a productive cultural force, television is involved in projecting
new modes and forms of historical understanding. These forms do
not always follow from traditional scholarly or professional ideas
about history. On the contrary, for a number of reasons, television
has been widely seen as contributing to the disappearance or loss
of history in the contemporary postmodern condition. The emphasis
on television's "liveness," based in its technology and its common
discursive and rhetorical strategies, has led some theorists to
the conclusion that television plays a central role in erasing a
sense of the past, and eliminating a common, coherent linear sense
of cultural and social development.
is certainly the case that conventional history is increasingly
hard to identify in mass culture, especially in the form of coherent
linear narratives, a clear set of major historical players, or readily
identifiable class struggles. At the same time, however, television
seems obsessed with defining itself in relation to history. Television's
ubiquity suggests that its conceptions of history--both its representations
of specific events and its appropriation of history as a way of
understanding the world--must be taken seriously. Television does
not supplant, but coexists with, familiar ideas about how we know
the past, what we know of the past, and the value of such knowledge.
In the process, television produces everyday forms of historical
a result, it is probably more accurate to propose that television
is contributing to a significant transformation and dispersion of
how we think about history, rather than to the loss of historical
consciousness. Television offers forms of history that are simultaneously
more public than traditional, professional history and more personal
and idiosyncratic. This is because the medium's historical narratives
are available to mass viewing publics, but also engage viewers in
diverse, and even highly idiosyncratic ways. While history may be
conceived in both broadly social and intensely personal terms, television
has transformed the ways in which individuals understand and position
themselves in relation to either of these definitions.
In the case of the United States, it is nearly impossible to think
about American culture and its global influence today without including
everyday media culture as an integral part of this history. Significant
historical events and conjunctures of postwar 20th century American
history--the Vietnam war, the assassination of John F. Kennedy,
civil rights and student protests, the Challenger explosion, the
Persian Gulf War--can hardly be imagined without the television
images which carried them into American (and other) homes. Similar
conditions, events, and moments, such as the collective memory of
the 1952 coronation of Queen Elizabeth for British viewers, exist
in other nations of the world which have also had a long experience
with television. As these examples suggest, for some established
nation-states television can actually connote national identity
through a televisual history. Other nations and regions, particularly
in the postcolonial world, have yet to see representations of their
national identity consistently emerge on their television screens.
And yet another group of nations and regions, such as post-apartheid
South Africa, are experiencing a transformation of the historical
representation of their televisual national identity.
the end of the 20th century, the idea of "video diplomacy" also
has increasing importance in a world linked by telecommunications
technology and covered by international television news organizations.
Indeed television news--with its emphasis on being live and up to
date--is one of the key places where television most insistently
promotes its historical role. The rapid growth of television in
the postcolonial world, coincident with the end of the Cold War
(since 1989, sets in use worldwide have doubled, with most of that
growth in the postcolonial world) suggests that the impact of televisual
history first experienced in the United States will now be seen
on a world scale. The live televising of coups and crises in post-Soviet
Russia is one recent example of the globalizing trend of television
and historical consciousness. Other indicators include the unprecedented
global circulation of war reporting, of political journalism, and
of the lives and misfortunes of celebrities.
In other contexts television links history to world-historical events,
often before they have even begun. The term "history" is regularly
used to designate events before, during, and after they occur. In
this vein, television casts all sorts of events as history including
the Middle East peace summit in Madrid; the fall of the Berlin Wall;
the annual World Series in baseball; Michael Jordan's return to
basketball; odd spectacles such as "Hands Across America;" and the
first primetime airing of the final episode of M*A*S*H. From
the apparently sublime to the apparently inexplicable, "history"
is a term and a conceptual field that television often bandies about
with surprising frequency and persistence. In the process conventional
ideas of history as a distinctive temporal and narrational discourse
are dispersed. "History" becomes a process wherein events and people
in the present (and future) are simultaneously implicated in a social,
political, and cultural heritage. Past and present, then and now,
are set in a temporal tourniquet, akin to a moebius strip.
routinely correlates liveness and historicity in the form of equivalence,
alibi, reversals, and identity, especially in the area of news and
public affairs/documentary programming. In the context of news coverage,
especially events that warrant live coverage, it is not unusual
to hear that the events thus presented are "historic." At the same
time, the very presence of television at an event constitutes a
record for posterity. In this sense television acts as an agent
of history and memory, recording and preserving representations
to be referenced in the future. The institution of television itself
becomes the guarantor of history, even as it invokes history to
validate and justify its own presence at an event.
factor at work in this array is the long-term search by broadcasters
for a recognition of their own legitimacy as social institutions;
many critics of television have linked the rise of a televisual
historical consciousness and the aggressive self-promotion of the
broadcasting industry when criticizing television for its supposed
failure to fully advance public ideals. Even while driven by the
lure of significant profit American television broadcasters are
often desperate to dissociate themselves from discourses presenting
television as a vast wasteland. As part of a spirited defense against
their many detractors they point to their unique ability to record
and represent history. The "high culture--low culture" debate, so
prevalent in analyses of American media, has sunk its roots into
this issue as well.
In much of the rest of the world, by contrast, government investment
in broadcasting has meant that questions of legitimation, and subsequent
defense through claims of unique historical agency, have been less
urgent. However, following the worldwide wave of privatization of
media outlets which began in the 1980s television broadcasters throughout
the world may begin to mimic their American predecessors. They,
too, may protect their self interests by turning the production
of "history on television" and "television as history" into a useable
a result of all these activities, it is possible to see how forms
of historical consciousness purveyed by television get transformed
in the process of representing current events that are all equally
"historic." Television promotes ideas about history that involve
heterogeneous temporal references--past, present, and future. But
actual historical events are unstable combinations of public and
private experiences, intersecting both global and local perspectives.
By proposing combinations and permutations of individual memory
and official public document, television produces a new sense of
cultural and social viewers.
example, in relation to past events, television frequently addresses
viewers as subjects of a distinctive historical consciousness: Americans
of various ages are all supposed to remember where we were when
we first heard and saw that John F. Kennedy was shot, that the space
shuttle Challenger had exploded, or when the bombs began to drop
on Baghdad, signaling the start of the Persian Gulf War. The drama
of the everyday can be similarly historicized when, for example,
television promotes collective memories of Kathy Fiscus for one
American generation or Baby Jessica for another. By addressing viewers
in this way, television confirms its own central role as the focal
point of the myriad individual experiences and memories of its individual
viewers. In the process the medium brings sentimental domestic drama
into direct relation with public, domestic, and global histories.
all these instance, television's ideas of history are intimately
bound up with the history of the medium itself (and indirectly with
other audiovisual recording media), and with its abilities to record,
circulate, and preserve images. In other words, the medium's representations
of the past are highly dependent on events that have been recorded
on film or video, such that history assumes the form of television's
self-reflection. The uses of available still photography and audio
recordings can also, on occasion, play a significant role in this
regard. The medium's own mechanisms--its prevailing technologies
and discourses--become the defining characteristics of modern historiography.
Similarly, the television journalist--particularly the news anchor--can
become an embodied icon of television's ability to credibly produce
and represent history. Many nations have (or have had) a number
of individuals achieve this status typically associated with an
American reporter like Walter Cronkite. Now television journalists
seem on the cusp of achieving this at transnational and transcultural
levels. An emergent example here is Peter Arnett, correspondent
for the Cable News Network (CNN). Television may in the process
also begin to produce a new sense of global histories, along with
national and personal histories.
self-reflective nature of television's historiography develops in
relation to both public events and in relation to the medium's own
programming. American television routinely celebrates its own past
in an array of anniversary, reunion, and retrospective shows about
its own programs, and even in "bloopers" specials which compile
outtakes and mistakes from previously-aired programs. Programs of
this ilk serve multiple functions, and have various implications
with regards to ideas of history. Self-promotion, in the form of
inexpensive, recycled programming, is one obvious motivation for
these shows, especially as the multi-channel environment means that
more "old" shows are rerun on broadcast and cable services. This
also becomes a kind of self-legitimation, by means of retrospective
logic. For if American programs such as The Tonight Show, The
Brady Bunch, or Laverne and Shirley warrant celebratory
reunion or retrospective celebration, even years after they are
no longer in production, this must mean they are important cultural
Television thus continually rewrites its own past in the form of
"history" as a way of promoting itself and its ongoing programming
as a significant, legitimate part of culture. In the process, postwar
American popular culture is held up as the measure of social-cultural
history more generally. All viewers are enjoined to "remember" this
heritage, whether they experienced it first-hand, in first-run,
or not. This can even lead to the production of instant nostalgia,
when special programs herald popular series' final episodes (such
as occurred with Cheers and Knots Landing), just as
those final new episodes air in primetime. This sort of self-promotional
and self-reflective ballyhoo (in network specials, as well as on
talk shows, entertainment news programs, and local news programs
around the country) proposes that these programs have been absorbed
into a common popular cultural historical heritage from the very
moment they are no longer presenting new episodes in primetime.
schedules and strategies in themselves adopt and offer these new
ideas about history, especially in terms of popular culture. This
is increasingly apparent in the multi-channel universe, as television
becomes something of a cultural archive, where movies and television
programs from the past are as readily accessible as new programs.
This can even be made self-conscious, as in the case of Nick at
Night (a programming subdivision of Nickelodeon, an American cable
network), which features American sitcoms from the 1960s and 1970s,
and promotes itself as "celebrating our television heritage." In
1995 Nickelodeon proposed a second network, programmed exclusively
with old television shows. The name for this collection of reruns
would be "TV-Land." Once again, the history in question is the medium's
own history, self-referentially reproducing itself as having cultural
value and utility.
these strategic constructions of the historical significance of
television as medium, a specific sense of history also pervades
television's fiction programs. Because of the nature of American
commercial television programming, individual programs develop and
project a sense of history in direct proportion to their success--the
longer they stay on the air, the more development there is over
time. Characters and the actors who portray them not only age, but
accrue a sense of density of experience and viewers may establish
variable relationships with these characters and their histories.
This sense of continuity and history, linking and intersecting fictive
worlds with the lives of viewers, seems strongest and most explicit
in serial melodrama, but equally affects any successful, long-running
series. It is also complicated by the question of syndication and
reruns where the interplay of repetition and development, seriality
and redundancy leads to the sense that history is malleable and
mutable, at least at the level of individual, everyday experience.
While many European television programs intentionally have a limited
run of episodes, other long-running programs such as Eastenders
indicate that this tendency is not unique to American television.
Furthermore, complicated historical issues can certainly be involved
in limited-run series, as suggested by miniseries such as Roots
in the United States or Yearnings in China.
suggested above, many of these ideas about history are powerfully
played out in the context of serial melodrama, a genre which may
seem as far removed from "history" in the conventional sense as
anything on television. These "soap operas" offer stories that may
continue for decades, maintaining viewer allegiances in the process,
even though the stories are punctuated by redundancies on the one
hand, and unanticipated reversals on the other. These narrative
conventions are some of the very things for which the genre is often
derided--slow dramatic progress, the ongoing breakups of good relationships,
the routine revival of characters presumed dead, and sudden revelations
that characters were switched at birth, or the product of previously
unrevealed affairs, leading to major reconstruals of family relations.
But these characteristic narrative strategies also produce a subtle
and sophisticated sense of historicity and temporality, in the context
of the accumulation of a long-term historical fiction and long-term
viewing commitments. Among other things, they encourage a persistent
reexamination of conventional assumptions and attitudes about lineage,
and about family and community relations, in patriarchal culture.
In the process they also offer a sense that the force and weight
of the past is important, but not always readily transparent, requiring
the active interpretive involvement and participation of the most
ordinary people, including soap opera viewers. Complex and contradictory
ideas about temporality and narrative contribute to a popular historical
consciousness because they have everything to do with individuals'
actual relations to and ideas about historicity. One example is
found in the various telenovelas produced and aired in Brazil
during the recent downfall of the Collor presidency; these telenovelas
were read by audiences as socio-political texts embued with the
twists and turns which eventually led to Collor's resignation.
Television also produces ideas about history through historical
fictions, in particular in primetime dramas and historical miniseries.
These offer particular revisions and interpretations of the past,
often inflected by a sense of anachronism. It is not surprising
that many controversial social issues continue to be readily explored
in the context of historical narrative. For viewers, the historical
fictions provide the alibi of a safe distance and difference in
relation to situations they might encounter in the present. A range
of programs have thus explored ideas about race, gender, and multiculturalism
in anachronistic historical contexts, allowing the past to become
the terrain for displacing and exploring contemporary social concerns.
In this way particular historical moments, however fictionalized,
may be revivified in conjunction with contemporary social issues.
This occurs, for example, in programs as Dr. Quinn, Medicine
Woman, I'll Fly Away, Homefront, and The Young Indiana Jones
Chronicles, to name some notable American examples from the
While these historical frames permit an opportunity for exploring
issues that might otherwise be considered overly controversial (especially
in the present), they also propose that the issues are not necessarily
of current or topical concern, since they are retrospectively projected
into the past. In this context, it is also interesting to examine
which periods of the past become fertile territory for reexamination.
Television often focuses on periods which are based in the recent
past and thus overdetermined in their familiarity; or, the chosen
moments are widely recognized as eras of national transition or
upheaval, providing opportunity for the exploration of many socially
charged topics. Even within particular programs dealing with these
particular periods, however, the idea of a stable linear historicity
is not necessarily the rule.
various ways, then, television situates itself at the center of
a process wherein it produces and reconstructs history for popular
consumption. For if the things it reports are historical, sometimes
before they have even occurred, and if early television programs
are our common cultural heritage, then the medium itself is the
agent of historical construction. This reaches extremes when the
medium's presence at an event becomes the "proof" of the event's
historical importance, a tautological process which tends to encourage
self-absorption, self-referentiality, and self-legitimation. Watching
television and being on television become twin poles of a contemporary
cultural experience of historicization. Viewers are likely to get
caught up in this process.
There is, for example, the case of a young woman standing in a crowd
on an L.A. freeway overpass in the summer of 1994, waiting for O.J.
Simpson to pass by in a white Ford Bronco, trailed by police who
were trying to arrest him. A reporter from CNN asked her why she
was there. She explained that she had been watching it all on television,
and realized that O.J. would pass near her house and, she said,
"I just wanted to be a part of history." In the logic of contemporary
television culture she achieved her goal, because she was on television
and was able to write history in her own voice, live, with her presence
and participation in a major televised event.
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