"Conflicting viewpoints of social issues are, in fact, the elements that
structure most television programs." (Newcomb and Hirsch)
Cultural forum is a framework for analyzing how the media affects society. It is the opposing viewpoint of Herbert Schiller's Media as Mind Managers, which says that the Media controls us. Although cultural forum rises more questions than it answers, it suggests that the media portrays society, not the media generating it. The proof of this is found when looking at the conflict in the world. If the media thrives from conflict, and conflict is generated without the media altogether, then it is apparent that the media reflects what society has already created.
It would be very difficult to argue that cultural forum is a solution to any particular problem, or that it proves or disproves causal or correlation relationships. Instead it would be prudent to recognize the value of the concept cultural forum is rather a market for ideas. Cultural forum not only raises more questions than it answers, it proves that the effects of media are undoubtfully hard to grasp. The true value of cultural forum then is recognizing that it brings light to the subject of social issues. It doesn’t force beliefs onto people, or demand that people act a particular way. No, instead it allows members of society to come to their own terms about any particular social problem or conflict. The media specializes in conflict, and through understanding why, beyond the goals of the media for viewership, will allow anyone to grasp their own answer to the many perplexing questions cultural forum alludes to.
Expression thrives in the media. Talk shows, satire, and persuasion are three of hundreds of examples on how people, through the media, tell others about their ideas and feelings. Because expression thrives, so does then conflict. All it takes is two opposing positions for there to be conflict, and this is the specialty of the media. There are multiple topics or ideas to express an opinion on as well. “In their co-authored text, ‘Television as a Cultural Forum,’ Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch (1994) present an alternative framework to the dominant ‘literary approach’ and ‘media effects’ camps of television criticism. As the title suggests, they propose re-conceptualizing television as a cultural site, where audiences are exposed to, and in turn speak about, a range of topical, social issues vis-à-vis television’s multi-textual flow.” (Payne) This creates the complexity of cultural forum. Although one specific show can repeat the same topic over and over, such as The Simpsons does with family conflict, there is no way to prove or disprove the effect the show has had on viewers. Newcomb and Hirsch were very clear about the problem weighing the media as anything more than bringing light to issues. They argued that everyone who watched the media did not necessarily come to the same conclusions, and even if they did, did not necessarily act in one particular way or another as a result. Instead cultural forum is a “rhetoric for discussion” and is not necessarily biased. In fact the media is a “community-centric dialogue, not as a one-way, analyst-centric monologue about that audience.” (Payne) This allows for interaction. Perhaps not directly with the television beyond an obvious remote thrown at the screen, but with people who are watching with each other, or people who watched it separately and later conversed about it together. Not only will they relate personally to what they watched, but they will express their own ideas about what was funny or true, etc. If people like something they watch, they will continue to watch it and tell others about it. Ratings and amount of viewership could then possibly bias the media.
The bottom line will always be factored into the media equation. If it doesn’t make money it won’t last long. However, conflict creates interest, and interest means viewers are watching. There is not much validity to the argument that the media is going to show only one side of an argument. Obviously that would be a monologue. Instead, the media has and always will have to present both sides to anything to create conflict, if not equally weighted, still seen at least. The media also doesn’t give solutions to conflict for the most part. In the news only reporting of conflict is given, not advocating how to solve the problem. A sports talk show may say the Greenbay Packers need to find a new quarterback to help their passing game, but this belief was most likely agreed to upon before he presented the idea. Radical innovation wouldn’t start from the television and work down to the viewer. Instead, people come to conclusions and create ideas and beliefs, and only then are they portrayed in the media. This is why the media is not biased when it comes to advocating action. Back to the quarterback example. Many football fans would have called for a new quarterback through emails to the coach, or booing in the crowd at poor performance. Even then, after the host of the show says they do in fact need a new quarterback, the viewer can judge and create their own opinion. Determinedly then it is safe to assume that conflict is the bread and butter of media, and the viewer can choose how much bread and how much butter to take at one time.
Since this idea is a forum, then interaction must be key. When it comes to interaction the Internet is the best example. The ability to connect millions of people together has also transformed Video games have transformed from single player and unsociable games, to multi-polar environments. This has included player to player and player to artificial intelligence, without much consideration on the gamers’ part that he or she is interacting on a massive scale. The integration has innovated what gaming is as we know it today, pure interaction. Interaction causes assimilation no doubt, through language if nothing else. “Text messaging, customizable tags, emoticons, and the spoken word are all available options for online gamers. This multitude of communication forms allow gamers to share their location, status, knowledge, and strategies with others to achieve team tactics that would be impossible if such expressions were not an option.” (Payne) At least within that community tolerable actions are permitted in such a fashion that some things are acceptable and some things are not. This is where cultural forum can present some beautiful questions. Why would terms like “lol” (laugh out loud) and “wtb” (willing to buy) be created in this forum? Why do people get so enveloped by the game that they spend 40+ countless hours a week playing a game? And why hasn’t other forms of media caught on to the increased interaction that the Internet specializes in?
No simple answers. Perhaps “lol” was just quick to type, that these games are addicting, and other media don’t have the capacity. But it is so much more complex than this. Even addressing the “lol” question would take a paper of its own. The ambiguity of the term has made it a response to anything. Yet, it is an expression. Was it created by the forum? Or was it created by the users? Although both are factors, not one can be pinpointed as Newcomb and Hirsch stress in cultural forum.
Question creation is not in doubt, but what about the media’s choice of expression? For this particular answer I look to the show Dharma and Greg. “Dharma and Greg is a fairy tale of how the wealthy prince charming met and married the beautiful, hippie Cinderella. Dharma and Greg's marriage works, but the sitcom often focuses on the quirks of their unlikely combination and the class clashes between the in-laws. Greg's parents are very wealthy.” (Wilson) If I hadn’t watched this show I’d never have considered what would happen if a couple met coming from two completely different worlds of hippies and money, per say. However, I would personalize the story when looking for a wife. No matter how similar my future wife and I might be, we would still come from two completely different worlds. When taken into analysis then, the media did choose two absurd things to compare and contrast. But the conflict is inherent in society, rich/poor. This only further proves that cultural forum presents what is already represented.
“Social issues can be ignored or examined under television's microscope, and historically, television has left issues, such as elitism, sexism and segregation, unchallenged. But the TV sitcom Dharma and Greg successfully represents television as a 'cultural forum.' First, because Dharma and Greg dissects and magnifies socioeconomic divides, it can discuss class structure. Second, the show combines both elitist and counter-culture lifestyles into a broad comedic schema. Comedy makes the show less offensive to both the hippie and the aristocrat that it represents. Finally, the show has a broad target audience, and in turn, diversity.” (Wilson)
The difference in perspectives provides for conflict, while comedy allows for the presentation of the conflict to be tasteful or at least manageable. The show did not tell the viewer that living one particular lifestyle was superior to another, in fact it broad to light the drastic problems that each class lived. The elitists were fake, and the hippies were hopeless, broadly put. The only bias I would peg on the media then is the negativity of conflict. Positive conflict doesn’t exist often, perhaps only in such rational media forums as the presidential election debates. Even then, it’s not largely watched.
But back to the importance of Dharma and Greg. Two completely different target audiences allows for interaction of both, and to the savvy advertisers this means “Ford Explorer and a Mercedes Benz SUV run back to back with a Payless Shoe Store commercial for shoes on sale: 2 for the price of $20.00, and an advertisement for discount outlet warehouse furniture.” (Wilson) The value of crossing the threshold between groups skyrockets, thus the interest the media has on conceiving both sides of conflict. The broader the audience the more money to be made. With this is mind the bottom line bias is history. Not to mention the bottom line bias dies out too, because the sitcom is a comedy, a positive light to a “dark” conflict! In the end more questions are asked than answers are generated, and that’s the beauty of cultural forum.
What is the true value of cultural forum then? Peter Gregg in reference to THE ARK IN SPACE, said, “The cultural forum model helps to shed light on the possibilities why the program ran for twenty-six seasons. It expertly balances audience expectations and cultural standards in a way conducive to popular ideological appeal. Its annexation of contemporary standards allows for multiple readings that are both contradictory and welcome to a society fearing its own future. (Gregg) This can be applied elsewhere too, to shows, sitcoms, movies, or other media outlets. Balance of conflict and allowing for contradicting interpretations, increases likeability. Cultural forum is then valuable to both the producer and the consumer. It is also provides for limitless positions, encouraging innovation in society if not its own forum. “The goal of every producer is to create the difference that makes a difference.” (Newcomb and Hirsch) In Dharma and Greg the producer encourages people to cross the threshold and treat their opposites with respect. Yet the show never says that, it is the consumer who makes this claim, especially when they do take action. “The creators of media, its rhetors, are cultural binoculars, searching for and creating new meaning by combining cultural elements and adapting to technological shift. They respond to real events, changes in social structure, and alterations in cultural values and manifest these responses by the programs they generate.” (Sahlins) And there you have it, the mere existence of these programs prove that cultural forum is an innovative response to what already exists, conflict, presented in such a manner that it becomes palatable, and allows for society to project its identity. Or does it?
Newcomb, Horace and Hirsch, Paul. Television as a Cultural Forum. In Newcomb, H. (ed.), Television: The Cultural View. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. pp. 503-515.
Payne, Matthew. Online Gaming as a Virtual Forum. DIGRA 2005 collection. 09/19/07 http://hdl.handle.net/1892/1569
Wilson, Amanda. Television as a Cultural Forum: An Analysis of "Dharma and Greg" 9/19/07
Gregg, Peter. THE CULTURAL FORUM MODEL OF TELEVISION RHETORIC: A Look at 'The
Ark in Space' 01 May 2001 09/19/07 http://homepages.bw.edu/~jcurtis/Gregg_3.htm
Sahlins, Marshall, _Culture and Practical Reason_, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 217.
Hoover, Stewart M., and Lundby, Knut. Media, Religion, and Culture. 1997. Sage Publications. Concepts from PG 39.