U.S. Television as a Cultural Force - The Americanization of Cultures


Thesis (M.A.), 2006
115 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Excerpt

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Culture
2.1. Culture and Society
2.1.1. Culture as ‘Webs of Significance’
2.1.2. Cultural Hegemony
2.1.3. Cultural Imperialism
2.2. Culture as Symbols
2.2.1. From Elitist High Art to Mass-Produced Popular Culture
2.2.2. Popular Culture and Its Emphasis on Visual Design
2.3. Television: A Popular Cultural Medium
2.3.1. Television Consumption
2.3.2. Media Socialization and Audience Effect Studies

3. U.S. Television
3.1. The U.S. Television System and Industry
3.1.1. U.S. Television and Advertising
3.1.2. The Major U.S. Television Networks
3.1.3. ‘Merger Mania’ in the U.S. Media Sphere
3.1.4. The International Flow of U.S. Programs
3.2. U.S. Television Entertainment
3.2.1. Fictional Television Entertainment: Prime Time Series
3.2.1.1. Rich, Young and Beautiful: Depictions of Wealth, Women and the American Beauty Ideal in Popular U.S. Series
3.2.1.2. Crime Time: Television Violence and the Depiction of Ethnic Minorities in Crime Series
3.2.1.3. The U.S. as a Land of Modernity and Scientific Progress in Medical Dramas and the Science-Fiction Series Star Trek
3.2.2. Non-fictional Television Entertainment: Newscasts
3.2.2.1. U.S. Television Newscasts and News Channels
3.2.2.2. The Television News Business: Sources, Production, and Presentation
3.2.2.3. U.S. Television Coverage of Foreign Affairs and U.S. Wars

4. Americanization
4.1. The Global ‘Imagi-Nation’
4.1.1. American Televisual Aesthetic and America as a Dream World
4.1.2. The Transnational Imagined Community
4.2. America ‘Acculturated’
4.2.1. U.S. Television on the Defense? The Increase in Foreign Productions
4.2.2. The ‘Indigenization’ of U.S. Television Formats and Genres
4.3. American Cultural Imperialism
4.3.1. Americanization as a Trigger of Social and Cultural Change
4.3.2. Opposition to U.S. Television News Coverage

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The advent of electronic media in the 1920s marked the beginning of the information age and contributed to the formation of modern mass society. The introduction of new communication media, which allowed for the mass production and distribution of information and entertainment services, had wide-reaching consequences for social and cultural life: it transformed human cognition; it changed the organization of everyday life; it linked the world more closely together by means of a global media network. Particularly the television medium opened up a new perspective on the world and revolutionized entertainment, and it soon started its triumphant advance throughout the world.

The U.S. played a prominent role in the development and global distribution of television technology and programming. America began early to experiment with television technology, but for the time being, it was commercial radio that “quickly grew to become the primary entertainment and information source for Americans throughout the Great Depression and World War II” (Emmert, “Broadcast Media”). At last, television was introduced to the public at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, which had “Tomorrow – Now!” (Campbell et al. 13) as a motto. The public gave the new medium an enthusiastic reception, and soon after World War II, “television's visual images replaced the audio-only limitation of radio as the predominant entertainment and news vehicle” (Emmert, “Broadcast Media”).

During the 1940s and 1950s, television technology and broadcasting transmission techniques were further refined: The cable system was rapidly enhanced and soon stretched across the U.S., thereby gradually replacing the transmission by over-the-air broadcasting signals, which is extremely susceptible to interferences. But only the advent of the cost-effective satellite broadcasting technology made the global transmission of mass media services possible:

The invention and continuous improvement of satellite communications, computers and computer networks, cable television and fiber optics offer the means of blanketing any part of the world instantaneously with a torrent of imagery and data. (Schiller 34)

Today, television is ubiquitous in the developed world; it is an integral element in the lives of millions of people worldwide: “It is part of the domestic scene, its use interwoven into the texture of daily life” (Adler 3). Media consumers take of up-to-date information on cultural, social, and political events – local as well as foreign – and the convenient all-time availability of audio-visual home entertainment as a matter of fact.

Americans devote much time on media consumption, mostly by watching television: “Television has become the primary source of news and entertainment for most Americans; . . . ” (Adler 2); in the statistical abstract 2004-2005, the U.S. Census Bureau indicates 1,701 hours of television viewing per person per year, which is about 5,15 hours a day per person on the average (see “Statistical Abstract”). The number of television sets per household and the program offers are enormous: “Virtually every American household -- 93.1 million of them in 1991 -- has at least one TV set, and 65 percent of TV households own two or more sets. The average American TV household in 1991 could receive 30.5 channels . . . ” (Emmert “Broadcast Media” ). The channel offer is constantly increasing; accordingly, there is great demand for program supply, and the U.S. television industry is perfectly equipped to produce television programs on a large scale.

The preconditions for the development of an advanced television industry were specifically good in countries that had already engaged in motion picture production before the inception of television: “In the early years, TV in the industrialized countries could use the services of the film industry and benefit from a highly developed industrial infrastructure and the work of the research and development departments of the manufacturers” (Berwanger 313). Hence the U.S. television industry significantly profited from the availability of established movie production sites and specialized staff in Hollywood, because it allowed the mass production of high-quality programs to be taken up immediately. In the course of time, a complex network of connected industry branches developed; to this day, “popular entertainment, marketing, promotion and advertising have been developed and refined to a high standard in the U.S. commercial economy” (Schiller 42). Furthermore, “[t]he media are a great engine in the consumer society. They provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of technicians, writers, artists, performers and intellectuals. They shape attitudes and beliefs and put pictures of the world into people’s minds” (Emmert, “Overview”). Today, the U.S. media entertainment industry is the world’s largest: “The print and electronic media in the Unites States of the 1990s offer the widest news and entertainment options available anywhere in the world” (Emmert “Overview”); it affects foreign cultural industries worldwide.

The firm belief that American popular culture has model character for nations worldwide is basic to the American understanding, and many Americans assume that American cultural influence favorably affects foreign societies. In 1941, Henry Luce, the publisher of Life magazine, declared: “’It now becomes our time,’ he asserted, ‘to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world’” (Betts 3). Based on this ideological conviction combined with plain economic interest, American popular culture indeed set out to conquer the world, and today, “products of American culture permeate the globe” (Owens-Ibie 132). The systematic distribution of American consumer products and cultural commodities set the Americanization - meaning the adoption of American cultural practices, values, and icons by a foreign society - of countries worldwide into motion: “[T]he Unites States became the creator and arbiter of much of popular culture, as its entrepreneurs expanded into new markets around the world, in a process derisively described as Cocacolonization [or Americanization]” (Betts 3). Nevertheless, the massive influx of American consumer products and entertainment services into countries all over the world is also negatively connoted because it leads to the restructuring of foreign cultural spheres, and allows the U.S. to shape the global economy according to their needs:

The other instrument of U.S. intervention might be called ‘cultural imperialism,’ the systematic penetration and dominance of other nations’ communication and informational systems, educational institutions, arts, religious organizations, labor unions, elections, consumer habits, and lifestyles. (Parenti 29)

The mass media, television in particular, is an integral part of American popular culture: “If this country has a unifying culture, it is the mass, popular culture; . . . [and] television is the most vital expression of that culture” (Adler 3). The U.S. distributes television programs on a global level, and in developed countries, where nearly every household owns one television set at the least, people “have a permanent background of American images and sounds (for example, television tuned on all day, . . . ” (de la Gaarde). It is more likely that people learn about American culture by watching television rather than through direct contact to Americans. Television mediates American cultural norms and ideals, so “[i]f one wishes to speak of Americanization in the realm of popular (or mass) culture, one must focus on the social uses of industrially produced and commercially distributed sounds and images” (de la Gaarde).

My Master’s thesis U.S. Television as a Cultural Force – The Americanization of Cultures is divided into three main parts: “Culture,” “U.S. Television,” and “Americanization.” The first chapter of the first part treats culture in its relation to society and explains in which way the establishment of a sociocultural framework serves the regulation of communal life, and how it contributes to the development of a national identity. The fact that certain hegemonic cultural values are more influential than others is elaborated on in subchapter 2.1.2. In the following, the concept of cultural imperialism, which is basic to Americanization, is expounded. Furthermore, in chapter 2.2. I occupy myself with culture as symbols; first, I look into the development towards postmodern popular culture and present some characteristics of it, for example, its combination of commerce and art, and its emphasis on visual design. Finally, subchapter 2.3. presents qualities of the television medium – its program structure, how it is consumed, and its social impact – in order to understand its fascination and enormous manipulative potential. This is followed by an introduction to prominent media effect theories and to the aspect of media competency.

The second main part is devoted to the analysis of U.S. television, starting with the depiction of the commercial television system. As my thesis is based on a cultural studies’ approach, the influence of economic factors on the production of television programs deserves specific attention:

Cultural studies examine the content of media within a framework of media ownership by analyzing how ownership and economic self-interest in the industry itself influence decisions about media format, content, and distribution. (Holtzman 34)

Accordingly, chapter 3.1.1. offers an insight into the close relationship of commercial television and the advertising industry, because “[m]ost TV is not a public service offering, but a business, a vehicle for profit” (Holtzman 38). In order to obtain a general idea of the U.S. television network system and entertainment business, the major U.S. television networks and giant multimedia companies are portrayed in the following. As my thesis is based on the assumption that U.S. television reaches countries all over the world, data on the international flow of U.S. programs is given hereafter.

Chapter 3.2. presents examples of fictional and non-fictional entertainment programs. Chapter 3.2.1. deals with fictional television entertainment using the example of prime time series. Prime time denotes the evening time from 8:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M., which has the highest audience ratings. Prime time series, subdivided into drama or comedy, basically follow traditional daytime soap opera patterns with regard to structure and plot, but prime time series are more sophisticatedly produced and depict situations and characters more realistically. The hour-long format of these television serials can be broken down into five acts, a structure that is basic to all Western theatre, which allows for the insertion of commercial breaks. Like soap operas, successful prime time series can run for many years until they are brought to a conclusive end.

U.S. prime time series cover different genres; for example, they include medical dramas, police action serials, and science-fiction narratives. Considering that “audiences, as well as being entertained, do glean messages about society and behaviour from the soaps [and prime time series] they watch” (Anger 105), the presentation of social issues and cultural ideals in American prime time series comes under scrutiny. The subchapters are classified according to specific key issues: Chapter 3.2.1., starts with series that are set in the world of the rich, and, in addition, I investigate depictions of the feminine sex and the contemporary American beauty ideal. In chapter 3.2.2., the aspects of television violence and the television appearance of ethnic minorities are scrutinized using the example of popular U.S. crime fiction series. Ultimately, the portrayal of America as a land of modernity, and the positive belief in scientific progress as demonstrated in hospital dramas and the successful science-fiction series Star Trek is probed.

Fictional entertainment series comment on social issues and reveal American cultural values and norms, but “[t]he general rule is clear: political issues have no place in the world of soaps [or prime time series]” (Anger 108). Yet television is also the media consumers’ primary news source, and the mass media is considered to be “the Fourth Estate” (Emmert, “Overview”). The guarantee to a free press is enshrined in the first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “‘Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press’” (qtd. in Christopher et al., “Media Messages”). American citizens need to be supplied with political information, and “[i]t is the self-appointed role of the American press to inform the public about government activities, thereby sparking debate” (Bumstead). The way in which American news shows cover national and international politics significantly influences the viewers’ understanding of U.S. politics and their attitude towards foreign cultures, but news programs on commercial television are subject to market pressure and time limits; after a general introduction to the American television news business, I investigate the question of how this influences the selection and presentation of political news on television, and devote specific attention to the coverage of foreign affairs, particularly of military conflicts with U.S. involvement, by the 24-hour U.S. news channels CNN and Fox News.

Fictional and non-fictional U.S. television programs have mass appeal, and their popularity cuts across national borders. Nevertheless, the growing influence of American popular culture on societies worldwide is met with different reactions in the receiving nations, ranging from the willing embrace of American culture to acceptance and transformation to rejection and active resistance. Consequently, “some cultural goods will be broader in their appeal than others, some values and attitudes easily adopted while others are actively resisted or found simply odd or irrelevant” (Tomlinson 24). In order to reflect various responses, the third main part is subdivided into three chapters: First, I present positive attitudes towards American popular culture and bring to light what U.S. television programs are appreciated for by foreign viewers. Second, the ways in which U.S. television formats and genres have been adopted and transformed according to the demands of the respective domestic audience are analyzed. Finally, negative effects of American cultural influence on foreign societies are presented, and examples of direct opposition to the ongoing Americanization of the television news sphere are given.

2. Culture

2.1. Culture and Society

2.1.1. Culture as ‘Webs of Significance’

‘Culture’ is a very complex term: “According to Williams in Keywords (1973), the word ‘culture’ is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Young 30), because its meaning varies depending on the context in which it used. Etymologically, “‘[c]ulture’ comes from the Latin cultura and colere, which had a range of meanings: inhabit, cultivate, attend, protect, honour with worship” (Young 30). In any case, then, culture refers to some form of human activity; J. S. Mills defined “culture as the product of humanity at large: ‘the culture of the human being’” (qtd. in Young 44).

In this context, the term culture denotes the set of beliefs, values and norms that define the particular way of life and mindset of a society: “[ C ] ulture is the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, communication, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group . . . ” (Holtzman 20). This cultural framework defines the codes of social behavior and communication, and offers role models and moral guidelines to the members of the cultural community. Culture can be subdivided into the “[s]urface culture [which] is easily visible in the form of clothing, food, language, music, and dance[.],” and the “[d]eep culture [which] reflects less observable values, beliefs, and customs . . . ” (Holtzman 21). The cultural practices and beliefs make up a ‘webs of significance,’ as Max Weber termed it; this system of meanings allows for the interpretation and symbolic communication of individual and communal experiences. Due to the fact that societies do not exist in isolation and receive influences from outside the cultural value system progresses and gradually changes.

Edward W. Said described the adaptation to a transpersonal value system as the formation of an ‘affiliative’ relationship; affiliation represents the opposite of ‘filiation,’ denoting naturally given biological relationships. According to Said, affiliation can be described as “a kind of compensatory order that, whether it is a party, an institution, a culture, a set of beliefs, or even a world-vision, provides men and women with a new form of relationship, which I have been calling affiliation but which is also a new [belief] system” (Said, “Secular Criticism” 19). Consequently, affiliation signifies the transition from nature to culture, or civilization. In other words, then, “[c]ulture begins at the point at which humans surpass whatever is simply given in their natural inheritance” (“Culture” 102).

With the growth of society, its cultural belief system gains in power and impact, which, in turn, strengthens the self-cognition of the cultural community. Ultimately, the society develops “the idea of the nation, of a national cultural community as a sovereign entity and place set against other places . . . ” (Said, “Secular Criticism” 8), which aims at the realization of its interests on a national level, as a state. Therefore, the concepts of culture, nation and state are closely interlinked. Matthew Arnold described the state as “the nation in its collective and corporate character, entrusted with stringent powers for the general advantage, and controlling individual wills in the name of an interest wider than that of individuals” (Arnold 48). The individual accepts the restriction of his personal liberties, imposed on him by the transpersonal authority, for the benefit of the public welfare. In his analysis of social power structures, Michel Foucault coined a term for this voluntary submission of individuals to a transpersonal authority: “Foucault is concerned with assujetissement, the subjugation of individuals in society to some suprapersonal disciplines or authority” (Said, “Criticism between Culture and System” 186). Following Foucault’s theory, Said used the term “culture to suggest an environment, process, and hegemony in which individuals (in their private circumstances) and their works are embedded, as well as overseen at the top by a superstructure and at the base by a whole series of methodological attitudes“ (Said, “Secular Criticism” 8). The imposition of rules and constraints serves to stabilize social life, so that continuity and improvement are ensured, “because without order there can be no society, and without society there can be no human perfection” (Arnold 215). The cultural context designates descent and inappropriate behavior and attitudes, sets limits, and assigns the individual his place in society: “[Thus,] ‘home’ comes to be associated with ‘culture’ as an environment, process, and hegemony that determine individuals through complicated mechanisms” (JanMohamed 110). The order can only be maintained if deviations from the norm are stigmatized, and if violations of the cultural rules are sanctioned. Therefore, culture also functions as a disciplinary system, as “eine Moralordnung, eine Reihe ethischer Restriktionen gegen die Bedrohungen durch Anarchie, Rebellion und Chaos” (Greenblatt 53).

2.1.2. Cultural Hegemony

On the one hand, culture has a unifying quality because it defines the body of principles and practices that is commonly shared by the members of the cultural community; this creates a feeling of belonging together and offers identification sources. On the other hand, culture also defines – implicitly or explicitly – attitudes or characteristics that do not correspond to the dominant value system: “For if it is true that culture is, on the one hand, a positive doctrine of the best that is thought and known, it is also on the other a differentially negative doctrine of all that is not best” (Said, “Secular Criticism” 11-12). Adherence to accepted beliefs and practices, and the possession of specific qualities guarantee the integration into society; deviations from the norm result in marginalization or dismissal. In this respect, culture is “also divisive, producing boundaries that distinguish the collectivity and what lies outside it and define hierarchic organizations within the collectivity” (Jan Mohamed 110). Accordingly, some cultural values are more authoritative than others:

In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony, an indispensable concept for any understanding of cultural life in the industrial West. (Said, Orientalism 7)

People who correspond to the dominant ideology have a privileged position in the social hierarchy; they can exert power over other social groups and propagate the systematic body of hegemonic values that assign them their leading role “through a process of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ [in order to] win the consent of the subordinate groups in society” (Storey 13).

Hegemonic ideology is passed on to the following generation through formal and informal education: “Hegemony is secured not through force, but rather through the way that values are taught in religious, educational, and media institutions; in other words – through socialization” (Holtzman 70). Socialization is the process in which children consciously learn about the routines of everyday life and absorb the prevalent behavioral models, moral values and social norms through observation and imitation; they gradually incorporate the cultural doctrines in order to “learn how to function as respected and accepted members of a culture” (Holtzman 17). The set of cultural beliefs and practices provide the sources for their identity formation: “Children are socialized at both conscious and unconscious levels to internalize the dominant values and norms of their culture and, in doing so, develop a sense of self . . . ” (Holtzman 17). Through constant repetition, the hegemonic values are consolidated in the social subconscious until they are ultimately accepted as taken-for-granted or ‘truth’: “Ideology works best when it operates at a less than conscious level – that is, when our socialization has been so thorough that we do not identify our positions as ideology but rather, see them as the articulation of ‘truth’” (Holtzman 34), which legitimizes the cultural belief system.

Attitudes and specific characteristics that cannot be reconciled with the dominant ideology (and are therefore inferior, or even ‘false’) are devaluated or dismissed. As a result, people who cannot identify with the dominant belief system, or who do not belong to a privileged social group, are either driven to the margins of society, or are totally excluded from it, simply because they are different:

[T]he dialectic of self-fortification and self-confirmation by which culture achieves its hegemony over society and the State is based on a constantly practiced differentiation of self from what it believes not be not itself. And this differentiation is frequently performed by setting the valorized culture over the Other. (Said, “Secular Criticism” 12)

Consequently, everyone who is not conforming to the dominant cultural values, who deviates from the rather homogenous cultural norm faces discrimination; for example, this applies to people of foreign ethnic origin; to women in a patriarchal society; to members of lower social ranks, and so on:

[H]egemony theory can also be used to explore and explain conflicts involving race, gender, region, generation, sexual preference, etc. – all are at different moments engaged in forms of cultural struggle against the homogenizing forces of incorporation of the official or dominant culture. (Storey 14)

2.1.3. Cultural Imperialism

Cultural hegemony works both inside a cultural community, and on a national level. The national identity is based on identification with the idolized home culture; this basically reflects archetypical behavior: “The national identity becomes not only a fetish, but is also turned into a kind of idol, in the Baconian sense – an idol of the cave, and of the tribe” (Said qtd. in Sprinker and Wicke 232). If the nation contacts, or even confronts foreign cultures, the cultural differences are evaluated, and the positive or superior characteristics of the domestic culture are assessed. This determines the attitude towards the foreign culture and intensifies the feeling of loyalty to one’s own culture and its body of cultural values:

Underlying these epigonal replications of Matthew Arnold’s exhortations to the significance of culture is the social authority of patriotism, the fortifications of identity brought to us by ‘our’ culture, whereby we can confront the world defiantly and self-confidently; . . . . (Said, Culture and Imperialism 388)

Throughout history, cultural differences were used as a justification for the dominance of one culture over another. During the hegemonic rule of European nations in the free trade empire, which was at its height in the 19th century and provided the basis for the emergence of the global economic market of the 20th and 21st century, the imperial nations developed quasi-scientific theories in order to prove their cultural superiority over non-European countries, which, in turn, legitimized their subjection and economic exploitation. The ‘inferiority’ of the colonized people was ascertained according to the criteria of the hegemonic power. The state of development, or level of civilization of the foreign society as compared to the European standard was an essential criterion: “The potency of an imperial term like ‘civilization,’ Said implies, grew out of a meeting (a confrontation in space) between cultures supposedly at different moments of development” (Brennan 89). In the European understanding, the submission and Europeanization of the ‘uncivilized,’ almost animal-like people, was not only justified, but a noble cause and responsibility of the white colonizers, as implied by Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden. The attitude towards foreigners gradually changed over time until at least they were acknowledged as human beings in an earlier state of development: “[D]uring the last stage of colonialism, the colonial Other was seen as a human being ‘like us’ who has not reached ‘our’ level of development” (Gaete 193). Nevertheless, their lack of cultural refinement forbad an equated existence: “The time that separated ‘their’ savagery from ‘our’ civilization was both decisive and, conveniently, unbridgeable” (Brennan 89).

The formulation of ‘binary oppositions’ like ‘we – they,’ ‘European – non-European,’ ‘civilization – wilderness’ underlined the incompatible differences between colonizers and colonized people; the foreign culture was characterized as the opposite of one’s own ‘true’ culture. The juxtaposition of occidental and oriental culture, which was considered to be alien and exotic, is a prominent example: “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (Said, Orientalism 3). Scholarly discourse corroborated and disseminated the imperialist ideology, greatly assisted by the mass media, which mass-circulated the doctrines. All in all, this explains the “institutionalized tendency to produce out-of-scale transnational images that are now reorienting international social discourse and process” (Said, Culture and Imperialism 374).

After World War II, most European colonies regained their national independence, but imperialist endeavors still characterize national bilateral relations. Yet the method has changed: today, the exertion of influence by means of cultural imperialism is more prevalent. Instead of fights over territory and conquests of nations by military force, cultural imperialism works on an economic and ideological level; basically, it denotes the imposition of Western hegemonic values on foreign societies. Mainly, this is achieved through the international export of consumer goods and the provision for mass media services, whose cultural implications are more or less subconsciously absorbed by the recipients. It is a subtle form of cultural takeover, rather a colonization of foreign minds, but it is all the more effective:

Whereas a century ago European culture was associated with a white man’s presence, indeed with his directly domineering (and hence resistible) physical presence, we now have in addition an international media presence that insinuates itself, frequently at a level below conscious awareness, over a fantastically wide range (Said, Culture and Imperialism 291).

The concept of cultural imperialism is basic to the Americanization of foreign cultures. The U.S. is a mighty global economic power; it sells consumer products and entertainment services to countries worldwide, thereby promoting the gradual Americanization – meaning the adoption of the consumerist American way of life and the adherence to American hegemonic values – of cultures worldwide. No wonder the U.S. is regarded as an imperial nation that is following in the European colonial powers’ footsteps:

The key link between classical imperialism and contemporary globalization in the twentieth century has been the role of the Unites States. Despite its resolute refusal to perceive itself as ‘imperial,’ and indeed its public stance against the older European doctrines of colonialism up to and after the Second World War, the Unites States had, in its international policies, eagerly espoused the political domination and economic and cultural control associated with imperialism. (Ashcroft 112-13)

The American economic, cultural and political influence on foreign nations is examined in the following chapters, and the different reactions to the ongoing Americanization are analyzed in chapter 4.

2.2. Culture as Symbols

2.2.1. From Elitist High Art to Mass-Produced Popular Culture

The principles and beliefs of a cultural community are communicated in popular myths, religious and social rituals, and the worship of cultural icons, denoting objects that are assigned exemplary meaning, or people with particular role model characteristics. Furthermore, every cultural community expresses itself artistically; it produces cultural artifacts like literary and musical works, fine arts and paintings. Cultural artifacts are manifestations of a society’s creative and intellectual abilities, and serve to reflect and mediate hegemonic cultural values and beliefs. Due to the fact that culture is not static, but susceptible to foreign influences, the meanings ascribed to cultural artifacts and cultural icons may change or disappear over time.

Traditionally, European culture adhered to humanist values and classicist aesthetic role models. Arnold defined “that culture is, or ought to be, the study and pursuit of perfection; and that of perfection as pursued by culture, beauty and intelligence, or, in other words, sweetness and light, are the main characters” (Arnold 44). Canonical works of literature, paintings and fine arts were appreciated for their exclusivity and their aesthetic and ethical value; in this sense, art was a means to elevate its recipients, but the access to, and the understanding of art was limited to educated members of the wealthy upper class. Accordingly, culture was understood as an elitist ‘high culture’:

High culture maintained limitations, endorsed exclusivity, restricted membership and fostered excellence. It was circumscribed by formal rules and cherished traditions. Innovation and novelty found little favor; and measure, meaning no excess, was the prescribed pattern of social behavior. (Betts 6)

With the advent of industrialization, the cultural realm was gradually transformed. Industrialization provided the basis for the emergence of capitalist consumer societies. The U.S. is considered to be the country of origin of mass-produced cultural commodities:

Because mass culture is thought to arise from the mass production and consumption of cultural commodities, it is relatively easy to identify America as the home of mass culture since it is the capitalist society most closely associated with these processes. (Strinati 22)

Significantly, “[w]hat they invented was a particular social use of these technologies: the massification of production, distribution, and consumption and the commodification of industrially produced cultural products” (de la Gaarde); soon, mass-produced goods, cultural artifacts included, became synonymous with American culture.

Industrialization also fundamentally changed the working and the social sphere: production processes were increasingly mechanized, and the demand for human labor declined. This meant, first, that commodities could be produced in bulk and sold at low prices, which made them available to a larger group of consumers; second, people worked less and had more free time. This accounts for the growing demand for entertainment services, because “[e]ntertainment is the time-filler of all those liberated from labor, once required from sunup to sundown” (Betts 81). All kinds of commodities, including mass media texts, could now be produced on a large scale and were distributed through all social ranks, whose members now had the time and the money to enjoy and consume mass-produced goods and services: “Increased affluence and leisure-time, and the ability of significant sections of the working class to engage in certain types of conspicuous consumption, have in their turn served to accentuate this process” (Strinati 236); culture became increasingly popularized. The mass media, which serves as a means to educate and inform its consumers, significantly contributed to this process: in the 19th century, the print media became mass-produced and wide-spread, and newspapers and books became available to readers of all social groups. At the beginning of the 20th century, the mass broadcast media – radio and television – were developed; from then on, the production of popular media entertainment services, like radio broadcasts and television programs, developed into a giant entertainment industry, especially in the U.S. Mass communication services quickly became widespread, and after World War II, television became the main entertainment medium in developed countries. To the present day, mass media entertainment is an integral part of popular culture: “What most obviously sets contemporary popular culture apart from anything preceding it is the mass-produced means of pleasure and entertainment that are now being enjoyed by multitudes never reached before” (Betts 1).

In post-industrialized societies, “the need for people to consume has become as important, if not strategically more important, than the need for people to produce” (Strinati 236). Nevertheless, the development towards mass consumption of mass-produced, commercialized cultural commodities drew severe criticism from intellectual circles. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two prominent members of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, introduced the term ‘culture industry’ to describe “the fate of culture in the highly instrumentally rational and bureaucratic society of late capitalism” (“Culture Industry” 103). Undoubtedly, cultural artifacts had become reproducible and marketable goods, and, certainly, “popular culture is a hopelessly commercial culture” (Storey 11). In order to attract as many consumers as possible, popular cultural artifacts have to have mass appeal, or a mainstream character, which implies that they have to be oriented towards the lowest common denominator of consumers. In the understanding of the Frankfurt School theorists, mass culture is contrary to high art, because mass cultural artifacts are not unique and exclusive works of art, and are, therefore, of inferior quality: “[T]he inferior work has always relied on its similarity with others – on a surrogate identity” (Adorno and Horkheimer 38). Consequently, the advent of mass culture triggered severe impoverishment of the cultural realm. Besides, Adorno and Horkheimer criticized the mass media for uncritically disseminating dominant capitalist ideology; in their understanding, mass media was only a means to manipulate the masses and to assist the ongoing creation of new ‘false’ needs in order to encourage consumption. To Adorno and Horkheimer, the whole capitalist system was only a “circle of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows even stronger” (33).

Although the mass culture theory of Adorno and Horkheimer is narrow in many respects, and their characterization of the consumer as easily manipulable inadequate, it includes valid aspects that are still relevant for the analysis of contemporary popular culture.

2.2.2. Popular Culture and Its Emphasis on Visual Design

Postmodernism abandoned the differentiation between high art and popular culture and aimed at a combination of the aspects of both: “[P]ostmodern popular culture refuses to respect the pretensions and distinctiveness of art. Therefore, the breakdown of the distinction between art and popular culture, as well as crossovers between the two, become more prevalent” (Strinati 226). Postmodernism attempts to ‘de-hierarchisize’ or democratize art, and denies any universally valid definition of art; nevertheless, postmodern popular culture is closely interlinked with commerce and the encouragement of consumption:

The main point to insist on here is the claim that postmodern culture is a culture which no longer recognizes the distinction between high and popular culture . . . for some this is a reason to celebrate an end to an elitism constructed on arbitrary distinctions of culture; for others it is a reason to despair at the final victory of commerce over culture. (Storey 16)

Certainly, in the postmodern cultural approach, the boundaries between popular art and commerce are blurred, because “art . . . becomes a commercial good in its own right” (Strinati 226), which implies that art production is subject to economic pressure.

Postmodern popular culture is extremely diversified both in style and subject matter; its main characteristic is its pluralistic nature. Popular culture draws inspiration from the styles and motives of different art epochs and combines them in a collage technique. Likewise, it mixes fictional and realistic elements: it mirrors aspects of everyday life and reflects on desires and fears, thereby exploring how people feel, and who they want to be:

The texts and practices of popular culture are seen as forms of public fantasy. Popular culture is understood as a collective dream world. As Richard Maltby claims, popular culture provides ‘escapism that is not an escape from or to anywhere, but an escape of our utopian selves.’ (Storey 12)

Because of the fact that popular culture draws from an infinite pool of cultural references and icons, it covers a large spectrum of ideas and worldviews; thence, it offers something for everyone’s taste and has mass appeal, because it presents issues that are relevant to many consumers; otherwise, popular cultural creations would be of no value to the consumers, and would, consequently, not be consumed:

Popular culture is made at the interface between the cultural resources provided by capitalism and everyday life. This identifies relevance as a central criterion. If the cultural resource does not offer points of pertinence through which the experience of everyday life can be made to resonate with, then it will not be popular. (Fiske 131)

Popular culture mirrors aspects of everyday life, but combines them with fantastic elements; this creates a distance to everyday problems and allows reflecting on them more freely: “Culture, then, is a system of stories and other artifacts – increasingly mass-produced – that mediates between existence and consciousness of existence, and thereby contributes to both’ . . . ” (Holtzman 20-21). Due to the decline of traditional social, family, and religious institutions and bodies of values that originally provided for stable identity sources, people are searching for surrogate role models and references in order to make meaning of their life and to define themselves. Popular culture reflects this fragmentation of the social and personal identity: “The diverse, iconoclastic, referential and collage-like character of postmodern popular culture clearly draws inspiration from the decline of metanarratives” (Strinati 228). The diversity of popular culture, mass media culture in particular, seems to offer a large spectrum of alternative identity sources and meaningful references: “The idea is that popular cultural signs and media images increasingly dominate our sense of reality, and the way we define ourselves and the world around us” (Strinati 224). This is also revealed by the contemporary celebrity cult. In The Image, Daniel Boorstin states: “‘[T]he celebrity is a person known for his well-knownness’ . . . . The ‘well-knownness’ has little if anything to do with individual attainment and everything to do with appearance” (qtd. in Betts 64). Celebrities, who are primarily defined by their media skills, are cultural icons, the popular heroes of our time; they are the role models on which people in media societies orient themselves. There is a constant demand for new role models; consequently, the media, television in particular, incessantly create new celebrities or presents new information on the established ones. Accordingly, “postmodernism is said to describe the emergence of a social order in which the importance and power of the mass media and popular culture means that they govern and shape all other forms of social relationships” (Strinati 224). This aspect is closely examined in chapter 4.1.2.

To sum up, popular culture is an aesthetic discourse that encompasses all aspects of human life and floods the consumers’ minds with myriad pictures and images: “‘The modern age,’ said the architect Frank Gehry in a 1999 television interview, ‘is an avalanche of stuff coming at you’ – coming at you swiftly, inexorably, overwhelmingly” (Betts 6). The British artist Richard Hamilton once defined pop art as “transient, expendable, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big-business. All of these terms apply equally well to contemporary popular culture” (qtd. in Betts 2). More generally speaking, “popular culture is chiefly marked by four characteristics: visualization, commodification, entertainment and technology . . . ” (Betts 3). Standardized technical production procedures and reproduction techniques allow for the mass production and mass distribution of popular entertainment products like, for example, comic books and television programs. Such cultural artifacts are predominantly defined by their graphic design, their visual effect; they are widely favored because they illustrate their messages. In the medialized world, communication by visual signs is the most prominent art and entertainment form: “This is the age of the spectacle and the spectacular. The old adage ‘Seeing is believing’ is still taken for granted but now ‘Seeing is enjoying’ too” (Betts 79). It appears that the layout is even more important than the message: “[I]n a postmodern world, surfaces and style become more important, and evoke in their turn a kind of ‘designer ideology’. Or as Harvey puts it: ‘images dominate narrative’ . . . ” (Strinati 225). Popular culture, is, then, a commercialized art form, but is “not only a fusion of culture and economy, but also an expansion of mediated experience, phantasmagoria and the hyperreal; that is, the preoccupation with surfaces, images and simulacra” (Jansson 36). Style over content seems to be a popular cultural maxim, and the mass media constantly nourishes the demand for more and more eye-catching and entertaining pictures.

2.3. Television: A Popular Cultural Medium

2.3.1. Television Consumption

When television became widespread in the industrialized countries during the 1950s, it soon established itself as the prime entertainment medium: “Television viewing, a remarkable new social practice in many locations, quickly and quietly became . . . a major source of everyday conversation, the measuring stick of many moral debates, the epitome of modern living” (de la Gaarde). But the availability of audio-visual home entertainment brought about significant changes in social and cultural life:

Compared to the older pattern, mass television was stunningly fascinating, convenient, and inexpensive. Social and after-dinner habits changed rapidly. The downtowns of most cities became wastelands after dark as movie houses and restaurants closed” (Bagdikian)

On the one hand, the advent of television brought about a decrease in the demand for traditional cultural amusements like the performing arts, thereby contributing to an impoverishment of the cultural landscape. Television bestowed serious economic loss for the U.S. movie industry: “As television grew, the movie industry in the Unites States despaired. Attendance fell by nearly half by the end of the 1950s . . . ” (Betts 57); likewise, television was attractive to advertisers and withdrew vital advertising revenue from the print media: “The advent of television spelled the downfall for several major mass-circulation magazines, which steadily lost advertising revenue to the new medium throughout the 1950s and 1960s” (Emmert, “Broadcast Media”). On the other hand, television presents traditional entertainment, because it broadcasts concerts, theater plays, or sports games, thereby permitting people to take part in events they would possibly not have been able to witness at all. Furthermore, television programs make intertextual references to other cultural texts, like literature, movies, and music. In any case, television encourages people to consume cultural entertainment in the domestic sphere. Yet while television viewing was a joint family experience in the beginning, it gradually developed into a more and more isolated occupation, and is considered to be a major cause for the decrease in family communication and social interaction in general.

The way in which television is consumed is an important characteristic of the medium. Today, television is integrated into the fabric of everyday life; we are used to the omnipresent background of its sounds and images: “We turn the set on casually; we rarely attend to it with full concentration. It is generally permissible to talk or carry out other activities in its presence” (Adler 6). In contrast to books or radio, television delivers sounds and visual information as a ready-made package whose consumption requires but a modicum of effort and attention on the recipient’s side. If the consumer wants to escape from real life, he can just ‘dive’ into the flow of images; then, watching television disperses bothersome ideas, amuses, and relaxes:

Following a day of work or studies or simply walking through the complexities of life’s daily challenges, many of us need and desire a break. Prime time television seems to offer the perfect solution: perhaps mindless fun, perhaps a few laughs, and even the occasional meaty thought to ponder. (Holtzman 3)

Although television offers a large variety of informative and educational programs, it is mostly used to escape from reality: “While the most versatile of the media, with an electronic eye on all human activity and the images it projects found on screens in all sorts of private and public places, it has succeeded mainly as entertainment” (Betts 92). This is also a strong point of criticism: “Television, it is said, is merely a vehicle for purely ‘escapist’ fare, sickly crafted but devoid of any qualities which deserve serious attention” (Adler 11), and it is said that it only gives “the pleasure of mindless consumption” (Schiller 41).

Television fascinates with smartly produced images; its visual dimension makes it the most popular entertainment medium of the spectacular society: “Contemporary popular culture is one of individual gazes and collective displays, one in which the dominant demand is expressed in three imperatives – ‘Show me,’ ‘Let me see’ and ‘Let me be seen’ – all subsumed under the familiar injunction ‘Picture this’” (Betts 62). Furthermore, its communication by visual signs makes it even accessible to people who do not understand the language of the accompanying texts; television has a nearly universal language of symbols, many of which even function in different cultural backgrounds. Nevertheless, television is a highly manipulative medium; in the mental processing of audio-visual information, the visual information makes the predominant impact: ‘the eye wins over the ear,’ so to speak. It is common knowledge that television producers employ various technical ‘tricks’ to create an intended impression; for example, the way in which people and events are filmed, how the picture and sound material is edited, and the dramatic composition of pictures significantly influence the viewer’s interpretation of information.

Television programs are arranged in a collage-like pattern: fictional and non-fictional programs of varying length follow one another, interrupted only by advertising spots, program previews and identification signals. This differentiates television programs from other media texts:

A book has a tangible physical existence. Films and plays begin and end in darkness and silence, which allow them to stand on their own. Television programs, by contrast, are surrounded by commercials and other programs. The English writer Raymond Williams has described the uninterrupted following of one thing by another as ‘flow,’ a characteristic which he believes to be central to the television experience, . . . . ” (Adler 7)

There are obvious reasons for arranging television programs in a continuous flow of images and sounds:

In order to keep the viewers stuck by their TV sets, essentially for commercial reasons, the programming became arranged more like a flow, eliminating the ‘dead’ time between the programme spots by smooth audio-visual bridges, like announcements, trailers and commercials. (Jansson 105)

The continuous stream of images basically serves to keep the viewers’ eyes glued to the screen, and to lull their minds. The effect is further intensified by the fact that the diverse programs’ parts are interrelated: “First, each program interacts with those around it, and, second, most programs are really parts of continuing series rather than isolated works” (Adler 7). So, in order to follow their favorite programs, viewers have to tune in regularly, which means that everyday life has to be arranged according to the television schedule:

Television does more than inform and entertain us – its ubiquitous presence helps us regulate our lives . . . . The highly structured routines of half-hour and hour programs, as well as the equally structured weekly schedule, serves as a kind of implicit clock and calendar, even when we are not watching. (Adler 6)

Of course, this applies both to fictional series and non-fictional programs; for example, in many places dinner coincides with the time when the evening news are broadcast, so, quite often, “everyday life is adapted to media schedules, rather than the other way around” (Jansson 315).

2.3.2 Media Socialization and Audience Effect Studies

Audio-visual entertainment is the modern form of storytelling: “The producers of entertainment media are the ‘storytellers’ of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Gerbner 1998b, 1)” (Holtzman 40); television informs the audience about popular subject matters, mediates traditional myths, and presents role models, thereby highlighting accepted values and ideals. Before, such messages were communicated by oral and written narratives. Yet television is much more far-reaching; its messages, which are mostly consistent with the dominant belief system, reach across all levels of society: “What makes television unique, however, is its ability to standardize, streamline, amplify, and share common cultural norms with virtually all members of society . . . ” (Holtzman 3). Consequently, television is the most important vehicle for ideological messages:

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. (Herman and Chomsky 1)

[...]

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Details

Title
U.S. Television as a Cultural Force - The Americanization of Cultures
College
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich 05 - Philosophie und Philologie)
Grade
1,0
Author
Year
2006
Pages
115
Catalog Number
V68248
ISBN (eBook)
9783638594363
File size
817 KB
Language
English
Tags
Television, Cultural, Force, Americanization, Cultures, Media
Quote paper
Mieke Schüller (Author), 2006, U.S. Television as a Cultural Force - The Americanization of Cultures, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/68248

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