The Reality of Television: From the Civil Rights Era to Today

What defines reality? Is reality a state of mind or a tangible object? As it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the difference between an actual thing and an image on a device screen, the lines between reality and virtual reality also become less and less distinct. 

On Friday, March 29, Dr. Kate Flach raised the issue of the role of television in forming one’s perception of reality. Titled “The Politics of Television: Race and Representation in 1960s America,” Flach’s talk expounded upon the role television has played in shaping American ideals about the reality of race.

Photo by Daniel Sarché

While television itself was invented in the early 20th century, personal TVs did not begin appearing until after World War II. As war veterans returned home and U.S. manufacturing resumed, television accessibility soared. Formerly considered a luxury item, TVs became widely accessible. By 1968, 90% of U.S. households owned a TV.

During this time, TV content was highly regulated and controlled by three channels: the American Broadcasting Company, the Columbia Broadcasting System, and the National Broadcasting Company. An organized system of time slots dictated when certain television programming aired. Saturday and Sunday programming were dubbed “religious hour” and weeknight programming offered family entertainment.

Very quickly, people realized that television was a powerful form of communication. Because nearly all families possessed a television, average Americans all across the country suddenly had simultaneous access to TV programming.

Moreover, television did not discriminate between its audiences. In an era where Jim Crow laws reinforced a sharp racial divide in public places, the same television content was available to Americans of all races, from the comfort of their own living rooms. There was no discrimination  between who could access what on TV.

Flach said that TV became a new frontier for the American public. There was now an infinite number of areas in which TV could be used as an equalizer, from entertainment to education. TV programmers were burdened with a “moral obligation to uplift the American citizenry,” said Flach.

One space of the American citizenry that Flach articulated was racism. While the appearance of African Americans on the Television screen was rare, the public paid rapt attention when it occurred. 

Near the end of her talk, Flach brought up the example of “Julia,” a sitcom which aired from September 1968 to March 1971. This show featured a single African American mother raising a family in 1960s America.

At the time, “Julia” raised many questions about what it meant to be an African American woman living in the U.S.. Many times, Julia, the mother, would directly address issues of race, prejudice, and “othering” with her son. This was a radical move on the producers’ part because discrimination, though present in the post-Vietnam United States, was rarely acknowledged so publicly. 

“Julia” represented part of a larger movement to desegregate the U.S..

Flach challenged her audience to consider the major role television played in shaping ideas of race and raising the issue of othering. As much as prejudice was a reality in society, prejudice was also a reality in television. 

Thought-provoking and sobering, Flach brought to light the small amount of separation between reality and the media. Societal issues are something portrayed more frankly in media than they are in everyday life. Often, as citizens look to media, they find a much more real presentation of the current societal mood than is visible in everyday discourse.

Flach emphasized the importance of acknowledging the integral role that the media plays in shaping what is real.

Ellen Loucks

Ellen Loucks

Ellen Loucks, class of 2021, is majoring in the humanities. She is from Champaign, IL, and is passionate about delivering authentic and reliable news to readers. She intends to pursue a career in writing following college.

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