Mittell, Television & American Culture

Class date: January 31, 2011

What is television?

According to Jason Mittell’s book preview, Television and American Culture, television could be defined as “the most powerful and prevalent mass communication medium in America and in the world.”  Television has multiple roles:

  1. Commercial industry: profitable industry—advertisements, fees, sales
  2. Democratic institution: informs people through news and electoral coverage; the FCC cannot censor/pre-judge content prior to its airing, but can levy fines to broadcasters who air “indecent” material causing broadcasters to sometimes over-edit controversial or important things, decisions made to either include or exclude some things
  3. Textual form: creative form; broad mix of production models: live broadcast to filmed programming, in-studio to on-location production; the medium ultimately controls what viewers see
  4. Site of cultural representation: shapes our perceptions of various groups of people, complexity of different character representations, we begin to believe our stereotypes are true –> our idea of normalcy changes, what we see more of becomes “normal” to us.  Example: representation of women as only doing “girl” jobs: nurse, teacher, homemaker
  5. Part of everyday life: viewing and talking about television is part of our everyday routine; television events often become the content of public debate and discussion
  6. Technological medium: it’s a technology—digital media in the home, DVDs to video games, video camera/cell phones are now used to capture live events as they happen

All of these functions link together in different ways.  Different disciplines approach television in different ways, but the truest picture arrives when we understand television across all of these divisions.

There are three specific eras of American television:

1. The Classic Network Era: mid-1940s-1980s, emergence of television and outgrowth of radio, nearly all programming was by ABC, CBS, and NBC

2. The Multi-Channel Era: 1980s, television shifted from being dominated by national broadcast networks to new technologies of cable and satellite, new technologies like remote controls and VCRs, people began having multiple televisions in their home

3. The Convergence Era: aka Post Network Era, happening right now, viewers are taking control of schedules and using new technologies (TiVo) to resist advertising as the primary source of income for the television industry, norms of the past will be challenged and redefined in unforeseen ways

“American viewers have few opportunities to see television from other countries—the United States exports a great deal of media around the world, but imports almost none onto its television schedule.”

I definitely agree with this statement by Jason Mittell.  While visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2009 I was shocked by the abundance of “American” television shows and cultural influences.  For example, my Argentine friend watches “The Simpsons” on a daily basis and has seen every episode. While in Argentina I was still able to watch MTV’s “Teen Mom” television show in English too.  In the U.S., I can’t think of a television show that’s imported from Argentina or any other country except Canada.


Episode level character: characters that appear in a specific or given episode

Program level character: characters that regularly occur in the episodes, core cast members

Reflection: exact representation

Refraction: we see the same image but it’s distorted and manipulated