The Mass Media in Liberal Democratic Societies

by Stanley Rothman; Paragon House, 1992

In analyzing the social content of television drama, we are quite aware that the television elite are operating under the constraint of audience reaction. For a show to be successful, it must attract an audience. Therefore the producers, directors, and writers may have to modify the messages embedded in their shows along the lines of more traditional values in order to achieve adequate Nielsen ratings. An example is "Cagney and Lacey," which began as an avowedly feminist show that concentrated on breaking down stereotypes as the heroines broke up crime rings. When initial ratings were poor, however, Cagney was recast with a softer, more traditionally feminine actress in the part, although the character remained socially and sexually liberated. Thus the fantasy world of prime-time is neither a pure reflection of popular taste nor the product of a consistent ideological agenda. Although the commercial requirements of American prime time television limit the extent to which one ideological view predominates, our research shows that the liberal, cosmopolitan attitudes of television's creators do make their way into prime-time television shows.

Television has become more overtly political in the decade since Stein examined prime-time, to the extent that Cagney and Lacey, the feminist successors to Charlie's Angels, may help student demonstrators or sanctuary activists. But the more general point is that things have changed since Marcus Welby regarded homosexuality as a disease and Joe Friday viewed prostitutes as common criminals rather than social victims.

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