All In The Family

President Obama is a what????

Passover in Miami with my family and my nephew Adam, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, is working on a paper for his “Media and Culture” class.

The topic is the impact of the 60s social revolution on television, with All In The Family as an example.

This strikes me as fine for a freshman student paper, if a bit predictable, but gets me to thinking of the reverse question – the impact of All In The Family on culture going forward. The more I think about it, the more I think that All In The Family is really the progenitor of Fox News, even if thinking this makes Norman Lear turn in his grave (or rather, in his Beverly Hills home). But here’s why:

The show, as everyone knows, was launched in 1971, on the tail of the great social revolution of the ’60s. Lear bought the rights from the BBC, who had created Til Death Do Us Part, based on Alf Garnet, a far from ‘lovable’ bigot. The British version was powerful, and probably could not have run on US television. As is often the case with BBC shows that are imported to the US, they are altered for an American audience.

Lear needed ratings, CBS was and is a commercial enterprise, and to garner ratings, Archie Bunker had to be cast as the ‘lovable bigot’. This may seem to be a bit of an oxymoron to anyone familiar with most bigots, but this was the world of television, where anything is possible. And so while the BBC’s Alf Garnet remained a repulsive racist and reactionary, Bunker was portrayed as the bigot with the heart of gold. The live audience and laughtrack served to further soften his hard edges.

America is a nation that spends 4.5 hours a day in front of a TV set, and what they see educates them. This is true for news as well as for entertainment, and it had in fact been Lear’s desire to use entertainment television as a kind of ‘teaching tool’. The show carried a disclaimer that warned audiences that it would deal with divisive social and political issues.

What Lear could not have anticipated (and this is my own theory) is the political blowback that the show inadvertently created. Bunker either tapped into, or created, a mass audience for what some might call ‘compassionate conservatives’, or others might call video-driven right wingers. That extreme right wing views might prove not only palatable, but entertaining; and once entertaining, socially acceptable.

The seeds of Fox News were sown in the Bunker household. Extreme right wing views are, in fact, hey… not only out there in Queens, but totally mainstream. Everyone is really thinking this anyway, and boy does it rate. So although Bill O’Reilly may espouse political views akin to Archie Bunker’s, he is also viewed as ‘lovable’ in his own strange way. It is, in fact, no different.

Entertainment and politics cross paths. What was Ronald Reagan, if not a purely political incarnation of Archie Bunker – yet another lovable right winger; and in fact an actor turned politician. (as Lear made the move from TV to politics with the founding of People for the American Way).

We now inhabit a culture where politics and entertainment (via TV) have become inseparable. If the Presidential debate is not ‘entertaining’, if the answers are not ‘snappy’, the audience turns away, both from the ‘debate’ (and that is in quotes for a reason), and from the candidate. So we have questions about ‘lapel flag pins’ (via submitted home video). Laura Bush co-hosts the Today Show this morning, while her husband appears on Howie Mandel’s Deal or No Deal.

Politics/culture/tv/entertainment. It’s all cut from the same cloth now. Archie Bunker, lovable, entertaining bigot; Hillary Clinton, hard drinking, bowling, blue collar mama, running from John Stewart to The Colbert Report while Michelle Obama makes her stint on Rachel Ray. Where does entertainment end and reality begin? Or doesn’t it matter anymore.

Roger Ailes went from the Nixon White House to running Fox News, while Arnold Schwarznegger went from Hollywood movies to running the largest state in the country.

What’s the difference – so long as it rates.

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One response to “All In The Family

  1. Archie Bunker actually predicted that Reagan would be president, it got big laughs from the studio audience.

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