Robert Thompson, television and pop-culture expert, tunes out critics’ raised-eyebrow reactions to his field.
Now and then on an 80-degree September evening, Robert Thompson, AB’81, interrupts his lecture to take a swig from a Pepsi bottle and wipe his forehead with a red rag. (“I sweat at like 65 degrees,” he jokes). In the film they’ll watch tonight, Thompson tells the 100 or so Syracuse University undergrads and grad students settled in teal-cushioned seats, they should look for signs of “teen life as a commodity” and “the teen world as a liminal space between childhood and adulthood.” In fact, underlying themes include creating a “teen nation” and—Thompson pauses the DVD near the film’s end to explicate this point—the U.S. Constitution. One character, he says, represents the Jeffersonian Democrats, “operating from the heart” and believing “what you need will come to you,” while another illustrates the Alexander Hamilton Federalists, a work-oriented guy who believes in centralized power.
“Janet Jackson gets her blouse ripped
off, and that killed Monday.”
The reporters’ calls continued for two weeks. See all Soundbites below
The movie? Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the 1982 teen flick about a year at a California high school. Although it’s fundamentally a sex/breasts/party movie, Thompson admits, even the characters’ names underscore his argument that Fast Times has a deeper message: pot-smoking surfer dude Jeff Spicoli is the Jeffersonian, while ambitious burger flipper Brad Hamilton is the Federalist. More evidence: when history teacher Mr. Hand gives Spicoli a home lesson on the American Revolution, Spicoli articulates what he’s learned: “What Jefferson was saying was, ‘Hey, you know, we left this England place because it was bogus. So if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves, pronto, we’ll just be bogus too—right?’”
As the closing credits roll, Thompson’s students seem pleased. “That was good,” one guy declares. His friend notes, “I didn’t know Sean Penn was in that movie.” Most file out; a handful mill about to talk with Thompson or to make office-hours appointments. “Nobody’s written on this stuff,” he says of his Fast Times lecture. “That’s part of what makes it fun—you do it all yourself.”
Thompson has been doing it all himself for more than 20 years. Studying the art of television since college, he recalls searching Powell’s Books as an undergraduate and finding only three volumes on the subject, including TV: The Most Popular Art (1974) by Horace Newcomb, AM’65, PhD’69. “It struck me as exciting that this really was a field in its infancy,” he says. Now Syracuse’s trustee professor of radio, television, and film in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television, Thompson has written or edited five books, including Television’s Second Golden Age (Continuum, 1996). As a pop-culture expert with a knack for pithy quotes, he gets calls almost daily from journalists covering the fall television lineup, America’s Star Wars fascination, or the late-September incident in which JetBlue passengers watched, on individual seatback TV sets, their own damaged plane circle over Southern California. The media exposure has made him a star at Syracuse, where he has a large office with an expansive campus view. With basketball coach Jim Boeheim, he’s the main user of a small satellite-uplink studio, where on a moment’s notice he can, say, tape a segment for Good Morning America shortly after learning Gilligan’s Island star Bob Denver has died.
Several reporters, wondering how one of their perennial sources came to be, have turned the tables and written Thompson profiles, where he tells his own story in the same nugget-laced manner he uses for other topics. Both the Syracuse alumni magazine and the Boston Globe, for instance, note that Thompson’s suburban Chicago hometown of Westmont lies at the crux of two pop-culture emblems: Route 66 and the Oak Brook–based McDonald’s international headquarters. As an undergraduate living in Pierce, Thompson watched TV Sunday nights, always planning to catch PBS but invariably tuning into NBC and CHiPS. He began to wonder, explain both the New York Times and Associated Press: Why do smart people love dumb television?
Thompson started out studying political science (he met his wife, Nancy Izuno, AB’81, his first day of school in English professor Wayne Booth’s class), believing he’d become a U.S. history professor. A two-quarter history-of-film sequence taught by Gerald Mast, AB’61, AM’62, PhD’67, helped spark Thompson’s interest. “The idea of sitting in front of movies and finding multiple layers of meaning,” the same way he’d already learned to do with plays and literature, fascinated him. He immersed himself in the genre, scouring the Tribune’s TV listings and setting his alarm to watch movies like Doctor Zhivago at 1 a.m. “It felt like studying,” he says, adding that he sometimes took notes. He watched about 25 films a week: “I felt like I needed to be familiar with the canon.” (Thompson still thrives on subject immersion: this past summer, after reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, he was inspired to rewatch all of the Bard’s plays on DVD; he spent $1,000 on a BBC collection.)
After Chicago Thompson moved to Northwestern, earning both a master’s and a doctorate in radio, television, and film. As the Boston Globe reports, his Journal of American Culture article “Love Boat: High Art on the High Seas” echoed his earlier question of why smart people like dumb TV. Today, he says, that paper embarrasses him. “There’s nothing like the jargon slinging of a freshly minted grad student.” Yet, Syracuse University Magazine notes, his argument—that TV is best judged differently than other art forms, as successful when a viewer can watch a show and do something else at the same time, a theory he has since named the “aesthetic of the anaesthetic”—set the tone for his future academic career. Not only did it mark his emergence in the field, but it also led to his first big media exposure. He’d already given his first newspaper quote, in a Washington Post story about medical shows, where he sang the virtues of St. Elsewhere, a program with its own chapter in Television’s Second Golden Age (and one that broke the “anaesthetic” mold: “It was so dense,” he says, “so literate, so intricately literary”). Yet when a 60 Minutes staffer saw his Love Boat article and the top-rated news show aired a March 1989 segment on his course, the phone lines began ringing more often.
Meanwhile he advanced professionally, teaching television production, screenwriting, and the history of television at Northwestern and SUNY–Cortland before moving to Syracuse in 1990. Seven years later he and Newhouse Dean David Rubin raised $430,000 to found the Center for the Study of Popular Television, which Thompson still directs. Based on the belief that television has profoundly affected U.S. society and that its entertainment programs are “at the heart of American popular culture,” the center’s mission, its Web site says, is to study “the many ways these television programs entertain us, inform us, and influence the way we act, think and feel.” The term “popular television,” he admits, has caused some confusion. He uses popular to mean “of the masses,” he says. “A lot of places look at the news and presidential debates.” This center studies “the stuff millions of people watch every night.” (With a new naming gift, he won’t have to worry about the moniker long. The center soon will be known as the Bleier Center for Media and Popular Culture.)
Of course, Thompson and the center, which currently has 12 faculty and doctoral fellows, have their critics. New York University media scholar Mark Crispin Miller, for example, has scoffed at the idea of giving low-brow shows academic attention equal to the best programming or news shows. Most Elizabethan literature, he pointed out in the New York Times, is not as good, or research worthy, as Shakespeare. Thompson disagrees. “Madame Butterfly isn’t the Fifth Symphony,” he says. “One isn’t better than the other.” In the same way, while shows like St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, and the Sopranos employ complex writing that vaults them to high-art status, he argues, programs such as the Beverly Hillbillies and the Andy Griffith Show also have value. “No, they’re not Walden,” he admits when asked about his New York Times statement that when he teaches such shows, “you get into the celebration of the rural in American life, the emphasis on nature, from Thoreau to Melville’s noble savages to...Walden Pond.” (Miller has called making “any meaningful connection” between the Beverly Hillbillies and Walden “just silly.”) Yet, Thompson insists, the Hillbillies theme song—in which poor mountaineer Jed accidentally strikes oil, becomes rich, and moves his family to California—is “possibly the pithiest statement of the American dream since ‘Go west, young man.’” Thompson agrees that, as Miller often notes, television is controlled by powerful corporate conglomerates. “But once you recognize that,” he says, “you can’t just pretend that TV” isn’t an important creative form.
Facing critics and media stories that regularly raise eyebrows at his subject matter, Thompson often must defend his field. The gist of the 1989 60 Minutes piece, he says, was “Can you believe people are getting college credit for this?” Ten years later Dateline did a similar story. “People are so comfortable with TV,” he acknowledges, “that to think you’d give it the scrutiny you would in a university seems absurd. It’s hard to distance yourself from cultural products you’re so familiar with.” Still, he’s grown tired of debating the subject’s worthiness, posting a preemptive response in his online director’s message: “When the Center for the Study of Popular Television opened in 1997, it...was greeted with a sense of novelty and amusement. Can you believe that a major university is dedicating resources and class time to Gilligan’s Island and Mr. Ed? ... Given that nearly everyone seems to agree that television is a significant part of our lives, however, it seems that the big story is not that we started such a center, but that so many people found it so unusual that we would do so. If television is half as important as everyone thinks it is, we have a responsibility to examine and explain it.”
That responsibility, Thompson believes, transcends the classroom, which is why a large portion of his day is devoted to talking with reporters. Most mornings, after waking up at 5:30 to read a novel (favorite authors include Don DeLillo, Nicholson Baker, and Alison Lurie), he makes scheduled calls to a few radio shows. “If you’re a professor holding office hours,” he says, “you’ll talk to anyone who comes in. This is the same thing. If I have three calls—one from the student newspaper, one from the New York Times, and one from CNN, I’ll return them in that order.” When big television events occur, he’s inundated. After the 2004 Super Bowl, for example, “Janet Jackson gets her blouse ripped off, and that killed Monday.” In fact, the Janet calls continued for two weeks. For that particular story, he considered it important “to get another voice out there.” Nobody else, he says, was discussing how the Super Bowl “has always been a raucous, rowdy broadcast with cameras lingering on cheerleaders and crass commercials. What are you going to worry about more—the breast flashing at 50 yards or the countless commercials about beer and the good life? To me there’s no question.”
Between calls he watches television programs on his “indestructible” 19-inch Sony Triniton (a U of C graduation gift), recording shows on his cable-service DVR. Before Tivo and its ilk, every morning he set timers on multiple VCRs. In September, with the new fall lineup airing, he records four-and-a-half hours a day. “For a long time I’d get to see at least an episode of almost everything on,” he says. “About eight years ago that became impossible.” He laments the fractionalization of television. “The glory of the network-TV era, and radio before that, is that everybody watched it, everybody was feeding from the same cultural trough,” he says. The industry “spent the beginning of the century building up this big audience, it had a complete grip on the entire population, and then spent the last two decades of the 20th century breaking that audience into nine million pieces.” These days liberals can watch Al Franken and conservatives can watch Fox News Channel, he says, “but when I was a kid I’d see a State of the Union address not because I cared but because I’d turn on the TV to watch my show and the president would be speaking. By default I’d get a civic education.”
ON THURSDAY, BEFORE HIS 5 P.M. FILM CLASS, he’s on campus shortly after noon and finds time for lunch. Walking into a falafel house, he’s spotted by the former dean of continuing education, already sitting at a table. “Why weren’t you on that Lucy documentary last week?” he asks Thompson. “You know you’re the only one I trust to tell me about Lucy.” Thompson shrugs and replies, “I must be on the cutting-room floor.” He heads to a back table—an unfortunate move with the warm kitchen nearby. During an hour-and-a-half lunch including countless Pepsi refills, he riffs on several topics. His field: “One thing that makes my critics suspicious is I really do like my subject. In pop culture you’re supposed to be inoculating against it.” Media conglomerates: Viacom, which owns the Nickelodeon, MTV, and CBS networks, “has the zeitgeist covered from birth to 60.” Good television: the best American TV show ever—The Simpsons. Celebrity: “I was just in the A&E biography of Pam Anderson. It’s actually an interesting story. She was the first baby born in Canada’s centennial, so she’s had cameras on her since she was born.”
After lunch he heads across the street to his office, in the older of two Newhouse School buildings, a 1964 I. M. Pei structure. The groundbreaking for a third building, to accommodate more computers and the school’s growth, is scheduled in November. When it’s completed in 2007, Thompson will get a corner suite for his office, his assistant, and his videotape library, which, in addition to the 30,000 hours he’s recorded on video and BETA since graduate school, will also contain three large televisions for screenings. In his current space, the walls behind and opposite his desk are filled with books: Tube of Plenty; TV in America; Anchorman; Radio Reader; Prime Times, Bad Times. Three old TV sets flicker quietly—including a 13-inch, black-and-white GE placed on a bookshelf and tuned to Dr. Phil pontificating. It’s the same set he had in college, more of a relic than a research tool. An 11-inch Panasonic broadcasts CNN, and a 27-inch Sony plays Hunter.
It’s time to return some calls. He’s already spoken today with an LA radio station about the JetBlue incident, the Syracuse Post Standard about Martha Stewart’s Apprentice, the Los Angeles Times about the Weather Channel changing format for big weather stories like Hurricane Katrina, and WPRO in Rhode Island about the new fall television season. Now he plays phone tag with NPR, which wants him to reflect on Bugs Bunny for an upcoming “great characters in cultural history” series. He gets hold of Sacramento Bee reporter Alison Roberts and discusses JetBlue. The next day he appears in her story:
But did the coverage unnecessarily alarm passengers?
“The mode of American journalism is hyperbole,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television.
At the same time, the attention can also be reassuring, he added.
“If CNN and Fox are on you—if you’re considered breaking news—then you figure somehow surely all that can be done is being done,” Thompson said.
The key to Thompson’s savvy is staying ahead of the game. “You hope that by the time a journalist calls you’ve already been thinking about it,” he says. The 60th anniversary of the webbed aluminum lawn chair, he offers as a nontelevision, pop-culture example, is approaching, so he read up. The chair is fascinating, he says, “because you had all this extra aluminum after the war,” and some enterprising folks thought to “take this surplus of aluminum and match it with the explosion of the suburbs, which was helped with the GI Bill.” It’s his favorite type of topic. “It’s fun to learn the contextual history of things you take for granted. The stuff is so totally a part of who you are and you fail to see the significance.”
Such familiarity is one reason that his fall-semester class, Critical Methodologies in Television and Film, avoids more recent popular films, such as American Pie and Scream, and instead shows older fare like Animal House and Fast Times. His classes, he admits, are “bipolar.” Before the first exam, “everyone loves it,” he explains. “Then they get an exam that demands they do all the reading”—in this case Channels of Discourse, Reassembled, edited by Robert C. Allen, and Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (5th edition), edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen—“and the temperature goes down 40 degrees.” He doesn’t pass out handouts or go through all the readings. “You have to think for yourselves,” he says—something he learned at Chicago.
The Fast Times screening and lecture on the “epic framing of a teenage nation” ends at 8 p.m. He’s had a full day, and in the morning he’s scheduled interviews about the fall line-up with Houston and Saskatchewan radio stations. Yet there’s still tonight’s homework. He plans to watch the first episode of Chris Rock’s new show, Everybody Hates Chris, on DVR, clipboard in hand, ready to take notes.
Why 2,000 dead soldiers emboldened the media: “Bush is in a less sound position than he was 1,000 bodies ago. ... [Previously] a lot of journalists were very worried that if they were critical, they would be accused of something tantamount to treason, as Nightline had been.”—New York Times, 10/31/05
Mom, apple pie, and TV indecency: “Coming out against indecency in broadcasting is like coming out against the burning of the flag. It’s a way to make political hay.”—St. Petersburg Times, 10/24/05
New Orleans gets more post-Katrina coverage than Mississippi because: “Mississippi
is like the Pentagon was to the World Trade Center during 9/11. ...With
the themes of death, race, class and poverty, the floods in New Orleans
took over much of the universe.”
—Seattle Times, 9/22/05
Why viewer interest in TV series ebbs and flows: “A serial is like a relationship. It demands that it be called every week. ... And if you don’t call upon it, it gets angry with you and punishes you by confusing you.”—Boston Globe, 10/2/05
The comeback of disaster-themed programs: “Certainly now it seems safe to go back into the territory of scary things happening in-flight. ... (After Sept. 11) there was definitely a no-fly zone over this cultural territory. It hasn’t lasted long.”—Houston Chronicle, 9/30/05
How television takes social issues to new frontiers: “[On Star Trek] interracial issues could become interplanetary issues. ... All kinds of stuff was sent through the secret decoding ring of science fiction. Gunsmoke did the same thing. They were doing episodes about tolerance and, in effect, civil rights, but instead of civil rights in the South, it was how they were treating Chinese railroad workers.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/28/05
Four-letter words and TV: “[Thompson] said when he was a child in the 1960s, saying ‘crap’ would have gotten his mouth washed out.
Fast-forward a generation later. ‘Holy crap’ is a favored expression on the long-running sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.
‘I have recently heard that word uttered in a second-grade class and in a Presbyterian church—by the teacher and preacher, respectively,’ said Thompson. ... “Sucks,” “bites” and words like that are currently being absorbed into the vernacular. Thus, their taboo origins are being dissolved.’”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 9/23/05
Why the Smithsonian National Zoo’s panda-cam is the ultimate reality-TV show: “The problem with reality TV is that everybody knows they’re on TV and their behavior is changed. ... Here we’re seeing the subjects completely guileless because they have no concept of what a camera is. There’s a sense that they haven’t seen every episode of Zoo Cam, so they’re not mugging for the cameras.”—Baltimore Sun, 8/31/05
Iraq War as drama on FX’s Over There: “This hasn’t happened before. ... No entertainment show would have touched Korea until decades later. The first series about Vietnam was 1987’s Tour of Duty, followed by China Beach in ’88. The one program we did have about the U.S. Marine Corps was Gomer Pyle USMC, and that was as far from the real world as possible.”—Denver Post, 7/25/05
After television, video games: “I am absolutely certain that, 50 years from now, there will be classes in universities that study this form of art and storytelling, just as we now study the classic books or films. ... We are on the cusp. We’re waiting for that first true masterpiece to be created.”—Toronto Star, 7/4/05
The force stays with us: “Star Wars is one of those cultural presences that will be experienced by people who watch Fox News and people who watch ESPN and people who watch Nickelodeon. ... So much of American culture is divided among cubbyholes, and Star Wars comes out and splatters its presence across everyone’s cubbyhole.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 5/17/05