously at my windshield as I listened. Clearly in the 1990s when TV was “good” (even while some of my grad school colleagues were almost perversely fixating on “bad” TV), it became intellectually defensible to study the texts and audiences of the medium. Television merited humanistic and textual analysis even though cultural studies approaches were not grounded in questions of aesthetics and artistry. I don’t think it is any accident that television studies entered the academy during this “Golden Age.” And the “best” shows of the 1990s were also ones that welcomed readings over contested ideological positionings and subversive discourses. There is excellent scholarship on shows like Roseanne, thirtysomething, The Simpsons, Murphy Brown, etc. Fiske’s best (and regrettably last) book on television was about how 1990s television produced media events that brought to “maximum visibility” otherwise hidden cultural currents and shifts in the structure of feeling (Fiske: 1996).

But the 1990s was the time when McChesney’s voice cried out in the wilderness that we cultural studies/Postmodernist scholars of television and media were blind — bewitched by carnivalesque trifles and simulacral silliness. Most media scholars are ready to concede, of course, the intellectual shallowness and “banality” (in Meaghan Morris’s terminology) of the mania for finding “resistive” or “oppositional” activity everywhere in the pop culture environment. That moment does seem to be “oh so 90s” and over. The 1990s also saw the entrenchment of media deregulation that has ushered in the frighteningly concentrated industry we find ourselves with today. What I am trying to figure out is to what extent McChesney was correct to chastise cultural studies-oriented media scholars (historians or not) for our preoccupation with bottom-up tactics over top-down strategies of power, ownership, and control. Were we feasting on cultural studies meals of empty calories and sugary treats when we should have been eating our broccoli, strengthening ourselves to produce muscular scholarship for battles in the political arena?

I am struggling to find an answer. I’m not ready to junk my own approach to television study (which has always tried to account for lines of power, dialogue, resistance, and incorporation across industry, text, and audience formations within specific historical contexts). On the other hand, to analyze contemporary television and media and not take account of the massive concentration of ownership of all sectors of media into a small handful of conglomerate behemoths with more power than many nation-states seems intellectually decadent.

McChesney and his acolytes are becoming political activists and intervening directly into the political and regulatory regime. Whether one agrees with McChesney and Free Press’s particular agenda or framing of the issues seems beside the point. The point is for television and media scholars and students to get involved in media reform politics. I went to the first national media reform conference organized by McChesney’s group in 2004, held in, of all places, Madison. Practically nobody from the 6th floor of Vilas Hall was there. Practically no television studies/media studies scholars I know (except for Constance Penley and fellow former Vilas “telecommie” Norma Coates) attended. I couldn’t understand why not. I found it strangely ironic to return to Madison and find my intellectual allegiances shifting, at least somewhat, away from what the 6th floor had represented to me as a grad student and moving downstairs to the 5th floor. A couple weeks ago, the second annual media reform conference took place in St. Louis with reportedly over two thousand in attendance. I couldn’t make it this time around but hoped other media scholars could.

For me, it comes down to this: regardless of what we do in our scholarship, if we consider ourselves students and teachers of media and television but are not on some level involved in media reform, we’re doing media studies “for the hell of it.”

Works Cited

Bodroghkozy, A. “Good Times in Race Relations?: CBS’s Good Times and the Legacy of Civil Rights in 1970s Prime Time” Screen, 2004.

—. Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2001.

—. “Is This What You Mean By Color TV?: Race, Gender and Contested Meanings in NBC’s Julia.” Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer. Eds. L. Spigel and D. Mann. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Feuer, J. Seeing Through the Eighties: Television and Reaganism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.

Fiske, J. Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996.

—. Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

McChesney, R.W. “Communication for the Hell of It: The Triviality of U.S. Broadcasting History.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 40 (1996).

—. Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. New York: New Press, 1999.

Spigel, L. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Image Credits:
1. Robert McChesney
2. John Fiske

Please feel free to comment.