Domesticating the Airwaves: Broadcasting, Femininity and Domesticity

May 17, 2012

This book sets out to retell the history of the intimate relationship between broadcasting and domesticity. Set against a backdrop of changing social relations from the 1930s to the present day, it looks at some of the ways in which radio and television in the UK have represented the home to listeners and viewers encountering their programmes in domestic space. This story of a public medium negotiating its reception in private space is - literally and figuratively - a familiar one.

The early BBC constructed its audience as a national family and organised its schedules around what it perceived to be archetypal family routines. Within that framework, women were addressed primarily as housewives and mothers in daytime programmes designed to give advice about how best to manage their time, their children and the family budget. Maggie Andrews confirms the ambivalence of programmes that gave public acknowledgement to these private affairs while at the same time always suggesting there was room for improvement. Indeed, a recurring theme is that broadcasting has been one of the sites that has persistently promoted and exploited an idealised domesticity as a vision on an ever-receding horizon - approachable by training in taste and technique, or by investment in the right products of consumer culture, but never really attainable. The contours of the ideal change over time and context, and are clearly continually subject to contestation both political and pragmatic. But speaking to people's dreams of a better home life continues to sustain the more recent wave of cookery, childcare and home makeover programmes that represent these domestic activities not so much as women's work but as lifestyle choices.

However, it is the attempt to take the long view of a concept as complex as domesticity that may account for some of the book's weaknesses. The most clearly developed theme is this notion of an idealised domesticity reflected in homemaking and cookery programmes. But Andrews also takes in the domestic settings of soaps, sitcoms and dramas, the "feminisation" of news and the rise of confessional talk shows, and tries to set all this against changes in the broadcasting landscape, housing policy and gender relations. The breadth of ambition is laudable, and there are fascinating moments, but Andrews struggles to manage her material, and the result can be akin to watching someone channel-hopping. There are too many ideas, sources and programmes jostling for attention, and few are given the careful attention they deserve. The chronological structure gives rise to a lot of repetition - in every chapter, for example, we read that the public and the private were becoming "increasingly blurred" with neither the persistence nor the problematic nature of this idea being satisfactorily interrogated. Moreover, there are vertiginous leaps from anecdote to generalisation, and disembedded references to media and cultural theory. These stylistic shortcomings are unfortunately compounded by atrocious copy-editing, which failed to pick up on countless errors in referencing, syntax and spelling.

For all its flaws, one of the strengths of Andrews' approach is nevertheless precisely that it takes the long view across both radio and television, enabling her to reveal the antecedents of what are too often taken to be novelties of contemporary broadcasting. Particularly striking is the way in which advice programmes about the home produced by "experts" found they were speaking to an audience who often considered themselves already expert in their own domain. As a result, this most mundane corner of broadcasting history is shown to have been a pioneering site of active audience feedback and interactive involvement, including bringing the voices of "ordinary" women as amateur experts on to the air.

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