Since its infancy, television has played an important role in shaping U.S. values and the American sense of self. Social activists recognized this power...

Since its infancy, television has played an important role in shaping U.S. values and the American sense of self. Social activists recognized this power immediately and, consequently, set about trying to influence television’s portrayal of those values by securing access to and a voice in the medium. Allison Perlman‘s Public Interests: Media Advocacy and Struggles Over U.S. Television (Rutgers University Press, 2016) examines some these efforts, including those among African Americans, women, and parents among others, between the 1940s and the early 2000s. Perlman, an associate professor of film and media students and history at the University of California, Irvine, thus, shows that media law and regulation was an important site of debate and activism. Social activists recognized television’s power and that ensuring their own views, voices, and identities were represented on the screen could be influential in promoting their cause. Both conservative and liberal activists worked hard to use existing laws to shape television ownership and programing. In the process, activists also worked to shape the definition of the public and weighed in on questions surrounding how to define and promote the “public interest,” as required by law. By the 1980s, deregulation reshaped the landscape, but did not end the importance of the arena for activists.

In this episode of New Books in History, Perlman discusses Public Interests and this history of media advocacy. She tells listeners about some of these social activists’ campaigns to influence FCC policies nationally as well as about more localized efforts to shape television programing. She also explains why these battles were important in shaping the broadcasting environment even if they did not always achieve their stated goal. She discusses the importance of deregulation in later media regulation advocacy. Perlman makes clear that a simple declension story is inaccurate even in this later period and discusses these battles’ continued relevance today.


Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor of History at Angelo State University. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th century U.S. political and cultural history. She’s currently working on a book manuscript about the role of violence in shaping U.S. political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. She can be reached at [email protected].

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