Following the cancellation of sitcom Roseanne, BONNIE GREER looks at the changing landscape of American television.
America is and was built on myth. It is impossible to understand the US, to live and thrive there, without knowing this and somehow, in the end, becoming a part of it, too. Every American carries within herself/himself myth – a national one which, in turn, encourages and demands the personal.
For example, there is the original myth of ‘discovery’; the lie that the land was filled with savages, empty of civilisation. There are others too, and each president carries his own. It is de rigueur.
The longevity of the Republic’s principal myth, that of ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ – a myth that existed alongside slavery; racial segregation; Indian reservations; the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War; the belief that Catholics owed allegiance to the Vatican; that Jews were a corrupt and alien force, and so on – is the principal reason why the US essentially has no sense of humour. This myth is profoundly believed, nurtured and defended. It is Make America Great Again.
My first president was JFK. At the time of his campaign and election in 1960, there was a song that we kids sung at school called High Hopes. It was a jaunty, happy tune from a movie about a chancer who refuses to see life as it is coming to be:
Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant.
But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes.
We kids had no knowledge of the song’s American mythic power and insistence. So we carried this song within ourselves as a kind of birthright, through the nightly scenes on television of the Civil Rights movement and the following urban uprisings; and the nightly atrocities of the Vietnam War, broadcast during supper time in every American home. We ended our childhoods listening to Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, that song whose lyrics begin: There must be some way out of here.
For most of US television’s existence there were only three networks. Impossible to imagine now, but these were all that we had, and they stopped broadcasting for the most part at about 11.30pm.
Each had its own flavour, its own myth-making machine. ABC – the American Broadcasting Company – was what would come to be understood as ‘blue collar’, white working class. It was the opposite of the more patrician CBS; less ‘experimental’ than NBC. It told clear and simple stories of triumph and failure of the American myth and the American myth ‘lost and found’.
For example, Roots was first broadcast on ABC. It is impossible now to convey the impact of that series on the nation and the power of its re-working of the myth. The phrase ‘the nation was glued to their sets’ was true, not only because of the story itself, but because there were only two alternatives to watching it.
Roots made the streets themselves change, back then, as white people looked at black people with new eyes. That was the power of television; that was the true definition of ‘family’ viewing and ABC captured and held it.
NBC had remade sci-fi with Star Trek and remade the detective drama with Columbo. CBS conducted what was known as the ‘rural purge’, killing ‘any show with a tree in it’ and creating urban hits like Kojak.
But ABC, in those recession ’70s, when the US and television changed, stayed with small town America and its sense of itself as a haven of essential goodness and harmless quirkiness. ABC stayed with small town values with, besides Roots, Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Starsky & Hutch, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels – which invented the concept of ‘jiggle TV’ – The Bionic Woman, Fantasy Island, Battlestar Galactica and The Love Boat.
The news division of ABC created ‘happy talk’. This revolution involved moving the morning news away from a serious tone and began with a programme called Good Morning America, complete with a set modelled after a living room and featuring a sofa with happy, clappy journalists.
GMA was the launch of what is now called ‘infotainment’. It created ‘happy talk’, which the great writer Paddy Chayefsky warned about in his film Network, released the year of the nation’s bicentennial, in 1976.
These programmes nailed the imaginarium of Trump America, that tiny space he travels around in, like Ulysses in the Mediterranean, believing it to be the whole world.
The network began to lose its viewing share over the years as tastes changed and more ways of watching television, of ‘accessing content’, came on board. The American broadcast environment is, in effect, 50 countries in fierce competition with one another for the attention of 300 million or so pairs of eyes. It is easy to see why the Roseanne reboot, with an audience of almost 20 million viewers, was a phenomenon.
More importantly, Roseanne had captured ‘blue collar’ America, whose politics of racial resentment had flowered into its very own presidency.
Roseanne is located in my home state of Illinois, that body of land attached to Chicago and sometimes referred to as ‘flyover America’. Chicago is as connected to much of Illinois as London is to Grimsby, making this ‘real America’, a kind of Holy Grail for the networks.
The recent cancellation of Roseanne, following the racist Tweet posted by star Roseanne Barr, was tantamount to corporate self-harm and a broadcast earthquake. No television culture on earth has the pace and the speed of American television, simply because none of it has ever been government-sponsored or subsidised. It has had to stand naked in the marketplace.
Roseanne was making mountains of money for a corporation not at its peak. But the Trump presidency has placed the nation on to a new terrain: the very battle for what the United States of America is.
ABC’s new chief is Channing Dungey, the first African American woman to head a major broadcast network.
She understands that she has declared war. Not against the individuals of Roseanne Barr’s fictional universe, or her viewers, but against their myth of moral superiority, of their belief that in them and them alone resides the real America.
With Dungey at its helm, ABC is demonstrating to America, its president and the world, what that American rebel writer Charles Bukowski once wrote: ‘What matters most is how you walk through the fire.’