This chapter traces the history of television in the United States in relation to broader societal conditions and changes. Rejecting the assumption that technological advances are inevitable or necessarily progressive, it situates evolving “stages” of television as complex responses to the shifting demands and contradictions of advanced liberal capitalist democracies. Events and ruptures in television's development as a cultural form are discussed in the context of three conjunctures – mass television, niche television, and post television. At a moment of dizzying technological change, the chapter emphasizes the importance of history and the need to look beyond the shiny surface of the new, to consider how the transformation of broadcasting intersects with a broader reconfiguration of the “social forms” (work, family, geography, market, government) in which we live.
Television is a medium in transition. The era when a few major networks beamed the same programs into everyone's homes has given way to hundreds of specialized cable channels, digital video recorders, programming “on demand,” new distribution and viewing platforms (DVDs, websites, mobile phones), and more opportunities for viewer interaction, from voting on talent competitions to posting clips on YouTube. In light of current developments, the history of television as a mass medium can seem increasingly distant, and perhaps irrelevant. The assumption of cultural progress encourages ...