Television Research Paper

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Television has been the dominant mass medium in most Western countries since the 1950s. It has been studied in a great variety of ways, in a number of scholarly disciplines, from psychology and the social sciences to film studies and art history. In the 1970s and 1980s, precisely because the medium invites cross-and interdisciplinary approaches, the study of television was central to the establishment of new forms and institutions of scholarly inquiry and teaching on the borders between the social sciences and the humanities, media studies and cultural studies. So far, there are very few if indeed any university departments exclusively devoted to television studies.

The study of television is, thus, still organized in accordance with the general divisions between scholarly disciplines and between ‘schools’ within (mass) communication and media studies. But especially since the early 1980s there has also been a trend toward a form of eclecticism where it is recognized that useful work is done from a number of starting points, employing a number of methodologies and a variety of theoretical frameworks.

1. The Medium And Modernity

Williams suggested in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1975) an understanding of television that focused on its social organization as a broadcasting medium, arguing that there is a functional fit between this form of communication and the conditions of modern society. Processes of modernization led on the one hand to centralization of resources and power, on the other to increased social and geo- graphical mobility. Williams termed this latter aspect of modernization ‘mobile privatisation,’ referring to the relative social isolation of individuals and nuclear families literally and metaphorically ‘on the move.’ Broadcasting was simply a highly adequate institution in this social situation. It makes immediate distribution of necessary information to all citizens possible, and efficiently contributes to the construction of the ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983) of nation– states.

Historical research has demonstrated that television technology in itself had other possibilities as well. It was already envisaged in the nineteenth century as a new form of two-way communication. Companies such as AT&T experimented with ‘picture-phones’ in the 1920s, and amateurs started constructing simple transmitters and receivers. Also, the idea of video surveillance was explored at this time (Allen J 1983). A more serious alternative to broadcast TV was television as a theatrical medium for collective, public reception. Nazi Germany developed such a system in the 1930s, with hundreds of public television halls throughout the country (Uricchio 1989). Most people who experienced the first telecasts of the BBC in that decade did so in restaurants, at railways stations, and the like (Corrigan 1990).

But already in the 1880s, there is evidence that popular imagination played with the idea of broadcast TV, that is, the transmission of sound and images from some central source directly to people’s homes, organized in genres such as news, education, art entertainment, and advertising (Wheen 1985). In the 1890s, Thomas Alva Edison and others were striving to come up with a successful solution for broadcasting TV (Sklar 1976, p. 11), and the idea circulated throughout the Western world. All of this lends support to the idea that broadcast television to private homes is related to fundamental social structures and interests in modern capitalist societies, such as the division between the domestic and the public realms on the one hand and the need for socially and culturally integrative efforts on the other. Furthermore, processes of democratisation could obviously also be served by broadcasting media since they allow for a more equal access to resources of information, knowledge, and cultural experiences.

The development of multichannel systems of broad- casting via satellites and cable systems since about 1980 may thus be thought of as ‘divisive’ since they constitute numerous separate viewer-communities within a given nation. So-called postmodernist theorizations of television have consequently seen multichannel television’s abundance of programs on offer at any time as a manifestation of a new, presumably ‘decentered’ social and cultural situation (e.g., Collins 1989). Relatively little empirical work has been done on the larger social and cultural consequences of the transition from one or a few to dozens or even hundreds of television channels. But most viewers still spend much or most of their viewing time with a handful of channels, and watch discreet programs as much as they just zap around. Hence the continued existence of ‘hit shows’ and newscasts competing over ratings. Most channels still stick to the same genres of programming, have fairly similar newscasts, and address the same or similar issues. It can, thus, be argued that television has retained much of the socially and culturally integrative functions ascribed to it by Williams. Clearly, though, these functions are modified, first, by multichannel satellite and cable TV, and, second, by the already ongoing digitalisation and convergence with (other) digital media.

2. Policies

The history of television policies starts with the attempts to regulate radio broadcasting in the 1920s. The fact that the number of available frequencies was finite led to forms of public regulation that are unheard of for other mass media. While most European countries decided to organize broadcasting institutions as state-owned monopolies, financed by a license-fee, the US from the beginning regarded broadcasting as another business opportunity, where profits would come from advertising revenues. The US also had to regulate broadcasting in ways that made it a quite particular area of private enterprise. Frequencies had to be allocated to broadcasting organizations by some public agency, operating in accordance with a set of politically determined principles. The first comprehensive broadcasting legislation in the US, the 1927 Radio Act, made clear that those who were licensed to use radio waves, were required to serve ‘the public interest, convenience, or necessity’ (Hoynes 1994, p. 38). The Federal Radio Commission, which in the 1930s became the Federal Communications Commission, was therefore established. It has ever since played a pivotal role in political struggles over the development of broadcasting in America, with agendas shifting as political administrations have come and gone. Key issues have been the ways in which competition is to be ensured with a necessarily limited number of actors in the market place, and whether or how space and resources are to be provided for noncommercial, public TV. Underlying both issues is the question of what the notion of the ‘public interest’ which broadcasting is to serve actually means.

Regulations and the forms of funding clearly influence program output and thus the medium’s social functions. Williams (1975) demonstrated in a simple quantitative comparison the differences both between programming in commercial and noncommercial channels and between the television systems in the UK and the US. In the US, public channels were without broadly popular drama or other entertainment, while network TV was lacking documentaries, one-off dramas, educational programming, etc. The result was a polarized system where the majority of viewers would in practice not encounter certain types of programs that might be important to them as citizens. In the British ‘duopoly’ system the characteristic differences between commercial and public channels were also observable, but the differences were considerably less pronounced so that the programming menu available to all viewers was more varied.

The BBC generally functioned as a model for European public service television. The definition of public broadcasting’s mission formulated by the BBC’s first Director General, Lord Reith, was thus programmatic for most or all of these institutions— they were to provide information, education, and entertainment to the entire population at a price affordable to all. Some critical scholars, especially in the 1970s, perceived the BBC as an elitist institution basically affirming the existing cultural and social hegemony in the UK. However, when commercial satellite television arrived in the 1980s such critique partly gave way to a view that emphasized the democratic qualities of the public service television tradition. Since the mid-1980s, the threats to public service television posed by so-called deregulation of broadcasting and the expanding commercial offerings have motivated lots of research into the traditions and conditions of this form of broadcast TV all over Europe, including comparative studies that clarify considerable differences between the various national systems (e.g., Syvertsen 1992, Raboy n.d.).

The European Union now decides much of the premises for broadcasting policies in Europe even if this is in principle an area where member states are to retain national sovereignty. On the other hand, the EU has officially decided that public service broadcasting is to be protected. The European Council of Ministers (which includes the EU member states but also all other European countries) has done the same and also defined ‘public service television’ in a way that very clearly sets it apart from and in opposition to purely commercial services. Many of the pertinent issues in research on public service broadcasting and broadcasting regulation in general now has to be of a legal and economic nature. Most crucial, however, is the question of what happens when digitalisation does away with spectrum scarcity, the legitimation of traditional broadcasting regulation.

3. Production

Research on television production ranges from studies of political regulations, ownership, and other aspects of the economics of the television industry, to participant observation in broadcasting institutions and independent production companies to theoretical discussions of the notion of ‘authorship’ in the context of the necessarily collective production processes in television.

The so-called ‘political economy’ tradition in mass communication research has always focused on the importance of economic forces and related social structures. Prominent representatives of this tradition are Schiller (1989) in the US and Garnham (1990) in the UK, both regarding television as part of the larger media system of capitalist societies. Networks and production companies are parts of huge conglomerates encompassing not just media and leisure industries but also any number of other branches of business. These enormous concentrations of capital exert considerable political and cultural power, both domestically and internationally. British scholars of the ‘political economy’ tradition have, moreover, been exploring the implications of Jurgen Habermas’s theory of the ‘public sphere’ for our understanding of television and the media in general.

In-depth studies of television production practices and personnel are not many. Cantor’s The Hollywood TV Producer: His Work and His Audience (1971) is a classic in the field, a piece of organizational sociology charting the space for creativity in television and describing three types of television producers—the ‘filmmakers,’ the ‘old-line producers,’ and the ‘writer– producers.’ The often well-educated writer–producers appeared as the only group that both take the medium seriously and expect the audience to accept more ambitious shows with social ‘messages.’ Newcomb and Alley (1983) represent a more traditional humanistic view of textual production in their The Producer’s Medium, based on interviews with individuals they claim have managed to leave their personal imprint on the series they have produced. Gitlin’s Inside Prime Time (1983) is a study also of top-ranking executives which demonstrates not least the space for personal agendas and preferences when decisions about programming are made. Executives may use results of audience research that support their intuitive preferences while setting aside those that do not.

A few studies of production are combined with textual analyses of products. An early example is a study of the independent company MTM Enterprises, which contributed to a renewal of US television drama with shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Hill Street Blues (Feuer et al. 1984). In Britain, Tulloch and Alvarado (1983) did a similar study of the BBC serial Doctor Who. Buckingham (1987) and Gripsrud (1995) are examples of studies that also add an analysis of audiences to the study of production and textual analysis, thus covering the entire communicative process.

4. Programs

Williams (1975) was the first to name and point out the importance of the way in which television’s (and radio’s) programs are presented as parts of a continuous ‘flow.’ This means, according to Williams, that the impressions and meanings of individual programs will tend to overlap and merge in the viewer’s experience. Flow remains a fundamental feature of broadcast programming. The ordering of programs in certain sequences, so-called scheduling, is of great importance to any television channel. It represents a channel identity and can be use to attract and not least keep viewers for the channel’s programs and ads. As Ellis (1983) pointed out, most programs also consist of segments, that is, sequences of up to about 5–7 min that are more or less self-contained in terms of meaning. This structure results in part from its practical advantages from a production point of view, but it is also related to the need to make programs accessible to viewers who arrive in the middle of a program. The ‘program’ unit is thus in a sense a troubled category, threatened by dissolution both by the ‘flow’ and by internal segmentation.

The limits of ‘the program’ as an object of textual analysis have consequently been discussed, including the problem of separating the program text from the ads that are inserted into it and the question of the status of a single program or episode in soap operas that run an ongoing story for decades (Feuer 1989, Allen R 1985). In practice, viewers have few problems in identifying their favourite show and distinguishing it from the ads, and a soap opera (as well as newscasts and other long-running programs) may be analysed by way of a more or less representative sample of episodes (Gripsrud 1995).

It is probably correct to say that most textual analyses of television have been preoccupied with questions of representation and ideology, that is, the representation of gender and sexuality, of race and ethnicity, class, social conflicts, political issues, etc. and how they relate to larger ideological patterns and struggles. To these ends, all the theoretical, more or less philosophically grounded approaches in textual analysis have been applied in a variety of blends— semiotics, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, hermeneutics, etc. While fiction and entertainment have provided most of the material for such work, also newscasts, talk-shows, and documentaries have been analyzed, often interestingly demonstrating the ways in which such ‘reality programming’ is actually constructed in accordance with certain textual traditions and principles rather than relating directly the structures of external reality.

The most prominent of social science traditions in the field of program analysis is so-called quantitative content analysis, which defines certain elements of content and then proceeds to count their occurrences, most often across large samples of programs. Typically, the elements counted would be violent acts, sexual innuendo, women in powerful positions, etc. Such research may provide overviews of developments over time in certain dimensions of programming or suggest the extent to which certain portrayals of social categories or issues have a dominant position in the total program output or in a certain genre. A prominent example of large-scale quantitative content analysis of television programs is that conducted by Gerbner and co-workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the results of which were central to the formulation of the so-called ‘cultivation theory,’ that is, a theory of television’s long-term consequences for people’s world view (Gerbner 1973). Their analyses indicated that (US) television, across genres and individual programs, presented a systematically distorted view of social realities in a number of areas such as family life, work and social roles, aging and dying, crime, and violence. Correlating content analysis with opinion surveys then seemed to suggest that viewers, especially heavy viewers, accepted this distorted view of social conditions as true.

5. Audiences

In line with the general history of research on modern mass media, worries over how the new medium affected especially children and adolescents were important starting points for the first studies of television in the 1950s. For example, Maccoby (1951) concluded that the medium undermined communication within the family, even if it made family members spend more time together. The same researcher later tried to show that television viewing had a negative ‘escapist’ function for children who were lacking real-life satisfactions (Maccoby 1951). Studies such as these were fraught with both conceptual and methodological problems, and marked by a prejudiced, negative attitude to the medium. Any viewing of dramatic fiction would for instance tend to be counted as ‘escapist,’ reflecting a somewhat shallow understanding of the uses of fantasy and art in general. Around 1960, large empirical projects both in the UK and in the USA tried to estimate the social and cultural implications, especially for children, of the nationwide introduction of television (Himmelweit et al. 1958, Schramm et al. 1961). The everyday lives of children in communities with and without television were charted in surveys and compared. The findings of these studies were quite complex and did not give a totally negative view of the medium’s social and cultural role.

The above mentioned ‘cultivation theory’—or, rather, hypothesis—is basically in line with critical theories of the structural, long-term power of the media to define social reality in ways that harm various disadvantaged social groups. Throughout the 1970s such perspectives on television were theorized and significantly renewed in work conducted by researchers at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. Hall (1973) applied concepts from semiotic theory to the process of communication, speaking of production as a moment of ‘encoding’ and reception as a moment of ‘decoding,’ thus theoretically demonstrating the possibility of complications in the ‘transfer of messages’ that were not simply due to ‘noise’ or misunderstandings. Hall suggested three main types of ‘readings’ of television programs—‘dominant,’ ‘negotiated,’ and ‘oppositional,’ that is, acceptance of the program’s ‘message,’ partial agreement, and critical rejection. An empirical study of groups of viewers conducted by Morley and Brunsdon (Morley 1980) demonstrated how social class and political convictions might shape audience attitudes to television programs, making some groups more critical than others. In the wake of this study, audience research within or close to the British cultural studies tradition has repeatedly demonstrated how varied interpretations and evaluations of programs might be, both within and between social classes, races, genders, and nations. They have also described how television viewing is inscribed in people’s everyday lives and the routines and power struggles that prevail there (e.g., Morley 1986, Seiter et al. 1989), how this came about historically in a wider social and cultural context (Spigel 1992) and, some- what more abstractly, how television viewing has deeper social functions related to its psychological functions for viewers (Silverstone 1994, Ellis 1999).

6. Medium

Much scholarly writing and various sorts of research may be categorized as contributions to an understanding of television’s specificity as a medium in terms of the ways in which it represents reality outside of itself and the ways in which it relates to its audiences. One of the first contributions of lasting significance on the latter theme was the article by social psychologists Horton and Wohl (1956) in which the authors coin the term ‘para-social interaction’ in a discussion of the ‘intimacy at a distance’ characteristic of the relations between viewers and television characters such as talk show hosts. The term refers to the way in which viewers tend to establish pseudo-dialogical relations with television characters, ‘talking back’ to them, etc. These practices set television apart both from film and radio, and reflect the particular type of intimacy associated with this domestic audio-visual medium. They can, besides the domestic location of sets, be tied to the normal size of the screen, which renders close-ups of human faces close in size to those of interlocutors in the same room. Importantly, television’s ‘talking heads’ often address viewers directly (‘you’), simulating real conversation also in its preferred styles of speech. These features are shared by radio but have an even stronger effect when combined with moving images.

Furthering this line of thought, Meyrowitz (1985) argues that television has contributed significantly to a series of important changes both in the public sphere and in the relations between people in general. Television has moved politicians and other public figures closer to the rest of the population by presenting them in close-ups and settings that make them appear more ‘ordinary.’ A new way of appearing in public has thus developed, in which the public private distinction has become blurred. Meyrowitz terms this ‘middle-stage’ behavior, referring to Goffman’s (1959) distinction between a ‘front stage’ and a ‘back stage’ set of conventions for self presentation. This has radically altered the conditions for all sorts of rhetorical practices. Moreover, television programs have provided children with insights into the world of grown-ups and boys and girls now know more about each other’s intimate lives. For better or worse, television has thus reduced distances between various social categories and weakened certain hierarchical and authoritarian structures.

The capacity for simultaneity between a real event and its transmission and reception as audiovisual representation, that is, ‘liveness,’ is central to television’s specificity as a medium and its social role. It shares a form of distribution (broadcasting) with radio, it shares subject matter also with newspapers, magazines, and books, and it shares the audiovisual form of representation with film. Early television was all ‘live,’ but now nearly all television programming is prerecorded. Television producers and broadcasters actively seek the impression of immediacy or ‘liveness’; it is simply a key aesthetic value in television. This is related to what Barthes (1981) termed the ‘photograph effect’: when we see a photograph we (used to) know that what is in the picture has actually once been in front of a camera. Television wants this, and more: not just ‘this really happened,’ but ‘this really happens, right now!’ Studio debates, interviews, and variety shows will either be live—or try to appear to be. Pretaped shows like sitcoms will often inform us that they are ‘taped in front of a live studio audience.’ Liveness is particularly important to newscasts, since ‘news’ as a genre is based on getting as close to immediacy as possible. This is why reporters often talk to the camera—‘live,’ ‘on the spot’—at a dark place where nothing is happening (anymore). What is at work here is an equation of ‘live’ with ‘real’: liveness means reality, or truth.

A medium that can give us ‘reality in the raw,’ unfolding as it happens, cannot lie, it would seem, and this ability tends to lend a particular quality of immediacy, realism, or truth to much more than live programming (cf. Heath and Skirrow 1977). ‘Liveness’ as an aesthetic value is, therefore, still important even if new technologies and styles of presentation progressively makes the medium less ‘live’ (cf. Feuer 1983). Caldwell (1995) has argued that television is more and more becoming a medium not about outside ‘events’ but about itself and its visual style. But there is still much live programming, and liveness as an effect remains important for the above reasons.

‘Liveness’ is furthermore a key to television’s ability to establish experiential communities. It strengthens the general experience of collectivity in the act of viewing (cf. Rath 1989). Televised national events manifest and support national identity, and so the question is whether or to which extent globally televised events—rock concerts, Olympic games, royal weddings, or funerals—can contribute to the establishment of new sense of transnational community. Dayan and Katz (1992) argue that television’s live broadcasts of major events function as rituals that not only reinforce existing symbolical orders but also create new ones. This is just one of the ways in which television continues to be of great political, social, and cultural importance.

At the start of a new millennium, television as we know it is, according to many, about to disappear. Digitalization leads to convergence with any and all other media of communication. The distributive model of broadcasting may appear to be replaced by that of the World Wide Web, that is, a system without designated centers, presenting unlimited choice of contents to consumers. These consumers must now be thought of as active individuals and hence the term ‘audience’ is no longer adequate.

It may, however, also be argued that such a total revolution is envisaged mostly on the basis of technological possibilities and that the outcome of an undoubtedly comprehensive process will be modified by social and cultural forces and interests that may sustain the further existence of broadcast television. Total fragmentation and individualization will be restrained by the need for community-forming, shared media experiences and the need for competent, reliable editorial services or guidance in the confusing mass of contents on offer. Commercial interests will no doubt seek to exploit such needs and strive to establish control of gateways to and routes within the new landscapes of electronic information and entertainment. Governments may seek to find ways of securing the production of identity and distribution of cultural resources represented by the classic broadcasting model, particularly in its public service versions. Historical experience with introductions of new media indicates that already existing media survive alongside the newcomers. Theater was not killed by film; film was not killed by television. Even radio survived television, and books and newspapers are still around.

The dynamics of the ongoing process present television research with a number of exciting, difficult tasks, even if the profession of prophets should not be confused with that of serious scholars. The situation calls for studies of the relations between technological developments, economic forces, sociocultural structures, and, not least, the space for political interventions. Such studies could well be motivated by an interest in how democracy is served by various media systems and structures. The link between theories of democracy and media is generally in need of sustained, philosophically qualified reflection. The process of convergence and increased interactivity also calls for in-depth analyses of the uses and functions of new and old versions of television, not least the ways in which new and old forms relate to each other. Finally, digitalization opens a whole set of new aesthetic and rhetorical possibilities; new forms of representation, new ways of telling stories, new ways of persuading consumers and citizens. While all of these new areas of inquiry will no doubt require new theoretical and methodological tools, the experiences of some 60 years of television research are well worth keeping in mind. Re-inventing the wheel remains a waste of time.


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