First of all, my apologies for the unannounced week-long Thanksgiving-related hiatus this blog just took. However, given my upcoming schedule, I’d imagine more unexpected lapses may be imminent.
With that said, this afternoon, while reading “A Propaganda Model” by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky for a class, I came across a discussion that reminded me of something I’ve found interesting for a while now. The article discusses the propagandizing motives driving mass media—their roots and their consequences. In one section, Herman and Chomsky make the point that the mass media are not only interested in attracting particular audiences, but specifically in attracting audiences with “buying power.” In a mass media structure supported and sustained by advertising revenue, they point out, programming which appeals to and attracts affluent audiences, audiences with money to spend and desire to spend it, attract greater ad revenue. This is a rather logical, even obvious point, but one I’d never really considered at any great length, and it made me rethink something I’ve wondered about for several years.
While studying abroad in Ireland during college, I started to notice that Irish and British sitcoms and soap operas represented a very different reality, a different set of values, than American shows. While American sitcoms and soap operas by and large represent a kind of “aspirational” standard, portraying predominantly upper middle class and wealthy characters whose lives do not represent that of the “average” American (think Gossip Girl, 30 Rock, Entourage, or any of the daytime soaps—most of which, from what I can tell, kind of look like Dynasty). Granted, there are many notable exceptions like The Office and My Name is Earl, but even these are cleaned up in certain ways, made less gritty and “realistic” through production techniques, strategically exaggerated or stereotypical wardrobe choices, etc. The point is, though, British and Irish TV shows are a very different affair. The actors of these shows are, as a whole, older and rougher around the edges. They look like they are really being filmed in their East End row house, wearing clothes they bought at the thrift shop down the street. Crooked teeth and bad perms abound. Clearly these people are not intimately acquainted with the plastic surgeon’s scalpel or the Botox syringe. They look like real people I pass on the street or stand in line behind at Target.
When I first began to realize and think about this, I came to the conclusion that it must have something to do with different sets of cultural values and different ideas about what was cathartic, interesting, and enjoyable to watch given these different values. I had an interesting conversation with a friend around this time that I felt reinforced this reasoning. She told me about an article she had read which argued that one reason that Americans are often so comparatively unwilling to acknowledge or condemn white collar crime and so accepting of the privilege and preference given to the wealthier members of our society, through tax breaks and the like, had to do with aspiration and the American Dream. The article argued that part of why Americans were so accommodating of rich people, corporations and their CEOs, etc. was that a little part of each of us secretly hopes (and, furthermore, is encouraged to hope) that we may someday achieve that kind of “success,” someday reach the highest echelons of wealth and achievement, and if (when) that happens, we don’t want anyone taking away a piece of OUR pie. Is anyone else thinking of Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher (yes, I just went there), the plumber-but-not-really-but-now-soon-to-be-author who was outraged by the idea that Obama’s proposed tax plans would increase taxes on a tax bracket he wasn’t even a part of, a bracket he apparently aspired to enter after buying a plumbing business from his boss which wasn’t really even for sale?
Pseudo plumbers aside, while acknowledging that the premise of the article my friend described was overly simplistic and reductionist, I found the some of the ideas it suggested really interesting and it informed my understanding of the cultural difference/preferences evidenced by American versus British TV shows. At the least, it seemed to me that what a culture considers entertaining, what a society desires to see in its leisure time, represents some interesting things about underlying cultural values. While I still think that’s true, Herman and Chomsky’s point made me realize something rather obvious: what is on television is not necessarily shaped only, or in fact even primarily, by the tastes and desires of viewers. In fact, quite often, the system works in reverse, with media companies dictating public tastes according to profit-driven agendas. Of course, this is not to say they can feed television consumers just anything, but it’s definitely a two way street. Herman and Chomsky’s point about networks seeking to appeal to those with “buying power,” those most desirable to advertisers, puts a new spin on the archetypes represented on American shows. Perhaps, this suggests, the programming is not meant to appeal to the “average” American at all, or at least the average American without money to blow. It’s meant to draw audiences with some resemblance to, or at least affinity for, the lifestyles represented by these kinds of shows. I’m sure, as with most things, that the complete truth is more complicated than either of these theories can suggest. But it’s interesting to consider the many ways that we self-select a set of values through the choices we make in our media consumption and, more disturbing, the ways in which this is engineered for us, often without our awareness, and used to commodify and consumerize us.