HISTORY AND TELEVISION

As 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.

It 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 understanding.

As 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.

Nearing 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.

Television 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.

Another 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 past.

As 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.

For 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.

In 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.

This 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 artifacts/events.

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.

Programming 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.

Beyond 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.

 

As 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 1990s.

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.

In 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.

- Mimi White and James Schwoch

FURTHER READING

Boddy, William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Caldwell, John Thornton. Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Dayan, Daniel, and Elihu Katz. Media Events: the Live Broadcasting of History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Freehling, William W. "History and Television." Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South (Natchitoches, Louisiana), Spring, 1983.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Jenkins, Henry, III. "Reading Popular History: The Atlanta Child Murders." Journal of Communication Inquiry (Iowa City, Iowa), Summer, 1987.

Lipsitz, George. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

McChesney, Robert, and William Solomon, editors. Ruthless Criticism: New Perspectives in U.S. Communication History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Monaghan, David. "Em-Bodying the Disembodied: Tumbledown, Resurrected, and Falklands War Mythology." 1993 Works and Days: Essays in the Socio-Historical Dimensions of Literature and the Arts (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Fall, 1993.

Negt, Oskar, and Alexander Kluge. Offentlichkeit und Erfahrung (Public Sphere and Experience). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

O'Connor, John E., editor. Image as Artifact: the Historical Analysis of Film and Television. Washington: American Historical Association, 1990.

Pilgrim, Tim A. "Television and the Destruction of Democracy: Blurring of Fiction and Fact as a Hegemonic Tool." Studies in Popular Culture (Louisville, Kentucky), 1992.

Ronning, Helge, and Knut Lundby. Media and Communication: Readings in Methodology, History, and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Schudson, Michael. The Power of News. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Schwoch, James, Mimi White, and Susan Reilly. Media Knowledge. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Winston, Brian. Misunderstanding Media. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

 

See also Burns, Ken; Civil War; Docudrama; Documentary; I, Claudius; Holocaust; Roots; Valour and the Horror