Thursday, July 10, 2008

Does Television Belong in Academia?

I remember in the weeks leading up to the Slayage conference, seeing several articles about the impending academic conference on Buffy. But one in particular stuck out -- not for the article itself, but for the comment that followed it. It was an AOL story talking about some of the papers and what the weekend would be about. And one reader posted below (in typical online grammatically incorrect fashion): "You have got to be kidding me. This is a bad joke and i fell for it, .............right? The state of academic affairs in in big trouble if this is for real."

Suddenly the joy I felt in reading about the conference was completely deflated, I was a little angry. Why would this guy, whose screenname is "lawnsouth," assume I'm not mature and sophisticated just because I'm interested in Buffy studies?

Stupid-ass buttmunch.

He's not alone, however. A follow-up comment agreed with him, joking that it was a bird course and maybe the justification is it was better than skipping class to go golfing. The organizer of this year's conference, Kevin Durand, a philosophy professor at Henderson State, was saying on his blog that he received a stern phone call from the PR peeps at the college asking if taxpayer dollars had been going to the conference, because some paper in Tennessee wanted to know. He explained not one cent went to it.

But why not? If it had been a conference on Chaucer, no one would have blinked an eye if taxpayer dollars had gone to it. Some taxpayers might have rolled their eyes at a conference on Ibsen, but they wouldn't argue about it. If their child was heading off to give a paper at a conference on Shakespeare, they would be crowing about it with pride. But a conference on South Park? They'd probably say he was going camping that weekend.

In his time, Shakespeare was regarded as popular culture. The masses of the great unwashed would tromp over to the Globe Theatre to watch the plays and then tromp back home. An afternoon watching King Lear was regarded as no different from now going to a matinee of Die Hard (though Die Hard probably has less gore). If someone had tried organizing an academic conference on Shakespeare in 1650, the scholar would have been laughed out of the academy. "How now, you uncouth man!" they would have cried. "Dost thou not know that literature is for women? Now step aside... I'm off to a medical conference where we shall discuss the best ways of drilling holes in skulls to alleviate headaches and the proper placement of leeches to cure the common cold."

Everyone hopes their child will grow up to be a doctor: no one wants their child to grow up to be a scholar of [ack!]... television. Television is the lowest form of art, is it not? To the point where I should be thinking twice about calling it art. Anyone can watch television. It's the sort of thing you can have blaring in the background while washing your dishes and only half pay attention to it, and that's enough. It's the boob tube. The idiot box. It's the thing that any decent mother would never turn on around her kids, for fear they'll all grow up to be drooling, ADD-ridden kids with hyperactive disorder on Ritalin. How many times have we heard some pompous snob say, "Oh, pooh pooh, I don't even OWN a television."

Wow, I think every time I hear that. You must be SO out of touch.

For everyone who thinks television is not a viable art form to be studied, or that it's not a form of art at all, or that it's something you should brag about not owning, I simply say: you are watching the wrong shows.

Television, unlike film these days, is only getting better. There have always been great television shows -- All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Roseanne, WKRP in Cincinnati -- but with the advent of HBO and networks taking bigger risks, television today has reached new levels of excellence. I remember reading a piece a few years ago by Toronto Star film (and now book) review editor Geoff Pevere, in which he boasted that as a film critic, he has chosen the superior visual art form, and doesn't own a television. He bragged about having only seen a couple of Seinfelds, no Friends, and had no interest in The Sopranos.

To which I respond, Really? So did you go and watch Blade and write a review about how the idea of a vampire slayer was unique and amazing and too bad they don't have anything like this on television? How do you review a mafia film without knowing if David Chase already covered the same territory on The Sopranos? Or how do you laugh at any pop culture joke in any comedy film, not knowing if The Simpsons had mined the same laughs three years earlier?

These sorts of comments drive me mad. Take a look at The Wire (please!) This incredible show lasted five seasons, and was a neat, tight, series that explored the various angles of the drug trade, how far-reaching it was, and how many different levels of society have their fingers in the pot. In 64 hours, they were able to tell a story that had fascinating characters that we truly cared about, stunning lines that even Shakespeare couldn't have written (sorry, Will), acting that outshone anything I've seen in a movie theatre lately, and told a truly remarkable story.

When's the last time you saw a movie that did all that? Or, for that matter, read a book that did that?

Don't get me wrong: the best vacation I ever had was about 6 years ago, when the office shut down for 2 weeks and I sat in a big comfy chair and read about 10 books. When I think of my dream day, it usually involves being flopped out on a couch and reading a book in total silence.

But what I'm saying is that television has come a long way. Television boasts writers like Joss Whedon, David Chase, Alan Ball, and Aaron Sorkin. It can do the big sweeping moments (Sorkin), it can pull us into a family and make us believe they are real (Ball), and it can raise writing on television to an art form that rivals anything in book form or in any screenplay (Whedon and Chase).

Take Lost. Lost is a show with so many layers it has fans rushing to their encyclopedias, bibles, wikipedia, and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic textbooks. We've had to bone up on our literature, philosophy, physics (ugh), religion... you know what they say about how you might use 10% of what you learned in school? Lost forces you to come up with the other 90. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse pay attention to audience reaction, and occasionally (*cough* Nikki and Paulo *cough*) they listen to the viewers and adjust the storytelling accordingly. How is that any different from the way Dickens would release chapters of his books in serialized installments, and alter the plots according to the audience reactions? Dickens' stories were once in magazines, and if at the time you had told the Victorian audience reading them that someday someone would be studying his work at a university, they would STILL be laughing at you.

Epic storytelling, deep characters, rich plots . . . television is the new domain for all of it. Sitting at the Buffy academic conference and listening to people pulling out the themes of the show, dissecting specific episodes, or comparing Buffy as a text to other texts, it seemed like a perfectly normal thing.

Now... if there were an academic conference on According to Jim, I would take pause. I'm not saying ALL television should be the subject of scholarly attentions, but I wouldn't say the same about books or film, either. Should there be university courses on Virginia Woolf? Obviously. (I took one, and I loved it.) Vertigo? Of course. Buffy the Vampire Slayer? ABSOLUTELY! How about courses on Sidney Sheldon, National Lampoon's Road Trip, and the CW's Girlfriends? Uh...

It's time television be treated just like any other art form. There are those shows that deserve to be placed beside Dickens and Eliot and the Brontes as something worth studying. Why is it considered okay to read Mill on the Floss as a Shakespearean tragedy, or look at the use of symbolism in the films of Hitchcock, but the moment one does a paper on looking at the predominance of the Orpheus myth in Buffy, they're met with snickers and disdain from the rest of the academic establishment. It wasn't so long ago that film scholars were the subject of that same disdain (or, as Matthew Pateman pointed out in his keynote at the Buffy conference, that English scholars were the butt of the Greek scholars' jokes).

I wasn't one of the scholars delivering an academic paper at the Whedonverse conference, but I know the feeling. I've been writing companion guides to television shows for a decade now, and I've often been made to feel like what I do is no different than writing TV Guide synopses for the local newspaper. The amount of research that goes into one of my books is enormous -- I'm constantly looking up all sorts of references, be they Greek myths or literary or philosophical or Wiccan, depending on the series. I don't write plot summaries. I watch the episode, find a theme running throughout it, and then write an analytical guide to that episode that explores that theme and how the writers had examined it through the characters. My books require more accuracy than some textbooks, because if I get a single fact wrong, I will have many people emailing me to nitpick and complain. And yet, whenever anyone asks me what sort of books I write, there's always that millisecond in my head where I think, "Should I lie? Tell them I write novels?" Because it would seem if I said I wrote a novel that had sold 12 copies, I'd be viewed with far more esteem than if I wrote television companion guides that have collectively sold over 100,000 copies. It's a very rare moment where I tell someone what I do and they say, "WHAT?! Oh my GOD, that's AMAZING!" Very, very rare indeed. Usually it's, "What do you mean, television books? What exactly do you have to write about television?" And then we're back to that mindset that writing about television is about as scholarly as writing a news story about the results of the euchre game that happened this past Sunday at the local church gathering. Despite being proud of what I've done, I still have a few family members who ask me when I'll get around to writing a "real" book (and by "real," they mean fiction, no doubt).

So, I wasn't delivering a paper, but I've been in the classrooms, I've known the academics (many friends of mine went on to become professors, and most of them use television in the classroom quite successfully), and I know what it's like to have someone look at you strangely because you take your television FAR too seriously.

But that's okay. Some day it will change. "lawnsouth" can continue to complain that the academic community is going down the crapper while he stuffs his face with Cheetos and watches his football game. (Oh, I'm sorry, did I totally misidentify who he is? Hmm... well, now I guess he knows what it feels like.)

But for the rest of us who are watching The Wire, Buffy, Mad Men, Damages, Lost, Pushing Daisies, Heroes, Six Feet Under, Angel, Battlestar Galactica, Carnivale, The Office, Arrested Development, Firefly, 30 Rock, Chuck, Dexter, Flight of the Conchords, and, yes, Gossip Girl -- and writing about them -- we know that lawnsouth is the mental midget. Not us.

Long live television academia!


Anonymous said...

Long live television academia indeed!! I feel your pain. I know the looks that come from people at the mention of television in academia, and that look often only sours when Buffy's name is added to the mix. I just want to tell you that what you're doing IS awesome!! And, I'm a part of that fight to earn television its proper place in academia without all the scoffing. Two years ago I had to defend my master's thesis proposal to a group of PhD's at a baptist university. My topic? The Hero's Journey Revamped in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One professor had already told me that if I had any intention of getting my PhD that I should study something more serious! I was most nervous about her being in my audience. Nevertheless, I stood my ground and argued the legitimacy of topic. Not only was my topic approved, but chunks of my thesis and that original proposal are currently being used as models in the thesis prep course at the University. Now all the students following me know Buffy's name and are acceping the legitimacy of television studies. Many are being encouraged to study a wide array of fresh, new topics as my old advisor tells them, "If Nikki could do Buffy, you can do anything!!" ~ Nikki Fuller

Ryan said...

I love this post.

Another point that I'd like to add is that people usually watch TV and film in much the same way these days: at home, on DVD, without commercials. And, at least for my age group, it has pretty much always been that way.

I watched all of Buffy (and now Angel) on DVD. I hardly ever watch shows as they air unless they're of the throw-away, guilty-pleasure variety (Nip/Tuck, The Bad Girls Club, Will & Grace). Thus, the method of viewing is the same, and the distinction between film and TV becomes more unclear. In my opinion, any medium (though, as you said, not necessarily any *text*) can be analyzed and applied to theory if done logically; I don't see why a narrative that happens to be bought by a network instead of a studio becomes automatically illegitimate.

And I fully support your comparison to Dickens - just because something is released as a serial doesn't make in unworthy of study. Look at Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or early Henry James.

One final thing: as a student working on TV studies, I have surprisingly received the most adversity from film scholars, not English scholars. English professors seem to value the narrative quality of television while film professors seem dismissive of...anything that isn't film. A knee-jerk reaction against their own insecurities? I don't know.

Emilia said...

Hear, hear!

Television absolutely deserves a place in academic, as well as in the classroom. I'm currently working on my master's in English Education, and I've been thinking a lot about incorporating television as a text in the classroom. Like you said, it's universal, most everybody watches something, so why not teach the kids to engage in some analysis of the shows they like?

Watching television is what you make it--if you only see at as an opportunity to stare at the screen eating Cheetos, then that's all it will be. But I think anyone who reads this blog will agree that television can be a lot more if you treat it like a text to engage with.

Nikki, you are awesome, and since I can't steal your job I'll just have to use your blog in a future lesson plan.

K J Gillenwater said...

I think the same is true for those who look down on film...unless it's Fellini or Woody Allen or any other 'high brow' director.

Or people who think mainstream novels are trash and only 'literary' books are worth their time.

There are those people who always have to believe they are better than someone else. Their movie choices, book choices, music choices, lifestyle choices are always better. Just the way some jerks are.

However, I think your argument would hold more weight if the tv show was from the 50s or 60s or even 70s. Just like history, it is very hard to discuss a show and its impact on society or its audience when it is recent. I think there is more to learn with some distance. Looking at the impact of "Leave it to Beaver" or "Gunsmoke" on the American public and how that reflected what was going on at the time is very insightful. I think it is more difficult to look at a show that was created and viewed in the last ten years with an eye towards the same.

Just like you mentioned Shakespeare was considered entertainment for the masses and not truly respected until years late, can you see why the same attitude would be true for a current tv show? I can.

There will always be the snooties to shoot you down. Unless you are reading literary author of the week, you will be ignored by these types.

Mike Cunningham said...

Awesome post! I took a course called the History of Television at my local community college and loved it! If I had even known there was a job like yours I may have pursued it.

I agree that television has only gotten better. I'm constantly pointing out LOST as a reason to watch TV. People have actually said to me, "I can't believe you are this excited and/or passionate about a TV show."

So kudos for what you do! I think you are awesome! You've even inspired me to start watching shows like "The Wire."

Anonymous said...

Matthew Pateman here - still no bloody password... Anyway:

I love your post, your passion, your enthusiasm, your precision, your pedantry, your knowledge, your skill, your expression - this is such a fabulous post. I am going to print it and put it on my office door, if you don't object.


Nikki Stafford said...

Nikki: Great name! ;) For a second I thought, Did I comment on my own post? haha... I love the topic of your master's thesis, and yay for you changing the minds of those in the audience! Congrats!

Ryan: I agree... I wonder if it's because film scholars are the more recent targets of scorn, so they are simply passing on the hate so people will stop thinking their study is not worthy. Here's hoping that as more film scholars like Joss Whedon end up on television, and their names become as well known as the shows themselves, there will be more respect thrown in that direction. Maybe that's where it will start.

And great point on watching DVDs, you're absolutely right. Maybe it's the commercial aspect that brings down the "quality" of television for some people.

emilia: thank you! I didn't know you were working on your master's, good for you! I would be thrilled if you used this in a lesson plan, LOL!

Kristin: Good point on the age of the show, but that's precisely what I was trying to argue in this post: it doesn't have to be that way. Yes, most things are like a fine wine and appreciate with age and yadda yadda, but the immediacy of pop culture, and the way the fads come and go, makes it different. If it took 30 years for English lit to be a viable topic in universities, and 30 years for film to be a viable topic, yet they are both now accepted, why do we have to go through the same crap for television? If people are already recognizing Buffy as something worth extensive study, then it's time people stop with the judgement and look at the text.

I agree all texts have their place, and that there is an element of snobbery in popular culture, but I wasn't suggesting there's something wrong with watching According to Jim... well, okay, yeah, I probably was. ;) But where I don't foresee an academic conference on the impact of Project Runway on our culture, I think the show is great, and I love it.

I do mention shows in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, by the way, right at the top of my post, and I'm saying that television in general is not seen as worthy of study, despite the fact there have always been standout shows. So I agree with your point, mostly because it's what I was saying. :)

Mike: Thank you! I'm so excited whenever I find someone who started watching The Wire because I refuse to leave the show alone. I hope you're liking it?

Matthew: I would LOVE it if you posted it on your door, thank you!! :) (sorry about your password... Blogger seems to be going through an extended cranky period)

K J Gillenwater said...

Oh, and I also think because tv shows are created en masse and much more quickly than a film, it will be seen as a less 'worthy' medium. Sort of like dimestore paperbacks. When there's a lot of it and it's cheap, the perception is the quality is less.

I still think with TV you need time to be able to see the value in it. Because those shows that are 'worthy' of discussion will stand the test of time. Do you remember every sitcom on the air in the 80s? Probably not. But you do remember the 'good' ones like "Family Ties." Some shows define an era, some are just there for entertainment value (nothing wrong with that), some are there to make social statements (Lifetime movies about abuse or adoption or AIDS), etc.

I think a class on TV would be very interesting. I took several classes on film and really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about technique, writing, directing, etc. Things I never noticed before.

TV will have its day. It will just take time for the academics to come around. Just keep plugging away, Nik!

Cedar said...

I second Matthew's praise of your passion and knowledge in the post. (Perhaps, Nikki, you should write a book on this topic!)

I have found that I get criticized for various aspects of my academic work from people outside academia. But I have also found some general acceptance for my Buffy work in places where it might not be expected. In a park where I walk my dog, I often chat with other dog walkers. Once I was describing an upper-level course that I was teaching (I won't say which one, but I will say that the subject is highly canonical and taught in English Departments around the globe). One of the dog-walkers responded, "Why would anyone want to study THAT?" Notably, this same person said, "Wow, that's so cool!" when I said I was presenting a paper at a Buffy conference. My general experience over the last few years in conversations with non-academics is that they can relate to what I say about my Whedon work but cannot relate to what I say about my canonical work. I have also noticed that people discuss my Whedon work (on blogs and postingboards, for example), which does not occur with my canonical work. I've had complete strangers (non-academic & academic) e-mail me about my Whedon work (but, again, not about my canonical work). Of course, this may suggest that my canonical work isn't interesting to others; however, on a more positive note, it seems to me that television studies is providing (or at least has the potential to provide) something that canonical academic scholarship has not accomplished traditionally: extensive crossover among academic and non-academic writers, readers, and fans. The "state of academic affairs" (to quote "lawnsouth") would be in far "big[ger] trouble" if academia were to stagnate rather than diversify in terms of material and approach.

Anonymous said...

By studying Vertigo, did you mean the Hitchcock film or the DC Comics line. Because I think either would be appropriate.

I'm doing a bunch of panels at the Polaris convention this weekend (including two on Lost). I look forward to the mental stimulation.

To everything you've said - right on!

Nikki Stafford said...

Funny story: I was at a baby shower last night and sitting with two women I'd never met, and one asked me what I did. At first I said I worked in publishing, then I said I also wrote books. One asked, "what sort of books?" and I said, "I write companion guides to television shows." Her jaw dropped and she said, "Oh my god, that is AWESOME!" So there ya go... it happens. Right after I said it's rare. ;) (Turns out she's a huge fan of Lost, Buffy, and The Wire. I'd found a kindred spirit at a baby shower where I knew no one but the mother of the baby, and I was thrilled.)

Kristin: You're right about the 80s sitcoms: that brings up another point, that there are obviously far, far fewer television shows than books. So many people can stand back and say, "Oh, yes, I totally think you should do a course on Ibsen" because they've never read Ibsen. But most of us have either watched, or seen, or heard of just about every show on television. So it makes it seem more for the masses, and as you say, things for the masses generally aren't regarded as something worthy of study, even if that attitude is wrong.

Cedar: Thank you! And your post is very interesting, because one of my former professors emailed me last night after he'd seen my post to say I'd targeted the wrong people (i.e. academia). I explained to him that I wasn't actually suggesting that it's academia who thinks television isn't worthy of study, but that NO ONE thinks it's worthy. Whether it's some levels of academia (but I didn't dwell on that too much because frankly, I don't know what the attitudes are there), or the film reviewers in newspapers, or people you run into at the supermarket, or football "lawnsouth" jocks, or your own parents... there are a lot of people out there who look at the idea of a conference on Buffy or The Sopranos or anything related to television, and say, "Oh. You. Have. GOT. To be kidding me." So that's what I was suggesting. I'm so thrilled to hear that you have found acceptance for your Buffy studies. :)

redeem: LOL! You know, I agree about Vertigo comics. I was referring to Hitchcock, but as you say, both work! :) (P.S., could you email me off-list when you have a second?)

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, I hate it when people commend tv shows for responding to the audience's whims. It's pandering and it's the opposite of great art. Lost and Buffy are great shows (and other than this one contention, I agree with your post). But writing out characters like Nikki & Paolo & Riley because they're unpopular is the weakest examples in their respective writing.

Lost breaks away from the pack primarily because the writers usually insist on going at their own pace, despite audience frustrations. If they had caved in to the pressure, we would have gotten half-assed answers at the end of season one, and the show would be much weaker because of it.

Chris in NF said...

Sing it, sister.

Unknown said...

If you think that this is not right you should went in Italy. I did my PhD thesis on "Television Authorship" with a case study on Joss Whedon.

I think that the university board had no idea who Whedon is......

They still look at me in a very strange way...

K. Dale Koontz said...

I think one of the most effective responses to "Why do you spend your time studying/writing about THAT?" (These people always seem to manage to screw up their faces as if they've just seemed a particularly messy stable when they say the last word, don't they?) is to look sheepishly downcast and reply, "I know, I know. My parents are hoping I'll do better, but the doctors say it's a step up from making clay ashtrays in therapy and that this process often takes a long time."

Then again, I have a puckish streak.

I study what I study because it interests me. Why should "study" be synonymous with "painful" and "boring"? I know good shows have made me delve deeply into the realms of folklore, religion, psychology and a host of other fields in an immediate way that other "canonical" texts never managed to do.

That doesn't mean the canonical texts are "bad," mind you. But the truth is where you find it.

Cedar said...

Adventuress--I completely agree. Interestingly, last night with some colleagues we got into a discussion about this blog and Buffy and pleasure in writing, purpose of academic writing, audience, etc., etc. (Nikki, I used your "100,000 copies sold" statistic as evidence at one point!) One of the issues involved accessibility of academic writing to a non-academic audience. One colleague (recently retired) contended (and rightly so in my opinion) that the trend toward "high theory" and, in particular, its jargon in academia has had the effect of alienating general readers rather than drawing a diversity of new readers. I realize that jargon is sometimes necessary, but my hope is that the next trend in academic writing involves clarity. If a goal of the critic is to help explain or explore "the text" for an audience, then academic writing needs to take a figurative page from books like Nikki's that not only provide sophisticated analysis and research but also reach a larger audience (relative to the traditional audience of the average academic book). If we write about what gives us pleasure, let's make it a goal to write in a way that provides pleasure to the readers. (By the way, I've ordered your book Adventuress, but it has not yet arrived! I look forward to the pleasure of reading it.)

Natalie said...

Great post. I agree with you 100%. I'm in grad school in Communication and I always try to weave my TV obsession into every way I can.

I was at Slayage and I didn’t get a chance to chat with you. I didn’t present at Slayage, but earlier in the year I presented a paper about Supernatural and I got a lot of crap from people who never watched the show. I do feel the pain of a TV loving part-time-academic.

I’m linking to your post on my blog, because I enjoyed it so much.


Ronald Helfrich Jnr. said...

--I am reminded of the Midnight Oil song "Short Memory" whenever I hear this knee jerk criticism about the horrors of teaching TV in university. It is, of course reminiscent of what those "guardians of higher culture" said about the teaching and study of film in the academy in the 1960s and 1970s. I guess life really is like that episode of Doctor Who where everything keeps repeating itself over and over again.

--As Nikki points out one of the great ironies here is that The Bard himself was once pop cult. I find it endlessly fascinating how so many in the academy delete this fact from their memories. Gotta admit the Niebuhrian in me loves these ironies.

--Whenever you have the specialisation and division of knowlege labour, ideologies of expertise, and professionalisation you are going to get specialised disciplinary languages. It's kind of territorial pissing isn't it?

Ronald Helfrich Jnr. said...

by the way, I would appreciate any of you exploring, commenting on, and helping me improve my The Idiot Box: History of Television class. You can find it at

I am doing the class online as I write so I have switched everything over to Blackboard. I plan on using Blackboard in the fall as part of the traditional class.

David Kociemba said...

I teach first year media students at Emerson College AND teach a course on Buffy. So I wanted to express my solidarity with you on this issue. It's one that comes up from my film students and even from some colleagues.

Here’s my theory of what it means to take television seriously, strongly influenced by Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness.

I have a roommate who has a t-shirt whose message seems relevant here: "Actually, I like crap." I’ll go one step further: Television is our greatest truth.

Taking television seriously seems difficult--for it is one thing to love something, and quite another to respect it. The television we're talking about here is not even something high-minded in a low art form. It is not sad and boring, not foreign, or silent. Discussing them with seriousness requires putting them back into our memory on screen. Its words pass and are meant to pass without notice, but on another viewing resonate and declare their part in a network of significance.

The study of television is the study of that which is quintessentially American. To do so requires that one check one’s experience, a process we might liken to the empiricism practiced by Emerson and by Thoreau. Or we might recognize that television with its ingratiating urge to communicate clearly relies on recognition and revelation. There is something so deeply important about video, and about television, that it requires explanation. To suggest that what is common sense isn't, is, after all, the point of education.

The empiricism of Emerson and Thoreau requires consulting one’s experience and subjecting it to examination and of momentarily stopping, turning yourself away from your preoccupation and turning your experience away from its expected habitual track to find its own track. Without this trust in one’s experience, expressed as a willingness to find words for it, without thus taking an interest in it, one is without authority in one’s own experience.

And what dominates our experience is media. Radio is the most profitable medium in the U.S., but television still dominates media consumption patterns. According to Nielsen statistics cited in TV Dimensions, media saturates our environment: 28.8 hours a week for TV, 22 hours/wk for radio, 11 hours/wk on the internet, etc. One is faced with a choice in such circumstances. One can declare that this means that now, more than ever, we ought to hold fast to the old ideas of realism, print and the actual. Or one can learn to appreciate the significance, the power, and the beauty of television. It is the only real revolutionary thing a media consumer can do with television: deny their lie that "it's only entertainment" so that you can ignore its omnipresence. (It's as foolish as if one were to say, "Myself, I pay no attention to ads.")

Those who are satisfied they know what television is, who have a final answer: that it is a commodity like any other or a visual medium of popular entertainment... Well, anti-intellectualism is no more or less attractive here than elsewhere. Stanley Cavell, who's been very influential on my thinking for the case for popular media, writes,

“In my experience people worried about reading in, or over-interpretation, or going too far, are typically afraid of getting started, of reading as such, as if afraid that texts—like people, like times and places—mean things and moreover mean more than you know. This may be a healthy fear, that is a fear of something fearful. Still, my experience is that most texts, like most lives, are under-read, not over-read…. This is suggestive of a pervasive conflict suffered by Americans about their own artistic achievements, a conflict that might be described elsewhere as America’s over-praising and undervaluing of those of its accomplishments that it does not ignore.”

But perhaps Emerson, in “The American Scholar”, is the best one to blow the trumpet to rally television majors:

“I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of?… the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;--show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk in these suburbs and extremities of nature…”

To take mainstream television seriously requires a continued search for a new intimacy in the self’s relation to its world, the perception of the sublime in the everyday. Without that sensitivity, one is bound to be blind to some of the best poetry of television, to a sublimity in it.

The most, and perhaps only, democratic thing about American television is its declaration that the common man and ordinary woman can understand and appreciate the best the medium has to offer. Indeed, to even recognize such programs, one must be familiar with the entire mediascape. Only in such low forms as television (and radio, and film, and new media) do you find the belief that the ordinary, unschooled person can rise to the occasion of Homer's raging urgencies, Archie Bunker's mad rants, the wordplay on Buffy, the glances of the eye shared by Scully and Mulder, the form and gait of Kramer's body, the Machiavellian politics of Survivor, the calm patience of Mr. Rogers or the peculiar innocence of Sesame Street at its best.

Again, with the Emerson, this time from "Manners":

“I have seen an individual, whose manners, though wholly within the conventions of elegant society, were never learned from there, but were original and commanding, and held out protection and prosperity; one who did not need the aid of a court-suit, but carried the holiday in his eye; who exhilarated the fancy by flinging wide the doors of new modes of existence; who shook off the captivity of etiquette, with happy, spirited bearing, good-natured and free as Robin Hood; yet with the port of an emperor,--if need be calm, serious, and fit to stand the gaze of millions.”

Cavell uses this quote to describe Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyk. But does that not perfectly describe Xander Harris? And Veronica Mars?