The Great TV Debate

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the TV networks' new fall season offerings, and made the controversial decision to recommend a few to our thoughtful, politically conscious audience. Among my picks were two political shows -- one featuring a female president -- and two legal shows focusing on innocent defendants. I added Martha Stewart's new helm at "The Apprentice," because she's become the latest icon of corporate corruption and news junkies like me might be interested in seeing an episode. I started the sub-heading with the disclaimer, "For those of us who haven't thrown our TV sets out the window."

What followed was a flurry of comments from readers who, it seems, have thrown their TVs out the window -- or have permanently fixed the knob to PBS.

One reader said s/he "object[ed] to an article praising corporate T.V. These shows are more of the same corporate B.S. and [an] article shilling for them was beneath a wonderful publication such as AlterNet."

Another suggested "stay dumb, lobotomized and buy this swill that passes for innertainment."

Many of the comments shunned broadcast TV altogether. But I'd wager that most of our TV-watching readers do, in fact, turn their dials to ABC, NBC, CBS, and even Fox once in awhile, and I suggested shows with themes of interest -- most of which espoused some progressive values (a woman in the White House, innocent prisoners caught in the system). I don't think that people who want to indulge in a little guilty pleasure after a long day of work are evil, moronic, or lobotomized. And I, along with the other editors, don't think a website like AlterNet should be above addressing that fact every so often -- albeit in a responsible way, such as recommending shows with relevant themes.

After I read some of the comments, another thought occurred to me: This might be a small part of the reason why some of us were so stunned when Bush won. We're simply out of touch.

As progressives who want to create change, we don't have the luxury of ignoring TV, or mainstream pop culture. Those who want to stay in their enclave of highbrow culture should by all means do so. But those who are interested in seeing change must have their finger on the pulse of America, and these days -- unfortunately or not -- network TV provides a few beats of that pulse. It's similar thinking that went into the advice a journalism professor had for her shocked students after the November election: that they do a stint at a newspaper in a red state.

We have to know what the other side is thinking; we can't be so stuck in our bubble that we don't know what's going on outside it, and then complain when we realize that everybody else doesn't think like us.

I'm not suggesting that by watching the shows I wrote about, readers will be suddenly attuned to America and able to right the country's wrongs. Nor am I suggesting that by watching lots of TV, we'll win the next election and all the other battles we're currently waging. Television may well be the opiate of the masses, and I understand people's refusal to watch it. My nephews, ages 10 and 7, have never had a TV in their house, and, barring any bias, I do believe evenings spent reading instead of watching Pokemon had a large part in making them the thoughtful children that they are (the older one is, in fact, a kid pundit for Jon Stewart's "Daily Show").

But for change-seekers, by discounting a medium that 98 percent of American households watch, we're not going to know whom we're fighting to represent. "Everybody Loves Raymond" was a top-watched show for nine years, mostly because viewers loved seeing their own tribulations played out: making a marriage work; raising kids; dealing with meddling in-laws; battling life's mundane practicalities. And we might be missing out on subtle progressive trends that may reflect society at large, even as Republicans wage an all-out war against alternative lifestyles. More than 22 million Americans tuned in this season to make "Desperate Housewives" the third most-watched show on TV. "Housewives" portrays all sorts of anti-"Focus on the Family" themes, like the cohabitation of unmarried couples, single moms who have a sex life, and gay children. (But when the gay son came out, the Republican mom had a fitting breakdown.) Plots involving gay characters are in a number of top shows, including "Will & Grace" and "ER." Most recently, a assistant district attorney was fired unfairly, because she was a lesbian, on a network TV staple: "Law & Order."

I reiterate that the majority of network TV shows aren't worth the electricity they expend. But there is something to be learned by studying what it is everyone's watching, from the frustrations of the average American to the changing moral standards of the day.

Be assured that we will continue to cover a lot of worthwhile, independent culture -- and shows on PBS. But if we ignore mainstream culture, we would be doing a disservice to our readers. We do live in this country, and we do want change; in the meantime, we must know whom we're trying to reach, and whom they're listening to.

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