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Tell It Like It Is: Television and Social Change, 1960-1980


My dissertation, Tell It Like It Is: Television and Social Change, 1960-1980, investigates the relationship between popular culture and social movements during the 1960s and 1970s. In an era marked by the rise of movements that challenged discrimination and second-class citizenship, TV producers attempted to represent and address societal tensions through the creation of more “realistic” programming that dealt with hot button social issues. With Black Power and feminism at the forefront of these movements, white male producers sought out underrepresented writers—people of color and white women—to translate their experiences to the small screen. This increased politicization in television engendered anxieties among reactionary viewers who complained that sitcoms and dramas could disrupt the status quo by presenting race and gender advancements in a positive light. Fans who wrote to networks, however, conversely claimed that Americans could learn from “authentic” shows that “tell it like it is.” Drawing on a wide range of sources—production files, correspondence, fan mail, script drafts, magazines, TV series, and writers meeting minutes—I argue that producers and viewers alike considered entertainment programming a tool that could alter social and political discourse.

Scholars of US social movements typically focus on what motivated people to organize and the extent to which they achieved their goals. Analyses of the relationship between activism and media are generally limited to the ways in which print and broadcast news propelled or undermined a movement’s agenda. Studying periods of resistance through the lens of popular culture, however, contributes to our understanding of how everyday people outside of social movements and from various racial and ethnic backgrounds understood the changes that activists demanded. Tell It Like It Is places entertainment television at the center of this dialogue to demonstrate how the politicized context in which television shows were produced and viewed during the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the general public’s engagement with current events.

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