GEOGRAPHY AND TELEVISION

The importance of a geographical understanding of television lies in recognizing that television always has been produced for, has circulated across, and has been engaged at particular sites. Consequently, what is understood as the "televisual" has never been a discrete object but a set of practices and/or attributes--always attached to, situated within, and dispersed across different environments. While one may choose to talk about the distinctive properties of television (e.g., as an industry, a technology, a narrative or cultural form, an audience), it is just as necessary to recognize that any definition draws strategically on examples of practices from particular locations. Similarly, any such definition risks ignoring how these distinctive properties have always been site-specific, complexly conjoined, along with other practices, to environments. As a consequence, any aspect of the televisual has been deployed, developed and engaged unevenly around the world.

Beside being organized around locations and landscapes, the televisual has also mediated and shifted any understanding of "the geographic". As a visual and narrative form it has conditioned perceptions and understandings of places, showing particular pictures as "locations" for drama, for example, or narrating documentaries from a particular point of view. As a dispersed formation it has conditioned concrete, material relations among places, with some countries selling their technology and their television programs to others, just as other countries set quotas and limits on what and how much television can be imported. There are, of course, very specific physical geographic features of television's material infrastructure and circulation--the location of studios and transmitter towers, the use of microwave relay stations to cross mountains, cable strung from poles, receivers placed in homes, particular national or regional systems of broadcasting. There are even geographically specific stories and narrative strategies. As is the case with other aspects of telecommunications and telematics, televisual infrastructures, networks, and network flows dependent upon electronic and especially satellite signals are increasingly invisible and pose special challenges to geographers accustomed to marking and charting the visible. The increasing dispersal of television sets outside the home has contributed to spatial redefinitions of the relation between the private and public spheres. Within different cultural contexts, television narrative has conventionalized and mythologized place and landscape--where, after all, is Dallas? In other words, television has aspired to the role of cultural atlas. Television viewers have formed cognitive maps of an environment they inhabit in part through their engagements with television. The ways in which viewers engage television, then, are contingent upon both television and viewers' relations to particular locations. And they are also contingent upon both television and the viewers' mediation of other locations through and around the site of television watching.

The spread and containment of the televisual have been fraught with political conflicts and legislation over a variety of sites, borders, and kinds of territory. Efforts to regulate the consumption of pornography, for example, have found television's place in the domestic sphere to be particularly alarming. In this case, legislating television is nothing short of legislating the domestic sphere. In the case of the nation-state, the implementation of national coding of broadcast signals (e.g., NTSC, PAL, and SECAM) has served as an invisible border against the international flow of television broadcasting. In Europe, for instance, these televisual borders began to erode with the increased reliance upon satellite broadcasting and with efforts to organize a European Union. Still, language and other cultural differences have deterred a European televisual formation, and the difficulties faced in legislating and regulating the cultures of a "European television" have been a recurring impediment to actualizing a European Union or of treating television as merely another commodity in a European common market. Questions of cultural geography rise with the uses of television among Australian aboriginal communities, which have not only raised issues of autonomy and governance within and among these communities but have been the subject of the Australian government's efforts to implement policy regarding "national" broadcast space. And beside the impact of transnational televisual flows on the collapse of the Soviet Union, the televisualization of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 attested to the capability of television simultaneously to conjoin a global audience in an event that signaled a profound transformation in geo-political borders. Moreover, that event also served as an occasion for national commentators and audiences to reformulate national cultural maps of the world. As these instances affirm, the location of television is organized through emerging and residual social and cultural formations, of which the televisual is one. But the location of television is also organized through policies and commercial interests bent on preserving, or dismantling residual formations or on nurturing or containing emerging ones--or on co-opting both.

The history of the televisual, then, is a history of how various sites and environments--such as domestic, urban, rural, regional, national, or global space--have conditioned and been conditioned by the place of television in everyday life. Emphasizing the sites and (overlapping or conflicting) territories of the televisual, thus makes it impossible to conceive of a uniform and universal history of television. But to say that the televisual lacks a discrete, continuous history is not to ignore that there have in fact been certain historically parallel developments that eventually contributed to global flows of television broadcasting. In one respect, the televisual belongs to certain spatial models that have underpinned geo-politics since the 1920s. Numerous experiments with television technology before World War II occurred alongside the development of telephony and radio technology, and all three continued to be crucial in the social organization of national territory after the war. In particular the "national" could be defined as a networked space with a single center of cultural production (as London was to Britain, Hollywood to the United States, or Rome to Italy). The national broadcasting and telecommunication companies, formed during the 1920s and 1930s, were also an important factor in the conceptualization and maintenance of the national territory. But throughout the 1980s it was in fact their competition--often with expanding local, regional, or foreign companies--that began to undo that model of the nation. During the 1980s, some cities became just as or more aligned to flows outside their national boundaries than had previously been the case.

Despite having followed this trajectory of development in many nation-states, the televisual only became central to the formation of social relations and to everyday life after World War II, a period characterized by a broad restructuring of cities and of the relation between domestic space and the outside world. As Raymond Williams has noted, the expansion of cities and the proliferation of suburbs hastened at this time. The developments were sustained by technologies such as telephony, a greater reliance upon automobile travel, and broadcasting--all of which were supposed to facilitate flows to and from these new settlements. Williams' observations describe a general set of conditions, however, that were more common in North America, Britain, and Australia during the 1950s and 1960s than in other parts of the world. That is, the observations explain why television became more quickly and deeply embedded in the everyday life of some places, amidst certain historical convergences, rather than others.

Since the late 1940s, the development of the televisual has occurred through a changing set of relations between the home and other sites and spaces. In part this has been a process of linking the home to a circuit and assemblage of sites, vectors, and spaces. It has also been a process of aligning new domestic spaces, in new settlements, with already built (but, in the wake of resettlement, changing) places and spheres of community. But the role of television in colonizing and expanding the domestic sphere and of mediating new and old places (and other flows between them) has not just involved the material networking of homes. It has also been contingent upon television audiences' investment in and mobility between the home and other sites. Such an investment has only partially to do with "watching television," but everything to do with television's role in mediating the places of everyday life. And it has occurred in part through television narratives about settlement and domesticity. These narratives have mythologized certain architectural ideals of domestic space and domestic space's relation to other spheres.

 

 

The set design of ranch homes in TV Westerns in the United States during the early 1960s--series such as Bonanza, High Chaparral, The Virginian, or The Big Valley--contributed, for instance, to concrete and imaginary relations of suburban homes to suburban settlement. They drew upon the Western genre's mythology of settlement for an era of planned development, appropriating the post-war decor ideals of other domestic narratives and domestic design magazines to valorize a "ranch" style (on a grander scale than most early, post-war "ranch homes") for 1950s and early 1960s suburban "settlers". Many television comedies produced in the United States from the late 1950s to the early 1960s rarely involved characters who abandoned or ventured too far outside the suburbs. Contemporaneous crime series, such as Peter Gunn, were set in an inner-city where vice and eccentricity was made to seem beyond the realm of everyday life in the suburbs but, through television, having a vital connection to the domestic, suburban domain. At other times, U.S. television narrative (indeed whole series) have been about displacement and resettlement--a televisual discourse about television's changing relation to a changing material and symbolic environment (e.g., the Goldberg's move to suburbia during the early 1950s on The Goldbergs, the Clampetts' move from a "simple," rural America to the suburban dream-world of Beverly Hills in the early 1960s on the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, or the Jefferson's move "up" and out from Queens to Manhattan in the mid-1970s on the sitcom The Jeffersons).

That television has played a mediating role amidst the flows of people reshaping cities has also been evident in the post-cable/satellite era when television became an invaluable instrument in the "revitalization" projects of certain cities. Particularly in the United States, where cable/satellite broadcasting first became widely established, cities such as Chicago and Atlanta transformed local network affiliates (Chicago's WGN and Atlanta's WTBS) into "superstations" capable of broadcasting across the United States via satellite and the rapidly expanding cable companies. Through sports broadcasting in particular, these superstations maintained a circuit of fans and thus of potential tourists to cities that were concurrently attempting to "rehabilitate" their old commercial centers as new tourist sites/sights through "restoration" projects. Wrigley Field became a nationally circulating image of a pre-suburban Chicago, and Turner Broadcasting's ownership of and regular recycling of Gone With the Wind functioned similarly for the contemporaneous "restoration" of the area surrounding Atlanta's Peachtree St. as a retail/tourist center. In both instances, the televisual worked to spatially redefine and to re-image the relation of current development to an urban past. Since the 1970s, the modifications to these cities have developed alongside the construction of Disney World in Orlando and the initiation of the Disney Channel that promoted the theme park, and alongside The Nashville Network's promotion of that city as country music mecca and museum. Through television, these cities emerged as "new" centers of national-popular culture (after New York and Los Angeles) through their reproduction of an urban past already partially constituted as televisual and cinematic past. These urban "revitalization" projects precipitated and were fueled by a reterritorialization of national and global economic flows, by the movement of people (as "settlers" or "tourists") to these cities, and by broadcasts from them.

The flow of television broadcasting via cable, fiber-optic, and satellites has affected the geographic features of the televisual and its environment in a variety of ways. It has brought traditional broadcast television into close relations with the paths and flows of telecommunications and telematics, though these convergences have been fraught with commercial and political conflicts over territory. It has occurred amidst a redistribution of people and economic/cultural capital. Not every home and not every nation and few rural areas are equally connected to these potentially global flows. To the extent that new modes of transmission and new industry alliances have made the televisual a global formation, this formation is at best tenuously sustained through various conjunctions and divisions between the domestic, the urban, the rural, the regional, and the national. And recognizing only the global flow of television risks ignoring how the movement of people from one part of the world to another often involves their "assimilation" into a new environment--shaped politically, economically, culturally--in part through televisual mediation of their new sense of place and/or their relation to their former homeland. This has occurred through Spanish-language television broadcasting across the Western hemisphere, through television produced by and for Iranian exiles in Los Angeles, through television broadcast via satellite by the Italian RAI foreign service to Italian-American audiences in New York, through video rentals and pirating for video playback where there are no broadcasts for immigrant audiences, or through audiences whose sense of place is bound up with their consumption of television that arrives from abroad (e.g., Europeans watching Dallas or Australian aborigines watching Different Strokes).

The televisual has always been appended to particular sites and located within particular environments--mediating various spheres of sociality. But the current co-dependence of television with telecommunication and telematics suggests that what has been known so far as "the televisual" was comprised of spatial formations and forms of spatial modeling whose effectivity belonged to a vanishing set of environmental conditions. In certain respects, the first wave of televisual technologies emerged within established infrastructures, networks, and environmental conditions. Through these conditions the televisual flourished as a means of spatially organizing social relations. But the flow of images and the formation of discourses through the current technological convergence has already been predicated upon changing concentrations and dispersals of economic and cultural capital, and cultural capital, after all, is the basis for accessing these flows, as opposed merely to inhabiting an environment conditioned by them. Despite the enthusiastic proclamations about the democratizing potential of new technological convergences, then, access to global media flows is still unequally distributed at the level of home and region. The televisual thus remains as a residual formation, still an organizing feature of homes, cities, nations even as their relations are once again being redefined spatially through technologies appended to television.

-James Hay

FURTHER READING

Innis, Harold. Empire and Communication. Oxford: Clarendon, 1950.

Michaels, Eric. Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media, and Technological Horizons. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Morley, David, and Kevin Robbins. Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes, and Cultural Boundaries. London: Routledge, 1995.

Naficy, Hamid. The Making of Exile Culture: Iranian Television in Los Angeles. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Wark, McKenzie. Virtual Geography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Schocken, 1975.

 

See also Coproductions, International; Satellite; Superstation