May 24, 2012

Harry's Law, The Girls, and the Media Marketplace

imageBy Sally Raskoff

How well does the entertainment media represent society? With the debut of a new show on HBO Girls and the cancellation of a popular show on NBC Harry’s Lawthere is a lot of discussion about what shows depict and who watches them.

The new show Girls on HBO depicts a foursome of friends, all white, upper or upper-middle class, college educated, and finding their way through their twenties. The show has gotten a lot of attention for its depiction of “hipster racism” and for the writers’ responses to such criticisms.

 

Hipster racism means a lot of things, with many different nuances depending on who is using it. It seems to be a term that invokes a new form of racism, used by people who “should know better because they are educated” or who use racist iconography or comments in an ironic way, thus showing their awareness that what they are doing or saying is racist but is nonetheless supposed to be funny.

Once overt, racism has become more covert. Now perhaps 2010s racism is overt but overlaid with ironic elements to suggest it’s not real; although that really makes it another form of covert racism!

Harry’s Law was canceled because, even with its high ratings, it was not popular with the right audience. It was not drawing a large young audience (age eighteen to forty-nine), the preferred group for advertisers. While this sounds like ageism, it is not overtly discussed as such. It is framed around advertising strategies. Lest we think that the media is only about entertainment, we should understand it really is about consumerism and selling products to the people who watch.

Shows are not picked up and produced because they will entertain and educate us or in some other way allow a creative team to produce media that enriches our lives. They are made to sell goodsto keep generating profit for the capitalist engines.

Most of the discussion around The Girls focuses on the writers and the show’s creative team. Few articles—with the notable exception of a review in The Atlanticdiscuss the responsibility of the network that makes the overall decision whether to air a show.

While the discussions about Harry’s Law do address the network’s power to support or destroy a show, the responsibility quickly gets shifted to the advertisers.

So let’s take a step back and look at this. Writers and actors are assembled to create shows, which then air. Society reacts by watching them (or not), and discussion ensues in many different venues about various elements in the shows. In the two examples discussed here, a cable channel’s show is discussed as possibly racist and its ratings rise as more people check it out and a broadcast channels’ show is cancelled because it was not popular with the right audience.

Thinking sociologically, does it not appear that we are still apt to blame the individuals associated with some phenomenon rather than see the systemic issues supporting the entire system?

Even in an era where product placement is common practice, we don’t question the advertisers’ assumptions about race or their power over the content of the shows that get aired. We don’t often acknowledge the role that the networks have over which shows gets aired and why. We spend most of our time blaming the writers, and sometimes even the actors, for creating what we watch. Those people are individuals who are often lucky to have a job in a tough industry. There are many other writers and potential show runners out there who could be employed and who might create shows that are not as racist, classist, or ageist as those shows that get aired and renewed.

Corporations are not often held responsible for the choices they make. Instead, we blame the people we can more easily identify with the show. They are not often the power brokers who have control over the larger issues, though. As we forget our own part in the social construction of reality, we forget that corporations can be held accountable and that when people organize, they can change elements of society.

One could speculate that because Harry’s Law is a show that dealt directly with racism, ageism, classism, and many other social problems, it was an easy target for cancelation no matter who the audience was. People who might enjoy watching shows that don’t whitewash or de-diversify the world might not be active consumers of the products that big advertisers sell on television. They might be more critical of such ads.

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