Gitlin, whose examination of the New Left's mass-media treatment (The Whole World is Watching, 1980) was illuminating if not...


VERTICAL HOLD: Inside Prime-Time TV

Gitlin, whose examination of the New Left's mass-media treatment (The Whole World is Watching, 1980) was illuminating if not startling, is on much more well-traveled ground here--and, despite a general socio-political shading, there's nary a surprise or fresh insight in this diligently researched, clearly written survey. Television is popular culture with no allegiance except to the marketplace; network executives operate with some vague idea of what the public traditionally wants; ""their knowledge is a shallow, aphoristic lore, including a ready-made outline of the requirements of popular entertainment."" Gitlin briefly discusses the network use of research and testing (notoriously unreliable), the Nielsen ratings (accurate, up to a point), and assorted theories of scheduling--with executives freely admitting in interviews that it's mostly guesswork and pseudo-technique. There's a chapter bemoaning ""The Triumph of the Synthetic"" (spinoffs, copies, ""recombinants"") and the careless hackwork that dominates the screen--courtesy of an overpopulated executive system, power-broking agents, and ""a hundred or so writers whose names show up again and again in the credits."" Gitlin follows the fate of a few more ambitious projects--an earnest family/social-issues series, a TV-movie about PBB--as they battle network cowardice, sponsor worries, etc. He surveys the network's still-cautious attitudes toward race or ethnicity. (""My God, does it have to be that Jewish?"" said an executive after reading a commissioned script about the Dreyfus case.) He chronicles the shift toward relevance in the Seventies, followed by the counter-shift in the Eighties--a little right, a lot escapist, with discussion of the Moral Majority and TV's overreaction. And, despite a mostly admiring look at Hill Street Blues (like M*A*S*H and Barney Miller, ""it shows the state to be inept""), Gitlin ends up reaffirming that TV's basic politics will continue to support ""the values of a business civilization. Capitalism and the consumer society come out largely uncontested. . . . The problem is the texture of American life."" Foregone conclusions, over-familiar analysis--but the specifics circa 1980-82 are offered in rich, lively, sometimes-curious detail.

Pub Date: Oct. 11, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983

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