I read this book over 20 years ago. It taught me "how to watch TV." Critics have compared it to the film book classic, FROM CALIGARI TO HITLER (an analysis of how Weimer Germany films reflected German sociological undercurrents).
Ben Stein watched popular TV shows from the 1970s, both sitcoms and dramas, then analyed how various social groups are protrayed: businessmen (as criminals), the military (psychotic sadists), minorities (good-hearted), criminals (driven to do bad by racism and poverty) clergy (nice but ineffectual), govt social workers (noble, idealistic, hard-working).
Watch any episode of a 1970s show (Beretta, Kojak, Good Times, Rockford Files, The Jeffersons), and you'll be amazed at how consistent the formula is.
Ben Stein also interviewed many TV writers and producers, and demonstrated how their own backgrounds and lifestyles gave rise to the liberal biases reflected in their shows. (They really believed the world was as they portrayed it). Maybe half were Jews, the rest mainly Catholic, who were raised in working class environments and felt the sting of prejudice from "country club WASP Republicans."
Today, TV is not so liberal as in the 1970s. TV writer Rob Long wrote in National Review a few years back that 1990s sitcoms are apolitical, because a newer generation of TV writers has replaced the old. Most modern TV writers come from wealthy Hollywood families, or from the Ivy League (as was Long), so they no longer have the same liberal biases.
Even so, Ben Stein's book is STILL AS RELEVENT today as ever. Not because of what he discoverd about 1970s TV, but because of his method of analysis. Stein's book TAUGHT ME HOW TO WATCH TV. It's simply the best TV analysis book out there, great reading for anyone who wants to be a TV critic, or just to see TV more clearly.
Plenty of film theory books, but this is one of the few really great TV theory books. Also, it's a quick, easy read. Much intelligence, but in accessible language.
And YES, this is the SAME Ben Stein who hosts Comedy Central's WIN BEN STEIN'S MONEY.
on August 31, 2004
Years before his role as a high school economics teacher in "Ferris Buller's Day Off", Ben Stein penned this short book about the view of America from the perspective of a small group of highly paid Hollywood writers and producers.
Whilst in law school, Ben Stein had read "From Caligari to Hitler" by Siegfried Kracauer. In this book, Herr Kracauer attempted to advance his theory that the films of the Weimar Republic reflected the attitudes and thinking of the German nation. The text was obviously a big influence on Mr. Stein. After practicing law, working as a Nixon speech writer and teaching college, he moved to Los Angeles and began working in and around television. Operating under the theory that television is the dominant mode of communication in America, he attempted to learn as much about the thoughts of the people who create it as possible. The author spent a lot of time working at Norman Lear's production company. He also interviewed many writers and producers. The result is an easily read, anecdotal study of the attitudes and beliefs of the men and women who were creating the television of the 1970s.
After giving us an introduction to what is involved in the making of a TV show, as well as the roles of writers and producers, we are given 12 chapters on various groups and their television archetypes. For example, there are chapters entitled "Businessmen on Television", "Police on Television", "Small Towns on Television", etc. The pattern of each chapter is to introduce the way in which the group currently under discussion is portrayed, cite supporting examples from television shows and then provide interviews with producers and writers that are illustrative of the attitudes that are reflected in the television portrayals. Those interviewed range from the famous (e.g. Gary Marshal) to the lesser known (e.g. Stephen Kandel). The chapter then concludes with a summation and interpretation provided by Ben Stein. The last two chapters of the book examine possible sources of Hollywood's attitudes and the new American culture that has developed.
Throughout the book, the author makes clear his fondness for the people that he worked with and interviewed and also for the business itself. This does not, however, prevent him from being chagrined at the eccentric and occasionally conspiracy-prone beliefs of those he interviewed. We see well-off, successful and educated adults proffering theories of there being a strong link between business (all business)and the mafia or the belief that 8 wealthy families rule the world. This book was published in 1979 and may seem dated to some who read it. All of the shows referenced in the book have long since disappeared from the television landscape and Jimmy Carter is no longer president. Cable was not widely available, video games were primitive and the modern Internet did not exist. On the other hand, it is interesting to note how many of the stereotypes created by television are extant. The superficially idyllic small town with dark secrets to hide is but one familiar example that persists today.
The conclusion that Mr. Stein draws is that to whatever extent Siegfried Kracauer's thesis was correct in regards to German movies of the 1920s and 1930s, a similar theory relating to 1970s American television does not hold. Television of the 1970s (and quite likely of today) is not a reflection of society, but instead of the experiences and beliefs of the relatively small group of writers and producers who are in creative control of it. The author concludes by writing that he doesn't have any great sense that something bad will result from the views of the TV community. I think it would be quite interesting to see if his views have changed. In any event, it is unfortunately the case that this book is no longer in print. I do recommend tracking down a copy and reading it. Doing so will very likely change, if not the amount of television you watch, then at least the way in which you watch it.
on March 19, 2014
Mr. Stein's book is somewhat simply written, but he makes some great points about how TV producers/directors/writers think of themselves as working class, even though they may command (to most people) vast sums. In 2014, we might call these Hollywood types "the one percent". Excellent analysis. Mr. Stein attempts to play fair; his book is in no way one-sided (as are many political nonfiction books these days) despite the fact that he is a conservative Republican. He has had an interesting career, writing in R. Emmett Tyrrell's The American Spectator, appearing in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, writing nonfiction, hosting a game show on cable ("Win Ben Stein's Money"). I've been meaning to read this book for decades, and I am glad I did.