As television began to overtake the political landscape in the 1960s, network broadcast companies, bolstered by powerful lobbying interests, dominated screens across the nation. Yet over the next three decades, the expansion of a different technology, cable, changed all of this.
Drawing on her new book, 24/7 Politics: Cable Television and the Fragmenting of America from Watergate to Fox News, Kathryn Cramer Brownell tells the story of how the cable industry worked with political leaders to create an entirely new approach to television, one that tethered politics to profits and divided and distracted Americans by feeding their appetite for entertainment—frequently at the expense of fostering responsible citizenship.
Brownell argues that cable television itself is not to blame for today’s rampant polarization and scandal politics: It’s the intentional restructuring of television as a political institution. She describes how cable innovations—from C-SPAN coverage of congressional debates in the 1980s to MTV’s foray into presidential politics in the 1990s—took on network broadcasting using market forces, giving rise to a more decentralized media world.
Brownell reveals how cable became an unstoppable medium for political communication that prioritized cult followings and loyalty to individual brands, fundamentally reshaped party politics, and, in the process, sowed the seeds of democratic upheaval. She also examines how cable created new possibilities for antiestablishment voices and opened a pathway to political prominence for seemingly unlikely figures like Donald Trump by playing to narrow audiences and cultivating division instead of common ground.
Brownell is an associate professor of history at Purdue University.
Copies of 24/7 Politics (Princeton University Press) are available for purchase.
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