Making Pop Culture Work for You, Not Against You

Here are the top three most popular non-competition shows in the US according to TV Guide.

The Blacklist: the FBI is forced to work with a most wanted criminal, Raymond Reddington, on his terms. The FBI, as hard as it tries, is unable to apprehend any suspect on an alleged blacklist or even know who the suspects are without Reddington’s help, a problem that becomes abundantly clear by the second episode.

Homeland (Spoiler alert): Carrie Matheson, a CIA agent, sleeps and falls in love with a suspected terrorist, Nicholas Brody, whom she is investigating. Her supervisor is aware of the situation and finds out she is mentally unstable but refuses to fire her. Brody turns out to be a terrorist who assassinates the Vice President and accidentally helps blow up half the CIA. The CIA is taken by surprise even though Brody recorded a video confessing to wanting to kill the VP and CIA. Carrie Matheson then helps him leave the country, somehow bypassing all government security in DC after the biggest bombing since 9/11.

Scandal: Political scandal fixer Olivia Pope makes the problem of any client go away before the media turns it into a circus. (Spoiler alert) After having an illicit affair with the leader of the free world, Pope, who is not a member of White House staff, uses the president’s love for her to decide foreign policy and dismiss investigations for criminal court evidence on her friends. Pope, the White House Chief of Staff, and the First Lady also actively rig elections to put the President in office. The head of the CIA falsifies evidence of genocide in Sudan to stir political unrest. The Vice President’s Chief of Staff not only bugged the President’s room for political gain, but also murdered a reporter. To top it all off, in order to avoid a presidential sex scandal, the White House Chief of Staff had the woman in question assassinated.

Image courtesy of Moritz Peterson, © 2005, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Moritz Peterson, © 2005, some rights reserved.

In the current era of television, US government agencies, with the notable exception of local law enforcement, are portrayed as almost aggressively incompetent, if not outright evil. It could be said that many of the political blunders listed above reflect actual events, but the point is that the government is allowing audiences to focus on the bad instead of the good. The US government is missing a golden opportunity to boost its approval ratings through television.

The US government has done a decent job of working with movies; for example, the CDC was consulted in the blockbuster, Contagion, warning Americans to listen carefully to their alerts even after the CDC slipup with swine flu. Captain America is a symbol of patriotism for the United States, and most superhero movies do give the government a certain amount of competency. Movies, however, are the wrong media source. Movies are a calculated expenditure to the average American. The average American watches over 34 hours of live television a week and another four to six hours of taped shows compared to the measly 5.8 tickets bought at movie theaters in a year, a number that continues to decline. (1) Watching television is not an event for which audiences have to psychologically carve out time or shell out money. It is what they come home to and relax to after work or school. It is a subject of conversation every week. It is on as they cook and as they fall asleep. They think about their discontents and contents alongside the character on the screen. Television is what fundamentally influences the average American, and television does not seem to look kindly upon United States government or culture.

In East Asia, the governments are very active in advancing their own agenda through pop culture. The Japanese government owns the NHK, one of the five major broadcast networks in Japan. The Chinese government operates under several different channels of CCTV. The Korean government owns two of the four national broadcast networks, KBS and EBS. These government-owned networks are not only focused on news either; they have plenty of dramas, cartoons, and comedies for both kids and adults on their channels. Some of the governments even take it a step beyond owning the channels. The Japanese government has been known to actively support or help entice and promote certain authors or writers to continue writing shows that subtly teach children about Japanese history, particularly the Edo period, which is constantly considered one of Japan’s proudest times. The show with the highest viewership in Chinese history is Princess Pearl, which takes place in the Qing Dynasty, whose early years were extremely prosperous. This fascination with historical dramas that take place in the golden ages of the respective countries is very prominent throughout East Asia. These shows are being used by the government to forward their patriotic agenda; they are pulling together the nations by reminding them of their prosperous and successful shared past and the greatness of their countries. The audience is reminded of the great history and culture of their nations and the increased patriotism often results in more content with supporting their government no matter what.

Now, the United States has a unique problem. As a “mosaic” of cultures, the American culture is arguably harder to define. Furthermore, many argue that the US has a dubious past that cannot be spun into a feel good story. However, the US no longer endorses slavery and women can vote, so there is an incredibly simple solution to these problems: focus on the people who created the America of today. The United States is the current world superpower. The United States doesn’t have to focus on a past golden era because they are living in one. Focus on the good work of the White House. Create believably lovable and strong characters to put in important government positions, not wholly unlikable and incompetent men and women who would throw away the responsibility of their entire nation’s lives and happiness, not to mention the entire free world, to consummate their forbidden love.

Furthermore, in the past ten years, only one show aimed towards kids that addresses the history of the United States in its freedom-seeking formative years has been mildly successful: the Liberty Kids. It seems odd that a country that bases a good portion of its national pride off of its original fight for religious freedom and liberty through the first “modern” claim of independence cannot create a single popular kids show to teach American youth about American pride or culture. After all, the children who watch these shows are the ones who will grow up with a stronger allegiance to their country and a respect for their past.

To be sure, certain topics sell more than others, but it would be a gross underestimation of American talent and creativity if anyone were to believe that the United States does not have capable scriptwriters talented enough to create a popular show that glorifies the government and American culture rather than tear it down. The West Wing, one such show, was incredibly popular for its first four to five seasons with both Democrats and Republicans through Clinton’s last term and Bush’s first term. Congress approval ratings during this period were also higher than any other year in the previous thirty years. The final years of Clinton and early years of Bush also had consistent above average presidential favourability ratings. (2) Obviously, there are a lot of factors that contribute to political approval ratings, but it is hard to ignore pop culture’s influence in the American perception of everything. It would be a mistake to think that television has no role in the manipulating the feelings of its watchers. The US government should be endorsing these positive portrayal types of shows and should be trying to get them on the air. Pop culture may reflect the opinions of the people, but it just as much so influences them, and this reciprocal connection is exactly why the US government should be taking advantage of the huge pop culture presence in American culture instead of allowing it to further bring down their reputation.





Peter Hill contributed to the Homeland portion of this article.

One Reply to “Making Pop Culture Work for You, Not Against You”

  1. Great article and an interesting view, Vivien! However, I just wanted to point out that government-owned broadcasting networks have a relatively terrible reputation in Korea and I definitely would not recommend the U.S. government to follow their steps… Also most major networks in Korea such as the MBC, SBS, JTBC, etc., tend to be right-leaning and pro-government (they are owned by pro-government conglomerates, i.e. JTBC is owned by JoongAng Media, which is owned by Samsung) so it’s really frustrating for Korean citizens as we do not have access to relatively bias free broadcasting. For example, when President Park had visited France a few months back, none of the networks reported about the protests she was met with in Paris (you know for being a dictator’s daughter/having cabinet members who are known to have violated human rights laws during previous regimes), and instead reported on trivial matter such as her fashion and her ‘graceful tumble’ when she was getting out of a car. Anyhow, just thought I should shed some light on the dark side of this topic!

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