An in-depth interview with the architect of Television Studies and the director of the Peabody Awards
With nearly 500 original series to watch on television’s ever-increasing platforms, it is indeed a quaint notion that the medium’s seminal academic grew up with a 21-inch black-and-white Zenith.
But that’s the way it was for Horace Newcomb in small-town Mississippi. He would gain prominence in a brand-new academic field — television studies — and eventually become the director of the prestigious Peabody awards. But he started out watching the likes of The Defenders and Route 66 on that little set.
Even when his family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, “we lived in the suburbs,” he recalls. “There was no way to get to a movie. My family watched TV each night.” Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon and Dragnet’s Joe Friday “instructed me to beware the use of violence,”
Newcomb has written. “Documentaries and news reports on the civil rights movement offered a direction I might otherwise have never known — and challenged me to go that way.”
His way included a master’s degree in humanities and a PhD in English, both from the University of Chicago. Those led to positions at colleges in Iowa, Michigan, Maryland and eventually, 23years at the University of Texas, Austin, initially in the English department and later in radio-TV-film.
Newcomb “didn’t single-handedly invent television studies,” critic Noel Holston has written, “but he advanced and formalized the field with a blueprint book, TV: The Most Popular Art, first published in 1974. It influenced a generation of academics, critics and viewers.”
The back cover of that book offered a view startling for the time: “The phrase ‘television art’ may strike people as a contradiction in terms, but this book shows that I Love Lucy and All in the Family can, in fact be appreciated aesthetically.”
His 1976 anthology, Television: The Critical View, would go through seven editions. In 1983 (with coauthor Robert S. Alley), he charted the ascendancy of the television producer in The Producer’s Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV. And in 1997 he surveyed the entire medium as editor of the first edition of the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Encyclopedia of Television, a three-volume work with some 1,900 entries.
As a juror for the Peabody Awards, he helped select the best work in television from 1989 through 1995. In 2001, when he was invited to head the Peabodys, he moved to the University of Georgia, where he remained a professor of telecommunications until 2013.
Newcomb was interviewed in February by Adrienne Faillace, producer of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire discussion may be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: Why did you want to study television?
A: From high school in Clinton, Mississippi, I went a few blocks away to Mississippi College, a Southern Baptist–affiliated school. At that time, it was very clear to me that the racial situation was untenable in Mississippi — and throughout the South and throughout the country.
Television was a huge part of that. I didn’t realize for a number of years how significant it had been — it was probably after I began to write and teach about television. I tell people now — and I’ve written this in autobiographical essays — that one reason I attended so much to television in my career was because it changed my life.
I’m convinced that watching shows like The Defenders, which week after week was treating social-justice issues, awakened a consciousness in me. Watching Matt Dillon defend the Chinese laundrymen from being lynched, I thought, “That’s everywhere around me, even to the point of lynching….”
Seeing the Freedom Riders, the battle for civil rights… in news and fiction, television became the social and cultural center of the country. In that way television was crucial, not only for my development, but for the development of our society. People saw the same things and had to understand and react to the same things. There’s a richness there that I decided I wanted to study.
Q: What was your first work on the study of television?
A: The first paper I proposed was called “The Problem of Repetition in Television,” and it was about formulaic storytelling problems: if you’ve watched enough [of a series], you know what’s going to happen.
Toward the end of that paper, which I sent to [author–professor of popular culture] John Cawelti, I talked about soap opera as having a different narrative structure, because it doesn’t end, which changes the narrative probabilities. It allows you to do things you can’t do in episodic television, where you have to solve the crime or run off the bad guy in the western.
He wrote back, “I’m intrigued by this comment about soap opera. Why don’t you develop something around that?” So I did, and the paper became “Reflections on the Structure of Soap Opera.”
It was well received. People had not even thought about television much before. I began to think, “There’s something I want to do here.”
Q: How did TV: The Most Popular Art come about?
A: I wanted to find out what had been written about television from the humanities point of view. I gathered as many articles and essays as I could and wrote a proposal for an anthology, a collection of articles about television from the humanities perspective. I sent it to various publishers and got very little response — except from Doubleday.
An acquisitions editor there, William Whitehead, wrote back and said, “We don’t do well with anthologies. Why don’t you write a monograph about television? Write me a proposal and we’ll see how it goes.”
So I did. I wrote a proposal structured around story types — what we would call genres , but what Cawelti and I referred to as formulas . There were chapters on the situation comedy, family comedy, mysteries, doctor and lawyer shows, westerns. Whitehead liked it and sent me a contract — for an academic, a strange thing. Gave me an advance.
And it was published as TV: The Most Popular Art in the Doubleday Anchor Paperback Original series. It’s half-focused on aesthetics — narrative structures and so on — and half on cultural analysis — what are these shows saying about American culture and how are we dealing with issues, problems and provocations?
In the introduction I made a point of saying, “This is not social science. This is not economics. I’m not writing about the industry. I’m writing about the program content.” And essentially nobody had done that in this country. Raymond Williams was doing it in Britain; his book, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, came out about the same year. But The Most Popular Art was the first book that treated American television that way.
Q: How was it received?
A: It was recognized pretty quickly, not by critics, but by academics. It was taught in English departments, drama departments, even in some film studies programs.
Q: While writing TV: The Most Popular Art, you were also a TV critic for the Baltimore Morning Sun ….
A: Six hundred words a day, five days a week, 35 bucks a column. I was teaching fulltime [at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County] and finishing my book. I had to watch a television show, write my 600 words, drive it down to the newspaper and hand it to the copy editor. Never missed a deadline.
During Watergate, I was writing about the hearings. I was reviewing them as performance in many ways. And then these shows began to appear: All in the Family was treating social issues. Mary Tyler Moore was dealing with all sorts of issues in a gentler kind of way, but in some ways more sophisticated even than All in the Family. My sense was that television was coming of age.
Despite all the wonderful things about ’50s and ’60s television, there was a sameness about it. There was very little experimentation. Then things began to change. There were people producing television who loved it, knew what they were doing and could see very clearly.
Obviously Gene Roddenberry knew what he was doing with Star Trek. William Link and Richard Levinson knew what they were doing with their social-problem plays, and this was a period of the made-for-television movie doing some really wonderful things. These shows broke away from the formula — they woke up an audience. The late ’60s through the late ’70s was a period of ferment.
Q: What did TV: The Most Popular Art do for your career?
A: It made my career. I tell people, “I’ve only written one book.” I coauthored a book and I edited a lot of books, and I’ve written a lot of articles.
After The Most Popular Art, I went back to the anthology collection that I’d proposed previously, and in 1976 the first edition of Television: The Critical View came out. It took off right away.
By this time, people wanted to teach about television, and in all sorts of [college] departments. Three years later we did a second edition, and three years after that a third edition. It went through seven editions until 2001, I think, when I decided not to do it anymore, largely because by then the internet had made so much material available that people could put their own anthologies together.
But Television: The Critical View had an enormous influence on the rise of television studies — it was the only book for some time that people used.
Q: When did you see television studies start to become more accepted as a field of study?
A: It’s hard to pinpoint. I think in the introduction to the sixth edition, I said something like the term television studies is now becoming more widely used, as comparable to film studies. That would have been in the late ’90s. Now, to talk about television studies, you also have to talk about the configuration of media studies and communication studies, and it’s different in every university and college.
Some departments have journalism, advertising, public relations, all in the same school or department or college, and television studies often is under the rubric of media studies. But the term is generally used by television studies scholars in opposition to the study of television from, say, the social science, political science or economics point of view.
Television studies — for the people who do it widely and best — means television studied from the perspective of the humanities, broadly defined. It can be the art of television, meaning the actual physical art direction and so on. Or it can be narrative analysis of episodic programs. Or it can be the history of television program content.
The focus is mainly on content, though in the past five to 10 years there’s been a big shift toward industry studies, but always with the sense that, “Let’s study the industry in terms of how it influences content and how content influences the industry.” The term [encompasses] an amalgam of ways to understand, but with the humanities still at the base.
Q: How did you become involved with the Peabody Awards?
A: In 1989 I got a letter from Worth McDougald, a journalism professor and head of the Peabodys, asking if I would be on the board and I said, “Yes, of course.”
It was one of the most exciting processes I’d ever been party to. Fifteen people sitting around a table, looking at video — at that time, VHS — saying, “Is this worthy of the most prestigious award for electronic media?” It’s the oldest award for electronic media in the world, created for radio in 1941. The first TV award was in 1948.
Q: How did you become director of the Peabody Awards?
A: In the spring of 2000 they approached me about applying for the position of director. I thought at first that we wouldn’t do that, and I say “we” because my wife Sara and I had been in Austin for 23 years. I thought, “I love this university and I’ve helped build this department. I don’t think we should move.”
But after a couple of weeks I came home and said, “I think I’m going to have to apply.” They offered me the position, and in 2001 we moved to Athens, Georgia, and the University of Georgia and I became the director of the Peabody Awards. It was perhaps the best position I ever held.
Q: What did you enjoy about it?
A: It was different from being strictly an academic. I taught one course a year, but mainly my job was to oversee the process of selecting these prestigious awards. Every year was a struggle because we were getting 1,000 to 1,100 entries a year, and we had never given more than 35 awards.
We began to increase the number — I think my last year we gave 36 or 37 — and the award goes to the show, not to an individual. The awards are not given in categories. Every entry competes with every other entry. So local news programming is up against the networks and CNN.
Q: Tell us about the Peabody Archive.
A: It is the third-largest media archive in the country. Only the Library of Congress and UCLA’s Film and Television Archive are bigger.
But the Peabody is different because all of the material is submitted annually by people who say, “This was our best work.” It’s not an archive of Peabody winners. It’s all of the entries — 1,100 a year — a cross-section of broadcasting, cable and increasingly digital work that was done in the previous calendar year. You can see what was submitted by date, by year, by station — it is pretty amazing. It’s a treasure and being part of it was a treasure of an experience.
Q: What sets the Peabody Award apart?
A: It’s not a guild award, it’s not a peer award, it’s not voted on by people in the industry. I refer to it as a “citizen’s award” because the board is made up of people who do many different things. There are industry professionals, also newspaper people. There are usually about two academics, and I was filling that role when I was a board member.
So the academic side of it, the fact that it is protected by a university — as the Pulitzer is by Columbia — is really important.
Q: You were also the editor of the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ Encyclopedia of Television.
A: I took a two-year leave of absence from the University of Texas and gathered a board of advisors, who then advised on creating what’s called the “head word list” for the encyclopedia, about 1,000 entries. Then I had to find people to write these entries.
It was not something that a single writer could do — we had to have entries on the BBC, on the economics of television, on cable television, on regulation…. I commissioned these essays to around 300 people around the world, and their materials started to come in.
Sara and I worked on the encyclopedia in our largest room upstairs — and this was before the internet was in wide use, so we weren’t doing this by email. People were sending us floppy discs with their material on it.
Q: What should be the mission of television?
A: There are multiple missions. Obviously the informational mission is somewhat different from the entertainment, though they do overlap at times, but in the best of worlds they are somewhat separate.
I’d like to think, particularly with the American system, that we have a public service. We serve citizens. For a period, there was an academic debate: “Television and other popular media simply serve consumers — they don’t serve citizens.” I said, “Well, citizens are consumers. Consumers are citizens. We can’t make that kind of distinction.”
In the broadest sense, the medium should serve society, the culture and the public. Entertainment has always had a public function, whether it’s in the Greek theater or Shakespeare or the novel — it serves the public. But when you lay it out that broadly, you don’t really get much of the purpose. The purpose is to do all of that well.
Q: How have television studies changed since you started your career?
A: Partly by becoming more accepted and by recognizing different strategies for understanding this complex medium. My goal was to talk about stories, to do what we call textual analysis, to say, “Here’s an episode of All in the Family. There’s more there than meets the eye. There is this richness to it, this complexity.” A lot of people still do that. Entire books are written about series, which is great because we need that kind of thing.
One of the things that’s been added is attention to diversity. A lot of television studies was pushed forward by feminism, by feminist media studies. Then there’s the political aspect, which we were involved with as well, to say there’s not enough diversity. That’s been a throughline through all of television studies.
The other big shifts have been toward history on the one hand and industry studies on the other. The real question now for television studies is, “What’s going to happen to the advertising model?” If audiences are so fragmented, what are creators going to do? What are advertisers going to do? What are distributors going to do?
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring television academics?
A: Find a good school, a couple of good professors and stick it out. The academic world is changing rapidly. Job markets are tight. There is a rush toward studying online media, and a number of schools now have renamed their programs “screen studies.”
I think it would be very hard for somebody to do what I did. [My success] was fortuitous — it wasn’t because I saw the future. I just liked television and wanted to write about it. That I was there early on was a great boon for me, and perhaps for the field of study. But if I were trying to write a single book about television at this point, it would be a rear-view-mirror look. It would be, “What did television do?” And I think it did great things.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2017