Roundtable The Historian and Television History: Rethinking the Television Age

AHA Session 174
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Superior Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Heather L. Gumbert, Virginia Tech
Tamara Chaplin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Heather L. Gumbert, Virginia Tech
Mark Liechty, University of Illinois at Chicago
Joe Perry, Georgia State University
Lynn Spigel, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

This roundtable offers a discussion of the "state of the field" of television history. While television is a central focus for those in communications, anthropology, and cultural studies departments, historians seem reluctant to pursue sustained work on the mass medium that dominated the second half of the twentieth century. Why are historians are slow to work on television? What can historians learn from interpretative methods associated with other disciplines? What do historians themselves contribute? How can we use the history of television to shed light on larger issues, and what might these issues be?

The panelists will address these questions from global and cross-disciplinary perspectives. The presenters include established scholars from the fields of history, cultural anthropology, and communications. Their work spans the globe, from Western Europe and the communist East Bloc to South Asia and the United States. The session will begin with short briefs from each panelist on their central interests in television history, but the main goal is to open a productive discussion among presenters and audience members.

The proposed roundtable is particularly well suited to address the AHA program theme "Communities and Networks." Television and broadcasting industries are quite consciously styled as communication "networks." They depend on national and global media flows that exchange technologies, ideologies, content, and personnel. The television industry establishes direct lines of contact and community among industry executives, regulators, content providers, and appliance producers and marketers, who work with diverse and sometimes conflicting goals to reach their audiences. Of course, these audiences use the mass media to constitute themselves as communities, based on the shared experience of viewing proffered content. In complex processes of encoding and decoding TV broadcasts, such communities are entangled with the assertion of political agendas and the search for industry profits, but also with more private initiatives of self-construction and viewing pleasure. TV furthermore shapes communities of approbation and criticism: television, pundits claim, can inform, entertain, and democratize, but also dumb-down, distract, and homogenize.

As the work of the panelists shows, all these issues have a fascinating history, from the emergence of television as a popular medium to what might be called the close of the television age. The arrival of television in the 1950s and 1960s transformed family lifestyles and leisure pursuits around the world. Broadcasting networks proved crucial for shaping national identities by presenting the nation as a shared project, whether capitalist or communist. Television rapidly crossed national boundaries as a sign of modernity, westernization and Americanization, but was at the same time reworked in regional contexts to express local traditions and expectations. These are vital issues for historians: it is utterly impossible to understand the recent past unless we take the influence of television into account, and it behooves us to learn how to work with this unusual and often ephemeral source.

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