Ben Shapiro, a conservative activist and pundit who’s been a frequent presence online, has written a new book called “Primetime Propaganda: The True Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV.” And to my surprise, Shapiro’s interview about the book in the Independent makes it sound somewhat interesting. Not because I agree with him that Hollywood is attempting to brainwash us or that these messages are evil; that’s just not something I agree with. But because he actually seems to have bothered to go out and talk to some – often retired – makers of mainstream U.S. television, and because there is a grain of truth there: TV, especially good TV, is not devoid of a point of view on social and political issues. (Update: Then again, Shapiro’s own announcement of the project makes it sound a lot worse; it has an air of victimology combined with a vaguely threatening tone toward people who said nothing more shocking than that their ideas are reflected in their work.)
Shapiro considers it a sign of a nefarious secret agenda that Friends had gay-friendly messages, and he considers it a smoking gun when co-creator Marta Kauffman admits that casting Newt Gingrich’s lesbian sister was a take-that to Gingrich. He even notes that cheesy shows like MacGyver had an Agenda, that there was an anti-gun message to the show as a whole and various environmental and political messages encoded into the stories. And he’s not wrong that these things happened. Friends has a point of view when it deals with gay issues; any show that deals with military or legal issues has a point of view on those issues, and so on.
The term “propaganda” is a loaded and mistaken term, but many shows attempt to use their success and their broad audience to influence social attitudes. Will & Grace was entertainment first and foremost, but it was also trying to influence attitudes. And one reason the Parents’ Television Council gets so het-up about TV is that they know it can influence attitudes, or at least help cement them. TV in the late ’90s didn’t single-handedly create society’s changing attitudes to gay issues, but someone whose attitudes were changing could look to TV for reinforcement of those new attitudes. Shapiro’s panic over Sesame Street may seem weird, but from his point of view, it’s not; Sesame Street was founded on certain issues – like giving city children more of a voice on TV after decades of kids’ TV that was mostly about the suburbs – that may or may not be “liberal” but are certainly not devoid of political purpose.
So I get that Shapiro might look at TV, which is made mostly by people with socially liberal attitudes, and get upset. But first of all, there’s no alternative to television with a social or political point of view, not if you want shows to be entertaining. A good show will reflect its’ creators experiences, opinions and lives to some extent; if they try to airbrush anything from their own experiences from the show, the result will be a bland show that fails. Attitudes and beliefs are a part of anything that’s any good, and even things that aren’t. And besides, trying to leave them out doesn’t really work; Jay Leno is bland because he will not express a point of view in his comedy, but certain assumptions (right, left or some weird combination of the two) are encoded into many of the bad jokes he tells.
Second, the liberal social attitudes on TV are more than balanced out by all the illiberal attitudes that TV has helped to spread or cement. TV hasn’t been as economically liberal as it has been socially liberal (which is similar to the position of Hollywood as a whole); unions have been portrayed as thuggish and evil in many TV shows. And TV is famously not-so-liberal when it comes to law enforcement – we all know that suspects have no rights, thanks to TV.
Bringing up that point also brings up the point that the “messages” in TV don’t necessarily follow a straight line from the writers’ own beliefs. Even supposedly liberal TV writers will create stories with a Dirty Harry-ish attitude to crime and suspects. Not because they’re creating propaganda, but because the cop is usually the hero, and the story is usually going to be on the side of the hero. Some of what is dismissed as the Hollywood Liberal Agenda is also just plain old dramatic necessity, like portraying rich people as evil: The villain needs to be powerful, rich people are more powerful than poor people, ergo, most villains are rich. Part of the reason avowedly conservative entertainments often fail is that they go against the rules of drama in order to make their points; a successful show with a conservative point of view, like 24, will not hesitate to take a “liberal” position if it helps the story, just as a “liberal” show will use “conservative” plot points where they work best.
But on the narrow point of whether TV shows incorporate the values of their makers, or whether they try to use their power to influence society – of course. And the ability to be part of social changes is one of the most interesting things about mainstream, mass-audience television. (As I’ve said in another post, The Wire was a brilliant show, but it could never have the influence David Simon would have liked it to have, since it reached so few people. A broadcast network cop show has tremendous influence on attitudes, often in bad ways, like the “CSI Effect” of giving us unrealistic expectations of law enforcement.) It’s not that people are completely passive and will believe anything television tells them. If TV helps to mainstream an attitude it’s because it was being mainstreamed in other areas. But it can help.
More than that, though, the creator’s personality is what makes a show unique – it’s sometimes the only thing that can separate all these similar shows with similar premises. A show that acts as a propaganda tract is a boring, undramatic show that won’t last, but a show that erases all traces of social and political points of view is an equally boring show that also won’t last. A demand for shows that are airbrushed of any point of view is a demand for shows that flop, and Hollywood has a strange aversion to flops.
Finally, when Bill Bickley (creator of Urkel!) says that he snuck anti-war messages into Happy Days, he may be referring to this scene from a 1977 episode (he wasn’t credited with writing the episode, but he was on staff); he seemed to have a fondness for semi-ironic, semi-sentimental moments where characters in the ’50s predict a Utopian future.