Inside Prime Time
Knee deep in the big muddy

by Elayne Rapping

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 17-18
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

Inside Prime Time, Todd Gitlin, Pantheon, 369 pp., $16.95.

Todd Gitlin's Inside Prime Time, a study of the workings of network prime time television, has caused quite a stir among mainstream and left-liberal media critics. Barbara Long in the January/February 1984 issue of Channels magazine writes,"

It's been done before, but never in an operation with such impressive credentials or on a scale this ambitious."

The book received a full-page favorable review in the December 31, 1983, issue of TV Guide, too. And Pat Aufderheide, in a review printed in the October 28, 1983, issue of the Village Voice, and then reprinted in the independent socialist weekly, In These Times, could hardly contain her enthusiasm:

"Todd Gitlin's Inside Prime Time may be the best book we get — certainly its the best we have yet  — on the business and culture of prime time programming."

Jacket blurbs, from such notable left-liberal cultural types as Ed Asner and Susan Sontag (an admitted "nonwatcher" of television), are full of hyperbole: invaluable," "fascinating," "the best book on television around."

This is high praise indeed, some of it deserved. But it says more about the state of U.S intellectuals' thinking about mass culture than it does about the book itself. Closely read, Inside Prime Time reveals assumptions and biases about mass culture that, while typical of many left thinkers, have many serious flaws. The book's class perspective, understanding of the ideological aspects of popular drama, and assumptions about how it affects readers are woefully inadequate, to say the least.

It is by now a cliché — and a less than useful one — to speak of television, and popular culture generally, as beneath contempt. Since the 1950s we have been hearing about the "vast wasteland" of television, with its sole purpose of selling products. It is, therefore, surprising that Inside Prime Time has received its most glowing praise for reiterating just these points. Both TV Guide and Channels quote Gitlin's statement that TV is "inert, derivative, cardboard … [But] good enough for its purposes." Aufderheide quotes further from the same passage, in which Gitlin explains those purposes: "to assemble maximum numbers of people in their living rooms and keep them minimally diverted." She further agrees with Gitlin's judgment that "the vision of the world that TV delivers is anti-political," although "its consequences are not." Why? Because, she says, this "debased prime time product doesn't just occupy space, it prevents other"-and here she uses Gitlin's language — "more intelligent, complicated, true, beautiful and public-spirited" programming to emerge.

There are several assumptions running through all these critical commentaries. Never mind, for the moment, that words such as "complicated, true, beautiful" are vague at best and point to elitist values at worst. The real kicker is that Gitlin and his admirers view home TV audiences as mindless, passive sponges, who sit in a trance, accepting and absorbing whatever passes before their eyes.

The truth is far more complex and interesting. There is no question, of course, that commercial TV exists, first and foremost, to sell capitalist products and values. As any number of media analysts have shown,

"The capitalist media have as their primary aim the realization and distribution of private profit on invested capital and this visibly affects their major [programming] policies."[1]

For this reason, artistic and social values do not play a primary role in network programming decisions.

But that is not the same as saying that audiences will sit still for, much less buy, anything that comes their way. The rapid turnovers and shiftings of prime time schedules, often in a single season, attest to the fact that network executives and sponsors spend a lot of time looking for shows with "the right stuff." Spin-offs and copies of hit formulae — which Gitlin sees as the bulk of TV fare — are not generally as successful as their models because, in fact, it is not as easy to hook viewers as Gitlin thinks.

Before critiquing the book itself, then, it makes sense to examine some of its implicit theories and frame what, in my view, is a more adequate perspective on the subject. It is simplistic to view TV programming as the mindless pablum Gitlin describes. TV shows, and popular culture generally, are not "anti-political." They are a form of social propaganda that aims to sell "the good life," promising to fulfill real human needs and desires within the political and social context of capitalism. But capitalism inherently makes such fulfillment impossible. Popular culture — when it works — offers viewers a vision of life in the U.S. which seems to fulfill our needs for love, community, freedom, justice — in short, the things promised us by the rhetoric of bourgeois democracy. In the process, popular culture delivers seriously distorted images of capitalism, human nature, and other things. It projects values onto objects and actions that, in truth, cannot possibly provide them. In the words of the well-known advertisement, it "promises us anything, but gives us Arpege" (on credit and at high interest rates).

The way in which this system works has been particularly well described by Raymond Williams, in his writings on the Gramscian concept of hegemony. Hegemony, says Williams, is "a central, effective, dominant system of meanings and values" which "constitute a sense of reality for most people." But it is not, he goes on, "in any sense a static system." Rather, "it is continually active and adjusting … more substantial and flexible than any abstract imposed ideology." Finally, says Williams,

"We have to recognize the alternative meanings and values, the alternative opinions and attitudes, even some alternative senses of the world, which can be accommodated and tolerated within a particular effective and dominant culture."[2]

To give a specific example of this process, we might look at the long-lived popularity of daytime soap operas. Far from being the mindlessly idiotic junk which many would have us believe, soaps are among the more sophisticated and flexible forms of popular culture. While never compromising their implicitly reactionary ideological thrust (pro-capitalist, pro-nuclear family, pro-law and order), they have managed over the years to incorporate a host of new, somewhat progressive attitudes into their scripts. In recent years, themes such as extramarital sex, women struggling in the world of work, lesbianism, and interracial relations have been treated in surprisingly positive ways. Rape, wife abuse, and incest have also been presented on many shows from a clearly feminist perspective.

But, at the same time, soaps still by and large present the same distorted view of capitalism and its leaders as they always have. Men — particularly men of power and wealth — are seen as infinitely supportive of women and primarily concerned with personal life. Communities are unbelievably tightly knit. Support systems spanning generations and classes exist for anyone in trouble. Characters are generally "good" or "bad." And their moral status has no relation to class backgrounds. In fact, "bad" characters miraculously transform into "good" ones at the whim of the writers and producers. Overall, soaps present a fantasy vision of life under capitalism which fulfills the dreams of most women viewers. And they do it by distorting the realities of social, sexual and emotional relations in the system in which we live.

Gitlin expresses none of this complexity and contradiction in his book. And the main reason for this failure, I think, is his implicit class perspective. He presents his entire study, not from the point of view of audience responses or network executives' political values, but instead from the point of view of the writers and producers who create the stuff. Gitlin's style is engaging. He has not written in the traditional scholarly mode. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Gitlin spent the better part of two years (198082) hanging out at the studios. He interviewed over 200 executives, directors, producers, agents and actors. He read successive versions of scripts, sat in at tapings, and generally internalized the feel, the mindset and the values of the people he spoke with. Gitlin is a University of California sociologist and former leader of Students for a Democratic Society (an influential New Left organization of the 1960s). His "one of the guys" approach to the "vast wasteland" may, therefore, seem a bit surprising. But much of what he learned turns out to be fascinating.

The most interesting chapters record and explain the workings of the networks in simple clear language. In "The Deal Is the Art Form," for example, Gitlin provides a lively, detailed picture of the prime time world. Images of "new white Jaguars," sporting plates with such legends as "TEN PER," winding down Beverly Drive, are combined with some of the clearest explanations you'll get of how, for example, the breakdown of the old studio system led to the current method of "one shot deals," in which agents, rather than writers and producers call the shots. He shows how, as "the powerful people gravitate toward each other and make their deals," as economic considerations take precedence over character development, plausible plot lines and social themes. He explains with equal clarity how the ratings systems work, detailing the process by which the need to "deliver audiences to sponsors" leads to the tendency to create endless spin-offs and copies of previous successes.

If you want to know how TV gets to be TV, you couldn't do better than Gitlin. But if you want to know what it really means socially and politically, you almost couldn't do worse. Yet the insider's view that makes Gitlin's descriptions of the light and shade, the nuance and detail, so believable is frought with analytical peril. There is really nothing new about the meaning of it all in what Gitlin tells us, after all. He simply confirms and elaborates on a well-known fact about commercial TV: it's meant to sell products, not create art. But by sinking so deeply into the mindset of the "creative" people whom he so clearly enjoys, he inevitably presents his material and his analysis from their point of view — from their class perspective, to be accurate. And that is a serious error.

The men and women Gitlin listens to so sympathetically are in fact the very people Lawrence Kasdan presented with equal sympathy in the film THE BIG CHILL. They are, for the most part, former political and social activists, or at least idealists, who came to TV to try to "say something meaningful" to a mass audience and ended by feeling cynical, self-pitying and used. The image of the progressive, idealistic artist up against the stupid old network executives dominates the book. There is, for example, Gary David Goldberg, who "was a child of the sixties … who with his lover … started the Organic Nursery Center in Berkeley" before moving to the more real, sullied world of TV writing. And, oh boy, did he get burned. Did he learn his lesson? Did he leave? It's a question that doesn't come up. Gitlin never even flirts with the idea that these people might have options, might be responsible for their own choices. Many equally talented people live on shoestrings, while working in alternative media. There are even people within the industry who are joining with their non-professional colleagues to organize for some measure of political control. That such options never occur to a leftist writer is odd.

This identification with a "creative community" which is, after all, a very well-paid segment of the petit-bourgeoisie, would be no more than irritating, if it didn't seriously hamper Gitlin's analytical work. One goes to a movie like THE BIG CHILL primarily to be entertained. But ones goes to an analysis of prime time TV to be educated. The media, as Gitlin himself showed in his earlier book, The Whole World Is Watching, is an important political institution. But in order to see why, you must stand back from the experience of its producers, and their self-serving biases, and see it in larger terms.

In fact, what Gitlin conveyed in his earlier book is all but forgotten or denied here. "In liberal capitalist societies," he had written, "no institution is devoid of hegemonic functions." He had asserted,

"The media are controlled by members of top corporate and political elites and by individuals they attempt (with varying degrees of success) to bring into their social and ideological worlds."

He then explained how such "individuals" are entrusted with formulating and setting the limits on the media version of reality, in a word, and with enforcing ideological hegemony. They are talented, clever and very well paid for their services and willingness to participate in "complex class alliances,"[3] he wrote in earlier works.

Gitlin does not merely leave such analysis out of his new book because he is writing for a popular audience. Instead, he actually contradicts and denies that earlier analysis. This is nowhere more evident than in the passage quoted most approvingly by mainstream critics. TV, says Gitlin, to the delight, in particular, of TV Guide, is "simply bad … because no one with clout cares enough to make it otherwise."

This is absurd. Any number of Gitlin's own examples, if interpreted according to his earlier theories, tend to show that what Gitlin calls "bad" in esthetic terms is, in fact, politically reactionary, and deliberately so. Is it really because "Neilsen employees are loath to tread into the ghettoes" that the ratings don't reflect minority and poor viewers' opinions? Or is it rather an obvious and rational decision on the part of the networks to focus on white, suburban viewers, because they are the primary consumers of sponsors' products? Or, to use another example, is it really an "accident" that TV producers tend invariably to reduce social and political issues to "little human condition stories"? Or is it rather that this focus on the personal is a built-in staple of commercial TV to ft the consumerist bent of the medium, for example? Narrowly defined "personal" stories divert attention away from the larger social and political forces that inform our lives. Such a political focus, Gitlin attests, makes the networks and sponsors very nervous.

That Gitlin's pals in Hollywood don't think politically is not an interesting little quirk. It's a requirement of their jobs. Gitlin himself knows, for example, that "fully one-half of prime time television is scripted by 10% of the Writers Guild's 3000 members." He knows that all TV folk "breathe the same cultural air," attend "the same parties" read "the same maazines" (Time, Newsweek, People) and get their views of, say, campus life from their own Ivy League offspring. He even knows that most TV living rooms, whether MAUDE's or CHARLIE'S ANGELS', are furnished with the same expensive, stylish consumer ware — the same stuff pushed in commercials and found, in fact, in the homes of the TV crowd. And yet, he fails to draw the obvious conclusion: that this in itself is a reflection of their class positions and alliances.

My use of such Marxist terminology would surely draw Gitlin's ire. He is at pains to ridicule all leftist "conspiracy theories" of why TV is bad. "The networks," he insists, "are not trying to indoctrinate the helpless masses." Like so many liberal critics of the Vietnam war, Gitlin wants to blame the problems of television production on stupidity and bureaucratic bumbling. But this is a cop out. Gitlin can only make it seem plausible because his view of fictional programming is so politically myopic. Where, in The Whole World Is Watching, he found "ideological framing" everywhere in network news, when it comes to drama, he sees almost no ideological content at all.

Errors in his thinking on the matter — with their roots in a bourgeois class perspective — are most blatant and annoying in his lengthy discussion of HILL STREET BLUES, the darling of liberal media critics. To Gitlin this show is living proof that TV producers are capable of "high quality," even popular "high quality," and that it is only the idiocy of the executives that keeps such programing off the air. "In May of 1981," he tells us, ABC executives, believing that Reagan was "touching the patriotic impulse" and that audiences wanted "heroes," created the conservative STRIKE FORCE. That show bombed, however, while HILL STREET BLUES, which Gitlin describes as a "mature and even brilliant show" which put forth an occasional "radical" perspective, was a hit.

But was HILL STREET BLUES really more progressive than STRIKE FORCE? Gitlin quotes the show's producers, admitting that it put forth a worldview in which "there is very little illusion about things ever getting better" and that "social movements" have no place "in the show's conception of heroism." In fact, from a left perspective, HILL STREET BLUES is not all that different from STRIKE FORCE in its political values and messages. Both present the cop as hero, manipulate their audiences to identify and sympathize with the plight of the cop rather than the "criminal" or other community residents, and present the problem of "crime" itself as a given, an inevitable and unchanging fact of human nature and modern society.

The fact that Gitlin fails to see the ideological underpinnings of such shows raises questions about his political and critical commitments. What Gitlin most admires in the show is its style — its "high density, nervous energy and look of controlled chaos" which, he says, were previously "alien to commercial TV." But these stylistic techniques are linked to very specific political attitudes. The show "raised unanswerable questions" for its producers. These same producers consider themselves "unfashionably liberal" and Gitlin agrees. HILL STREET BLUES "worked," he says, "because it immersed itself … in the energy of American liberal-middle-class ideology turned on itself, at a loss for direction." It portrayed the "hopes of the sixties" gone sour. Some characters were even given "a radical past" and a "1980's disillusionment" to go with it. Gitlin's love of the show seems to reflect his own identification with just such attitudes.

Such love of "post-liberal cynicism" may seem a far cry politically from the idealistic distortions of daytime soaps. But, in fact, these two distortions are only two sides of the same coin. Soap operas present fantasies in which capitalism fulfills all our human needs, while shows like HILL STREET BLUES present the darker side of that same fantasy, excusing capitalism for not making our dreams come true. Capitalism ultimately fails, not because it's a bad system, but because human nature is simply incapable of realizing its Jeffersonian dreams. A similar worldview is present in such popular nighttime soaps as DALLAS and DYNASTY. Here, too, we are presented with a cynical view of human nature, which rationalizes the inequities and evils of capitalism and its class system. Just as Capt. Furillo is presented as the best the system can produce, so is Krystle Carrington. The end result of all such shows is to leave the viewer feeling that "you can't change human nature" and sympathizing and identifying with the best of a bad lot of options, rather than questioning the system itself.

Even Gitlin's view of the failure of STRIKE FORCE as a sign of the U.S. audience's repudiation of reaction in favor of liberalism is off base. In fact, the highly successful THE A-TEAM about a gang of Vietnam vets, who solve crimes and help the downtrodden through acts of outrageously campy, and macho, derring do, attests to that. THE A-TEAM is every bit as reactionary as anything on TV, but its heroes and style — in contrast to the very old-fashioned STRIKE FORCE are ever so hip and trendy. And their actions — again in contrast to STRIKE FORCE — are outside of, and often in defiance of, traditional law enforcement agencies. Thus audiences have their cake and eat it, too. The message on THE A-TEAM is ultra-reactionary, but the heroes do defy the bureaucratic, generally corrupt state institutions that most viewers already mistrust and resent, and that's their apparent appeal to Gitlin.

But Gitlin's propensity to ignore complex and contradictory ideological messages is a major problem with the book. So is his palsy-walsy acceptance of what the writers and producers present to him as their "idealistic" intentions. For one thing, this shows that what he, and they, most admire are not the most progressive things on prime time. In fact, the occasional made-for-TV movie — Lee Grant's A MATTER OF SEX, about the successful strike of eight female bank clerks — are often far more progressive than any current series. These movies may lack the stylistic innovation Gitlin so admires, but they do occasionally present images of oppressed people engaging in collective, successful struggles against corporate and state institutions. The fact that they are "one shot deals" may explain the networks' willingness to run them from time to time.

These progressive examples bring us back to the question of hegemony, of the way in which the dominant culture does in fact allow occasional alternative values and visions to be aired, while placing primary emphasis on reinforcing the dominant values and setting clear limits on alternative visions.

Gitlin doesn't understand this TV dynamic, again because of his "insider's view" of TV, as its creators see it. He pays far too much attention to insiders' "idealistic" intentions and far too little to the actual experience of watching TV and to the institution as a whole. The dangers in this approach are articulated very well by John Berger. He writes in Ways of Seeing about the advertising industry:

"Publicity has an important social function. The fact that this function has not been planned as a purpose by those who make and use publicity in no way lessens its significance. Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy."[4]

What Berger says about publicity could and has been said of popular culture generally. It offers its own distorted vision of what is possible, and emotionally and socially fulfilling, as a substitute for truly meaningful solutions to the very real emotional and political problems of its audiences. That those who are paid to perform this sleight of hand aren't aware of it, or are unwilling to admit it, should not be surprising. It is the job of leftist media critics to cut through this class myopia and reveal the political and social forces behind the self-serving rhetoric. That Gitlin buys this rhetoric and sinks so deeply into it makes his book itself a part of the mass political confusion about the role of the media.

The success of this book with industry personnel and critics alike, speaks to the enormous need for more serious, politically astute studies of television and its ideological underpinnings. A public that watches an average of seven hours of TV a day is a public in need of critical guidelines and insights into the workings of this powerful medium, from board room to cutting room. Indeed, if Gitlin's book tells us anything, it is that the glamour and seductiveness of network TV, and the world in which it is produced, is far greater — even to some leftists — than most of us have perhaps been willing to admit. For that reason alone, it demands our serious attention.


1. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Schocken, 1974), p. 30.

2. Raymond Williams, "Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory," in Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980), pp. 38-39.

3. Todd Gitlin, The Whole World Is Watching (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980), p. 254.

4. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York, Penguin, 1977), p. 149.