When the state handed over the zapper

European Television in the Digital Age

October 31, 2003

This book by Stylianos Papathanassopoulos is a treasury of information and of carefully set out argument about a contemporary dilemma: as we pass into the digital era the beliefs and assumptions on which mass television was built are drifting out of the control (and concern) of governments and the consciousness of people.

Public service television (which in Europe is delivered by advertising as well as the licence fee) was a crucial civic idea dependent on a mass technology that circulated throughout a population. There is nothing that the digital era cannot provide for enthralled PC users except those collective civic values, that democratising one-channel-fits-all citizenship.

Ever since European Union governments simultaneously realised in the 1980s that the computer was the instrument destined to transform their economies, they ceased to bother about their television audience as groups of citizens and instead started to treat them merely as consumers. All governments converted to the religion of market forces and the original concern for the social and cultural dimensions of the moving image (and its ancillary text media), which had obsessed government for the previous 40 years, simply evaporated.

This timely and useful book brings together the facts and figures of this intriguing social/intellectual/political/ economic change, without grinding any axes.

The text would be suitable for sixth-formers and others to help focus their minds on a contemporary social transformation taking place, literally, before their eyes, one that raises issues of education, social justice, and personal and collective identity. For students of the media system, it is invaluable and has no substitute.

Today we have a growing but incomplete convergence between print and moving-image media, between the television set and the internet; simultaneously we are living through the early stages of a massive transnational process of corporate concentration.

The new citizen viewers will be classified according to their purchasing power; the new thematic channels are available for payment and those without the means are losing their customary access to the things that shaped their culture: sport, movies, children's programmes.

This is an opportune moment for this unbiased and carefully researched book, which makes one think about these matters while setting out comprehensively the gains and losses of the digital era.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

European Television in the Digital Age

Author - Stylianos Papathanassopoulos
Publisher - Polity in association with Blackwell
Pages - 295
Price - £55.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2872 9 and 2873 7

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