Institutions That Fail, Narratives That Succeed:
Television’s Community Realism Versus Cinema’s Neo-Liberal Hope

Television isn’t exactly known for portraying the lives of the urban poor or the rural lower-classes in honest and realistic ways. And it certainly hasn’t offered such portrayals as compassionately as it did in last season’s episodes of The Wire and Friday Night Lights—or so it seemed to me as a former resident of Baltimore and a person who grew up in the rural Deep South. Both series offered narratives of tremendous warmth and empathy toward characters that viewers could care about and embrace, yet simultaneously wrapped such feelings within heartbreaking stories that dealt with the tragic components of these characters’ lives and worlds.

The WireMarlo Stanfield of The Wire

(a) The Wire (b) Marlo Stanfield of The Wire

At one level, tragedy is an overriding theme of both narratives. In The Wire, we see lives lived in the midst of an almost total breakdown of social institutions and civil society. The writers and producers—former journalist David Simon and former police officer turned junior high teacher Ed Burns—tell a tale of contemporary Baltimore where inner-city residents struggle to survive within, around, and under an obliterated urban landscape. The institutions of politics, police, schools, and the economy are beyond dysfunctional, tending instead toward the toxic. Yet amidst the chaos, lawlessness, violence, and despair, citizens somehow still struggle by. Last season’s focus on four junior high school kids portrayed the critical juncture of adolescence in inner-city America—would these kids be sucked into the underground economy (and its almost certain ticket to the morgue) or could the institutions of civil society (i.e., the public education system) provide them another alternative? What we learn is that the results are predictable, but not guaranteed; more the play of luck (both bad and good) than fate. What we also learn is that these narrative fictions are also stand-ins for real lives in real communities with real-life consequences, which truly makes it all very, very sad.

Duquan \"Dukie\" Weems of The WireRandy Wagstaff of The Wire

(a) Duquan ‘Dukie’ Weems of The Wire (b) Randy Wagstaff of The Wire

In Friday Night Lights, the tragedies of small town Texas are writ small in the lives of its characters. The star quarterback of the high school football team becomes a paraplegic because of the game, and then watches in horror as his parents sue the coach and school because they need the money to provide for his care. The cheerleader’s storybook future as his wife unravels with the injury, while her family is crushed by the weight of her father’s persistent philandering. A running back and his brother raise themselves because they can’t stand their alcoholic father. The running back’s ex-girlfriend watches her single mom make one bad choice after another with men. And the replacement quarterback must care for his grandmother with Alzheimer’s because his father is fighting the war in Iraq—and seemingly prefers war to being at home. The broken institution here is not school, but family. And as with The Wire, the portrayals are all too real.

The Cast of Friday Night Lights

The Cast of Friday Night Lights

Yet all of these tragedies are not something that can be solved by the coach, the central character of the drama. In fact, his personal success (as a man with ambitions beyond coaching high school ball) is dependent on his players’ ability to overcome these tragedies through their own initiative, skill, and perseverance (as opposed to the typical trajectory of such a narrative which usually inverts these roles). But the coach is no fool. He realizes what is at play in the field, telling his team to remember that “what we have is special, that it can be taken from us, and when it is, we will be tested.” This is not some rah-rah half-time speech, but a recognition of the harsh realities of existence that have only just begun to test the kids in the larger game of life. Football is not an elixir in this narrative, and if anything, football creates additional pressures and stress for the individuals involved. Yet it also serves as a powerful unifying and rallying force for people who typically have little to cheer for in rural small town life.

Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights

Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights

What also made these two television narratives stand out as exceptional for me was their stark contrast to two similar narratives appearing simultaneously in movie theatres—Freedom Writers, starring Hillary Swank, and We Are Marshall, with Matthew McConaughey. Both stories mirror the setting of these television narratives, as well as their focus on tragedy. Freedom Writers is the tale of a public high school English teacher in inner-city Los Angeles working with students whose lives have been decimated by gang warfare and broken homes, yet who nevertheless participate in an educational system that is little more than a holding station before they meet their inevitable fate. We Are Marshall is a football drama set in a rural West Virginia college town trying to overcome the loss of its team and community members in a fiery plane crash. Both films are based on “real-life” people and events, and hence, are sold to audiences as true stories.

What distinguishes these two films from The Wire and Friday Night Lights is how simplistic and thoroughly reductive their narratives are. Both feature communities that have suffered from violence, traumatized to the point of hopelessness and despair. Yet both films employ the mythological hero tale to provide the redemptive narrative. The saviors appear from outside the community, arising from seemingly nowhere (perhaps the organic matter that is the dirt of American “goodness”). As outsiders, they are immune to the pain and suffering that cripples those around them. It is through their irrepressible spirits and naiveté that they are able to overcome doubt, cynicism, fear, and institutional obstruction and intransigence. Both heroes embody the neo-liberal hope of American society—the lone individual who through sheer force of personality and perserverance rises, against all odds, to success and victory while helping the less fortunate along the way.

Jack Lengyel of We Are MarshallFreedom Writers

(a)Jack Lengyel of We Are Marshall (b) Freedom Writers

In Freedom Writers, the teacher has no conception or understanding of the war taking place between her black, Latino, and Asian youth when school is not in session. Once these kids teach her the realities of urban life, the message she returns to them is that all they need to do to overcome the pain and suffering in their lives is to believe in themselves and their inner feelings, and when they do, all the violence, drugs, illiteracy, racism, ethnocentrism, mistrust, brutal cops, lazy teachers, deadbeat dads, predatory boyfriends, vengeful peers, teenage pregnancy, and historical record will disappear. Indeed, as the narrative proceeds and the kids begin following her therapeutic advice of “telling their own stories” in journals, these dysfunctional yet all too real communal realities simply drop out of sight. In the end, the audience learns, society, institutions, family, and community don’t really matter—only the will of the individual. Write a different narrative, the teacher seemingly says, and all your troubles will disappear. Furthermore, embrace the story of other victims (Anne Frank and Jewish Holocaust survivors) for your inspiration. See how they survived state-sanctioned violence (never mind the six million plus who didn’t) to see that you too can survive the same. But first and foremost, believe in the white liberal do-gooder wearing pearls and smart business suits.

Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers

Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers

The narrative of We Are Marshall isn’t much more nuanced. Rather than cancel the football program after the tragic accident, the university decides to field a new team the following year. The problem is that no one in the community—either the town itself or alumni of the university—is willing to take the job as head coach. Yet a new coach magically appears from outside the community, and in turn, overcomes all obstacles to lead his team of upstarts to victory in their home opener. Grief and tragedy are overcome through competition. There has been a disruption, but the return to normalcy occurs thanks to the courage of, and belief in, the heroic individual—the coach. At one crucial moment, the head coach lectures another coach on the importance of simply playing the game as the only true means of communal redemption. “What matters is that we play the game,” he argues. “One day we are going to be like every other team, where winning is everything, and nothing else matters. And when that day comes, that’s when we’ll honor them.”

We Are Marshall

We Are Marshall

We Are Marshall and Freedom Writers represent the classic American narrative that Hollywood has mastered and replicated with great frequency and alacrity: through competition and self-reliance, individuals can overcome the constraints of community and failures of social institutions. But also, it is that lone individual who refuses to succumb to (even thumbs his or her nose at) these constraints that we should follow. Through the leadership of such individuals, we will find redemption for the tragedies that consume our lives. The message here is neo-liberal, but I suggest it is also one with fascist overtones (the celebration of the will of the charismatic leader; the belief in his/her vision and triumph, despite the costs1). Furthermore, it is exactly this type of repeated Hollywood fiction—one that feeds our “hunger for consolation, meaning, and hope”2—that lays the ideological groundwork for public belief in such go-it-alone figures as George W. Bush in similarly tragic and traumatic historical times.

Although derived from real-life communities, The Wire and Friday Night Lights are fictions that ultimately reveal much more honest truths. The heroes to rally around do not exist, have departed, or will not alter the world by the twinkle in their eye. The institutions that fail them nonetheless continue to play important roles in structuring their lives. The tragedies experienced cannot be washed away by fleeting victories or introspection (which only provides temporary solace). Communities are awash in tragedies, both large and small, but only through community can such tragedies be understood, if not entirely overcome. And despite the breakdown of civil society in inner-city America, such communities are still inhabited by human beings—including innocent yet fearful children—who deserve more than our seeming lack of empathy, attention, or resources.

The Wire

The Wire

In that regard, television has offered us stories that are more real, humane, and pluralistic than the mythology Hollywood regularly provides. Television’s narratives cast an unblinking eye on characters and facets of American life that are rarely treated with honesty or respect. They offer much needed pluralism to the stories that permeate public life. David Gutterman summarizes Hannah Arendt’s argument about the importance and availability of such narratives within society: “The ‘meaning of public life’…is found when a common object or story can be seen and heard—and assessed and judged—such that ‘human plurality’ rather than ‘singularity’ or the ‘unnatural conformism of mass society’ defines the shared world.”3 [And if anyone has studied the fascist potentials of a culture overly fixated on the singular individual and mass conformity behind his indomitable will, it would be Arendt!]. Television’s realistic portrayals of communities trump the tired neo-liberal formulas of Hollywood. Institutions will continue to fail us, but only one set of these narratives succeeds in offering “human plurality” in all its messy and complex reality.

Notes:
1 Hillary Swank’s marriage is secondary to her mission, and as a result, she ends up destroying it in the process. In We Are Marshall, the university president, who resisted the team’s reformation, loses his job as a result of his efforts and the team’s embarrassing losses.
2 David S. Gutterman, Prophetic Politics: Christian Social Movements and American Democracy (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005): 21.
3 Ibid.

Image Credits:

1. (a) The Wire

2. (b) Marlo Stanfield of The Wire

3. (a) Duquan ‘Dukie’ Weems of The Wire

4. (b) Randy Wagstaff of The Wire

5. The Cast of Friday Night Lights

6. Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights

7. (a) Jack Lengyel of We Are Marshall

8. (b) Freedom Writers

9. Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers

10. We Are Marshall

11. The Wire

Please feel free to comment.




Punk-Rock Presidency: The State of Presidential Satire on Television

by: Jeffrey P. Jones / Old Dominion University

Lil’ Bush

Lil’ Bush

After Stephen Colbert’s mouth-dropping performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006—which neither President Bush nor the press corps found very amusing—the organizers of this year’s event took the safest (read: most conservative) route they could find in hiring the featured speaker by selecting presidential impersonator Rich Little. Nothing like hearing those Reagan and Nixon voices one more time for a good ol’ belly laugh! But in reviving the career of the former late-night talk show staple, the press reminded us of just how far television has come in its caricatures of presidents. For also appearing that same week on Comedy Central was the animated series, Lil’ Bush, a portrayal of George W. Bush as a dim-witted and dangerous fifth-grader running amok in the White House and wreaking havoc across the world with his diabolical pals Lil’ Cheney, Lil’ Condi, and Lil’ Rummy. Whether the portrayal is fair or unfair, funny or not, the acceptable norms of television’s treatment of a sitting president have certainly changed.

Colbert and Bush

Colbert and Bush

A brief survey of comedic political caricatures on television over the last four decades suggests three primary forms. Perhaps earliest and surely the most politically impotent, if not out-right flattering, are impersonators such as Rich Little and Vaughn Meader (The First Family). Typically appearing on late-night talk shows such as The Tonight Show or on any number of variety programs, the gist of the political performance is impersonation—to look or sound as much like the president as possible. It is a mimetic performance, and ultimately the interest for audiences resides less in any latent form of political critique, but more in the simple pleasure of resemblance.

Rich Little as Pres. Reagan

Rich Little as Pres. Reagan

In American television history, Saturday Night Live has perhaps had the biggest impact in shaping the second form, the sketch comedy approach to presidential caricature. With comedians such as the moppy-haired Chevy Chase portraying Gerald Ford or the tall and lanky Will Ferrell pretending to be George W. Bush, the comedian isn’t attempting to look or necessarily sound like the president. Rather, the comedian creates humorous situations that we, the audience, then read onto the president. Like an editorial cartoon, certain features are exaggerated for comedic effect. Hence, Chase makes Ford into a clumsy and bumbling figure. Dan Aykroyd focuses on Nixon’s paranoia or Jimmy Carter’s sincere Sunday School teacher demeanor.

(a)Chevy Chase as Pres. Ford (b) Dan Aykroyd as Pres. Carter

(a)Chevy Chase as Pres. Ford (b) Dan Aykroyd as Pres. Carter

Phil Hartman plays-up Clinton as a voracious consumer (of women and French fries). And Will Farrell captures Bush’s problems with the English language (“strategery”). Although some SNL comedians did shoot for physical and phonetic resemblance (Dana Carvey as George H. W. Bush and Darryl Hammond as Al Gore), the comedic pleasure is typically more diegetic—envisioning the president articulate these comedic narratives. Therefore, we see Jimmy Carter using his intelligence to talk a caller down from a bad acid trip; a robotic and patronizing Al Gore referring to “lock box” like a stuck phonograph; a intellectually challenged yet arrogant George W. Bush making it all up as he goes along.

Will Ferrell as Pres. Bush

Will Ferrell as Pres. Bush

More recently, a third form of presidential caricature on television has appeared in the form of the situation comedy genre. In 2001, Comedy Central took the bold move (and the first of its kind) to devote an entire series to making fun of a sitting president. From South Park writers and producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the series, That’s My Bush!, was a satirical take on the First Family. The primary intent of the show, Parker and Stone repeatedly argued in the press, was less to satirize Bush or the presidency and more to parody the obnoxiousness of the sitcom itself. And indeed, the show did skewer the inane suburban home and office situation comedies, including a cast that featured the wise-mouthed maid, the next door neighbor who is always dropping by and making himself at home, and the sexy but dumb secretary who is accompanied by laugh track hoots and whistles when she enters the room (a la Married…With Children).

Cast of That’s My Bush!

Cast of That’s My Bush!

Nonetheless, the portrayal of Bush as an affable, yet nonetheless moronic and somewhat lazy president doesn’t allow for Parker and Stone’s defense that their show wasn’t political. For instance, the president’s right-hand man is none other than “Karl Rove.” In one episode, the president personally executes a death row inmate by pouring drain cleaner down his throat, only after reading him his last rights: “You have the right to die like a little bitch, have your soul sent to hell” (even though Bush thinks he is faking an execution to impress his old frat brothers). In another episode, Bush outlaws guns after being told by a psychic that someone has it in for him. But the episode that perhaps signals just how far television has come in its satirical treatment of a sitting president and his family is one in which Laura Bush tries to figure out why George no longer seems interested in performing oral sex on her. The communication problems ensue when she thinks that the “old and smelly” cat that George is referring to isn’t the 24-year old family pet, but her own feminine hygiene problems. That’s my bush, indeed!

Laura and George in That’s My Bush!

Laura and George in That’s My Bush!

When the program appeared on Comedy Central, television critics were less enamored of it than audiences (the program actually brought in fairly strong ratings for the network, but was cancelled after eight episodes because it was the most expensive program the network produced). But one critic from the Buffalo News expressed his shock and dismay at the cultural zeitgeist when he wrote, “No president—not even George W. Bush—deserves the putrid adolescent japery of what I’ve seen on ‘That’s My Bush!’….If this isn’t truly disgusting and reprehensible television, I don’t know what is.”[1] Little did this writer know, things were about to get even worse a few years down the line.

In 2007, Comedy Central again returned to the Bush presidency, this time airing the animated situation comedy Lil’ Bush. George W. Bush is portrayed as a stupid and hubristic First Child (because Daddy Bush is still in the White House) running around with his pals Lil’ Cheney, Lil’ Condi, and Lil’Rummy, engaging with various enemies such as Lil’ Kim Jong Il and Lil’ Al Gore.

The animated cast of Lil’ Bush

The animated cast of Lil’ Bush

The show’s creator, Donick Cary (a former Letterman and Simpsons writer) described the show as “The Little Rascals with nuclear weapons.” The portrayal of Bush and his diabolical pals (Lil’ Cheney is seen biting the heads off chickens) isn’t just critical—it’s downright brutal. Bush administration policies are always front and center. In one episode, Lil’ George is slated to make a class presentation on how a light bulb works. George says, “Sorry, Teachy, need more time. The science on this complicated issue is still out. But don’t worry. I’m forming a panel that will deliver a report on this issue in the next five years.” In another episode, Bush’s summer camp gang takes on Camp Al-Qaeda, and near the end, the gang must perform a song at a talent show. Lil’ Condi is frustrated, and announces, “I’m worried about the show tonight. We spent so much time pranking those hairy terrorists that we don’t have a song for the talent show.” Bush replies, “You’re right, Con. There’s only one thing left to do.” Lil’ Condi naively asks, “Spend the next few hours writing a really great song?,” to which Lil’ George replies, “No, no. Design such an awesome stage show that no one will notice how bad our song is. It’s a policy I call ‘Rock and Awe.’” After the band performs dressed as Kiss, the episode ends with words flashed on the screen, “Lil’ George never stopped rockin’…until 1986, when, for political reasons, he was born again. His prank war against the terrorists continues to this day.”

Lil’ Bush band rocks out

Lil’ Bush band rocks out

Cary defends the critique by arguing that it is an honest one. And sometimes that portrayal isn’t too far from the truth. In the episode “Nuked,” Lil’ George complains, “I hate doing what I’m told. I want to be a decider!,” whereas real-life President Bush recently proclaimed, “My job is to make decisions. I’m a decision—if the job description were, what do you do, it’s Decision Maker. And I make a lot of big ones and I make a lot of little ones.”[3] Each episode also features the Lil’ Bush Band performing as a punk-rock group and singing tunes that illustrate the episode (with lyrics written by Cary). In “Nuked,” for instance, the song “Decider” accompanies images of Bush launching nuclear strikes on Kim Jong Il, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, Nancy Pelosi, gay couples, anti-war activists, and blue states. The song’s lyrics include “I’m the Decider making up my mind, blowin’ up things, I’m feeling fine. Decide, decide, listen to my gut, going nu-cle-ar, I’m going all nuts….Bringing death from above with no remorse, if you complain, I’ll just stay the course” with the refrain, “De-cid-er-er, De-cid-er-er.” The connection to punk rock, Cary notes in an interview, is an intentional commentary on the Bush administration’s style of conduct: “Dive in headfirst. Break stuff up. Don’t care what people think. It’s VERY punk-rock.”[4] And indeed, punk rocker Iggy Pop does the voice of Lil’ Rummy just to keep it honest!

The reaction to the show in the press was even more aggressive and negative than the reviews which accompanied That’s My Bush!’s debut. Most complained that the show was not funny and that the critique was not timely (appearing after the 2006 electoral setbacks for the Republican Party).[5] Others complained that nothing in the episodes amounted to real satire or contributed significant insights.[6] But such commentary is missing the (punk-rock) point. Punk has never tried to provide cutting edge musical innovations or offer cerebral insights on the need for social and political change. Punk is reductive and simplistic. It is aggressive and loud. It takes no prisoners and ultimately doesn’t give a fuck if you like it or not. The punk point of Lil’Bush is not to mimic the conventions of television humor (that is, the expectation to be funny or satirically insightful). Instead it is to mimic and mock the style, attitude, and conventions of the president and his administration itself, yet warped just enough to get your attention and perhaps offend in the process.

That’s My Bush! and Lil’ Bush bookend the Bush presidency. The caricature moves from Bush as father to Bush as small child. His stupidity is no longer harmless, but instead quite dangerous. He is no longer affable and loveable, but rather, mean-spirited and evil. Bush’s consorts are part of the picture as well—from neighborly and sexy to vicious and wicked (in one episode, Lil’ Rummy draws a picture of a bunny rabbit with a knife in his belly and says, “That will teach you to hop in the woods without body armor”). Certainly featuring a president with abysmal approval ratings “allows” for such brutal critiques. But these bookend series also suggest that the president, his family, and his advisors are fair game for almost any portrayal (at least on cable television!). And although programs like Saturday Night Live will most certainly continue to offer mainstream versions of political caricature, Comedy Central has forever altered the landscape of acceptability in television’s satirical critiques of sitting presidents. Turning back the clock, as the writer for the Buffalo News seemingly desired, simply isn’t possible at this juncture. Punk rock is here to stay!

Notes:
[1]“Trashy ‘That’s My Bush’ Cheapens Real Political Satire,” Buffalo News (New York), 10 June, 2001. Retrieved from Lexisnexis.com, August 6, 2007.

[2] Moore, Frazier. “Heckuva Job: Comedy Central’s New Satire, ‘Lil’ Bush, Takes a Cartoon Look at the President,” Associated Press, 11 June 2007. Retrieved from Lexisnexis.com, July 15, 2007.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]
Mike Hale, “The President and His Friends, Younger and More Animated,” New York Times, 13 June 2007: E10.

[6]
For instance, Newsday critic Diane Werts, who argues that the show is “mostly just outrageous, designed to offend as much as to make any salient point….Yet little of it adds up to much of anything but foul-mouthed mischief.” “Not Bush League, But It’s a ‘Lil’ Close,” Newsday (New York), 13 June 2007, B21.

Image Credits:

1. Lil’ Bush

2. Colbert and Bush

3. Rich Little as Pres. Reagan

4. (a)Chevy Chase as Pres. Ford (b)Dan Aykroyd as Pres. Carter

5. Will Ferrell as Pres. Bush

6. Cast of That’s My Bush!

7. Laura and George in That’s My Bush!

8. The animated cast of Lil’ Bush

9. Lil’ Bush band rocks out

Please feel free to comment.




The Joys of “Civic TV,” or
Television You Probably Don’t Watch

by: Jeffrey P. Jones / Old Dominion University

There’s a particular joy I find in subjecting my friends and family to television programming that makes them squirm. The programs aren’t filled with sex, violence, or foul language, nor are the shows comprised of poor writing, atrocious acting, or outrageous characters such as Flavor Flav. Instead, the programming is best categorized simply as television you probably don’t watch. Televangelists are often a great choice. Home shopping networks rank high as well. In fact, switching back and forth between televangelists and home shopping networks is big fun, but you tend to lose control of the remote rather quickly that way.

Another such destination is what I call Civic TV, although most cable systems formally call it “Public, Educational, and Government Programming,” or PEG channels.[1] At its most rudimentary, the primary programming on government channels is typically comprised of city council meetings (what for most viewers is the equivalent of watching paint dry).

jpj_img_11.jpg
Norfolk City Council Formal Meeting (June 6, 2007)

As I hope to convey, however, Civic TV has much more to offer than this stereotype suggests. Although some of the programming does resemble Chamber of Commerce videos, numerous communities across the United States actually produce quality programming on issues that are central to the health and welfare of a community, including many areas of life that academics typically complain are disturbingly absent from or underrepresented on commercial television—the environment, arts and culture, public health and safety, local history, community life, minority issues, education, and democratic institutions and processes.

Of central concern to me as an academic is how we as a public come to know ourselves as citizens of a community. Unfortunately, local commercial and public broadcasting is rarely of help in this regard. The peculiar dialectic that comprises local television news—both spectacle and banality—is well documented. The lowest common denominator approach to news has greatly profited these FCC license holders, but it has done very little for civic life. Also, local public broadcasters typically produce negligible original material, relying instead on nationally syndicated programming during most day parts.

jpj_img_2.jpg
Local News Story on Nora the Piano Playing Cat

Therefore the question becomes, if a citizen is interested in knowing about his or her local community via television, does that potential really exist? And if it does—through government cable programming—then why don’t viewers tend to watch it? If quality and aesthetics aren’t the problem (as I argue here), then what is? Has television so thoroughly become a ritualized location for pleasure, entertainment, and distraction that audiences refuse to move beyond their affective commitments to popular culture to tap into other aspects of their identity (namely, that of citizen)? Or does the absence of aids that structure audience viewing habits (for instance, timely information about shows in the form of promotional teasers, newspaper criticism, and programming guides and schedules) result in the necessity of haphazard grazing more than appointment viewing? Though these are important questions, this brief article will not attempt answers to such complex questions. Rather, I simply hope to make the case for why Civic TV matters—that is, why it shouldn’t be so easily dismissed or routinely passed over in our search for other locations of viewing pleasure.

We should note that because funding and resources vary greatly by municipality, many local government stations do produce programming that stinks. But in conducting on-going research into such programming nationally, I have found numerous communities that offer an impressive array of quality programs. Indeed, the National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisers (NATOA), the professional association for government television programmers, administers annual awards for the best programming in more than sixty categories. My analysis suggests these programs tend to fall into three broad areas.

First are programs that address or fulfill the governing charge and function of municipalities (which some viewers might cynically label “propaganda”). Many of these programs are typical government information campaigns translated into a televisual environment, including shows devoted to public education, public health, and public safety. Other programs also spotlight government itself, including shows that profile democratic bodies and processes such as city council meetings, mayoral addresses, the state legislature, city administrative units and agencies, as well as the city as an economic and cultural entity.

The second broad category mimics traditional broadcast programming. These include talk shows, live sports coverage, social issue documentaries, news programs, election coverage, newsmagazine shows, and even reality-based programming (such as the City of Allen, Texas’s “Amazing Adventure” take-off of The Amazing Race).

jpj_img_3.jpg
Amazing Adventure

The third category is comprised of programs more typically found on public service broadcasting systems. These include programs for underserved communities (seniors, children/young adults, and ethnic minorities), as well as programs designed to enrich the lives of viewers as citizens of a community (such as those dedicated to local history, the arts, community events, library/books, and instruction/training).

Indeed, when taking all three categories of programming together, the argument could be made that Civic TV is as close as we come in the United States to the public service broadcasting tradition of other nations. Support for this argument includes the fact that viewers are “taxed” through the franchise fee they pay in their monthly bill. Thus, government stations have a relatively steady, though limited stream of revenues from which to operate. They are therefore relieved of the burden of having to worry about ratings and demographics or the need to beg viewers for contributions twice a year. They also have a mandate to address viewers as citizens, not consumers. To be sure, local government programming is not the equivalent of the BBC. But neither is it as vacant as the typical local public television station when it comes to information that serves the needs and interests of the local citizenry.

Examples of the ways in which Civic TV addresses different facets of the lives of its citizens may be seen in several cities. In tiny Calabasas, California (pop. 20,000), programming includes the “Calabasas Teen Forum,” a roundtable talk show highlighting teen views on issues such as city laws, school violence, and obesity; “Author’s Night,” featuring interviews with local authors; “Your City, Your Issues,” with topics such as the future of alternative fuels; and “Election Coverage 2007,” including segments that offer local candidates a television forum.

With a much larger budget, the City of Tucson, Arizona (pop. 515,000) is able to air highly-stylized programming equal in quality to much of what is found on both broadcast and cable television. Its programs include shows such as “Conexion 12,” a Spanish-language program focusing on the lives of its Latino population; “Studio C,” featuring interviews and performances by local and national musical talent; and “My City,” with specials reports on everything from happenings in individual city wards to newsmagazine-style social documentaries such as one on the local impact of methamphetamines.

jpj_img_4.jpg
Meth: A City Copes

Finally, the City of Allen, Texas (pop. 43,000), despite its small size, nevertheless offers programs with production techniques and aesthetics that actually exceed the quality of programming one might find on some national cable networks (see for instance the “Sam Bass Train Robbery”, one of the channel’s historical specials featured in “Tales of Allen”).

jpj_img_5.jpg
The First Train Robbery in Texas

One of the primary complaints about Civic TV is that it rarely criticizes government or the local powers that be. There is little doubt that much of what is aired is probably not too upsetting to city hall, and in fact, may be designed to serve the interests and agendas of those in power. But the media’s watchdog function is the responsibility of institutions other than PEG channels—namely the local news media—that have been granted numerous rights, privileges, and protections (such as the First Amendment, shield laws, libel laws, sunshine laws, and so on) in exchange for serving this function in a democratic society. The fact that they often don’t perform this task with much vigor or effectiveness is a separate issue from the service PEG channels provide.

But citizenship is more than just engaging in surveillance of power. Political communication scholars routinely argue that citizens need “information” from which to make informed choices about their elected representatives. But as I have argued elsewhere,[2] this is a necessary but limited instrumental approach to political life. Instead, as Jim Carey helped us understand, communication also performs integrative functions as well. Civic TV may provide citizens with valuable local information, but it can also be a place that offers multiple means through which citizens connect to each other as members of a community.

Scholars, it seems, have largely abandoned hope for television as a place where such feelings and connections can be facilitated at the local level. The Internet is routinely referred to as the mediated space where our hopes for a revived sense of community and the potentialities of democratic action have been reborn. Yet as I have argued here, perhaps we shouldn’t give up on television in this regard just yet. Civic TV—at least in some committed communities—is an interesting place on the dial for quality stories of community life and civic interaction. The only question is whether we as audience members will watch. And if we do watch, will we nevertheless feel a bit impatient for fear that we might be missing some serious T & A on The Real Housewives of Orange County?

Notes:
[1] The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors reports that 74% of communities have at least one government cable channel
[2] Jones, Jeffrey P. 2006. A Cultural Approach to the Study of Mediated Citizenship. Social Semiotics 16(2): 365-83.

Image Credits:
1. Screen Grab of “Norfolk City Council Formal Meeting”
2. Screen Grab of Nora the Cat
3. Screen Grab of “Amazing Adventure”
4. Screen Grab of “Meth: A City Copes”
5. Screen Grab of “First Train Robbery in Texas”

Bio:
Jeffrey P. Jones, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Communication & Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture, a book that examines humorous political talk shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and co-editor of the forthcoming The Essential HBO Reader. He has written extensively on media and politics, as well as television talk show programming.

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