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Camera Obscura 15.1 (2000) 45-93
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Quality versus Relevance:
Feminism, Race, and the Politics of the Sign in 1970s Television
Kirsten Marthe Lentz *
In a phrase as ubiquitous as it is facile, bumper stickers across America implore us to "kill our televisions." Though this statement would seem to issue from an alternative or progressive political consciousness, it is in fact linked to a cliché about television, one that has a complicated history. Television scholars have firmly established that the medium of television, like other elements of mass culture, has long been associated with a degraded, consumerist femininity and therefore has acquired a "bad object" status in relation to other media. 1 Given this long-standing association, those agents responsible for the promotion of television must seriously grapple with its low-culture status. The television industry has therefore attempted to address and improve television's poor public image repeatedly over the course of its short history.
One such attempt, frequently commemorated and celebrated by industry insiders and television historians alike, occurred in 1970, when television network executives at CBS in conjunction with programmers and producers undertook an [End Page 45] ambitious project of overhauling and renovating television's tarnished image. CBS employed two independent television production companies to accomplish this goal: MTM Enterprises (headed by Grant Tinker) and Tandem/TAT Productions (headed by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin). The two companies produced a large number of situation comedies; between them their shows completely dominated prime-time television schedules throughout the decade of the 1970s. MTM produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), Rhoda (1974-78), Phyllis (1975-77), The Betty White Show (1977-78), The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), and others. Tandem/TAT, headed by Norman Lear, produced All in the Family (1971-79), Good Times (1974-79), The Jeffersons (1975-85), Maude (1972-78), Sanford and Son (1972-77), and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976-77), among others. 2 These comedies are widely regarded as having improved the public image of the medium of television.
The vast literature about television, both scholarly and journalistic, has conferred an enormous amount of importance upon these two production companies. Both have been credited with transforming the situation comedy, making it more complex and more responsive to the social and political changes resulting from the civil rights and black power movements and the burgeoning feminist movement. But MTM and Tandem/TAT are differentiated by their respective alignment with the representation of gender politics on the one hand and of racial politics on the other. MTM productions, particularly the flagship The Mary Tyler Moore Show, have often been understood as programs that demonstrate the impact of feminism upon the medium of television. 3 In contrast, the shows produced by Tandem/TAT ignited a massive, nationwide discussion about the appropriate modes of representing race and racism. These shows are therefore widely regarded as having significantly influenced--for better or worse--the history of racial representations. 4
During the 1970s, the television industry adopted two kinds of terminology for describing these newly renovated shows: quality television and relevance programming. Appeals to "quality television" largely promised to improve the television text aesthetically, while [End Page 46] appeals to "relevance" promised that television shows would become more responsive to the social and political milieu of the 1970s. And, generally speaking, these two terms--quality and relevance--were used to differentiate the two production companies: MTM produced "quality" shows, while Tandem's shows would make television more "relevant."
Historians of television who write about "quality" and "relevance" television tend to understand the two as part of the same general discursive and economic shift in the 1970s. Both terms are linked to the rise of independent studios (e.g., MTM and Tandem/TAT), the fall of network hegemony, a new attention to demographics among advertisers and ratings companies, and the introduction of social and political issues into situation comedy. In other words, "quality television" and "relevance programming" have generally been viewed as part of the same project in a narrative of televisual...