TV in the age of the solipsist consumer

Consuming Television - Global Television - The Television Handbook
November 7, 1997

Twenty years ago the view was fashionable that the spread of American and to some extent British television programmes to other countries operated as an extension of the imperialist relationship from the economic to the cultural realms. In other words, television was homogenising the receiving societies and turning them unwillingly and perhaps unwittingly into psychological satraps of the West. The belief in this usurpatory process gave way to a richer understanding of how television is modified by audiences on reception; it was realised that the ideological monolith was in fact a mass of contradictory messages; that cultures are bundles of changing practices and altering meanings; above all that media imperialism as an idea was anchored to a false notion that the prevailing government acts as the repository of cultural sovereignty.

In Chris Barker's somewhat heavy-going but paradigm-setting study, we are given a theorised picture of the globalising 1990s where we see that the local and the global are both relative terms, that the nationstate has come about only inside a global system of nationstates, that the rise in nationalist sentiment, as well as regional and local identities, are occurring within globalising discourses. One has to envisage globalisation as a "layer of western capitalist modernity" which does not obliterate underlying cultural forms but competes with them ideologically. A hybrid complex of multi-identity ensues, with sexuality, family and gender thrown in, all of them subjected to commodification: ethnicity is marketed through nostalgia or as evidence of cosmopolitanism; nationalism and fundamentalism co-exist with cosmopolitanism. The world's transnational corporations are the agencies of these transformations as much as changing political forces. The nation is no longer even the best standpoint from which to watch global television carrying out these historical and cultural operations.

Barker is at his best in looking at the global television genres of news and soap opera, analysing CNN's distortions of the Gulf war and the role of the family as the mythic centre of the soap opera, a centre which is depicted as tearing itself apart. The multiplication of television outlets and available communication technologies has created a complex semiotic environment, with television providing an "explosive display" of competing signs and meanings.

But Barker's message is not one of despair. Television still has the capacity to contribute to democracy. On the one hand we live in a compromised public sphere, amid global cultural forms, a sphere which is completely penetrated by interest-based messages; but on the other many countries retain a public service element in their television and enjoy the possibility of enlarging and boosting local production. Jurgen Habermas's public sphere survives beyond the automatic reach of both the economic powers and the state, and in this sphere the practices of democracy continue, as well as the pursuit of the values of solidarity, objectivity, diversity, independence and access. At last, here is a really stimulating and carefully organised new book which theorises the interpenetration of the medium of television with public and private culture in the age of globalisation, offering some clear thinking while shuffling into a single pack the whole range of postmodern ideas.

Ultimately, everything said or written about broadcasting implies a statement about its "effects". And, in writing books about the effects of television there is no end. Sometimes the researchers get tired of examining the behaviour of the viewers and start to ask them what they think about the programmes, with outcomes equally loose-ended and uncertain. It is now 37 years since the Pilkington Committee, investigating the condition of broadcasting in Britain, called for research to be conducted into the public's views of the programmes they watch, and a stream of surveys has continued ever since, most recently in 1994. Consuming Television by Bob Mullan is based on the most recent results but refers back to the material culled from these interviews.

The trouble with attempts such as Consuming Television to draw "a rich textured picture of audiences" is that one ends up with very skimmed milk. Obviously, the audience is not just a mass of dupes waiting to be forced into unresisting compliance. And there are plenty of sociologists' models of differentiated audience reception on which to draw. Stuart Hall offers three modes of interpretation: dominant, oppositional, negotiated. John Fiske says that television is polysemic, the meanings changing with the construction of the audience. Audiences are always envisaged as active and resistant, rather than "absorbent like sponges". Mullan decides they are selective, reflective and constructive. But the researchers never seem to get over the discovery that the audience consists of mature people with views of their own, despite being "embedded in larger social and political networks".

What is valuable in this book is that it grazes very intelligently and with great care over the central conundrum of broadcasting culture, whether "the punters should be given what they want" and if not, how to present the argument for denying free choice. In the new deregulated multi-channel market, should not consumers be left to their own choices? The whole lexicon of answers has been hijacked since the 1980s almost completely by free-market consumer-sovereigntists. So, should we leave the viewers to watch videotapes of executions in foreign countries, voyeuristic interviews with child molesters, politically motivated news programmes? How does one interpose, in a political way, the argument for showing what people need or ought to see rather than simply what they want to see? How does one, in a consumer society, prioritise the things that do people "good"?

It is here that the "textured" account of the audience comes into its own. One may turn again, as this book does at its conclusion, to that seminal British work, Richard Hoggart's Uses of Literacy (1957), for an account of the brutal and saccharine fantasies of popular fiction, couched in their phony and trivial language. In the 1950s there was still a language of educative paternalism available for general use. But in the new television age, there is a further twist to the dismal tale, for audiences are confronted not only with a myriad choices but, in multi-receiver households, are being deprived of the collective cross-generational mediation of the viewing experience. Children watch with children and old people with old people, adult males with adult males. We are moving towards the age of the solipsist consumer. Mullan does not answer the question of how to deflect the consumerist argument, but perhaps his study will help, with others, to lay the foundations of a growing public acceptance of inclusionist social sovereignty - the power of the society to look at where multi-channel television is heading and say "no", or at least "stop". This is certainly not yet the direction in which things are going.

I have never been clear how a "resource centre" differs from a library, still less how a "resource" book differs from a study. But Patricia Holland has given us The Television Handbook, which provides a great deal of interesting and valuable information about every aspect of the medium, theoretical and practical. It analyses television programmes and it gives advice. It prints interviews with key figures (Phil Redmond, John Wyver, Stuart Cosgrove, Tony Garnett) but also critical analyses of the structure and regulatory arrangements of the industry. You can use it to look up the meaning of technical or industry terms, but also read it as general background to the prevailing ideas and personalities. Read it before an interview for a place on a media studies course (it gives you a rundown on the ideas of Habermas and the films of Laura Mulvey), but also if you are interviewing for a job in the industry. It is the complete (but not the idiot's) guide to "street-cred".

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Consuming Television: Television and its Audience

Author - Bob Mullan
ISBN - 0 631 20233 1 and 0631 20234 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £45.00 and £13.00
Pages - 254

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