Student's guide to guilt-free viewing

The Television Studies Reader
May 28, 2004

I have always wanted the chance to say of a book that it was so bad it did not even manage to bore me. I had high hopes of The Television Studies Reader . Here surely was an opportunity to do battle with the enemy. All those undergraduates studying Big Brother when they should be applying themselves to John Bunyan. Ah, the discipline of the written word compared with the dissipations of television. Now, finally, a chance to put the foe to flight. It is disappointing, then, to find that my only real objection to this book is that it is too big to read easily when travelling by train.

The job of education is to combat our prejudices. After reading these essays, I am no longer sure what television is or what I think about it.

Which is a wonderful excuse for watching more of it than I already do.

Editor Robert Allen apologises to his non-US audience for "the distinctly American odor" of his introduction. This is an unfortunate word, as it encourages people to turn up their noses at what he has to say. They should not, because then they will never know that one of the many facts uncovered in "television studies" is that the only place in China you can see Friends is in a hotel catering to foreigners.

The introduction is in the form of a dialogue between the editor and an imaginary individual who asks questions such as "how are you defining television and television studies for the purpose of this Reader ?" The interlocutor's curiosity borders on the impertinent. Does the editor feel "guilty about studying television", and can one get away with reading the essays only once? How Allen kept his patience I don't know. He must be very relieved when his interlocutor at last says: "I think I get the idea."

There are many ways to define television. For Allen, it is "a changing set of technologies for capturing images and sounds", a "set of formal, narrative and representational structures and capacities" or "the social experience associated with producing, viewing... appearing on and being affected by television". When I was younger, it was just "the box". But life gets complicated as you get older. The goals of this reader are to "present contemporary work on a wide range of television modes and experiences", to produce "a resource for teaching" and to "speak to a diverse readership". It has other goals, too, set out like learning outcomes in a module template. Some are hard to tell apart. Can you spot the difference between showcasing "work that reflects the multi-dimensional and dynamic nature of television" and work that "speaks to the dynamic nature of television"?

Nevertheless, this book is a well-organised series of essays on just about every aspect of television one can think of - and a few more besides. It kicks off with institutions. In the US, the development of television was driven by commercial interests, whereas in Europe there was a greater commitment to public-service broadcasting, which has come under great strain in recent years with the introduction of cable and satellite TV. Do more channels mean more choice? Yes, of course. There is always a different game show on the other side.

The second section looks at the "space" of television. Thanks to satellites, we can witness events on the opposite side of the world as they happen. As well as collapsing distance between the viewer and the viewed, the television set itself transforms the space in which it appears. The addition of a television to a doctor's office means that a patient is in an environment open to the outside world. Television disrupts the here and now with its endless reminders of elsewhere. But this can be a good thing because it allows members of dispersed communities to keep in keep in touch with one another.

The space of television does not refer only to how it interacts with its surroundings but also to the size of a set. The fact that the television set ranges from a tiny device that can be worn on the body to a wall-filling display unit complicates the traditional distinction between the large and small screen. Can one still claim that cinema is suited to the grand gesture and television to the human face?

The different modes of television come under the spotlight in part three.

Their variety, from the news to "robot wars", means that it is important to have a theory of television genres. It is clearly necessary to identify the conventions of a particular show, say a sitcom, but we should also study "how that show is positioned, referred to, marketed, and responded to".

Among the genres considered here are advertisements, docudramas and news bulletins. We learn that ads are part of our television experience, that docudramas "reformulate history" and that news bulletins interpret events in a different way from that of the people who lived through them. In other words, we do not learn very much. Still, as Dr Johnson said, people need to be reminded more often than they need to be informed.

The fourth section concerns how television is made. Some programmes, such as the news, hide how they have been made; others, such as It'll Be Alright on the Night , highlight fluffed lines and technical blunders. But even these kinds of programmes "are carefully calculated representations of the production process". They are a perfect instance of the false transparency of mass culture that reveals its minor workings the better to disguise its real ones. We know all about the habits of celebrities but not about the workings of the corporate world. Adorno put it best 50 years ago when he said that television "socialises curiosity".

The remaining two sections look at how television constructs images of self and society, and how it may change. One of the more interesting observations is that television exploits "our quintessentially modern reliance upon experts to guide us in the unending process of 'discovering' who we are". If, as is suggested in the section on the future, different media will merge, then who we are may come to depend even more on technology. The founder of scientific management, Frederic Winslow Taylor, dreamt of making human bodies more like machines. He would be delighted by the dispersal of the self into digital networks and electronic systems.

This a worthy volume. More scholarly than provocative, it informs rather than stimulates or entertains. If you want to know about power in television, read this book. However, given its daunting size, reading it might mean missing your favourite programme.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

The Television Studies Reader

Editor - Robert C. Allen and Annette Hill
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 629
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 415 28324 8

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments