TELEVISION STUDIES

Television 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.

There 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.

Television 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).

Both 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 economy.

Much 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.

The 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.

However, 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 consumption.

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.

 

The 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, 1990).

This 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Television 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.

-Charlotte Brunsdon

FURTHER READING

Ang, Ien. Living Room Wars. London: Routledge, 1995.

_______________. Desperately Seeking The Audience. London: Routledge, 1993.

_______________. Watching Dallas. London: Methuen, 1985.

Bobo, Jacqueline, and Seiter, Ellen. "Black Feminism and Media Criticism." Screen (London), 1991; reprint in Brunsdon, Charlotte, J. D'Acci an L. Spigel, editors. fem.tv. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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

Brandt, George. British Television Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Browne, Nick. "The Political Economy Of The Television (Super) Text." Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Los Angeles), 1984.

Burns, Tom. The BBC: Public Institution, Private World. London: Macmillan, 1977.

D'Acci, Julie. Defining Women: Television And The Case of Cagney and Lacey. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Eco, Umberto. The Role Of The Reader. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979.

Ellis, John. Visible Fictions. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kerr, and Tise Vahimagi. MTM: "Quality Television." London: British Film Institute, 1984.

Fiske, John. Television Culture. London: Methuen, 1987.

Fiske, John and John Hartley. Reading Television. London: Methuen, 1978.

Goldie, Grace Wyndham. Facing The Nation: Television And Politics, 1936-1976. London: The Bodley Head, 1978.

Hall, Stuart. Early Writings On Television. London: Routledge, 1997.

Hall, Stuart, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe, and Paul Willis, editors. Culture, Media, Language. London and Birmingham: Hutchinson and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1980.

Halloran, James. The Effects Of Television. London: Panther, 1970.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture And The Meaning Of Style. London: Methuen, 1978.

Herzog, Herta. "What Do We Really Know About Daytime Serial Listeners." In, Lazersfeld, Paul and Frank Stanton, editors. Radio Research 1942-43. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1944.

Jhally, Sut, and Justin Lewis. Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show And The Myth Of The American Dream. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Regarding Television. Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1983.

Krishnan, Prabha, and Anita Dighe. Affirmation And Denial: Construction Of Femininity On Indian Television. New Delhi: Sage, 1990.

Liebes, Tamar, and Elihu Katz. The Export of Meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

McRobbie, Angela. Feminism And Youth Culture. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1991.

Morley, David. Television, Audiences And Cultural Power. London: Routledge, 1992.

_______________. The Nationwide Audience. London: British Film Institute, 1980.

Newcomb, Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Newcomb, Horace, and Paul Hirsch. "Television as a Cultural Forum: Implications for Research." In Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View. New York: Oxford, 1994.

O'Connor, Alan, editor. Raymond Williams On Television. London: Routledge, 1989.

Purser, Philip. Done Viewing. London: Quartet, 1992.

Schlesinger, Philip. Putting "Reality" Together. London: Constable, 1978.

Seiter, Ellen, with others. Remote Control. London: Routledge, 1989.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room For TV. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Thomas, Howard, editor. The Armchair Theatre. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959.

Thurber, James. The Beast In Me And Other Animals. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948.

Williams, Raymond. Drama In Performance. London: C.A. Watts, 1968.

_______________. Television, Technology And Cultural Form. London: Fontana, 1974.

 

See also Audience Research; Audience Research, Cultivation Analysis; Audience Research, Effects Analysis; Audience Research, Reception Analysis; Hood, Stuart; Television Criticism (Journalistic); Williams, Raymond