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The Rise of Television and its Audience: Reception History as Cultural History

by Lynn Spigel

In the U.S., the installation of television was an enormously swift process. In 1948, less than two percent of the population had a TV set; by 1959 about 90 percent of U.S. households had at least one receiver and watched about five hours of television a day. This rapid embrace of a new medium suggested to me a series of questions regarding the relationship between technological innovation and cultural transitions. How, for example, did people experience the arrival of television in their homes? What did people expect television to be? How did they respond to it? How did they watch TV in those early years? And to what extent did this social context of reception help to shape institutional and textual practices of television? These questions pose theoretical assumptions and historiographical problems that I want to explore more fully in this written version of my presentation at the Angelo State University Symposium on American Values. The essay that follows considers historical method in media studies and reflects on my own endeavors in this field.

Cultural History and Cultural Studies

The problems I face in my research are located at the intersection between changing paradigms in the field of media studies and cultural history, as well as the changes that ensued when the object of analysis in film studies opened up to a discussion of television. By way of introduction, let me rehearse some of the transitions in the fields of film, television and cultural history that created a set of new questions about audiences and their encounters with media texts.

In the mid 1970s, film studies raised the important question of spectatorship, of how film texts work to construct positions of identification for audiences. Commonly referred to as “Screen Theory” (because much of the work was published in the British journal, Screen), this approach relied heavily of semiotics, structural Marxism, and psychoanalysis (both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan). It continued with questions of ideology raised by Frankfurt School scholars in the 1930s and 1940s, although it took these questions in directions of structuralist thought. It was highly interpretive and in that regard very different from quantitative research paradigms of media effects and content analysis in the social sciences. Indeed, this work posed grave challenges to the basic premises of social scientific media research that had been the reigning paradigm for research. Although this is an essay topic in itself, for now suffice to say that Screen Theory conceived of texts and interpretation as both social and psychological processes that could not be “known” through scientific discovery. Rather this work in films studies used methods of narrative theory and theories of subjectivity/ideology borrowed from structural Marxism (especially Louis Althusser) and psychoanalysis (especially Lacan).

The questions raised by this approach are still very much alive now. However, over the course of the 1980s, numerous film and television scholars criticized Screen Theory for its overly abstract and a-historical conception of the human subject. It assumed that films created a series of “subject effects” that audiences were asked to identify with, but this approach — many people argued — did not sufficiently take the spectactor’s social backgrounds (class, race, sexuality, etc.) into consideration. By the early 1980s, a diverse set of scholars searched for new methods by which to understand film’s relationship to its audiences and to processes of social identification/subjectivity. The reigning paradigms and interpretive fields — semiotics, psychoanalysis, structural Marxism — were attacked for their universalizing tendencies, their assumption that the “subject” was an effect of a text and their neglect of the way social backgrounds of individual audience members work in conjunction with texts to produce subjectivity. This became the starting point — at least within film studies — for a series of new questions and approaches.

This brief history probably has a familiar ring. It explains the fall of “Screen Theory” and serves as a prelude to the next historical stage — that of Cultural Studies. In this particular brand of the history of criticism, Cultural Studies is the new-age savior of an outworn model that was produced largely for privileged whites by privileged whites who felt no particular problem in universalizing their interpretations of texts, who felt comfortable saying that their interpretations were in fact generalizable “subject effects.” Conversely, the newer field of Cultural Studies, with its focus on the audience and ethnographic method, took into account the social backgrounds and perspectives of different audience members. This is, of course, a bold caricature of the history of film criticism, but I want to draw bold strokes to call attention to some of the blind-spots of this kind of explanation.

In many ways, the explanation of the turn from Screen Theory to Cultural Studies creates a series of false dichotomies — dichotomies of text and audience, dichotomies of theory and empiricism, dichotomies of unconscious and conscious interpretations, as well as dichotomies between film and television, that have become central to defendants of each approach. Scholars on both sides activate these dichotomies to prove the others’ reductive, simplistic nature and to champion the method at hand. Again, I am drawing bold strokes, but this basic argument can be heard in various manifestations, and I think it operates as a defense against more serious elaborations of the incredible difficulties we have explaining what texts mean to people and how they operate in relation to larger social ideologies.

But for my purposes here, I particularly want to stress another problem with the pitting of Screen Theory against Cultural Studies. This opposition, I believe, has also worked to efface a whole strand of work done in the States that attempted to confront problems with the universalizing tendency of Screen Theory by developing a new critical historiography. I am speaking here of work that began to appear in the early eighties and continues now in stronger focus. I am thinking of scholars such as Mary Beth Haralovich, Diamne Waldman, Richard deCordova, Judith Mayne, Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog, Jeanne Allen, Charles Eckert, Janet Staiger, and Maria La Place, who began to ask questions about the way film as an institution has historically addressed its audiences through publicity campaigns, star discourses, fanzines, fashion, and exhibition practices. Much of this work concentrated on film’s address to female consumers or else its attempt to woo immigrant spectators into the national mass consumer culture. This work was imbued with a theoretical concern about how the cinema positioned spectators to receive the text (a concern that was largely continuous with Screen Theory), but it attempted to move away from abstractions by locating a historically specific mode of address to a particular set of spectators. For example Dianne Waldman examined the way exhibitors positioned female audiences to consume and desire romance narratives in the theater lobby —even before watching the film. Jeanne Allen examined the way the cinema positioned women to desire feminine-oriented products through publicity campaigns and fashion shows in films (1). By the end of the 1980s, work of the genre became increasingly interested in race, region, and sexual orientation. For example, Mary Carbine’s work on black audiences in the 1920s, Jackie Hobo’s work on The Color Purple and black spectators, Miriam Hansen’s work on Valentino fans, Robert Allen’s work on nineteenth century burlesque, Elizabeth Ellsworth’s work on lesbian spectatorship and Personal Best, Henry Jenkins’s work the regional reception of Eddie Cantor, Dan Straible’s work on black boxing films, and Greg Waller’s work on early film audiences in Kentucky variously focus on the way fanzines, critical reviews, and exhibition and social contexts help to govern the way audiences identify with and interpret a film at a specific point and place in history (2). This historical perspective has also informed critical histories of television. Included here, for example, is work by Julie D’Acci on Cagney and Lacey, Mary Beth Haralovich on 1950s suburban sitcoms, George Lipsitz on ethnicity in early television, Steven Classen’s work on the WLBT case and black agitation against that station, and Aniko Bodroghkozy on audiences’ racialized reactions to the 1960s black cast sitcom Julia (3).

But this body of work on historical spectatorship has received little critical reflection regarding method and theory (4). Aside from a handful of essays and articles devoted to this topic, this approach to media scholarship has not been considered a “field” of inquiry, nor has it been evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses. As one of the first reflections on historical method in this respect, Janet Staiger’s book Interpreting Films, argues that there have been three basic approaches to historical spectatorship: text-based theories (of which Screen Theory is a part), cognitive studies (primarily, in her account, the work of film historian David Bordwell), and British cultural studies (5). In response, Staiger calls for a “new” model of historical materialism that would examine reception contexts provided, for example, by film reviews, academic criticism, fanzines, etc. She argues that the critical discourses of any one period serve as interpretive contexts through which audiences perceive texts. As one of the first book-length theoretical reflections on historical spectatorship, Interpreting Films is a useful and lucid book. But it seems exceptionally curious to me that Staiger does not review the bulk of historical scholarship on spectatorship that has been an active alternative in the U.S. for over a decade. This seems less the fault of Staiger, than a symptom of the larger state of things in films studies. Historical work on the audience was — until very recently — simply not considered a deeply theoretical problem, and its project was often seen as less important than work of film theory proper.

More generally, and perhaps because of the lack of critical reflection, the new film and television historiography is too often subsumed under “the move to Cultural Studies,” or else, just as strangely, it is considered a step-child of Screen Theory that took a sociological and positivist turn. By Cultural Studies I mean here a focus on ethnographic method and, in the case of the Birmingham school, a turn to Gramsci and the concept of hegemony. I also mean a concentration on television and other popular forms (music, magazines, romance novels) rather than an exclusive interest in film. But most of the founding work in film historiography never mentions any of these, and much of the later work is also silent on many of these subjects. Indeed, the projects are fundamentally different in nature even if there are some interesting connections to be made between the two. The whole question of interpretation in history poses different problems from studies of contemporary media cultures, and these questions need to be addressed on their own terms.

This historical approach to spectatorship is also too often confused as “empiricist” simply because it attempts to deal with empirical social and institutional practices and thus to reconstruct a “context” through which texts were perceived by spectators. This work did not reject theories of ideological subject positioning in any complete way, but rather worked to develop a historiography sensitive to the nature of film and television as deeply social experiences. And far from being “empiricist” or “positivist,” this is by nature a conjectural project which by necessity must reflect on its own constructions of history (but admittedly, that reflection hasn’t taken place often enough). Having said this, I would like to turn to the problems of history and theory, and then to consider how they interfaced with my work on the social history of television.

Screens of Interpretation

The turn to history in studies of film spectatorship opened up a whole array of new approaches to spectatorship and interpretation . The work on spectatorship produced in this field has generally concentrated on the area of “address” — that is, it has questioned how people were addressed by a whole array of discourses and practices deployed by the cinema in an effort to make these people into film enthusiasts. The underlying assumption is that critical reviews, exhibition practices, and fanzines work as what Robert Allen has called “supervisory” discourses; they give people a way to interpret the text even before they see that film and television program (6). They create a reception context, a horizon of expectations. The strength of these studies was their ability to discover the more local, historical relationships between cinema and its audiences and to begin to theorize spectatorship and desire in relation to the lived experience of movie-going. But, this work was still very much oriented toward a “top-down” model of subjectivity (which I believe it inherited from much of Screen Theory), a model that assumed subjectivity was marshaled by the enormous monolith of the Hollywood cinema. By focusing on institutional practices, they largely left out the wider social experiences of audiences, how people might have used the cinema on their own terms, and how their experiences might have provided a buffer for the positions of social subjectivity offered by the cinematic institution. They tell us a lot about how media institutions attempt to position audiences to interpret a text, and they can allow us to speculate about how certain interpretations were reinforced by, for example, a set of fanzines or a local theater’s publicity campaign. Still, they don’t give a sense of how audiences engaged with these texts and practices, nor do they tell us much about the larger social experiences of spectators and how those experiences impinged on the process of reception. For this, both social history and social! cultural theory is needed.

One inroad to this problem is provided in Kathy Peiss’s book Cheap Amusements, a social history of women’s experiences with commercial leisure at the turn of the century (7). By using contemporary ethnographies, women’s diaries, and demographic data, Peiss provides a sketch of how different young immigrant women experienced a new “heterosocial” world of commercial pastimes such as amusement parks, dance halls, and the movies. Peiss quite forcefully demonstrates how women integrated such activities into their daily lives and how they used them to offset the sexist protocols of family life. Still, her model does not provide any systematic way to understand how women might have interpreted texts — such as the films seen the movies, or more metaphorically speaking, the rides at the park; nor does this model explain how those interpretations might have impacted on female identity at the turn of the century. In short, Peiss’s approach is somewhat disappointing for a film historian because it does not consider films themselves as relevant to social experience.

Dealing more with this question of film interpretation, but still interested the social experience of movie-going, Miriam Hansen’s Babel in Babylon integrates Alexander Kluge’s theories of the public sphere with questions of film spectatorship (8). Particularly in the chapters on Valentino, Hansen demonstrates how the movies opened up a female public sphere Here, she explores historical discourses on Valentino and the female cults around him. She then does a reading of the films in relation to these discourses and cult practices, thus grounding her interpretations in the context of the interpretations activated in the popular culture of the time. Hansen’s approach notably does not discount psychoanalytic feminist film criticism, but rather usefully integrates its principles into a more historical materialist exploration of reception.

I outline Peiss and Hansen to highlight the difference between a social-scientific approach that bases itself on categories of neighborhood demography, family history, and personal testimony (in diaries) with an approach that focuses itself around the more linguistically-based question of film interpretation. Both have certain advantages and disadvantages. Peiss, for example, uses diaries as first-hand evidence for women’s life experiences (horses’ mouth data), never once considering that diaries have certain narrative conventions that people internalize and that thus limit the “authenticity” of personal expression. Hansen, in her attempt to utilize insights from feminist film theory, doesn’t adequately consider the fact that most women at the time would not have considered themselves feminists and thus would not have read the films in relation to the theories we have at our disposal now. It seems to me that one challenge for film and television studies is to find ways to synthesize social history with the more culturally-based questions of spectator interpretation. The society-text relation still stands as a hugely underdeveloped question. Is society a context for the text? Is it constructed by the text? Do the two stand in a dialectical relationship — one informing the other? Such questions still haunt much of the literature on historical spectatorship.

Looking Backward: Some Notes on Research Goals. Aims and Detours

In the mid 1980s, when I began my research on early television, I was initially working within the model of “address,” and I pictured the audience largely as “consumers” of a certain set of discourses aimed at turning people into television audiences. In fact, my book Make Room for TV started as a seminar paper about the way advertisers promoted TV sets to women in women’s magazines of the late forties and fifties (9). But when I began to look in women’s magazines, I discovered that advertising was only part of the picture, and not the most interesting part at that. Instead, I discovered a very lively debate about television’s relation to family life. In fact I found that even while the magazines were promoting television sets in numerous ads, they also were deliberating about it, warning about its devastating effects on romantic relationships between couples , its disruption of household chores, its degenerating effect on children, and its debasement of interior decor. Rather than a simple case of “product propaganda” then, the introduction of television was replete with ambivalence. How could this ambivalence be explained ? And what did I have to do to explain it?

In asking these questions, I began to realize that my project was very odd. Was it history? Was it semiotics? Was it psychoanalysis? What was my method? I didn’t know, but I did have a new set of questions. Now, rather than being interested in advertising rhetoric and the question of consumer address per-se, I was interested in the area of lived experience. What was it like to be a reader of these magazines? What would the ambivalence in these magazines have meant to a 1950s female reader? And what would it have been like to get a new television set? Why would she buy one? How would she watch it?

These questions posed problems that resist empiricist methods because they can’t be answered in any definitive way. Routine events such as television viewing are part of the often invisible history of everyday life, a history that was not recorded by the people who lived it at the time. Spectatorship and interpretation are ephemeral activities, ones that people don’t necessary consciously assume they are “doing.” Instead, people’s encounters with mass media such as television are often intertwined with other aspects of daily life, and can be more a “background” activity than the central event (as it often becomes for the historian who is concentrating on it). Because of this, we need to approach the question of historical spectatorship through methods that can shed light on the variety everyday experiences that impact upon encounters with mass media and, presumably, help to shape the ways in which media are received and interpreted by their publics.

As social historian Carlo Ginzburg has shown, historians need to develop methods for reconstructing the whole context of interpretation, methods for understanding how people in the past made sense of their experiences. In “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and the Scientific Method,” Ginzburg outlines the history of two epistemological models: the conjectural model and the “Galelean” (or scientific) model (10). Morelli (the art connoisseur), Freud (the psychoanalyst), and Sherlock Holmes (the detective) are, of course, instances of the former — they all build knowledge from a series of signs or symptoms. Furthermore, they all assume that some of the most significant aspects of the “case” can be determined from the most seemingly inconsequential, ordinary signs. History, Ginzburg claims, produces knowledge of a conjectural nature. Rather than a science which can generalize about effects by establishing a set of causes, history strives to understand a set of causes by looking at the effects, the traces, left in the wake of events.

In terms of my project, this idea was especially attractive. Television history, it seems to me, had been plagued by a particular urge toward science — a desire to explain the rise of television in terms of the observable “hard” data. This meant a concentration on written documents such as government records, network files, the memoirs of individual inventors. The use of these documents, of course, was related to a set of preconceptions about the nature of history and these preconceptions resulted in a self-fulfilling prophesy. Who left written records? Inventors, regulators, network officials — in short — a series of “Great Men” who felt themselves worthy of documentation. Thus, television history wrote itself in relation to other kinds of “top-down” histories that see culture as a secondary, epiphenomenon that is shaped in the last instance by captains of industry and politics. In the U.S., the standard broadcast histories simply didn’t question how people experienced the arrival of television because they considered such cultural experiences secondary effects of economic and political causes.

Conversely, in my project, I wanted to consider how the belief systems and social ideals of postwar America contributed to the development of television’s cultural form. I assumed that people weren’t simply the passive recipients of a new medium. The ambivalence voiced in the popular press provided symptomatic evidence of the active dialogue that took place around television’s innovation. These media discourses suggested that people had to learn how to watch television because the media continually informed people of ways to integrate television into modes of daily life. The media showed people how to match television with interior decor, where to put it, how to do housework while it was on in the room, how to regulate children’s viewing, and how to avoid disputes over programs. The media also provided critical commentary on television programming, advising people how to establish a Canon of good and bad TV — that is how to critically assess and interpret its messages. For all of the reasons, it seemed logical to assume that these media debates and representations played an active role in shaping television and television spectatorship as a cultural form.

My approach then was tied to other forms of new historicism that see social processes as (in part) a textual construction. History in this regard is squarely within the field of semiotics; it is a search for meanings. But whose meanings? As historians have widely recognized, interpretation often includes a high degree of transference — of the historian’s own projections of contemporary attitudes onto the events of the past. How can this semiotic approach to history be anything other than narcissism?

In this widely influential book, The Cheese and the Worms, Ginzburg provides a way into this problem by establishing ways to reconstruct the interpretive frame of individuals in the past (11). Ginzburg relates the case of Menocchio, a sixteenth century miller, who was burned at the stake because he had an interpretation of the creation myth that differed from that of the Roman Catholic Church. He believed that the universe originated as a big cheese ball. As time passed, Menocchio mused, worms ate holes into this cheese ball and the holes became angels. Ginzburg wondered how Menocchio came up with such an interpretation, and he began to reconstruct Menocchio’s sense-making processes by figuring out what stories Menocchio heard and books he had read that could lead him to such an interpretation. Ginzburg claimed that Menocchio read the creation myth through the interpretive “screen” of an oral peasant culture. The belief systems of the oral peasant culture thus served as a backdrop for Menocchio’s particular understanding of creation — an understanding which differed significantly from the literate culture of the Roman Catholic Church.

The study showed two things that I find relevant to the problem of television’s social and cultural history. First, Ginzburg demonstrated that interpretation has practical political effects (Menocchio was burned as a heretic for his “aberrant” reading of the creation myth). Second, in terms of historical method, Ginzburg showed that social history must extend its boundaries from questions concerning the structure and composition of social events towards the more anthropological (and conjectural) questions of how people made sense of the events that they experienced.

In a similar way, by looking at popular media and the representations they distributed, I want to demonstrate how the idea of television and its place in the home was circulated to the public. In the postwar period, popular media such as women’s magazines helped to establish certain discursive rules for thinking about television. Popular media ascribed meanings to television and advised the public on ways to use it. While these media discourses do not directly reflect how people responded to television, they do reveal an intertextual context — a group of interconnected texts — through which people might have made sense of television and its place in everyday life.

From Oral Peasant Culture to Mass Culture

The history of “reading” that Ginzburg’s book exemplifies has been taken up by scholars in a variety of disciplines (not only history, but also anthropology and literature) who are interested in questions of cultural belief systems and the issue of interpretation (12).

But, of course, there are some differences between Ginzburg’s project and my own. Like Ginzburg’s, much of this work deals with pre-modern European cultures - some well known examples are Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, Natalie Zemon Davis’s Culture and Society in Early Modern France or Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre (13). But twentieth-century women’s magazines, advertisements, and other modern media are mass culture, not the popular artifacts of a peasant culture. This typically leads to objections regarding the degree to which these mass culture texts can be considered as anything other than the tools of commerce. The standard objection is that they are not authentic forms of communication between a speaker and a constituency, but strategic acts aimed at getting people to buy products, or at the very least, to adopt the ideologies that support consumer capitalism. Without going into the litany of debates on this subject, let me just make a few remarks that apply to my particular project.

First and most fundamentally, how can we locate an interpretation for these media texts? How do we know how people would have read them? At the most basic level, circulation and readership statistics (such as they exist) can begin to provide a portrait of the reader. Several 1950s readership surveys do exist and these typically give demographic information on income levels, age, family size, regional distributions, etc. These statistics need to be read somewhat skeptically because they served as vehicles through which publishers sold space to advertisers. Since publishers often hired firms to conduct the studies, we need to recognize that they also might have designed research paradigms that gave the best demographic portraits to advertisers. In this regard, the demographic information may provide various clues to the question of who was actually reading, but it is still an imperfect measure.

At a less empirical level, demographics also operates in terms of the reader’s own imagined “self-identity.” By this I mean that readers may be lumped together in market research groups, but they don’t often have the same opinion of themselves as the statistics imply. Although the women’s magazines in my study addressed their public as white middle-class consumers, the actual readers were no doubt more heterogeneous in nature. The category of class is difficult to pinpoint since its meaning is one of cultural identity rather than simply of income. We might imagine that many postwar Americans fancied themselves in the growing ranks of middle-class consumers, especially since the period was marked by the promise of social mobility in a new suburban commodity culture. The category “white” is also less than obvious. Numerous postwar suburbs welcomed Jews, Catholics, Protestants and other Judeo-Christian faiths in their proverbial melting pot. Even while prejudices still existed — indeed, people of color were systematically excluded from these communities — the pre-fabricated postwar suburbs encouraged a flattening out of religious identities and also leveled ethnicity to the extent that they allowed second-generation European immigrants to sever their national and ethnic ties with urban neighborhood networks. Given this, the term “white middle-class” refers to a particular conception of the culture industries rather than to real individuals whose identities were more fractured and complex. Still, the term has real meaning because it was the particular aim of the mass media — especially television — to level class and ethnic differences in order to produce a homogeneous public for national advertisers. Over the course of the early 1950s, as television became a national medium, the networks continually drew on this image of the white, middle-class family audience when devising programming and promotional strategies. In 1954, in the first qualitative study of the daytime audience, the head of research at the NBC network characterized the average viewer as a “modern active woman” with a kitchen full of “labor-saving devices,” an interest in her house, clothes and “the way she looks.” She is “the kind of woman most advertisers are most interested in; she’s a good customer.” Mrs. daytime consumer, as NBC also called her, bore striking resemblances to the ideal readers that women magazines attempted to attract. Finally, then, while the implied reader in the magazines is different from the real women readers, it does give us a sense of the basic social positions of identification encouraged by early television as a whole.

But, again, we still have to wonder how people took up this implied position offered by the popular press. Like Ginzburg’s miller, the people of the postwar world must have brought certain screens of interpretation to these texts, interpretive screens that allowed them to make sense of television through their own life experiences. What documents do we have that can shed light on the ways the viewing public might have taken up the positions of subjectivity offered by popular texts of the period?

One set of documents is the large amount of research of television’s first audiences generated by social scientists during the 1950s. These studies measured social and psychological effects, audience size and composition, and viewing preferences. While this research presents a wealth of data on the early audience, its evidentiary status is limited. Since the findings often contradict one another, and since the surveys use different sample populations and apply different methodologies, it is not possible to form an accurate composite picture of the television audience through them. Furthermore, and more importantly, the research itself does not exist in an ideological vacuum and is not simply an “objective” view of the audience. Instead, as Dominick LaCapra has argued, historical records are themselves textually produced. No doubt, researchers asked people certain questions about television because these questions were being posed by the larger cultural discourses of the period. For these reasons, I look at audience surveys as a kind of machine for the production of discourse on television rather than as a repository of social facts. I mined these studies for their personal testimonies — the voices of ordinary women and men — who often spoke about television’s impact on their daily lives. Much of what people said in these studies was remarkably similar to the more general ways that popular media spoke about television. In other words, these studies indicate that both researchers and respondents characterized television in ways that utilized many of the discursive conventions employed by popular media. Again, this does not necessarily mean that people actually experienced television in these ways. It simply means that the discursive rules for speaking about the new medium seem to have been highly conventionalized (14).

More generally, in order to understand how people made sense of television’s introduction, I attempted to flesh out the social experiences of television’s target audiences (the white middle-class family) and to consider how those experiences might have informed their experience of television’s rise as a cultural form. I must admit it is this problem of social experience that I think haunts the book I wrote.

The “haunting” here has to do with what we consider to be social versus what we consider to be cultural. The few sociological explanations of television’s growth have generally relied on a catalogue of social facts mined from census reports, economic studies, and demographic information about the rise of the suburbs and the baby boom. These social facts — while important to any historical work — tend to be reified as “things” rather than interpreted for their experiential components. In other words, they come to stand as causal explanations: “it was because of suburbanization and the baby boom that television grew to popularity” or “it was because of the loss of urban centers that people turned to television over movies.” These causal explanations, however, never can tell us how people experienced such shifts. Moreover, because they privilege “observable” social facts these accounts tend to omit cultural experiences (such as reading magazines or watching television programs) that might also have contributed to television’s popularity. The cultural, then, in such accounts is not considered a part of the historical-material process, but rather an effect of it.

In my work, I made use of the sociological evidence (suburbanization, family economy, etc), but I also considered cultural texts as primary material through which to understand a variety of ideological positions available to people who experienced these social shifts. In other words, the popular texts of the times served to give meaning both to suburbanization and to television. They served as primary sources of explanation for various conditions of the postwar world. When considered in the light of social conditions, these texts also shed light on certain inconsistencies between lived experience and the way the culture imaged those experiences. For example, why did women’s magazines continue to portray female viewers as housewives when women were joining the work force at record rates? Such incompatibilities between social facts and cultural texts doesn’t mean that women s magazines were simply “inauthentic” voices of (or false consciousness instilled by) the culture industry. Rather, mass media should be seen less as an ideological block and more as a competing set of discourses that generate what are often highly contradictory statements.

Objections about the commercial intentions and inauthentic nature of mass media don’t really capture the complex layers of communication that are registered in these texts. In this regard, more than producing “a discourse” on television, popular magazines provided a site for a variety of discourses which originated in a number of social institutions. Television was debated through numerous fields of knowledge, including architecture, interior design, pedagogy, medicine, social science, psychoanalysis and others. By looking at these magazines as discursive sites, we can better account for the diverse number and kinds of meanings attached to television during the period of its installation. This emphasis on the media as sites for the production of meaning helps to explain how mass media provide contradictory ideas and values. Since media absorb the discourses of different social institutions, they present a variety of positions and perspectives which are at times in direct opposition to one another. (In the home magazines, for example, notions drawn from psychoanalysis might stress the importance of talking to the problem child, while those based on jurisprudence might recommend punitive discipline.) We can thus explore popular media as a ground for cultural debate, which is a very different notion from mass media as propaganda or even as ‘consciousness industries.” While certain ideas might have been emphasized more often than others (I refer to the notion of dominant ideology), we should not forget that culture is a process that entails power struggles and negotiations among various social ideals. Thus, although these debates do not reflect a “happy pluralism,” they do suggest that cultural changes take place within a framework of unstable power hierarchies in which different social forces must constantly reinvent their authority through the mechanisms of control at their disposal. Discourse and representation is one such mechanism of control.

Ultimately, by thinking of the media as discursive sites for competing ideas, I’m interested in looking at the social contradictions entailed in the whole process of television’s rise as a cultural form. Television was rooted in a series of social contradictions at the heart of domestic ideology, contradictions that were rehearsed time and time again in popular literature. These contradictions fall into three major ideological categories based on binary distinctions: 1) the ideological divisions between public and private life, 2) competing ideals for family unity and democracy on the one hand, and gender and generational power hierarchies on the other; and the related gendered distinctions between domestic labor and domestic leisure. Without fully rehearsing my findings here, let me briefly explain these contradictions.

The first has to do with a wide array of texts that expressed tensions between television as a private domestic experience and television as a “window on the world” which would bring the public sphere into the home. This contradiction can be traced back to the nineteenth century and is best conceptualized in Raymond Williams’s phrase “mobile privatization”(15). With that phrase, Williams referred to the set of contradictions inherent in the late nineteenth century when increasing emphasis on the ideology of the private family home was accompanied by the contradictory urge toward greater mobility in communication and transportation. Williams argues that the 19th century theater, particularly that of Checkov and Ibsen negotiated this tension through representational strategies which showed individual characters in claustrophobic interior spaces looking out windows at the world outside. He then argues that broadcasting served as a more advanced negotiation of the tension between privacy and mobility — it allowed people to stay at home but to perceive the world simultaneously. In my work, I was particularly interested the vast amount of representations of television that were organized around this dynamic — but now in a particular historical conjuncture of fifties suburbanization. Discourses on television continually advised people on ways to imagine themselves as participating in urban experiences while enjoying the safety and convenience of their suburban homes. In addition, these discourses particularly spoke to the ideology of gendered spheres — the man as public breadwinner, the woman as housewife — voicing concerns, for example, about how television would impact on women’s isolation in the home by substituting public leisure (especially movies) with private spectacles.

As is already evident from the above paragraph, discourses on television also spoke to contradictions between family harmony and the hierarchies of gender (and generation) that worked to divide families into distinct groups. At least since the turn of the century, the model of a democratic, compassionate family called for a unified family that nevertheless also accepted the basic sexual and generational power hierarchies inherent in western patriarchies . This aspect of my research thus looks at the ways that contradictions between family unity and social hierarchy were negotiated in terms of television viewing among family members. This entailed examining representations of television that pictured television as a unifying agent while also portraying strict gender and generation roles that would be performed by family members while viewing television. When and where could children watch TV? How did parents attempt to discipline their viewing schedules? How did television relate to the organization of gendered labor and leisure in the home? For example, why did advertisements often show fathers reclining while viewing, while mothers were typically engaged in household chores?

Finally, I wanted to consider what this whole cultural fascination with television had to do with television’s rise as a cultural form. My argument, then, is that the actual programs produced by television spoke in part to the wider cultural expectations and responses to television voiced in such venues as women’s magazines. Thus, the cultural expectations about television that were voiced in popular media of the time had a material relationship to the types of narrative conventions that U.S. television adopted in the 1950s. The idea that television should be a “window on the world,” for example, was related to in early television’s demand for a sense of “liveness,” “simultaneity” and participatory narrative forms (studio audiences, direct address, or the use of ordinary people in panel shows) that gave the illusion that the private home was connected to public events and people around the world. Similarly, daytime programs drew on the discursive conventions of women’s magazines when addressing the female viewer at home. For this area of research, I examined corporate files of NBC and used early production handbooks. These documents helped to ground my various sociological interpretations of television programming in concrete programming strategies that the industry used in order to appeal to television’s first audiences.


The study of historical spectatorship is finally an interpretive project, but one that attempts to ground interpretation in a context. It does not aim to explain cause-effect relations so much as it tries to understand the way people experienced their social world through representations and storytelling practices. It cannot presume to definitively explain a world view; but it can begin to show us a plausible range of interpretive possibilities at a particular time in history. Scholars working in this tradition assume that popular culture is not mere anecdote or a secondary reflection on “real” historical events. Instead, in the tradition of cultural materialism, this kind of work assumes that popular culture is part of the historical process. Popular culture is part of the way people live their everyday lives and form beliefs about the world around them. It is part of the material process of history. Moreover, as so many scholars have argued, even if modern and postmodern societies experience culture largely through mass media, people use it in ways that often are not anticipated by culture industries. Mass media texts often give rise to fan cultures and now internet chat rooms where people often use these texts to form ” reception communities.” Moreover, these reception communities are often political in nature, so that, for example, some Star Trek fans re-edit the shows in ways that express desire for homosexuality, while some X Files fans use the conspiracy theories on the show as an occasion to voice their own assumptions about political conspiracies and corruption. In other words, in some contexts and at some moments, mass culture can become part of a popular culture engaged in wider social protest (and these cultures can be forged both from the Left and from the Right).

For these kinds of cases, we have some empirical evidence. But, for most histories of spectatorship, the past remains ephemeral. How people read texts at some point in the past and what these readings added up can’t be answered by empiricist methods. Instead, we search for clues and traces of past experiences that went largely unrecorded. So, in the end, work on the history of spectatorship and audiences remains highly conjectural and interpretive in nature. But, this does not make it different from other kinds of history. It merely highlights the problems of all historians who inevitably use textual evidence (whether from census reports, trials, or women’s magazines) to make interpretations about the past. The fact that historians often consider popular media texts to be “weak” evidence has more to do with the kinds of questions they ask and assumptions they make than with popular media per se. To be sure, a film from the 1940s does not tell us directly what the world was like in that period. It is not a document of reality. But, the history of spectatorship aims to answer something different. It aims to tell us how people made sense of their worlds through stories that promised pleasure, excitement, and resolutions for the often confusing and elusive experience that we call “real life.”


  (1) Dianne Waldman, “From Midnight Shows to Marriage Vows: Women, Exploitation, and Exhibition,” Wide Angle, 6:2 (1984): 40-48; Jeanne Allen, “The Film Viewer as Consumer,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 5:4 (Fall 1980): 481-499.

  (2) Mary Carbine, “The Finest Outside the Loop: Motion Picture Exhibition in Chicago’s Black Metropolis, 1905-1928,” Camera Obscura, 23 1990): 9-41; Miriam Hansen, Babel in Babylon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Robert Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); Jackie Bobo, Elizabeth Ellsworth and Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992);; Dan Straible, “Race and the Reception of Jack Johnson Fight Films,” in The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of United States Cinema, edited by Daniel Bernardi (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996); Gregory A. Waller, “Situating Motion Pictures in the Prenickelodeon Period: Lexington, Kentucky, 1897-1906,” The Velvet Light Trap, 25 (Spring 1990): 12-28.

  (3) Julie D’Acci, Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); George Lipsitz, “The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class and Ethnicity in Early Network Television Programs,” in Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer, edited by Lynn Spigel and Denise Mann (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992); Steven Classen, “Southern Discomforts: The Racial Struggle Over Popular TV,” in The Revolution Wasn’t Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict, edited by Lynn Spigel and Michael Curtin (New York: Routledge, 1997); Aniko Bodroghkozy, “‘Is This What You Mean By Color TV?’: Race, Gender, and the Contested Meanings in NBC’s Julia,” in Private Screenings, op. cit.

  (4) Scholars who do reflect on related issues include David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989); Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, Film History: Theory and Practice (New York: Knopf, 1985); Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

  (5) Ibid.

  (6) Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

  (7) Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).

  (8) Hansen, Babel in Babylon, op. cit.

  (9) Lynn Spigel, Make Room For TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

  (10) Carlo Ginzburg, “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method,” History Workshop , 9 (Spring 1980): 5-36.

  (11) Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Translated by John and Anne Tedeshci (New York: Penguin, 1982).

  (12) Robert Darnton’s work poses ways of thinking about texts in terms of the interpretations they posed for social spectators at particular historical moments. See especially his “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint Severin,” The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), pp. 75-106.

  (13) Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, Translated by Helene Iswolsky (Reprinted from 1965; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985); Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975); .Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre, ibid.

  (14) In saying this, I wish to distance myself from trickle-down theories of popular and intellectual culture. A reigning assumption in the academy is that popular sources merely reflect a watered-down version of “high” culture and intellectual social theory. But at least in the case of television, this thesis does not accurately describe the situation. In the 1950s, humanistic studies of television were few and far between; indeed television has only recently become a subject of inquiry in the Humanities. While social scientists were interested in measuring television’s effects and audience viewing habits in the 1950s, and while such studies did find their way into popular sources, the popular culture did not merely reflect the voices of intellectuals. In fact, these sources often directly debated with the “high” theories of “European intellectuals” and they often reinterpreted the findings of social science with everyday, “common sense” knowledge about home-making, interior decor and child-rearing. In other words, even when they referred to academic sources they read them through the screen of a more popular middle-class culture. Moreover, as we shall see, the types of knowledge about the family that they produced were often completely different from the kind sought by social scientists.

  (15) Raymond Williams, Television, Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Schocken Books, 1975).