Television has become an integral and inseparable part of people’s everyday life all over the world, being the primary source of news and entertainment for millions of people. Of course, different countries have different levels of television development and population’s access to quality TV services. However, the overwhelming majority of nations, especially highly developed ones, offer a wide range of TV channels for all groups of audience for a relatively low cost. The internet has somewhat decreased the popularity of television as a primary news and entertainment source, but availability of various channels online has stopped this decrease. Anyway, television remains a highly demanded and valued medium in the USA that is actively used in most households. The current paper strives to provide a brief overview of the history of television in the USA with a special emphasis on the role and characteristics of this medium and such topical issues as the effect of corporate ownership on television and relations between television and American culture. Thus, the paper claims that since the time of its advent, television has been and remains a popular and demanded medium in the USA that has a significant impact on American culture and society.
History of television as a peculiar medium started in 1878 when W. Crookes informed the general public that there existed cathode rays, which would be an essential prerequisite for the development of special tubes and scanning devices (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). However, the word ‘television’ was used for the first time by Constantin Perskyi at the First International Congress of Electricity at the Parisian World’s Fair (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). Some scholars predicted at this fair that color television would appear by the beginning of the 21st century. The first moving television pictures were shown in 1925 in England by J. L. Baird, who employed a specialized mechanical system for that purpose (Television history – A timeline, n.d.).
Bell Labs and AT&T were pioneers in the sphere of television development and transmission, launching a broadcast in Washington and New York in 1927 (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). In the same year, the US government decided to start governing a new medium and adopted the Radio Act, which was later repealed in 1934 (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). This act stipulated programming rules, licensing procedures, and establishment of the Federal Radio Commission (hereinafter referred to as the FRA) that granted permits for the use of airwaves (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). Two first television stations named WGY-TV and W2XBS were launched in New York in 1928, and the former succeeded in transmitting a rather prolonged program to 4 TV sets (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). 1928 was marked with other two significant events in the history of American television: the FRA issued its first license to Jenkins’ W3XK, and the first mechanical TV sets were produced by GE for sale to the general public (Television history – A timeline, n.d.).
Withal, the history of American television is full of various achievements and remarkable events, and it is virtually an impossible task to list them all while it would take dozens, if not hundreds of pages merely to name them and their respective years. Therefore, only the most significant dates and achievements are going to be mentioned. Commercial television began in the USA on July 1, 1941 and was subject to the standard of 525 lines (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). In the same year, the first legal commercial, which advertised Bulova watches, was shown. The ad lasted 10 seconds, which cost the company $9 (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). On July 1, the first newscast was aired by WCBS (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). The well-known companies CBS and NBC undertook television programming that encompassed about 15 hours a week. In the same year, CBS broadcasted news about the Pearl Harbor attack on its TV channel.
Since the US entered the WWII, production and sale of commercial television equipment was suspended. Thus, 1946 was a revival year for American television when post-war programs were developed and broadcasted and new TV sets, called 630-TS, went on sale for $350 (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). Approximately 10,000 TV sets were sold within a year. This number increased to 44,000 and 350,000 TV sets in 1947 and 1948 respectively (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). This number has been steadily growing since then. The year of 1950 saw a real TV sets boom when more than 6,132,000 sets were sold, thus accounting for 9 percent of American households (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). Color television was highly anticipated in the country. And the first color television sets went on sale in 1954 for $1,000 each. In 1954, more than half of all US households had a TV set at home (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). Within 2 years, the price of color television sets fell by more than a half, hence becoming more affordable for ordinary Americans. In the early 1960s, there were already almost 70 million TV sets in the USA. In the 1950s – 1960s, television became the favorite medium of the American society.
One of the proofs of such popularity is the fact that “TV Guide” became “the biggest-selling periodical of the decade” (U.S. History, 2014). Sitcoms and westerns were the most beloved programs in the US within this period. Thus, the sitcom “I Love Lucy” had the highest ratings in the 1950s, being followed by such shows as “Leave It to Beaver”, “Father Knows Best”, and “The Donna Reed Show” (U.S. History, 2014). At the same time, westerns were recognized as the best films shown on television thanks to “America’s fascination with the Wild West”, which turned “into a love affair” after broadcasting of “The Roy Rogers Show”, “Hopalong Cassidy”, “Bonanza”, “Rin Tin Tin”, and the like (U.S. History, 2014).
A qualitatively new television era started in 1962 after AT&T launched the first satellite. Just two years later, the University of Illinois presented plasma television prototypes. However, the amount of color television sets owned by American households remained relatively low in the 1960s, reaching only approximately 5 percent by the end of the decade. Afterwards, the development of television has been quite rapid, and each year has seen new presentations and achievements. New television standards, programs, children television requirements, as well as achievements in terms of broadcasting and cable television have been introduced since the 1970s. In 1999, reality television reached the peak of its popularity with the program “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” being on the top of TV rankings (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). In 2000, legal dramas were among the most popular television programs as 9 out of 20 top rankings were taken by them (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). At the beginning of the new millennium, 98 percent of American households had more than 1 TV set at home. On average, every adult American reported watching about 4 hours of television a day in the early 2000s. In 2004, there were more than 300 cable networks in the USA, and many of them were available online (Television history – A timeline, n.d.). Hence, the history of television has been extremely eventful and rich.
Storytelling is an ancient concept that has existed for centuries and has been used by the humanity to share and exchange knowledge, values and wisdom with their fellow societies and future generations. However, introduction of various media like television has led to the necessity to review this notion and its basic principles, hence resulting in the emergence of digital storytelling. Digital Storytelling Association defines this relatively new concept as “the modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling” (as cited in Digital storytelling for communities, n.d.). Besides, it adds that “Throughout history…stories have taken many different forms. Stories have been adapted to each successive medium that has emerged, from the circle of the campfire to the silver screen, and now the computer screen” (as cited in Digital storytelling for communities, n.d.). Thus, storytelling has evolved over the centuries to incorporate new technologies to tell stories in a more efficient way. Therefore, modern storytelling, including the television one, may be considered as a natural evolution of the storytelling tradition and its successful progression to fit the contemporary reality.
Television storytelling is unique in many respects, but it has the most in common with cinema storytelling due to the similar history of these two media’s development. Nonetheless, television storytelling has had to tackle unprecedented obstacles and overcome difficulties that are absent in the cinema discourse. Thus, Tom Dowd (2013) calls television storytelling “a tale of two dynamics.” The first dynamics consists in its similarities with storytelling of motion pictures since television has borrowed many elements from the film industry. The second dynamics is “a gradual evolution over time, with television storytelling being slowly reshaped by strong forces tied directly to a medium that is dictated by broadcast networks and their financial model” (Dowd, 2013). The matter is that television storytelling is governed by the broadcast schedule and the necessity for sponsor-driven broadcasters to adapt their storytelling to advertising needs. Sponsor-driven model of television networks means that series and programs are broken into parts with ads, and directors have to devise ways to sustain viewers and attract premium commercial companies who search for quality advertising services at the same time. This model currently dominates in the industry of American television though the subscriber-driven model gains popularity thanks to lobbying of such networks as Showtime and HBO. Anyway, advertising is an integral part of television, and its storytelling has to take into account this element.
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Commercials have become so deeply engrained into the television medium that one may occasionally hear “derisive comments that television stories are simply a method for delivering advertisements”, yet TV producers have succeeded in “creatively adapting traditional storytelling techniques into new forms” that are dynamic and unique as well as attractive for other media striving to adapt to requirements of the modern age (Dowd, 2013). Any television story consists of acts, i.e. constituent blocks that divide the entire story into narrative chunks. However, television acts are quite different from acts in motion pictures because they do not seamlessly flow into each other. Besides, television storytelling model does not always comply with the film three-act model. Television stories may consist of many acts that are separated by ads at regular intervals. Therefore, TV producers have had to invent ways how to hold viewers’ attention during commercial breaks and not to let them forget what has been shown in the previous act. The latter task is successfully completed thanks to “additional storytelling elements, such as the recap, prologue, teaser, tag, cliffhanger and previews” (Dowd, 2013).
Some shows still try to fit in the three-act model, but recently more and more television programs have shifted to more acts that are not always logically divided into parts but are successfully bridged thanks to the above mentioned additional storytelling elements. On the whole, the number of acts and additional storytelling elements preferred depends on the genre and format of a TV program, but the narration usually follows conventions set forth by the three-act model of storytelling. In initial acts, which coincide with Act 1 of the three-act model, the key characters are presented and the protagonist is shown to have some need or wish. In order to satisfy the need, the protagonist has to undertake some actions and solve a problematic situation. The protagonist does everything possible to reach his/her goal, and entire program develops around this particular goal.
Besides, the protagonist has to face some conflict irrespective of the genre of the program. In the further acts, just like in Act 2 in cinema storytelling, conflicts become more challenging and complicated, and it is more difficult to solve problems than before. In the final acts, which can be equated to Act 3 in the three-act model, there should be a climax of the story when the protagonist either succeeds or fails. Everything after the climax is the resolution of the story. Television storytelling sometimes breaks the described model into more than three acts and inserts commercials between them. The more successful the program is, the higher will be the price of the commercial time in breaks, thus generating more revenues for the network, making the program successful and ensuring that it will be aired for seasons.
Genre has been employed for many years in literary studies as well as in film analysis, but it was applied to the research of television only in the 1970s, hence being a relatively new sphere of studies. Television genre is subject to various discussions and debates. Most scholars agree that genre may be defined as “a system based on perceived similarities and differences and on a set of expectations and assumptions shared by the reader/viewer” (Akass & McCabe, 2007). In terms of television genre, this concept remains quite difficult to define in a unanimous way. Moreover, there is a supposition that this concept is abstract and a phenomenon made by people.
With respect to television genre, there are several key ideas. Some scholars agree that this genre “guides industrial procedures – how it organized itself, how it appeals to viewers and how commercial stations deliver audiences to advertisers” (Akass & McCabe, 2007). Some scholars claim that genre “is a means of managing TVs notorious extensiveness as a cultural form” (Akass & McCabe, 2007). In the sphere of television, the concept of genre is extremely useful and valuable since it helps broadcasting companies create new programs quickly and efficiently on the basis of formulas that have already proved their success among target audience. Moreover, some broadcasting companies, for instance, Sci-Fi and Comedy Central create their brand image on the basis of their adherence to a particular television genre that they promote. Studies of the television genre point out that companies have to take into consideration their target audience since “as far as genre is concerned, expectations exist both to be satisfied, and, also, to be redefined”, i.e. producers should evolve and develop their channels in line with viewers’ wishes (Akass & McCabe, 2007).
In general, scholars distinguish three major characteristics of the television genre. The first one concerns “the structural analysis of text” (Akass & McCabe, 2007). The second one considers viewers targeted and their expected reception of various formats and shows. The third one consists in “commercial practices and institutional demands” (Akass & McCabe, 2007). Television genre cannot be determined as merely one generic type of programs shown by some company, like a comedy or a drama, as it is a much broader implicitly perceived notion. Different companies often mix typically distinguished genres of programs to create a mixture that would be appealing to the target audience. Therefore, television genre may be considered as extremely hybridized and constantly changing in accordance with viewers’ preferences and expectations. Furthermore, the television genre is subject to intertextuality and flexibility with respect to products offered to the target audience.
It goes without saying that the mass media play an essential role in shaping the society and its views on various issues they raise. However, the media and especially television can hardly be called objective in their coverage of news and events and unbiased and utterly disinterested in the provision of different reality shows and programs. Television is present in the daily life of every American, and it often influences their subconscious and shapes their perception of miscellaneous notions and events. Therefore, owners of television companies are the ones who control their broadcasting schedules and set forth their companies’ ideologies. In addition, ownership has an immense effect on television trends and “pervasive consequences for the character of public debate, the attitudes people form towards social issues and social conflicts, and ultimately the possibilities for various kinds of social change to occur in a democracy” (Wright & Rogers, 2010).
The matter is that most television companies as well as other mass media companies are corporate in the USA and are arranged as capitalist companies. There are virtually no publicly-owned television networks, which has given a rise to criticism of the situation, implying that “efforts at global dominance” of “a tiny group of oligopolistic industrialists” “have been accelerated by their cozy relationship with succeeding administrators” (Barnett, 2010). Media conglomerates own television networks and determine what the viewers will see and what views will be subconsciously suggested. Corporate ownership of major television and media giants is sometimes perceived as “a significant anti-democratic force in the US” (Barnett, 2010). This is so because one and the same idea or event may be represented in different ways, which would definitely impact the public’s attitude towards this idea or event to a large extent. The ability to determine and select news and programs that are suitable for some peculiar purpose means power to influence the country’s direction and ordinary Americans’ life. This supposition is proved with numerous studies researching the influence and power of television with respect to human beings.
Corporate ownership of television means that directors and producers have to create products that would generate revenues rather than fulfill any other purposes like education or enlightenment. In turn, such profit-oriented direction promotes the culture of consumerism among Americans since most TV channels get a significant share of their revenues from commercials. Thus, breaks during shows or programs become more frequent and advertising becomes more creative and persuasive while other TV products may suffer a decline in quality and innovation. Commercials are sometimes more creative and impressive than new television series that target average consumers without any aspiration to broaden their outlook. Many television products have become merely a way to spend time in front of the TV screen without a necessity to think about some important or topical issues. Corporate ownership also means that programs are assessed in terms of their popularity among viewers, and once a likable format or genre is detected, it will be exploited and countless imitations will be produced until its popularity wanes and its ability to bring profit exhausts. Current television trends promoted by corporate owners of media giants include legal and medical dramas, reality shows with celebrities, programs relating to some scandals, and sitcoms.
Television has had an unprecedented impact on American culture because of its pervasive nature. Thus, Professor Gary R. Edgerton emphasizes that “no technology before TV ever integrated faster into American life. Television took only 10 years to reach a penetration of 35 million households, while the telephone required 80 years…and even radio needed 25” (Falck, 2008). Moreover, every American watches in general up to 35 hours of TV per week, which means that television plays a vital role in daily activities. Hence, it may be definitely stated that television has significantly impacted American culture since it is its major part as “Just the act of watching TV impacts who we are” (Striepe, 2013).
The influence of television on American culture has been both positive and negative in some respects. First of all, television is often blamed for promotion of consumerism and unhealthy eating, resulting in obesity. Commercials advertise various products and junk food that are then desired by average Americans. Obesity is also caused by the fact that people spend a lot of time sitting on their couches in front of TV screens instead of exercising or going for a walk, for example. Furthermore, television has had a significant influence on values perceived as common by Americans. The value and concept of family has been somewhat damaged as one study proves that married couples are less committed to preserving their families once they start believing in images and stereotypical portrayals propagated by television (Striepe, 2013). Quality time spent with children has also decreased to 38 minutes per week spent on “screen-free interactions” (Striepe, 2013). However, there are positive impacts in this respect as well since some harmful social stereotypes are destroyed and tolerance is promoted. For example, television has increased acceptance of gay and lesbian couples by average Americans (Striepe, 2013). Gender equality may be regarded as another positive influence of television that has helped to promote it in the society. At the same time, television reduces the level of knowledgeability about recent news and topical issues. This may seem odd due to a wide range of channels, but people tend to prefer one or two major news sources and believe in what they are told by these sources and ignore other less biased channels, which may be increase their ignorance and limited worldview.
Another major impact of television concerns body image and promotion of stereotypical perception of beauty. Although it has been recently declared that all body shapes and all types of beauty should be appreciated, ordinary people, especially teenagers, aspire to look and behave like celebrities, hence increasing their chances of developing unhealthy habits relating to eating disorders and substance abuse. One of the most negative influences of television on American culture concerns acceptance of violence and desensitization to cruelty and violent behavior. There are numerous studied related to this issue that research both short-term and long-term impact of television on violent behavior, but their findings differ and are not yet conclusive. Nonetheless, researchers agree that one “might be more likely to react violently in a stressful situation, because you’ve been desensitized to that type of behavior or think it’s an acceptable reaction” (Striepe, 2013). This is especially so for children. If this is really true, then television has made American culture more violent and tolerant to cruelty than it was before. Nonetheless, there has been another positive impact of television, which consists in offering people common interests and a basis for socialization, but only provided that television is combined with other more interactive media.
The relationship between American culture and television should not be regarded as something unilateral as their influence is reciprocal. Not only television influences the society, American culture also has a significant impact on the medium. Television is often called a mirror of the society that allows it to see its shortcomings and faults in order to improve them. The fact that television is the source of all vices in the USA is highly disputable and cannot be proved with sufficient evidence. Some people say that it promotes violence, yet if the American society was not violent to some extent in the first place, television channels would have no interest in and no profit from creating products that have a lot of violent behavior. In such case, viewers would not watch them, which would lower their ratings and lead to closure of these programs.
Furthermore, the American society determines what television formats and genres are popular at a definite period of time. Of course, networks may implicitly influence people’s likes and dislikes, but they always take into account initial social moods and viewers’ preferences, which then become the basis for TV products. Thus, reality shows have become so popular because American culture has been a fruitful ground for them. Various dramas and sitcoms have high ratings because they reflect some key values of American culture. American television is often exported abroad, thus propagating American culture all over the world. It is possible to state that gays have been increasingly accepted in the world thanks to their portrayal in American television shows and series. Diminutive shifts and changes in American culture immediately find their reflection in products offered by television since the society and television have mutual influence and are tightly interrelated.
Television has been an inseparable part of the American society for many decades. Recently, there have been speculations that its popularity may be threatened by the internet, but this prediction has not come true so far. Television has been and remains a key news and entertainment source for millions of Americans. The question whether it influences the society positively or negatively is highly controversial and debatable. The medium under consideration is multifaceted and should not be approached from one perspective. The current paper has attempted to provide a brief overview of the history of American television as well as its relationship with American culture. Besides, it has presented television as a peculiar genre that is greatly impacted by corporate ownership of major US media conglomerates. The paper has proved that television is a fascinating medium that performs a wide range of functions and roles in the American society and evolves and develops along with the USA. Withal, the future of television seems to depend on its ability to adapt to demands and needs of the contemporary digitalized and globalized world as well as its willingness to cooperate with other media.