Friday, 2 March 2007

Opening Windows: TV's Influence on Liberal Social Change

It’s been called “the idiot box,” “the boob tube, and “the electric teat.” In short, TV has been considered by many to be a complete and utter waste of time. According to its critics it has no redeeming features – aside from the occasional PBS documentary and high-brow British comedy featuring men dressed in women’s clothing. Its only legacy: a brainwashed, docile, and homogeneous society. Questioning this assertion is tantamount to admitting that you accidentally tossed your brains into the blue box – along with your copies of Weekly World News and National Enquirer.

So I guess what I’m about to say at least shows I recycle: I think television has been one of the greatest agents of liberal change in the history of North America.

During the racially troubled ‘60s, TV did more to advance the cause of civil rights than all the public debates, newspaper articles, and painfully earnest books combined. Television signals blanketed the continent with narratives: narratives of families, friends, bus drivers, police, lawyers, and talking horses. And many of these narratives included messages of tolerance and racial unity. While conservative regions had been able to largely isolate themselves from encroaching liberal values, they were unable to withstand the increasingly diverse stories beamed into their homes from the TV studios.

I’m not talking about news reports and serious documentaries. Admirable as they may have been, they were ultimately only seen by a relatively small percentage of the viewing public, most of whom already had the liberal attitudes being espoused. The real influence came from the sitcoms, the variety shows, and the courtroom dramas that made up the greatest bulk of the TV diet – the very shows most often pegged as mindless, brain-dead drivel. Many deserved the criticism; many didn’t. What was important, however, was that when Robert Culp and Bill Cosby joined forces in I Spy, the unprecedented collaboration of white and black as equal partners was beamed into the living rooms of northerners and southerners, urbanites and farmers, bigots and non-bigots alike.

Dr. Martin Luther King recognized the social power of popular shows. When actress Nichelle Nichols contemplated leaving Star Trek to do more socially significant roles, Dr. King told her she “could not give up” and that she was “a vital role model for young black children and women across the country” (Nichelle, 2007).

Admittedly TV wasn’t exactly cutting-edge in its depiction of racial harmony. It took a long time for black actors to find their way as major characters, and when Rodenberry showed the first inter-racial kiss on TV (between Captain Kirk and Uhura) he used the actors’ heads to hide the actual kiss – and even then, the episode wasn’t shown in some of the southern states for fear of boycotts and reprisals (William, 2007). But despite the often hysterical criticism from its more regressive viewers, TV continued to push a message of tolerance and integration.

But TV’s benefits extend far beyond issues of racism; it chipped away at scores of seemingly unassailable prejudices and outmoded societal mores. The previously unquestioned value of corporal punishment was gently undermined as parents watched Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Rob and Laura Petrie, and even Gomez and Morticia Addams handle their children without benefit of spankings (although in the Addams household there were no end of casual explosions). Long-stigmatized life-styles found growing acceptance. Despite its less-than-stellar comedy, That Girl showed a single woman following a career path without benefit of a husband. Sitcoms like One Day at a Time and Alice featured respectable single mothers. Julia did the same with a single black mother. My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show featured single males raising children.

This progressive influence did not come about through the intelligence of the shows, nor even the quality. In fact intelligent shows, of the kind often promoted by academics and professional intellectuals, would never have had the same impact. We needed the goofiness of I Love Lucy to highlight a Cuban TV star; the n’er-do-well adventures of The Honeymooners to give dignity to the working class, and the action-packed adventure of I Spy to give co-star status to a black actor.

TV has been saddled with many insults, but it has also been called a “window on the world.” Sometimes the window opens onto an unfolding moment of history, such as the assassination of a president or the first man on the moon; sometimes it opens onto a critically acclaimed drama, such as Arthur Halley’s Roots or Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight; and sometimes (perhaps most times) it opens onto a vignette of total idiocy, such as Rob Petrie falling over an ottoman or Klinger wearing a dress and bucking for his Section Eight. But the important thing is that it opens. And in doing so, it allows us all to discover there are more ways to live than we had known – and that changing channels in life is more possible than we thought.

Works Cited

Nichelle Nichols. (2007). In Wikipedia [Web]. Retrieved February 20, 2007, from

William Shatner. (2007). In Wikipedia [Web]. Wikipedia. Retrieved February 20, 2007, from