Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The World of Work as Depicted on TV

When people discover that I don't have cable, their eyes widen, and they ask, "What do you watch?"

I say, "Whatever comes in for free on the airwaves."

Most people assume I can only get one or two channels.  But TV today is quite different than the channels of our childhood.  I get dozens of channels for free.  Of course, half of them are in Spanish.  But that still leaves plenty for me to watch.  With digital broadcasting, I've got not only 1 PBS station, but several--I've got the Food Network and HGTV for free--and with fewer commercials than on cable.

I'd pay for cable if I didn't have to watch commercials. If I pay for content, I don't want to have to suffer commercials.  I'm old-fashioned that way.  I don't feel I should have to go through fancy programming feats with technology to avoid commercials either.

Lately I've been enjoying the multiple channels that offer scripted television from the 70's and 80's--most of it much better quality than anything being created currently.  I know that occasionally I've mentioned watching M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore.  Last night I watched WKRP in Cincinnati.  I'm struck by how the shows of my childhood and adolescence show people working in real jobs, jobs that I might grow up to have.  Shows these days on network T.V. show people competing to get the kind of jobs most of us will never have (chef at a celebrity restaurant, pop singer, pursuer of supernatural creatures).  Even the police procedurals, the CSI shows and the Law and Order shows, depict the kind of law enforcement that is not the ordinary realm of regular police folks.

When I watched WKRP last night, I recognized these jobs.  Once upon a time, radio stations actually operated that way, even if now many of them are programmed from a distance.  I recognized the job of the salesguy, the secretary, the manager who has to keep various personalities moving through the work day smoothly.  I don't see those roles in current network TV much these days.

This week, I'm also paying attention to what those shows taught us about war, and about Vietnam in particular.  You don't need me to explain how M*A*S*H helped America talk about Vietnam when we weren't ready to talk about it openly.  But watching that show again, I'm surprised by how thoroughly rooted it is in the era of the Korean War, the early 50's, WWII not that far behind us.  It's a workplace show too.  The doctors and nurses are the most obvious examples.  But you also see a secretary role in this show(Radar and then Klinger), as well as chief administrator, and the chaplain.

Last night, the plot of WKRP revealed that the character of Venus Flytrap was an Army deserter.  Lots of  threads about Vietnam and race woven  throughout without being too heavy--very skillful handling of the topic.

If that kind of analysis is being done in network TV shows these days, I'm not aware of it.  Even the crime procedurals, which occasionally explore the social justice side of the crime, could do more.  Most days, those shows feel more like sanitized snuff films, where all the viewers get to be voyeurs.  Ick.

When I was young, I assumed that I'd grow up and have some kind of job where the workplace would be a kind of family.  In many ways, I've found that.

But I do wonder about today's generation of younger viewers. What does television set them up to believe about adult life?


1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Wow, this really helps me think about what's so troubling about tv today. I rarely watch current network shows, but this all makes perfect sense. We used to see jobs, yes! And, in a way, lots of reality tv seems to be about how to escape reality, into glamor & fantasy & celebrity....