studies is the relatively recent, aspirationally disciplinary name
given to the academic study of television. Modeled by analogy with
longer established fields of study, the name suggests that there
is an object, "television", which, in courses named, for example,
"Introduction to Television Studies", is the self-evident object
of study using accepted methodologies. This may be increasingly
the case, but it is important to grasp that most of the formative
academic research on television was inaugurated in other fields
and contexts. The "television" of television studies is a relatively
new phenomenon, just as many of the key television scholars are
employed in departments of sociology, politics, communication arts,
speech, theatre, media and film studies. If it is now possible,
in 1996, to speak of a field of study, "television studies" in the
anglophone academy, in a way in which it was not in 1970, the distinctive
characteristics of this field of study include its disciplinary
hybridity and continuing debate about how to conceptualise the object
of study "television." These debates, which are and have been both
political and methodological, are further complicated in an international
frame by the historical peculiarities of national broadcasting systems.
Thus, for example, the television studies that developed in Britain
or Scandinavia, while often addressing U.S. television programmes,
did so within the taken-for-granted dominance of public service
models. In contrast, the U.S. system is distinguished by the normality
of advertising spots and breaks. In the first instance then, television
studies signifies the contested, often nationally inflected, academic
address to television as primary object of study--rather than, for
example, television as part of international media economies or
television as site of drama in performance.
have been two prerequisites for development of television studies
in the "West"--and it is primarily a western phenomenon, which is
not to imply that there is not, for example, a substantial literature
on Indian television (cf. Krishnan and Dighe, 1990). The first was
that television as such be regarded as worthy of study. This apparently
obvious point is significant in relation to a medium which has historically
attracted distrust, fear and contempt. These responses, which often
involve the invocation of television as both origin and symptom
of social ills, have, as many scholars have pointed out, homologies
with responses to earlier popular genres and forms such as the novel
and the cinema. The second prerequisite was that television be granted,
conceptually, some autonomy and specificity as a medium. Thus television
had to be regarded as more than simply a transmitter of world, civic
or artistic events and as distinguishable from other of the "mass
media". Indeed, much of the literature of television studies could
be characterised as attempting to formulate accounts of the specificity
of television, often using comparison with, on the one hand, radio
(broadcast, liveness, civic address) and on the other, cinema (moving
pictures, fantasy), with particular attention, as discussed below,
to debate about the nature of the television text and the television
audience. Increasingly significant also are the emergent histories
of television whether it be the autobiographical accounts of insiders,
such as Grace Wyndham Goldie's history of her years at the BBC,
Facing the Nation, or the painstaking archival research of
historians such as William Boddy with his history of the quiz scandals
in 1950s U.S. television or Lynn Spigel with her pioneering study
of the way in which television was "installed"' in the U.S. living
room in the 1950s, Make Room for TV.
studies emerges in the 1970s and 1980s from three major bodies of
commentary on television: journalism, literary/dramatic criticism
and the social sciences. The first, and most familiar, was daily
and weekly journalism. This has generally taken the form of guides
to viewing and reviews of recent programmes. Television reviewing
has, historically, been strongly personally voiced, with this authorial
voice rendering continuity to the diverse topics and programmes
addressed. Some of this writing has offered formulations of great
insight in its address to television form--for example the work
of James Thurber, Raymond Williams, Philip Purser or Nancy Banks-Smith--which
is only now being recognised as one of the origins of the discipline
of television studies. The second body of commentary is also organised
through ideas of authorship, but here it is the writer or dramatist
who forms the legitimation for the attention to television. Critical
method here is extrapolated from traditional literary and dramatic
criticism, and the television attracts serious critical attention
as an "home theatre". Indicative texts here would be the early collection
edited by Howard Thomas, Armchair Theatre (1959) or the later,
more academic volume edited by George Brandt, British Television
Drama(1981). Until the 1980s, the address of this type of work
was almost exclusively to "high culture": plays and occasionally
series by known playwrights, often featuring theatrical actors.
Only with an understanding of this context is it possible to see
how exceptional Raymond William's defence of television soap opera
is in Drama In Performance (1968), or Horace Newcomb's validation
of popular genres in TV: The Most Popular Art (1974).
of these bodies of commentary are mainly concerned to address what
was shown on the screen, and thus conceive of television mainly
as a text within the arts humanities academic traditions. Other
early attention to television draws, in different ways, on the social
sciences to address the production, circulation and function of
television in contemporary society. Here, research has tended not
to address the television text as such, but instead to conceptualise
television either through notions of its social function and
effects, or within a governing question of cui bono? (whose
good is served?). Thus television, along with other of the mass
media, is conceptualised within frameworks principally concerned
with the maintenance of social order; the reproduction of the status
quo, the relationship between the state, media ownership and citizenship,
the constitution of the public sphere. With these concerns, privileged
areas of inquiry have tended to be non-textual: patterns of international
cross-media ownership; national and international regulation of
media production and distribution; professional ideologies; public
opinion; media audiences. Methodologies here have been greatly contested,
particularly in the extent to which Marxist frameworks, or those
associated with the critical sociology of the Frankfurt School have
been employed. These debates have been given further impetus in
recent years by research undertaken under the loose definition of
cultural studies. The privileged texts, if attention has been directed
at texts, have been news and current affairs, and particularly special
events such as elections, industrial disputes and wars. It is this
body of work which is least represented in "television studies",
which, as an emergent discipline, tends towards the textualisation
of its Object of study. The British journal Media, Culture and Society
provides an exemplary instance of media research--in which television
plays some part--in the traditions of critical sociology and political
innovatory work in television studies has been focused on the definition
of the television text. Indeed, this debate could be seen as one
of the constituting frameworks of the field. The common-sense view
points to the individual programme as a unit, and this view has
firm grounding in the way television is produced. Television is,
for the most part, made as programmes or runs of programmes: series,
serials and miniseries. However, this is not necessarily how television
is watched, despite the considerable currency of the view that it
is somehow better for the viewer to choose to watch particular programmes
rather that just having the television on. Indeed, BBC television
in the 1950s featured "interludes" between programmes, most famously,
"The Potter's Wheel", a short film showing a pair of hands making
a clay pot on a wheel, to ensure that viewers did not just drift
from one programme to another. It is precisely this possible "drifting"
through an evening's viewing that has come to seem, to many commentators,
one of the unique features of television watching, and hence something
that must be attended to in any account of the television text.
inaugural formulation is Raymond William's argument, in his 1974
book, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, that "the
defining feature of broadcasting" is "planned flow". Williams developed
these ideas through reflecting on four years of reviewing television
for the weekly periodical The Listener, when he suggests
that the separating of the television text into recognisable generic
programme units, which makes the reviewer's job much easier, somehow
misses "the central television experience: the fact of flow" (1974).
Williams's own discussion of flow draws on analysis of both British
and U.S. television and he is careful to insist on the national
variation of broadcasting systems and types and management of flow,
but his attempt to describe what is specific to the watching of
television has been internationally generative, particularly in
combination with some of the more recent empirical studies of how
people do (or don't) watch television.
If Williams's idea of flow has been principally understood to focus
attention on television viewing as involving more viewing and less
choosing than a critical focus on individual programmes would suggest,
other critics have picked up the micro-narratives of which so much
television is composed. Thus John Ellis approached the television
text using a model ultimately derived from film studies, although
he is precisely concerned, in his book Visible Fictions,
to differentiate cinema and television. Ellis suggests that the
key unit of the television text is the "segment", which he defines
as "small, sequential unities of images and sounds whose maximum
duration seems to be about five minutes" (1982). Broadcast television,
Ellis argues, is composed of different types of combination of segment:
sometimes sequential, as in drama series, sometimes cumulative,
as in news broadcasts and commercials. As with Williams's "flow",
the radical element in Ellis's "segment" is the way in which it
transgresses common sense boundaries like "programme" or "documentary"
and "fiction" to bring to the analyst's attention common and defining
features of broadcast television as a medium.
it has also been argued that the television text cannot be conceptualised
without attention to the structure of national broadcasting institutions
and the financing of programme production. In this context, Nick
Browne has argued that the U.S. television system is best approached
through a notion of the "super-text". Browne is concerned to address
the specificities of the U.S. commercial television system in contrast
to the public service models--particularly the British one--which
have been so generative a context for formative and influential
thinking on television such as that of Raymond Williams and Stuart
Hall. Browne defines the "super-text" as, initially, a television
programme and all introductory and interstitial material in that
programme's place in a schedule. He is thus insisting on an "impure"
idea of the text, arguing that the programme as broadcast at a particular
time in the working week, interrupted by ads and announcements,
condenses the political economy of television. Advertising, in Browne's
schema, is the central mediating institution in U.S. television,
linking programme schedules to the wider world of production and
The final concept to be considered in the discussion about the television
text is Newcomb and Hirsch's idea of the "viewing strip" (1987).
This concept suggests a mediation between broadcast provision and
individual choice, attempting to grasp the way in which each individual
negotiates his or her way through the "flow" on offer, putting together
a sequence of viewing of their own selection. Thus different individuals
might produce very different "texts"--viewing strips--from the same
nights viewing. Implicit within the notion of the viewing strip--
although not a pre-requisite--is the remote control device, allowing
channel change and channel surfing. And it is this tool of audience
agency which points us to the second substantial area of innovatory
scholarship in television studies, the address to the audience.
hybrid disciplinary origins of television studies are particularly
evident in the approach to the television audience. Here, particularly
in the 1980s, we find the convergence of potentially antagonistic
paradigms. Very simply, on the one hand, research traditions in
the social sciences focus on the empirical investigation of the
already existing audience. Research design here tends to seek representative
samples of particular populations and/or viewers of a particular
type of programming (adolescent boys and violence; women and soap
opera). Research on the television audience has historically been
dominated, particularly in the U.S., by large-scale quantitative
surveys, often designed using a model of the "effects" of the media,
of which television is not necessarily a differentiated element.
Within the social sciences, this "effects" model has been challenged
by what is known as the "uses and gratifications" model. In James
Halloran's famous formulation, "we should ask not what the media
does to people, but what people do to the media." (Halloran, 1970).
Herta Herzog's 1944 research on the listeners to radio daytime serials
was an inaugural project within this "uses and gratifications" tradition,
which has recently produced the international project on the international
decoding of the U.S. prime time serial, Dallas (Liebes and Katz,
social science history of empirical audience investigation has been
confronted, on the other hand by ideas of a textually-constituted
"reader" with their origins in literary and film studies. This is
a very different conceptualisation of the audience, drawing on literary,
semiotic and psychoanalytic theory to suggest--in different and
disputed ways--that the text constructs a "subject position" from
which it is intelligible. In this body of work, the context of consumption
and the social origins of audience members are irrelevant to the
making of meaning which originates in the text. However--and it
is thus that we seen the potential convergence with social science
"uses and gratifications" models--literary theorists such as Umberto
Eco (1979) have posed the extent to which the reader should be seen
as active in meaning-making. It is, in this context, difficult to
separate the development of television studies, as such, from that
of cultural studies, for it is within cultural studies that we begin
to find the most sophisticated theorisations and empirical investigations
of the complex, contextual interplay of text and "reader" in the
making of meaning.
inaugural formulations on television in the field of cultural studies
are those of Stuart Hall in essays such as "Encoding and Decoding
in Television Discourse" (1974) (Hall, 1997) and David Morley's
audience research (1980). However this television specific work
cannot theoretically be completely separated from other cultural
studies work conducted at Birmingham University in the 1970s such
as the work of Dick Hebdige and Angela McRobbie which stressed the
often oppositional agency of individuals in response to contemporary
culture. British cultural studies has proved a successful export,
the theoretical paradigms there employed meeting and sometimes clashing
with those used, internationally, in more generalised academic re-orientation
towards the study of popular culture and entertainment in the 1970s
and 1980s. Examples of influential scholars working within or closely
related to cultural studies paradigms would by Ien Ang and John
Fiske. Ang's work on the television audience ranges from a study
of Dallas fans in the Netherlands to the interrogation of
existing ideas of audience in a postmodern, global context. John
Fiske's work has been particularly successful in introducing British
cultural studies to a U.S. audience, and his 1987 book, Television
Culture was one of the first books about television to take
seriously the feminist agenda that has been so important to the
recent development of the field. For if television studies is understood
as a barely established institutional space, carved out by scholars
of television from, on the one hand, mass communications and traditional
marxist political economy, and on the other, cinema, drama and literary
studies, the significance of feminist research to the establishment
of this connotationally feminized field cannot be underestimated,
even if it is not always recognised. E. Ann Kaplan's collection,
Regarding Television, with papers from a 1981 conference gives
some indication of early formulations here.
interest of new social movements in issues of representation, which
has been generative for film and literary studies as well as for
television studies, has produced sustained interventions by a range
of scholars, approaching mainly "texts" with questions about the
representation of particular social groups and the interpretation
of programmes such as, for example, thirtysomething, Cagney and
Lacey, The Cosby Show or various soap operas. Feminist scholars
have, since the mid-1970s, tended to focus particularly on programmes
for women and those which have key female protagonists. Key work
here would include Julie D'Acci's study of Cagney and Lacey and
the now substantial literature on soap opera (Seiter et al., 1989).
Research by Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis has addressed the complex
meanings about class and "race" produced by viewers of The Cosby
Show, but most audience research in this "representational"
paradigm has been with white audiences. Jacqueline Bobo and Ellen
Seiter argue that this is partly a consequence of the "whiteness"
of the academy which makes research about viewing in the domestic
environment potentially a further extension of surveillance for
those ethnicized by the dominant culture.
studies in the l990s, then, is characterised by work in four main
areas. The most formative for the emergent discipline have been
the work on the definition and interpretation of the television
text and the new media ethnographies of viewing which emphasise
both the contexts and the social relations of viewing. However,
there is a considerable history of "production studies" which trace
the complex interplay of factors involved in getting programmes
on screen. Examples here might include Tom Burn's study of the professional
culture of the BBC (1977), Philip Schlesinger's study of "The News"
(1978)or the study of MTM co-edited by Jane Feuer, Paul Kerr and
Tise Vahimagi (1984). Increasingly significant also is the fourth
area, that of television history. Not only does the historical endeavour
frequently necessitate working with vanished sources--such as the
programmes--but it has also involved the use of material of contested
evidentiary status. For example, advertisements in women's magazines
as opposed to producer statements. This history of television is
a rapidly expanding field, creating a retrospective history for
the discipline, but also documenting the period of nationally regulated
terrestrial broadcasting--the "television" of "television studies"--which
is now coming to an end.
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