When Horace Newcomb, AM’65, PhD’69, published TV: The Most Popular Art (Anchor Press/Doubleday) in 1974, it was one of the first books to apply humanistic analysis to television—sitcoms, Westerns, adventure shows, even soap operas. “Television remains the most neglected, the most unexamined” of all the popular arts, Newcomb wrote. He blamed “the social stigma attached very early to television by the cultural elite.”

The book challenged readers to set aside this elitism and look more carefully at network television. In the chapter “Soap Opera: Approaching the Real World,” for example, Newcomb argued that despite the low production values and stereotypical plots of daytime drama, “letting stories grow and develop over periods of months and years brings them closer to experiential reality than any other form of video art.” He saw more potential for “what television art can be” in soap operas than in any other genre of programming at the time, a claim confirmed by present-day television’s reliance on sophisticated serial narratives.

The book came out three years before the home VCR was sold in the United States. Newcomb had to rely on his memory of television programs—whether seen recently or decades before—to write his close analysis.

Newcomb grew up in Clinton, Mississippi, in the years leading up to the civil rights movement. His family watched television every night. “It was the TV that most expanded my perspective,” he told an interviewer for E-media Studies. “There was a lot going on regarding race in the 1960s on TV, even on shows like The Beverly Hillbillies.” Decades later, he realized that television’s powerful, early influence on his worldview was the reason he had dedicated his life to studying it. 

After graduating from Mississippi College in his hometown, he came to UChicago as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, with the encouragement of Norman Maclean, PhD’40. He earned a master’s in the Committee for General Studies in the Humanities and a PhD in English. As a graduate student, he had a circle of friends who shared his fascination with popular culture; they talked about transferring to Northwestern, where there was a film program, but never did.

Newcomb did sit in on the first popular culture course at UChicago—an undergraduate class taught by John Cawelti, who directed Newcomb’s dissertation on nineteenth-century American literature. As he recalls, when Cawelti proposed the course to Gwin Kolb, AM’46, PhD’49, the chair of the English department, Kolb’s response was, “Can’t you at least call it Literature and Popular Culture?”

After graduation, Newcomb taught briefly at a number of institutions—Cornell College in Iowa, Saginaw Valley College in Michigan, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County. At UMBC he taught popular culture in the American studies department, including his first courses on television. “I taught at night,” he says. “I would roll a TV set in, we would see a TV program, then do critical analysis of it.”

In Baltimore he “lucked into” a job as television critic for the Baltimore Sun. He had to turn in 600 words five days a week—while teaching full time and writing TV: The Most Popular Art, and with two young children at home. He never missed a deadline.

Although The Most Popular Art was published by a mainstream publisher, it mostly appealed to academics. “Popular culture studies was just beginning to be taken seriously and spreading in colleges and universities,” says Newcomb. He had grander plans for the readership of the book: “I was hoping somebody would read it in New York and hire me at a network,” he says. “They didn’t call.”

Newcomb did come heartbreakingly close to a career in the industry a couple of times. A fan of the 1980s detective show Magnum, P. I., he published an article, “Magnum, The Champagne of TV.” The article introduced the term “cumulative narrative” for shows that have a longer story arc as well as plots that wrap up in each episode. When Newcomb had the chance to meet Magnum’s producers, he pitched some story ideas. One story was accepted, “very nicely paid,” and scheduled to shoot in the spring—and then the show was canceled.

Thus, Newcomb continued to make his mark studying television rather than creating it. His second book, the anthology Television: The Critical View (Oxford University Press, 1976), helped launch the field of television studies; the book is now in its seventh edition and still widely taught. Two years later he accepted a position in the English department at the University of Texas, Austin. Newcomb was brought in to develop a pop culture curriculum for the freshman composition course, and eventually moved over to the radio–television–film department.

In 1983 he co-authored The Producer’s Medium (Oxford University Press), a collection of interviews with television producers. The book posited the producers—today’s showrunners—as the artists of television, similar to the role of directors in film.

Newcomb took a leave of absence from UT–Austin from 1994 to 1996 to serve as curator at Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications. He remained in Austin, where he edited The Encyclopedia of Television (1997), published by the museum. The reference book included entries on more than 1,000 television-related subjects.

In 2001 Newcomb was appointed director of the Peabody Awards, the broadcasting equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Originally given to honor excellence in radio, the award later expanded to television and online programming. Newcomb considers the 12 years he spent there to be the most rewarding period of his varied career.

Now retired, Newcomb tries not to watch television more than a couple hours of a day. He and his wife, Sara, have always watched together: “Come June it’ll be 55 years,” he says. Shows they have enjoyed recently include The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and a British show called The Detectorists (“about two guys who walk around with metal detectors”).

Since Newcomb published TV: The Most Popular Art, the academic study of television has become commonplace: “a robust growth industry,” according to a 2017 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Occasionally Newcomb will happen across a rerun of one of the early shows he wrote about in his groundbreaking book. He enjoys “how basic and undeveloped in technique and look they are,” he says. “You see a Western done on a soundstage, it looks very different, but is still fascinating.”

Photo Creds: 
Photography by Charles Ramirez Berg