Television as Historian, Part 2: Reframing the Past from Inside the TV Environment
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 30, Number 2, 2000
- pp. 5-6
- Additional Information
Television as Historian | Special In-Depth Section TELEVISION AS HISTORIAN, PART 2: REFRAMlMG THE PAST FROM INSIDE THE TV ENVIRONMENT by Gary Edgerton, Old Dominion University One of the more ironic aspects of history on TV is that television has long been identified by an assortment of scholars, such as the late cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his best-selling , The Culture ofNarcissism (1979), as one of the principal reasons why there is a "waning sense of historical time" in contemporary life.1 According to this point of view, people in information- based societies live fully immersed in a mediated environment that ostensibly is invisible to them, even as they busily operate inside of it, habitually communicating and consuming electronic imagery and sound in an often wide-eyed present tense. Television viewers around the world routinely summon into their homes with the touch of a button the most extensive rendering of their own national culture and heritage, as well as aspects of many other cultures, and frankly, pay scant attention to the many clues that it has to tell them about their respective place within the historical flow ofthings. Proponents of media literacy, especially, advocate that we all should do more than just relax in this ephemeral stream of words and pictures; we should investigate more closely what these countless reflections suggest about who we are, where we came from, what we value, and where we might be headed in the future. Many socialtheorists have additionally written abouthow Americans and members of other Western societies have radically transformed themselves and their cultures since World War II. They describe these various changes and the resulting new era by a number of fashionable terms, such as post-industrial, or postmodern, or the media age. Whatever we choose to call this period, America and other countries across the globe have profoundly changed since 1946, redefining the way people conduct their home life, work, and leisure time, participate as citizens and consumers, and preserve and value theirrelationship with the past as individuals and as members ofmass mediated societies throughout the planet. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan was the first media critic to describe TV as something more than just a medium, an industry, a social institution, or even a cultural force. He believed the sweep and impact oftelevision was even larger and more subtle than any of these four characteristics separately. In Understanding Media, he went so far as to claim that "TV is environmental and imperceptible, like all environments."2 Part 2 of this special focus issue is similarly grounded on the assumption that analyzing the environmental components which to a large extent define and determine the TV content that we see is essential to a fuller understanding of "television as historian." In his role as founding co-editor of Film & History and in his subsequent publications, such as American History/American Television (1983) and Image as Artifact (1990), John E. O'Connor was particularly instrumental in encouraging critical attention to move beyond textual analyses alone to TV "production and reception [as] frameworks for historical inquiry."3 This second of two succeeding theme issues likewise locates "television as historian" within the overriding organizational contexts ofTV production and reception. Brian Taves, for example, evaluates the professional goals and programming output of the most prominent cable network specializing in historical content in "The History Channel and the Challenge ofHistorical Programming." Premiering in early 1995, this service has become an unqualified commercial success as a regular offering in most basic cable packages in the United States and Britain. Taves explains why The History Channel incorporates historical fiction into a mostly non-fictional format, delineating the types ofpopular history presented as well as the different styles that are utilized by the producers who work for this network. Douglas Gomery follows with a detailed examination of Washington, D.C. TV on January 21, 1957, the day of President Eisenhower's second inauguration, to illustrate the limits of using a mostly national perspective in "Rethinking Television History." The author, in contrast, constructs a "bottom up" view of how local TV developments eventually influenced programming and policy-making decisions on the network level by skillfully augmenting his background and insights into...