Primetime TV, tool of the Left
Television is the most modern, the most omnipresent, and the most pervasive of all the media arts, which is the reason I devote so much time in this column to analyzing its effect on our culture. It’s not hard to understand why; unless parents have made the conscious decision to take TV out of their home, it’s likely that the average child will have seen many hours of television programming before they read their first book, watch their first movie in a theatre, or hit the play button to hear a tune. They might be near or past the age of majority before they have a brush with a play, an opera, or a symphony concert, and if current trends continue their lives will be wholly free from these experiences.
Which is why a book like Ben Shapiro’s Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV is overdue, but the good news is that it’s better – a lot better – than just another disgruntled screed that holds television at arm’s length, and treats it like a hostile invader in our home. Shapiro, a wunderkind with a Harvard law degree who was raised “in the shadow of the Hollywood sign,” and he begins the book from the premise that while television has both entertained him and formed his worldview since he was a child, the people who make it are implacably hostile to everything he believes.
Social conservatives have known this for years, and the solution has often been boycotts – making our point quixotically by taking ourselves out of the game. It’s a tactic that Shapiro admits he made himself in a previous book about the porn industry, but he abandons it with his new book for a simple reason: “Television,” he writes, “is awesome.”
“My dad tried the cultural conservative argument – turn off the television and preserve your values! – and we all watched television anyway,” Shapiro writes. “Hell, each night after I finished work on that day’s portion of Porn Generation, I flipped on the TV to wind down, and watched some of the very shows I was criticizing. Arguing that television is liberal and that therefore every true conservative should read a book during dinner is unreasonable.”
The bulk of Shapiro’s book is taken up with a careful history of the medium, analyzing the business moves and executive biographies that slowly but implacably shifted television in an ever more liberal direction from its earliest days. It’s a story mostly concerned with the Big Three – CBS, NBC and ABC, the monolithic triumvirate of American broadcasters that finally became a quartet in the mid-‘80s with the launch of the Fox network, by which point the thorough liberalization of TV was complete.
When the book was released, Shapiro and the website Big Hollywood publicized it by highlighting choice quotes from powerful TV producers and executives admitting that not only was the medium liberal, but that they were quite comfortable excluding conservatives from the production process, creating what was effectively a blacklist. It was a neat game of “gotcha!” but it simply encourages a maudlin sense of persecution that does us no favours, and it’s nowhere near as valuable as the analysis Shapiro does in the book’s long middle, where he turns a favourite liberal argument on its head – the one where liberals scold us that we can’t complain about what we see on television since the free market we so love rewards liberal programming with ratings that it denies conservative shows.
The fact is that shows with a conservative bent – Shapiro cites The Cosby Show, Gunsmoke, King of the Hill, South Park, and the first three seasons of 24 in a highly subjective list of a dozen at the end of the book – have been huge hits, but since the industry is highly selective in its own definition of “success,” they’ll always be flukes, and so rare that it’s hard to make a fare comparison with their liberal competition.
The cornerstone of his analysis, though, is that moment in the late ‘60s when ABC, the also-ran of the Big Three, made a brilliant marketing move that still affects us today. Locked out of the top end of the ratings by essentially rural, conservative shows like Gunsmoke, Green Acres, and The Beverly Hillbillies, ABC commissioned a study that strained to prove that youthful, urban audiences had more purchasing power than older, rural and suburban ones, and that advertisers should be chasing them by buying time on the sort of edgy, youth-skewing programs that ABC had been forced to favour.
Since bluff plays such a huge part in the entertainment business, it worked, and ABC’s competitors were forced to cancel a whole roster of successful shows and usher in the age of All In The Family, M*A*S*H, and Mary Tyler Moore, and every television network and ad buyer lives in thrall to this dictum to this day, even if it’s almost wholly false. The fact that the new shows were, strident liberal politics aside, creatively much more interesting than what they replaced was an unexpected enhancement that only gave the lie legs.
This leaves us with the world that most of TV viewers grew up in, regardless of our politics, and the present day, where television, like all the arts, teeters on the edge of a potentially revolutionary technological transformation. It’s a pregnant moment that Shapiro is keen for us to understand, but that will have to wait till my next column.