Television As Archeology

When future historians look back on our era and try to make sense of how we lived our lives, one tool at their disposal will be something we take for granted: television content. This will show the houses we lived in, the way the genders interacted, how we communicated, and how we expressed our values. Television is the most democratic and popular art form in history, and the unforgiving lens of the TV camera provides unexpected clues about our social behaviors. But will 22nd century historians actually be able to tell reality from fiction?

In a way, historians who study the ancient world have it easier because of their limited source materials. They can look at some pottery shards, skeletal remains, maybe a piece of papyrus or a cave painting, and somehow reconstruct an entire civilization.  By contrast, historians studying the 20th century will have to sift through millions of hours of television programs.  It will be literally impossible in the future for any historian to master all the original source material on how people lived during this period.



The trouble will be figuring out what TV content reflects reality and what reflects an idealized version of reality. What makes it even harder is that many shows do both.  A show like “Leave It To Beaver” would lead future historians to conclude that mid-century housewives cleaned the home in housedresses and pearls and then slept with their husbands in twin beds. Yet there is also a truthfulness to the show in the way it depicts a more innocent time, when kids could wander off to entertain themselves without adult supervision. So you can’t entirely write off “Beaver”’s historical value.

But other programs are clear distortions of reality. “The Andy Griffith Show” is in many respects an excellent series, but it in no way represents the actual life of a small-town Southern sheriff in the mid-1960s. About a quarter of the North Carolina population was African American, at that time yet Sheriff Andy Taylor’s Mayberry, N.C. appears to be lily-white. No prejudice here, folks.  There’s no one to be prejudiced against!

Ironically, the absence of minority characters, gay people, and working women from television in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, their sudden appearance in the ‘70s tells us more about shifting attitudes than many textbooks. A program like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is a remarkably accurate reflection of early ‘70s life, when women started to move into the workforce -- but also a time of oil shortages, increased divorce, and inflation.

What “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” demonstrates is that frequently the most critically acclaimed and beloved shows provide the best depictions of an era’s zeitgeist. “The Office,” for example, may be told in “mockumentary” style, but it’s so true to life that it almost functions as a real documentary of middle-class life in the early 21st century. It’s all there: the hollowing out of the workplace, corporate politics, modern gender dynamics, the rise of the Internet.

Or take “Seinfeld,” a show about nothing. It’s actually a very accurate depiction of social mores at the end of the 20th century. But “The Cosby Show,” which has higher aspirations, is almost as misleading about race relations as “The Andy Griffith Show” because it presented such an idealized version of the African-American family in the 1980s.

So far I’ve only mentioned sitcoms as sources for social archeology. That’s because the whole purpose of the genre is to reflect back the realities of everyday life, but in a humorous way. To laugh at a sitcom you have to believe it says something fundamentally true about the human condition.  Dramas, on the other hand, tend to reflect the extremes of life, providing an inside look at situations we usually don’t expect to be in. (For example, which better depicts the daily life of doctors: the drama “ER” or the comedy “Scrubs”?  I would bet real money that actual doctors would vote for “Scrubs.”)

One thing I would strenuously suggest to future historians is that they avoid so-called “reality” shows. There has never been anything further from reality than the reality genre.  Of course this not universally true.  In particular, many of the “how-to” shows (how to dress better, how to renovate your house, how to cook better) will be a gold mine for future social historians. But in general, historians, reality competition shows or programs that purportedly show people living their daily lives are nearly pure faction.  

Back to the central question: What is a future historian to believe?  Certainly ratings alone do not necessarily produce shows that accurately represent the reality of an era.  “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Happy Days” and “Two and a Half Men” are evidence of that.  Instead, look for quality. The best shows at capturing the zeitgeist are the ones that are the most intelligent and demand the most from their viewers. And with luck, shows that seem smart now will still seem smart a hundred years from now.

4 comments about "Television As Archeology".
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  1. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 22, 2015 at 11:24 a.m.


      "...the central question: What is a future historian to believe?   
    NPS:History is not about the historian's belief.  It is about uncovering as many facts as possible – the beautiful, the ugly and the quotidian.  Then, it’s about patient discernment and wise judgement.  That’s all!

    GH:  “One thing I would strenuously suggest to future historians is that they avoid so-called “reality” shows.” 
    NPS: From an historical perspective, ignoring the "reality" genre in TV would be like studying the Middle Ages and ignoring the Bubonic Plague.  What historians should really find fascinating about Reality TV is that the genre was most likely spawned by Wall Street, not Madison Avenue or Hollywood/Burbank.  Craven Corporate Chairmen and their conniving CFO’s decided that TV could be soul-less and unethical, but still be profitable, if not lucrative.

    NPS:  In the end, you’d like to pull a rabbit of out of the historical Top Hat, Gary, by referencing programs of great quality or merit – but never by network or name (Why no reference to PBS, PBS Member Stations and Masterpiece, Mystery, Nova Frontline, Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, Washington Week, Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers and the PBS NewsHour to mention but a few?). What you ought to tell historians is to do is to read the “Vast Wasteland” Speech titled "Television and the Public Interest" given by FCC Chairman Newton N. Minnow to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters:

    To be continued ...

  2. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 22, 2015 at 11:27 a.m.


    "Television and the Public Interest" given by FCC Chairman Newton N. Minnow to the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB):

    "When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.  And endlessly commercials - many screaming, cajoling, and offending.  And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it." (1961)

  3. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 22, 2015 at 11:38 a.m.


    My Historical perspective is that TV is not Archeology, as much as we may wish to see it buried like Pompeii.  Rather TV is an Art of the time.  And when Executive Producer, Neal Shapiro, produced the most highly acclaimed TV News Magazine of the last quarter century, Dateline, at NBC News, he was crafting the stained glass windows of the 1990’s.  No joke!  Alas, that was then.  This is now.  

    [However, I am pleased to observe that Mr. Shapiro, after serving with journalistic excellence and management aplomb as the President of NBC News, is now sharing his talents, skills and passion with Public Media where he serves as the distinguished President & CEO of WNET.  Bravo, Neal!]

    Much has changed.  Let’s check Facebook, Twitter or YouTube for what’s hot and what’s not!  And leave the Archeological TV dig for another day.  That’s my Art History perspective for today.

    So it goes.

  4. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, July 22, 2015 at 2:11 p.m.

    For your reading convenience, a one-stop link to "everything worth noting:"

    by @NickSchiavone on @LinkedIn

      "When television is good, ... nothing is better.
    ... But when television is bad, nothing is worse."
    by FCC Chairman Newton N. Minnow in his "Vast Wasteland" speech

    PS "Everything Worth Noting"(TM) is my Trademarked Commentary Feature
    in my imaginary MediaDailyNews.  The Trademark is real, but "The Commentary," 
    a fictional work in progress.  Pleased to sign published copies upon request.

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