When a suburb is made out to be racist on a fictional TV show

Many Americans are protective about their own community so it is little surprise that leaders in Crown Point, Indiana were not happy with their portrayal on TV as a place where there is racial antagonism:

Crown Point Mayor David Uran says the city and its residents deserve an apology after the city was depicted as a racist community on the May 10 episode of the NBC drama “Chicago P.D.”‘…

He said the way show crossed a fictional storyline with a factual place gave the impression the incident is something that occurred or could occur in the city…

As mayor, he said he is always trying to promote inclusiveness in the community to attract people to live, work and play in Crown Point. He said he has reached out to NBC through different emails and is demanding an apology for the city and its residents.

In the episode, “Army of One,” a black man is killed after he was released from jail for a rape that occurred while he was a star high school athlete dating a white girl.

I wonder at the strategy here: would making this case on the website of the Chicago Tribune call more attention to the portrayal? Do people watching TV shows necessarily link the actions on the screen to the specific places named, particularly if the place is relatively unknown (Crown Point is at the edge of the Chicago metropolitan region)? (Police shows do this all the time and it likely influences how many viewers see big cities as cesspools of crime.) Perhaps the mayor is simply standing up for concerned members (and potential voters) of the community.

At the same time, northwest Indiana communities may have struggled with race. How do many of the white communities and residents view Gary? Or, what about the KKK: here is an overview of historical documents from the Crown Point KKK from 1913-1932, the Crown Point activity of the KKK is noted in the academic history Citizen Klansman: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928, and there were rumblings of KKK activity in Lake County in 2005. Additionally, a research project in Northwest Indiana suggests a number of bias incidents between 1990 and 2014. And these struggles wouldn’t be unique to northwest Indiana; this is part of the American story in many communities and suburbs.

From I Love Lucy in Connecticut to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane: Suburban TV Shows, 1950-2007

In my study of suburbs, I have run across numerous scholarly sources that discuss the role television played in promoting American suburbs. A number of them suggest that the idealized image of nuclear family life taking place in the single-family home presented in shows in the 1950s and 1960s encouraged Americans to make the move to the suburbs. My recently published paper (published online in Sociological Focus, forthcoming in print) aimed to put these arguments in context: just how common were these suburban television shows? Did such shows reflect the millions of Americans who already moved to the suburbs or create demand for the suburban life?

The short answer: suburban-set TV shows were relatively rare among the top 30 ranked shows from 1950 to 2007. There certainly were some classic shows – ranging from Father Knows Best to Home Improvement – but many of the top 30 shows were set in cities. Here is my concluding paragraph:

Even though the United States has become a suburban nation, its most popular television shows from the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century did not match this demographic shift. The suburban sitcom or drama, satirized in films like Pleasantville or featuring anti-heroes in more recent television shows like The Sopranos, was a relatively rare figure in the top 30 television shows. The suburban show is a recognizable form with its emphasis on family life in a single-family home without much social strife, and new fall lineups continue to include variations on the genre, yet many popular American shows were set elsewhere. Thus, these longitudinal findings suggest popular television shows had a limited influence on pulling and/or pushing Americans to the suburbs. America may be suburban but its most popular television shows are not.

There is much more to explore here. The scholarship on the topic thus far has focused on particular key examples of suburban-set shows but has rarely considered the full scope of television or how exactly watching a show set in the suburbs would change people’s behaviors.

Claim: popular 90’s TV shows prompted people to move to cities

This is not the first time I’ve seen this argument: Friends wasn’t just entertainment…it helped make cities cool again.

I tested out my hypothesis—that “Friends” triggered the proliferation of boutique coffee shops across the nation—on Facebook a few days ago, and found some agreement. My good friend Kenyon Farrow, an award-winning writer and advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, who’s based in D.C., was with me on this, writing, “I think ‘Friends’ (and ‘Seinfeld’) are totally responsible for marketing cities to young white suburbanites, [which] helped fuel the market-demand side for gentrification to take place in the ‘90s and 2000’s.

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That was about the extent of agreement on my “Friends” theory, though—my barista cred all damned to hell now. But others in the debate made the gentrification connection Farrow offered. Wrote Ben Adler, who I worked with at Grist: “Americans have increasingly become alienated by the social isolation of suburban, car-dependent life. That’s fueled both the urban gentrification that brings the cafes, and the cafes themselves.”

For others on our Facebook thread, the secret of the coffeehouse’s mainstream appeal was pure and simple: It’s just “a good idea,” wrote my buddy Justice Rajee, a family advocate at the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center. “Having someplace to sit have a beverage and do what you need when you can’t go home is good.”

This is the reverse of the argument I’ve been thinking about in recent years: the proliferation of popular TV shows depicting happy suburban life in the 1950s and 1960s helped push Americans to the suburbs. At face value, this might seem to make sense as Americans are influenced by what they watch on TV (and they watch a lot of it). However, I have some data that suggests the connection is not as clear. (There is an upcoming paper coming out of this; more on the particular topic when it sees the light of day.)

Generally, we don’t know as much as you might think about how much television influences people’s behaviors. The argument for Friends or Seinfeld and cities suggests people viewed the shows and wanted to emulate that lifestyle. Is the link that direct? If we asked people why they moved to the city, would they cite a television show or would they be more likely to mention things like jobs, cultural opportunities and the lifestyle, or housing options? The influence of television may indeed be subtle which begs the question of how we might uncover as social scientists the empirical link between viewing and deciding where to live. If seeing things on TV mattered, wouldn’t others be turned off by city life with so many crime and police procedural shows?

The cultural bubbles of popular TV shows tell us what exactly?

This is a cool set of maps of the popularity of 50 different TV shows across zip codes in the United States. But, what is the data and what exactly can it tell us? Here is the brief explanation:

When we looked at how many active Facebook users in a given ZIP code “liked” certain TV shows, we found that the 50 most-liked shows clustered into three groups with distinct geographic distributions. Together they reveal a national culture split among three regions: cities and their suburbs; rural areas; and what we’re calling the extended Black Belt — a swath that extends from the Mississippi River along the Eastern Seaboard up to Washington, but also including city centers and other places with large nonwhite populations.

Some quick thoughts:

  1. Can we assume that Facebook likes are an accurate measure? How many people are represented per zip code? Who tends to report their TV show preferences on Facebook? Why not use Nielsen data which likely has a much smaller sample but could be considered more reliable and valid?
  2. How exactly does television watching influence everyday beliefs and actions? Or, does it work the other way: people have certain beliefs and behaviors and they watch what confirms what they already like? Sociologists and others that study the effects of television don’t always have data on the direct connections between viewing and other parts of life. (I’m not suggesting television has no influence. Given that the average American still watches several hours a day, it is still a powerful medium even with the rise of
  3. The opening to the article both suggests TV viewing and the related cultures fall along an urban/rural divide but then also split across three groups. The maps display three main groups – metro areas, rural areas, and areas with higher concentrations of African Americans. I would want to know more about two areas. First, political data – and this article wants to make the link between TV watching and the 2016 election – suggests the final divide is really in the suburbs between areas further out from the big city and those closer. Can we get finer grained data between exurbs and inner-ring suburbs? Second, does this mean that Latinos and Asian Americans aren’t differentiated enough to be their own TV watching cultures?
  4. The introduction to this article also repeats a common line among those that study television:

In the 1960s and ’70s, even if you didn’t watch a show, you at least probably would have heard of it. Now television, once the great unifier, amplifies our divisions.

We certainly are way into the cable era of television (and probably beyond with all of the options now available through the Internet and streaming) but could we argue instead that the earlier era of fewer channels and viewing options simply papered over differences? As numerous historians and other scholars have argued, the 1950s might have appeared to be a golden era but most of the benefits went to white, middle class, suburban families.

In other words, I would be hesitant to state that these TV patterns are strong evidence of three clearly different cultures in the United States. Could these television viewing patterns fit in with other cultural tastes differentiating various groups based on class and race and ethnicity? Yes, though I’d much rather see serious academic work on this developing Bourdieu’s ideas and encompassing all sorts of consumption items treasured by Americans (homes, vehicles, sports fandom, making those hard choices like Coke and Pepsi or McDonald’s and Burger King or Walmart and Target). Also, limiting ourselves to geography may not work as well – this approach has been tried by many including in books like The Big Sort or Our Patchwork Nation – as it did in the past.

New data on (a lack of) diversity in Hollywood and on TV

A new report on diversity in Hollywood and television was released yesterday:

The study, titled the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, examined the 109 films released by major studios (including art-house divisions) in 2014 and 305 scripted, first-run TV and digital series across 31 networks and streaming services that aired from September 2014 to August 2015. More than 11,000 speaking characters were analyzed for gender, racial and ethnic representation and LGBT status. Some 10,000 directors, writers and show creators were examined, as was the gender of more than 1,500 executives.

The portrait is one of pervasive underrepresentation, no matter the media platform, from CEOs to minor characters. “Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed,” the study concludes.

In the 414 studied films and series, only a third of speaking characters were female, and only 28.3 percent were from minority groups — about 10 percent less than the makeup of the U.S. population. Characters 40 years or older skew heavily male across film and TV: 74.3 percent male to 25.7 percent female.

Just 2 percent of speaking characters were LGBT-identified. Among the 11,306 speaking characters studied, only seven were transgendered (and four were from the same series).

These appear to be pretty consistent patterns. Given the racialized and gendered history of the United States, is it more surprising that white men still dominate in certain categories or that little has changed even with the discussions of recent decades?

One other thought: in No Logo, activist Naomi Klein recounts her own efforts to push for more diversity in advertisements. In a chapter titled “Patriarchy Gets Funky,” Klein says:

We thought we would find salvation in the reformation of MTV, CNN, and Calvin Klein. And why not? Since media seemed to be the source of so many of our problems, surely if we could only “subvert” them to better represent us, they could save us instead. With better collective mirrors, self-esteem would rise and prejudices would magically fall away, as society became suddenly inspired to live up to the beautiful and worthy reflection we had retouched in its image. (p.108-109)

And corporations bought into it:

That’s when we found out that our sworn enemies in the “mainstream” – to us a giant monolithic blob outside of our known university-affiliated enclaves – didn’t fear and loathe us but actually thought we were sort of interesting. Once we’d embarked on a search for new wells of cutting-edge imagery, our insistence on extreme sexual and racial identities made for great brand-content and niche-marketing strategies. If diversity is what we wanted, the brands seemed to be saying, then diversity was exactly what we would get. And with that, the marketers and media makers swooped down, airbrushes in hand, to touch up the colors and images in our culture. (p.111)

The real issue lay elsewhere:

But our criticism was focused on the representation of women and minorities within the structures of power, not on the economics behind those power structures…

The prospect of having to change a few pronouns and getting a handful of women and minorities on the board and on television posed no real threat to the guiding profit-making principles of Wall Street.

Maybe the issue is less one of representation on the screen and more about who controls the industry and resources.

Dreaming of pres. candidates competing in other TV formats

As the presidential candidate debates continue, I thought of some other TV formats that might be both entertaining and tell us more than the repeated talking points. Americans like the drama of multiple candidates and they like TV so why not try some other options?

  1. A game show format. Want to see who is smarter? Jeopardy. How well they know Americans based on survey results? Family Feud. Want to see them all live together and who can form alliances? Big Brother or Survivor. Want to see some physical competitions? American Ninja Warrior. In any game show, we would see their competitive side and a particular ability.
  2. A reality TV format. How would they each get along with the Dance Moms? Or on The Biggest Catch? Or tracking down online personas in Catfish? Or looking for homes on a HGTV show? Though the show has particular setup, the candidates could act “natural.”
  3. A hidden camera show. The show could try to catch candidates in situations that push them to respond – like What Would You Do? – or it could be more of a comedy like Candid Camera. This could give viewers some idea of how candidates would react in particular situations.
  4. Some sort of presidential simulation. Lock them in a sound stage that mimics the White House or some other government facility. What would they do after two or three nights with little sleep in reaction to a military threat against the United States? How would they act toward a set of Congressional leaders who are tough negotiators? How would they treat their staff after weeks of tension?

I get why most candidates would be very hesitant about many of these. At the same time, debates where the candidates stand around talk/interrupt/respond to questions aren’t necessarily favorable to everyone. Additionally, we know what debates can tell us but these other TV options could offer very interesting (and entertaining) insights into the candidates. These don’t have to be a joke if they are well-designed and the candidates take them seriously.

Where are the Latino families on HGTV?

After watching plenty of HGTV over the years, a question hit me: why don’t more of the shows feature Latino families and home buyers?

-According to recent figures from the Census, Latinos comprise 17.1% of the US population.

-According to the 2014 State of Hispanic Homeownership Report, the Latino homeownership rate is 45.4% (down from 2000), Latinos have the purchasing power of $1.5 trillion (comparable to all of Canada), and the number of Latino households is growing. In other words, there is a market here.

Put these two factors together and I would expect to see more Latinos. Actually, if I had to guess, whites are overrepresented on HGTV, particularly among hosts.