by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik
2003 • 508 pages • Syracuse University Press
As I have mentioned time and again, my parents’ relative disinterest in American pop culture was one of the dominant flavors of my childhood. Attempting to piece a picture together out of the fragments that grabbed my attention yielded a particularly blinkered education, an education heavily focused in Pokémon and completely lacking anything on film, music, comedy, or television. (I mean, I did figure out that shows aired in a consistent fashion on the same channels eventually. I’m not going to tell you how old I was, but I will tell you I learned to braid hair at the age of eighteen, so that should give you some idea.) That utter lack of any context for American media from the end of World War II to roughly 1995 is something that haunts me, in a friendly fashion. Upon discovering that I was a fan (which is to say, that I am someone who thrives on a critical engagement with pop culture) during a seminal screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I vowed to correct this painful oversight. (Some might say that I am pursuing the impossible goal of American pop culture omniscience. Let’s just say that I’m a mad social scientist.)
To this end, I have curated extensive lists of movies, albums, and television shows to watch. Of the three mediums, however, I’ve found television to be harder to come to grips with. I can’t just make a list and plow through it; there’s just too much of it to do that, even if I just narrowed it down to something simple, like “NBC sitcoms.” I mean, I’ve been working on Star Trek: The Next Generation for over a year and I’m still only in season four. I may be proof that you must be taught how to marathon.
But I’ve been experimenting with my pop cultural consumption as of late by starting on the macro level before going micro, instead of my more usual completist’s route of making a list of the micro and then gorging on the micro. (For instance, I’m trying out the novel concept of listening to Van Halen’s Van Halen before deciding to listening to their complete discography.) Watching TV, then, may seem like a pretty obvious choice to get acquainted with television history over the last sixty years, but it’s an experiment on my part reading this before reading Live From New York.
As you might imagine from both the sheer amount of time covered and the size of this thing (this was impossible to take on the subway, although, to be fair, I am recovering from carpal tunnel), Watching TV is thorough. Starting in 1944 and ending in 2002, every chapter, usually about four or five pages, covers a single season of television, complete with a listing of prime time programming. This makes for dry but illuminating reading, from the sheer length of Lucille Ball’s reign on television to exactly how affiliates and cable channels work to the mysterious and now defunct DuMont Television Network, the original fourth channel. When it’s all put together, the story of American television in the last sixty years is the story of any new communication medium, from its struggles to get started to a lengthy, iconic reign by consolidated powers to its nichification through cable channels. Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik end with 2002, so there’s no discussion of the true impact of the Internet on television, except for a fussy, redundant mention that ABC’s 2002 advertising campaign looked like an online website.
While Castleman and Podrazik mostly stay out of the way, they end up spending much of the volume than I anticipated discussing their opinions of the shows they cover. Some discussion of perceived quality is to be expected, of course, especially if you’re going to discuss the cyclical acceptance and distaste for sex and violence on television. But there’s something very snobbish about their utter disdain for game shows and reality television, and it’s hard not to roll your eyes when they melodramatically mourn that NBC celebrated its seventy-fifth birthday with Fear Factor playing a major part in its ratings. Plus, they aren’t terribly progressive, either, often conflating gender identity and sexual orientation and, memorably, describing virtuous-to-the-point-of-unrealistic black characters as white characters in blackface. It’s always more noticeable and derailing when there’s simply no call for it.
I rented this book from the public library.