Whether it is Channel 4's top ten glam bands or press reports of the best 100 films of all time, the media are happy to count down lists of one kind or another. Media scholars have taken this as a cue to write Fifty Key Television Programmes . Several academics are given four or five pages per programme, and their commentaries are a mixture of the descriptive, the anecdotal, the critical, the adulatory and the informative. The focus is on texts at the expense of context, with a bias towards the here and now. The selection seems to be determined by the concerns of the present rather than the past appeal of the programmes or their lasting impact on the medium.
Any list of this kind is open to criticism. One point of comparison is with the lists drawn up by the industry and by fans. Several of the top ten programmes of the British Film Institute's Top TV 100 are missing, including its most popular programme, Fawlty Towers . Top ten-rated US shows, as classified on the Classic TV database (www.classic-tv.com), including M*A*S*H and Bewitched , are excluded. Programmes with a long shelf-life on British TV, such as Dad's Army and Inspector Morse , are also absent. There is no mention of Bonanza or Hawaii Five-O , which have had vast global audiences.
Events such as the 1969 moon landing, the World Cup and 9/11 are covered, but not key political events such as elections, in particular Granada TV's pioneering reporting of the 1958 Rochdale by-election. The lack of black and Asian programmes, with the exception of The Cosby Show , perhaps indicates the extent to which these communities have been ignored by television. But it is a pity to omit Goodness Gracious Me , which has helped to widen the profile of ethnic minorities on television.
The book's editor is aware of the problems inherent in lists. He lays out his reservations about canons, arguing that they say more about the people who draw them up than their subject matter. Yet he believes that constructing canons is an inevitable part of the way in which we organise and debate the world around us. His own canon provides an opportunity to argue the merits of programmes. It also highlights a fundamental problem of media scholarship: the lack of agreement on the basic components of the field.
Not surprisingly, therefore, An Introduction to Television Studies wrestles with the problem of defining television studies. This book is a comprehensive and wide-ranging overview of the world of television that will help students navigate the subject. But the effort to include a broad variety of concepts and approaches has resulted in a dense style. The focus on the small screen in the living room is hardly "new"; it is somewhat passe in this age of convergence.
Kevin Williams is professor of media and communication studies, University of Wales, Swansea.
Fifty Key Television Programmes. First edition
Editor - Glen Creeber
Publisher - Arnold
Pages - 282
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 340 80943 4