TV Or Not TV? (1981)


2023 Introduction: It’s hard to believe today, but there was a time, before the institutional mid ‘80s rise of Cultural Studies, and decades before the explosion of ‘Quality Television’, when TV (specifically, then, ‘broadcast TV’ as opposed to now long-defunct ‘public TV’) was not much talked or written about by serious critics and scholars outside of the ‘social sciences’ – especially not those still trying to shore up the study of film in universities. The following opinion-piece hails from that long-ago early ’80 period.

The joke continues: one by one, the major, serious film magazines in Australia and abroad commit themselves to a discussion and analysis of television. They recognise their duty, and the possibility of a worthy contribution to the debate. You’ve read the pronouncements in Film Comment, Movie, Sight and Sound, Metro, Cahiers du cinéma; you’ve seen our very own Cinema Papers add its little subtitle “incorporating television” under its front cover masthead; you may even recall the stiffly worded promise by Commissar Gilbert Coats in the first issue of Buff [i.e., the publication in which this polemic first appeared]: “The standard of comment and criticism of television programming is acknowledged widely to be inadequate. The paper will strive to correct this state of affairs”.

But, whatever you’ve read, you’re still waiting and wondering. While the medium of TV itself thrives, the criticism of it dies a quick death. There are mitigating reasons, naturally. If you can sympathise for a brief moment: plodding through the hundredth dreary volume of The Effects of Television On Children (generic title!) makes any self-respecting critic ponder: if the subject (and, by extension, the medium) is so uninteresting and uninspiring, then just let it drop.

However, to get serious, here is the very crux of the problem: talking television has, until very recently, seemed the prerogative of sociologists and “concerned citizens” (interchangeable, usually, with concerned parents) – people who can only conceive of TV in the most abstract and naïve of terms. Even when the discussion is intelligent (a rarity), the frame of reference remains staunchly anachronistic. That Raymond Williams was certainly a smart fella, but if his work is taken (as it so often is) as providing the last word on the TV medium, then we must wonder how many years ago some folk stopped reading media theory – and, very likely, stopped watching television!

The majority of TV talk to date has been all context and no text. (I even hate that useless opposition, to begin with.) We have heard far too much about the malign flow of TV programming (the shows merge into advertisements and into each other … ); all those unworkable McLuhanisms of the medium being the message, and the world transformed into a global village; about TV as this remarkable tool for mass brainwashing (of course, neither you nor I are sucked in, but think of the average viewing moron … ). Even Peter Watkins’ scary theory of the monstrous Monoform TV-template into which everything gets squeezed, or the abstract hand-wringing since the mid ‘70s about ‘the image vs. the audiovisual’ by Serge Daney or Pascal Bonitzer in Cahiers du cinema, tends to fall into this category.

Basta! It’s time to analyse specific programs, and understand the simple or complex ways in which they function. Then, and only then, will any general theoretical speculation become possible. There are already some fine examples of such close analytical work (especially in the Australian Journal of Screen Theory [1976-1985]), but at present they are the exceptions, not the rule. Clearly, there are a few preliminary problems in the way of talking TV that we need first to expose.

One of them is a popular culture problem. Although it’s sad to have to remark upon, TV today occupies a position from which cinema has been (fortunately) able to largely move away: being seen as a popular form which it is necessary to analyse (i.e., to expose), but always on the condition that it is considered aesthetically inferior to most other arts (theatre, cinema, literature, painting, anything).

Naturally, we are referring to a particular kind of TV program here; a 1977 BBC adaptation of Anna Karenina is worthy of our cultured admiration, even our rapturous involvement – but Mork & Mindy [1978-1982] just has to be understood, accounted for, seen through. And, you guessed it, here come those darn sociologists again, with their puritanical (though often unstated and unacknowledged) puritanical values concerning what sorts of aesthetic pleasure are good for our civilised souls.

I had the extreme displeasure, early in the 1980s, of hearing two academics from a teachers’ college (the guilty shall remain nameless) outlining their approach to teaching TV in the tertiary education classroom. The first gentleman dispensed the usual, generalised banalities about TV as flow, spectacle, the cool medium, and so on. The second played an excerpt from the soap opera The Restless Years on a video monitor, replacing its soundtrack with his own derisive verbal commentary. Are we at any remove at all here from the typical, snooty, anti-TV rap delivered by the likes of Clive James (and his army of drooling imitators) for the delectation of learned, British middle-class readers/viewers? I doubt it.

The take-away message from both of these geniuses was roughly: “We know from the get-go that TV is trash, but it’s our solemn duty as pedagogues to understand why the masses receive such gratification from it”. We, our? Me, mine? And where precisely are you in that statement – which comes not from some individual’s mouth, but a whole flattening discourse, a sad social logic?

Let’s face it: if the prospect of analysing The Gong Show, Young Talent Time or The Bugs Bunny Show bothers you – if you don’t think these programs even need (let alone deserve or demand) analysis – then just don’t bother to talk TV to me, or (for that matter) anybody else.

Well, presuming that some of us have gotten over (or can get over) such a crippling attitude problem at the outset, then the methodology of TV analysis still largely remains to be formulated. Film critics (depending on their persuasion, chapel or sect) come armed with certain tools: mise en scène/stylistic analysis; privileging of the auteur’s central creative contribution; the deciphering of narrative structures and generic patterns; psychoanalysis of the spectator’s response. But these tools are sometimes wholly unhelpful in understanding the specific aesthetics of particular TV programs.

Narratives that never close (soap opera); directors who are often interchangeable within program formats; shooting and editing styles that are sometimes as direct and functional, as presentational as possible (sitcoms, game shows, light-entertainment variety) … When TV is this unfamiliar to the critic, the response is often to immediately assume that the medium is less complex, less interesting, less structured than cinema.

But what if we were to start from the assumption that television simply (and complexly) is a different form (and medium), not a poor cousin of cinema, and that we need to work from scratch to ascertain that difference? What would we then find to say?

Analysis of and engagement with TV is an urgent priority; but so, too, is the theory of that analysis.


© Adrian Martin, February 1981

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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