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The American Dream Machine

Dr. Linda S. Lichter and Dr. Robert Lichter are authors of Watching America as well as many other works. Dr. Robert Lichter received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University and he received his B.A. from the University of Minnesota. Dr. Linda S. Lichter received a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University. Stanley Rothman also contributed as an author and is a former Smith College professor.

Since the 1950s children, teens, and adults have had their eyes glued to the magical box where their dreams and fears could come true in a seemingly always-twisted “hyperreality.”1 Watching America, by Linda S. Lichter, S. Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman, is the first comprehensive guide to the meaning and messages of prime time television (TV). From the status quo 1950s, when the society chose what went on TV to the mid 80s, when TV chose what society as a whole thought, the three authors attempt to explain the changing trends of television. “Television has transcended its role as entertainment to become a potent force shaping everyday life,” conclude the authors.2 Watching America concentrates on television’s involvement in society by strictly analyzing hundreds of series and thousands of characters spanning four decades of history and reflecting on their importance to the big picture.

In the introduction, the authors firmly stress the idea of knowing the background of TV’s creative leaders in order to fully grasp its trends. The script writers are predominately white males whose “social liberalism most clearly distinguishes them from the general public.”3 Their political behavior essentially builds their identity. Collectively, these men believe government, religion, and the military are among the least important and should receive the least attention in the media of television. They seek to move their audience into their views. In part one, the authors paint a clear picture of televisions affect on the private lives of Americans. In the early days, it was shocking to see a woman’s stocking but now, heaven knows anything goes. In the study the authors conducted, 65,000 sexual references were counted in the samples. Television turned into the source of a child’s first encounter of sex and became a sex educator. At the birth of the new media, TV once revolved around slapstick, gags, and comic parodies. This wave of clean-cut entertainment was slowly sucked out of existence by the sexual progression television undertook. By the late 1960s, a married couple in the series Green Acres could sleep in the same bed and 1969 became the year of change. The Brady Bunch created the concept of the mixed family, while the Dick Van Dyke Show attempted to show sex in an explicit episode, which never was aired. The 1980s brought shows that dealt with gross issues. While TV was having a sexual awakening, it also gained a different perspective in the new modern romance. The lady officially became a tramp. Television had to adopt new ratings that could combat the growing explicit content. In numerous shows, sex out of marriage was no longer wrong and extramarital sex was actually more common. Talk of recreational sex without guilt or consequence was conjured up on several leading TV series. Gays came out of the closet and on to the big screen. In the mid 1970s homosexuals appeared on television and effectively benefited from the exposure. Limits were clearly seen, however, in the reality that they were rarely heroes and almost always were portrayed as the victims, but viewers remained sympathetic. TV became home to the prostitute in 1965 and the reoccurring plot of the young woman, who sold herself, in need of money, was created. These women were seen as victims of crime and the archetype of “the hooker with a heart of gold,” found its way onto the screen.4 In 1963, pornography attempted to take its first glimpse at a future life on television. The authors state it was seen, as a social evil in the 1980s, but there will always be value in the eyes of the beholder. The Supreme Court case, Woe vs. Wade, served to change television scripts to even more gingerly address the issue of abortion. Lucy, from the hit series I Love Lucy, became the standard archetype housewife who promoted the “blooming of socially subordinate female manipulating the theoretically dominant male.”5 However, women were clearly portrayed as the inferior sex and Lucy as a businesswoman did not survive. The authors state that when men are the ones to use violence, women are the ones who use their sex appeal to get what they want. According to the authors TV’s lessons were clearly not all bad. Television showed Americans that “parents and their children need eachother.”6

In part two, the authors describe the working world present in television history. During the golden age of the 1950s the television camera primarily stayed at home. When the 1960s hit, the camera visited the workplace, but only those of glamorous occupations. The 1970s, with series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, marked a watershed of the transfer over to presenting a more realistic view of the job industry. The 1980s idealized trendy jobs of the baby boomer generation. Women like Roseanne were working class heroes to the women and men of America. She represented a great deal of wisdom, but also a flood of needed common sense. The boss and worker relationship was exactly defined. Television enjoys baiting the boss through the manipulative worker. The Dick Van Dyke Show proved the boss could take revenge. TV surprisingly upholds the position of authority the boss represents and when the scriptwriters do teach corruption, the institution is always upheld. The motif of ”workaholism” was created and emotional costs of extended times at the office was portrayed.7 The work place had become a surrogate family for the worker, according to the authors. Television’s crooks were primarily corrupt, cold-hearted businessmen. These men were five times as likely to commit a crime compare to any other character in the job world on television. Those at the top of the heap commonly were the men to take the pie in the face as TV aided in creating how the business world was in real life. Only a small handful of televisions stars were evil every week on their series. The good businessman was hardly ever shown in the office while the bad businessman used his power to adjust the political agenda. Nighttime soaps hosted corruption for money as well as power. Medical shows provided their viewers with even more drama in their lives. While malpractice did show its face occasionally, almost every doctor was moral, hip, and attractive. These cautious healers served to be more sensitive to social issues. Teachers have always been less involved in the action. According to the authors, teachers are the caring ones who have always been strong humanitarians. In the 1970s teachers became “more socially aware and concerned with the wider world, sometimes bordering on social activism.”8 Journalists possessed a crime solving ability and were morally committed to justice. With the Watergate scandal, a new form of journalism was created and TV was quick to catch on. Professionals in the 1980s were more responsive to social problems in the artificial reality of television.

In part three, the authors explain the changes in the crime wave. As a heightened amount of crime in the real world increased, the amount of crime on TV followed the trend. The first type of killing shown on television followed the “bus stop” example where the murder was random and frequently done by someone possessing a degree of mental illness.9 In 1975, the National Association of Broadcasters amended the violence found in many of that era’s series and created the Family Viewing Hour. The murders found on TV represented further violence and even materialism. The killers would take from their victims. In the case of rape, the 1980s brought forth male victims for the first time. The mortality rate of rape victim’s increased on TV. This wave achieved a point where a viewer could tell how much of the show was left by simply counting the bodies, according to the authors. In the A-Team, one of the members could shoot off 1000 bullets and not kill anyone. Realism had clearly left the building. Crimes of vice began to complement crimes of violence. A murdered prostitute would be another piece of the puzzle in episodes of Miami Vice. Fraud became an elaborate art and for the first time race began to directly influence the amount of committed crime. Blacks were victims to the racial profiling and the scapegoat in a number of shows. Prior to the1970s, “drug abuse was portrayed as a terrible calamity that reduced people to sniveling and begging for a fix.”10 Sympathy was given to the drug abuser, but the attitude towards the substance remained negative. According to the authors, the 1950s and 1960s were literally black and white. Clear distinctions between right and wrong were drawn. Private detectives fed the gray area, as James Bond inspired them. The Police began to be punished for utilizing brutal force. The courtroom became a place where social issues could be discussed. When the police failed on television, the great arm of the law always extended its hand.

In the last part, the authors discuss television’s view on key public issues. Radio provided the model for the original sitcom, the authors explain. This type of sitcom relied on simplistic ideas and stereotypical dialogue. From 1955 to 1965, television showed strictly white main characters. In the rare chance a colored actor appeared on the screen, he or she was most likely a servant to a wealthy family. The portion of black actors experienced a large leap in the late 1960s. In the end, television said that race shouldn’t matter. A sign of comfort, with African Americans being on TV, came through their obvious flaws. When a writer created a colored character with a flaw it showed that these writers were no longer afraid of racial subjects. Blacks as well as Hispanics taught social re-education to their audiences. The Cosby Show gave America honorable African American role models. Assimilation was eventually replaced by pluralism and ethnic coexistence, according to the authors. Out of all the educated professionals “blacks have only played 5 percent, and Hispanics only 1 percent,” state the authors.11 Even though these two minorities are stereotyped as unskilled and uneducated, they have tried to work their way in. “Throughout these three decades, television’s ballot features a ticket of wheeler-dealers, corrupt evildoers, and honest crusaders,” according to the authors.12After the mid 1970s TV began to capture the dark side of the politician, while the 1980s produced politicians in comic roles. The military also became a popular topic among scriptwriters. M.A.S.H. established a strong foothold in the ratings due to the use of intimate human drama in a militaristic setting. The soldiers tended to be positive while the officers seemed to possess a greater amount of negativity, according to the three authors. Religion, in the TV world, received a place on Sundays with televangelists. “Divine Law was no more to be transgressed than divine intention was to be guessed,” state the authors.13 Priests in 1970s were virtually absent from TV. However, Hollywood has had its share of angels and miracles occurred. Though in the 1980s, these virtually became nonexistent again. The answer to whether TV upholds the religious system is unclear, claim the authors. 

The three authors of Watching America clearly lay out their thesis in the introduction. Their thesis states “television started as an agent of social control but became an agent on social change.”14 The authors explain that TV once was a servant to the status quo and it actually legitimized authority. They then claim that, after several decades, a clear shift was made and television became a source of clarification surrounding authority as a whole. After the direct assertion the authors make in the introduction, the book turns into strictly a summary of television’s trends and fails to discuss how those trends actually affected the lives of Americans. 

Linda S. Lichter, S. Robert Lichter, and Stanley Rothman wrote Watching America with a clear point of view. Both the Lichter’s were known for being extremely liberal. This leaning can be easily ascertained from their book. The authors have written several books arguing that evidence pointed to overwhelmingly liberal political leanings. Watching America is not their first claim saying practitioners of journalism and TV have these leanings. In 1984, Dr. Lichter and her social scientist husband, S. Robert Lichter, founded the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. The center’s main purpose is to conduct scientific studies of how media treats social and political issues. The two Lichter’s have effectively made a career out of documenting leftist bias in news media. This perspective is clear in Watching America. In the introduction, the authors make a strong assertion that the scriptwriters are “social liberalists.”15 This liberal trend is easily identified in every chapter of the book. The authors always focus on how TV radically changed society. Using the lens of historiography, Watching America shows it age. Published in 1991, the authors could not see what TV was to bring in the future. A clear example is when the authors states that currently “bare backs are gaining ground.”16 Today a bare back on a woman is extremely common on TV. TV has moved into more sexual references and even more exposed skin. This book is not in tune with the rhythms of this day in age.

A similar theme can be drawn from professional critic’s opinion of Watching America. Both Kirkus Reviews as well as Thomas Wiener from the Library Journal agree upon the fact that Watching America was clearly an overly detailed analysis that failed to properly support the thesis. The two reviews touch upon the fact that the authors come from the background of being directors at the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Kirkus Reviews states that the authors “fail to come up with much in the way of breakthrough revelations.”17 Thomas Weiner backs this statement up by concluding that the thesis did not get much support under it because the authors were wrapped up in “the immense amount of minutiae.”18 Kirkus Reviews is not entirely negative however. The review states that the authors’ “investigations into TV’s attitudes toward big business are especially revealing.” Kirkus reviews shines upon the fact Watching America possessed “enough fresh insights to keep the reader involved.”19 The positives of the book did not out way the negatives according to Kirkus Reviews. Thomas Weiner mentions “their researchers sampled over 600 series which aired between 1955 and 1986, noting plot, character and thematic details.”20 He notes the expansiveness of the vast coverage of Watching America and concludes his review with a glimmer of hope for the book. Weiner claims it is “a valuable tool for researchers.”21 With a plethora of derogatory comments and a small dose of positive feedback, both the Kirkus and Thomas Weiner reviews serve to succinctly evaluate Watching America.

Watching America provided information that could be considered common sense. For example the evolution of sex on television is a quite obvious sequence of events. The reader only learns about a handful of topics that aren’t already instinctual. Watching America serves only as a reference to summarize several decades of televisions history, not to make any new connections or present any new ideas. The amount of useful material of this book could have been written in less than 100 pages. A few topics do deserve attention however. When the authors describe the background of television’s writers, the idea that they had “religious upbringings” and then “stopped practicing their faith” was a new revelation.22 Since these few revelations did not make up for the whole of the book and at the end, the mission clearly failed.

Watching America does make a valid point that TV represents American values by actually creating them. TV has in a sense actually shaped the lives of Americans. Values regarding every aspect of life have been taught by the box. Whether they are negative or positive may not be known. Television swept the world by storm. American television led other countries in how TV and life “should” be. The authors explain that the impact of television is “the long-term result of exposure to an artificial reality so pervasive it has become a major part of the social enviromenmt.”23

The three authors attempt to show an America refracted through the lens of the American dream machine. Television, according to the authors, has had a profound affect in the private lives of Americans, the working world, in areas of crime and on numerous public issues. In the concluding paragraph of Watching America, the authors wrap up the book with the statement, “the uneasiness many people feel about television stems from the sense that the medium is changing our lives in ways we cannot measure and may not even notice.”24

1. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. Watching America. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991. 4.
2. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 3.
3. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 16.
4. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 41.
5. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 52.
6. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 66.
7. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 120.
8. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 168.
9. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 180.
10. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 201.
11. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 247.
12. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 267.
13. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 277.
14. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 4.
15. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 5.
16. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 87.
17. “WATCHING AMERICA." Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Reviews, 20 May 2010. Web. 28 May 2012. <>.
18. Wiener, Thomas. Library Journal. Vol. 116. Library Journal. 84.
19. Kirkus Reviews
20. Wiener, Thomas
21. Wiener, Thomas
22. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 36
23. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 5.
24. Lichter, Linda S., Samuel R. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman. 301.