Friday, 13 January 2012

(extract  from  work in progress)

Because you’re on TV, dummy.

Arthur Jensen has chosen Howard Beale to preach his neoliberal evangel because he’s on TV and television, Jensen understands, is the key to spreading the message, to creating the necessary generational shift, to opening up new vistas for accumulation.

During the decade TV, undergoes a transformation of its own, it also begins to sprout, spread and promulgate. Deregulation of cable networks begins in earnest in the early Seventies and in 1972 the nation’s first pay-TV network, Home Box Office (HBO) is launched.This is followed by Ted Turners WTBS, broadcasting primarily sports, classic movies, repeats of “golden-oldie” TV shows and of course, wrestling. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network arrives in 1977. This fecund early period of deregulation will give birth not just to the wave of TV Evangelists that became notorious in the Eighties but also lead to the emergence of the W.W.F. as a national and international business force and to C.N.N, trendsetter for 24-hour news channels.

The website also has this to say

The 1980s

The 1984 Cable Act established a more favorable regulatory framework for the industry, stimulating investment in cable plant and programming on an unprecedented level.

Deregulation provided by the 1984 Act had a strong positive effect on the rapid growth of cable services. From 1984 through 1992, the industry spent more than $15 billion on the wiring of America, and billions more on program development. This was the largest private construction project since World War II.

Satellite delivery, combined with the federal government’s relaxation of cable’s restrictive regulatory structure, allowed the cable industry to become a major force in providing high quality video entertainment and information to consumers. By the end of the decade, nearly 53 million households subscribed to cable, and cable program networks had increased from 28 in 1980 to 79 by 1989.”

(italics mine)

It is of course during the Eighties that two phrases develop to reflect the numbing, paralysing effect of the increasing vastness of the mediascape, of the impossibility of settling for any one thing, the burden of an overabundance of choice: “channel surfing” and “couch potato”.As Bruce Springsteen put it, there are “57 Channels and nothing on”. Whereas before you might have flicked through four or five stations and then gone and done something else, in Springsteen’s song, “got friendly upstairs”, now the search becomes the activity in itself, (this is something magnified on the Internet, of course, with its low-grade, endless, questing and grazing) and there was an early transfer of the verb “to surf” from TV to Net-based activity that has fallen into disuse. “Surfing” implies a restless, depthless forward momentum, indeed an impelled momentum; the shift from the earlier use “channel hopping” to channel/web “surfing” well captures the degree of volition and the scale and force implied by the burgeoning swell of media. TV then becomes less an event, a family gathering point, a moment running to a schedule, and more of a resource or an arena to be navigated but one which is in a sense cognitively unmappable, an open terrain to wander about in, filled with unrealizable promise. You could always be missing something better elsewhere, angst and dissatisfaction are built into the system, yet it also induces a kind of half-fascinated torpor. Vegging out.

The bulk of much early cable programming was essentially repeats re-branded as Golden Oldies, news, sports, quizzes, chat shows (any cheap content, effectively) or religious programming. But an equally important early adaptor to the new freedoms was Nickelodeon, nee Pinwheel Network, the children’s channel that developed as part of Warner Brothers’ exploratory QUBE cable channel. One needn’t be a bleeding-heart Liberal, or even a parent, to find the repealing, under concerted industry pressure and in accordance with the anti Nanny-state ideology of the times, of the FTC’s ability to regulate marketing to children in 1980 and the further deregulation, beginning in 81 and accelerating through the Eighties that removed any notion of station licensees as "public trustees” and massively boosted the pitching of advertising to children, as a deeply cynical endeavour.

Much of the cultural product of the late Seventies and on into the Eighties develops out of a symbiosis between deregulation and vertical integration, creating both the child as an increasingly younger and more variegated, (see the recent marketing category of “tween”) consumer demographic and driver of the family’s leisure pursuits. It also creates the vast new world of merchandise and game/toy-to-film waves of the Eighties, helping to produce such epochal fare as “Masters of The Universe”.This is where the relationship between television, toy companies and fast food outlets like McDonalds develops.

From the perspective of 2012 and the waves of nostalgic music that hark back to the 80s and portray it as a world of colour and fun, there is a pre-Lapsarian longing for a restoration not just of the loss of childhood but also a point in which media specifically intended to divert and engage with children of virtually every age were in abundance. The often low-fi and misty evocations of the past, the primary colours, simple shapes and themes seem to replay the very early experience of nebulous but scientifically honed and crafted eye and attention grabbing ads and products for very young children. This is also a kind of “cathode pastoralism” in which a later generation looks back in longing at the pre-internet age of analogue TV and shiny, solid objects in the way early denizens of modernity perhaps idealized the rural and artisanal past.

TV is the medium through which children are targeted and created as consumers in the Eighties, through which individual salvation and a sense of community is offered, through which marginal and absurd figures, whether it’s Hulk Hogan or Robert Tilton, become stars. The Eighties elevates the child and therefore the childlike: cartoonish, exaggerated simplicity, bright colours, the hyper-real. At the same time it makes the Christian Right, increasingly allied to the new waves of business gurus and self-made Snake Oil salesman, visible and vocal. Throws up swathes of old-programming and drowns in Fifties nostalgia and the alchemical glow of old dross transmuted suddenly into Gold.


David W. Kasper said...

UK terrestrial channels played their part in neolib indoctrination too:

If neoliberalism hadn't been sold to the first generation fully raised on TV, it would've been a forgotten fad among obscure economists: discuss.

I've spent the past 2 days watching more TV than I have in the previous year, and Jesus - it's a fucking dystopian nightmare, isn't it? Any fragile optimism I've got from lefty websites evaporated after three hours of ITV1.

carl said...

Yeah, you are certainly right but i haven't even got round to considering the UK yet!

Anonymous said...

Nice post..But I would argue that communication deregulation, and the vast programming increase that came with it is a consequence of neo-liberal ascendance not a cause.

Surely vast almost unmanageable television choice, in the American experience, predates cable tv. For example New York and Los Angeles enjoyed a lot of broadcast tv channels, twenty plus I think, in the sixties and seventies. And as I remember a few of them were Jesus stations, and others got by programming sugary content for kids as well as re-runs of old shows and movies were common. Smaller tv markets did not enjoy quite as many channels, but even then I think say Detroit and Chicago enjoyed at least ten or twelve channels. Chatanooga and Baton Rouge probably did ok too.

Too me that's why Brooce's song sounds older than it is seventies or sixties rather than 1990- it coulda been written about the Jersey suburbs in 1975! Of course Lieber and Stoller wrote great channel surfing songs in the fifties.