Contemporary Television Criticism: State of the Art or Stuck in the Past?

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

The launch of FLOW — an innovative project designed to engage scholars, students, and citizens in conversation about television and media culture — provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the current state of television criticism. Thus, in this essay, I pose the critical question, “Is contemporary television criticism state of the art or stuck in the past?” My bias is probably already evident. The wording of the question supposes an affirmation of the latter, otherwise why pose the question? If I thought contemporary TV criticism was state of the art, then this would be a very short essay. In fact, I’d be done. Everything is wonderful, and you should go back to whatever you were doing. But, as the question suggests, I am at least concerned that the “state” of the art may not be so “state of the art.” So, posing the question was just a thinly veiled attempt to appear “objective” as I highlight some growing concerns I have about contemporary television criticism. Specifically, I examine what I take to be two questionable practices and assumptions that widely (though certainly not universally) animate contemporary television studies.

Practice 1: The analysis of individual television programs in isolation. Much of the academic and popular TV criticism generated today concerns itself with individual programs. Indeed, entire scholarly books are published about individual television programs. I find this practice flawed on two counts. It both ignores the specific character of television today and the specific practices of viewers today. To analyze a single TV program (in isolation) is to tear it from the very fabric of its context! I take the decision to name this forum FLOW as evidence that the editors and creators of this site recognize that contemporary television and media culture is a powerful, unending torrent of images and information (see Gitlin, 2001). It is a steady stream, in which particulates swirl and mix indiscriminately without beginning and end. There was a time, of course, in television’s history when “programming” entailed providing a limited menu of predetermined (and some would say, predigested) options. One watched television like dining out at a restaurant. Choose something off the menu (no substitutions please!), consume it, and leave when the restaurant closes, or in the case of television, go to bed when the networks stop broadcasting. But that was the now bygone era of broadcast television, three dominant networks, and limited programming.

In the information-saturated culture of cable and digital television, multiple networks and content providers, 24-hour programming, technological convergence, interactivity, and Internet fandom, television critics ought probably remove the term “program” from their vocabularies. Programs no longer exist. Rather, as “the postmodern medium par excellence” (Sim, 1999, p. 112), “Television’s regular daily and night-time flows of images and information, bring together bits and pieces from elsewhere, constructing its sequences … on the basis of collage techniques and surface simulations” (Strinati, 1995, p. 231). Television’s already fragmented flow of images is further enhanced by ancillary technologies such as the VCR, TiVo, and remote control, which allow for time-shifting, channel surfing, and even watching several shows simultaneously (see Connor 1989, p. 168; Fiske, 1992, pp. 58-60; Flitterman-Lewis, 1992, p. 217). Television viewers no longer consume programs; they produce Texts. Reading, in the traditional sense, is about consumption, about following the path prescribed by an author. One does not regularly pick up a book, turn to a random page and begin reading backwards. But many television viewers think nothing of tuning into a so-called “program” already in progress, and then channel surfing (in either direction) as they continue to watch. Television criticism needs to attend more carefully to both televisual flow and the culture of fragmentation. How precisely do viewers construct meaningful experiences out of the shards of televisual flow? What difference does it make to claim that television viewers produce or write Texts (in the Barthesian sense of intertextuality), rather than consume or read products? As critics take up these questions, I would urge them to stop treating the “Author” as the privileged site of meaning. Like web surfers, television viewers increasingly furnish the “form” — the start, movement, pace, direction, and end point — of their own viewing experiences.

Practice 2: The obsessive ideological critique of television and the assumption that it will make television “better.” Ok, I’m likely to ruffle some feathers here, but I take up this subject because I’m concerned by what I see as the increasing (ideological) homogeneity of television criticism. Since the interpretive turn in the 1970s, TV critics have produced a massive (and some would say, obese) body of scholarship on the hegemonic ideology conveyed by television. My concern is not over whether or not television is hegemonic. Of course it is! My concern is over whether or not the obsessive repetition of ideological critique has done anything to make television less hegemonic and more democratic? After nearly 40 years of ideological critique, we get The Man Show (1999-2004)? How can this be? Why has the production of oppositional codes not transformed television and, more importantly, can it? I want to propose that ideological criticism, as it currently is practiced, is ill equipped to bring about progressive social change for two reasons. First, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional codes destroys the dominant pleasures of television viewing — what Barthes (1975) terms plaisir — without providing a language for the pleasure that derives from breaking with culture — what Barthes terms jouissance. Without developing an alternative pleasure, viewers have a powerful disincentive to read oppositionally (at least after they earn a grade in our classrooms), particularly since oppositional reading destroys the only type of pleasure (plaisir) they know (see Mulvey, 1988, p. 59). We need to begin to develop modes of criticism rooted in pleasure, what Susan Sontag (2001) calls an “erotics of art” (p. 14), so that viewers have an incentive and desire to read transgressively. We’ve also got to teach students to generate their own codes for viewing television, rather than simply urging them to adopt the oppositional codes developed by critics. Oppositional codes have become so identified with a Leftist ideology that they risk shifting the site of ideological domination from television to teachers. Replacing one ideology with another is still hegemony. We need to fragment ideology, to break up it.

Second, ideological criticism rooted in oppositional reading does little to alter the underlying relations of production. As Walter Benjamin (1986) noted in 1934, the way to change social conditions is not simply to critique the attitudes or ideologies of messages, it is to alter their position within relations of production (pp. 142-143). The problem with ideological criticism and oppositional reading in particular is that it protects and preserves the existing conditions of production by both treating television as a set of unified, holistic products (e.g., programs) and treating viewers as consumers. We need a critical practice that helps transform consumers into producers. Ironically, the very technologies associated with television are poised to assist in this practice. For Benjamin, a progressive intelligentsia is not defined by its opinions, attitudes, or dispositions, and its mission is not merely to “report” ideological domination. Rather, a progressive intelligentsia is interventionist; it seeks to disrupt, to transform the forms and instruments of production by dissolving the conventional distinction between author and reader (Benjamin, 1986, pp. 223, 225, 228). I offer these observations because only by regularly examining and interrogating our current practices and assumptions can television criticism become and remain state of the art.


Barthes, R. (1975). The pleasure of the text (R. Miller, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1973).

Benjamin, W. (1986). “The author as producer.” In W. Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings (E. Jephcott, Trans., pp. 220-238). New York: Schocken Books. (Original work published 1966).

Conner, S. (1989). Postmodern culture: An introduction to theories of the contemporary. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Fiske, J. (1992). “Postmodernism and television.” In J. Curran & M. Gurevitch (Eds.), Mass media and society (pp. 55-67). New York: Edward Arnold.

Flitterman-Lewis, S. (1992). “Psychoanalysis, film, and television.” In R. Allen (Ed.), Channels of discourse, reassembled: Television and contemporary criticism (2nd ed., pp. 203-246). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Gitlin, T. (2001). Media unlimited: How the torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Mulvey, L. (1988). “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” In C. Penley (Ed.), Feminism and film theory (pp. 57-68). New York: Routledge.

Sim, S. (1999). The Routledge critical dictionary of postmodern thought. New York: Routledge.

Sontag, S. (2001). Against interpretation and other essays. New York: Picador USA.

Strinati, D. (1995). Introduction to theories of popular culture. New York: Routledge.

The PoMo Page
What TV Ratings Really Mean
Are National Television Systems Obsolete?
Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited
Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

Please feel free to comment.


  • I appreciate Ott’s turning a critical eye toward criticism itself, while at the same time respecting the critical project. Too often criticism is dismissed as something people do when they can’t create. Ott seems to see criticism as having a vital role and at least the potential to effect real change.I also like that he emphasizes the importance of teaching students to develop their “own codes,” while at the same time attending to the importance of pleasure. So often students complain that critiquing the media destroys all the fun. I have often said that the real challenge is finding ways that both the pleasure and the critique can co-exist.

  • straw man critique

    Though impassioned, Ott’s critique strikes me more as a lashing out at a straw-man of television criticism , than at the actual current state of the discipline. Television studies is no longer limited to close readings of individual shows or Frankfurt School inspired critiques, but runs a much widen gamut that includes fan-based/audience-based research, postmodern criticism, political economy studies, genre study, feminist media studies and so on. Scholars seem to be asking much more complex questions, from a variety of theoretical positions, than Ott wants to give them credit for.

    Additionally, at this particular moment, I am less convinced of the worn cliche employed by media critics and reiterated here by Ott: that audiences create their own texts, rather than passively receive them. With the rise of DVDs of television shows and the HBO prestige programming, audience viewing habits have perhaps shifted away from the jump-all-around-the-dial behavior described by Ott. Perhaps we need to think about redefining what constitutes television in light of these shifts and acknowledge that the “flow” model is not always applicable.

  • drawing straws

    Working from the assumption that this forum provides a unique opportunity for engaged discussion and exchange, I would very much like to thank Allison Perlman for raising important questions about my position. Based on her comments, I wish to clarify my position. I am in full agreement with Perlman that contemporary television criticism is animated by a wide array of “methodological approaches,” ranging from political economy to textual analysis (semiotic, genre, feminist, queer theory) to audience ethnography. But “my concern” lies far more with purpose, than with method. My sense is that despite their diverse “approaches” to criticism, many critics are operating with a relatively homogenous AIM—one that, as I suggested in my column, “may be” a product of ideology. I take that aim to be what I will call “diagnosis syndrome.” Critics see TV as ill. Political economists diagnose the problem as corporate concentration; feminist scholars diagnose the problem as sexism; queer theorists diagnose the problem as heteronormativity, and so on. But while critics have been “playing” doctor and “diagnosing” TV’s litany of illnesses, TV has gotten sicker still … more concentrated, egregiously sexist and homophobic. Why? Perhaps it is because, as Kenneth Burke reminds us, a discourse that is wholly debunking does not lend itself well to social change. I want to suggest that critics, in addition, to “playing” doctor ought to consider “being” teachers. Rather than endlessly “diagnosing” TV’s ills, critics should “teach” students how to intercede in and transform our culture. I’m calling for a fundamental and foundational shift in criticism. I want to see criticism whose “primary” AIM is pedagogical—to teach viewers how to invent their own meanings and pleasure in television, rather than simply avoid being infected by TV’s illnesses. Finally, I believe technology is poised as never before to assist in that aim. In a recent issue of “Business Week” (10/11/04), Ronald Grover observed, “TV is confronting the biggest turning point in its more than 60-year history. The most profound change under way is one of technological upheaval. Digitization and high speed data lines are giving viewers unprecedented control over what they view and when they view it” (p. 158). I’d like to see critics take an activist role in teaching viewers what they can do with that “unprecedented control.”

  • control issues

    I wholeheartedly appreciate the spirit of Ott’s position and agree that much of television criticism foregrounds problems with television (both its industrial strucutre–and the intensified concentration of the media industry that houses it–and its content, criticism of which often has its focus poised on the many social ills perpetuated by programming). I am curious, though, whether Ott is suggesting that we de-politicize television criticism altogether. Is critical viewing and “inventing meaning and pleasure” at odds? I suppose one could argue that by viewers constructing and finding pleasure in television in ways that run counter to the meanings of the texts or the ideas of the corporations who produce them, this in itself constitutes a political act, but it always has struck me as one of limited impact and significance. Indeed, Ott seems to make this point when he suggests that when teaching students to make their own meanings, we concurrently would be teaching them to “intercede in and transform our culture.” This position, if it is Ott’s, seems to me to be the same one adopted by cultural studies scholars for some time–that inventive reading strategies are political acts that can be empowering and transformative. As the Internet becomes increasingly colonized by media conglomerates, and as media conglomerates themselves exert increasing control over entertainment and information technologies, I find this approach a little insufficient. I concede that the model that I find most compelling–one which exposes the actual material and political decisions that have created and continue to shape the media universe–fits Ott’s diagnostic model of television criticism. But I don’t know if getting to choose when and how one engages with television, when the offerings are still limited by a few conglomerates, constitutes “unprecedented control.” Furthermore, Ott’s focus undoubtedly is on television’s entertainment programming, but what about its role in news programming? How would this pedagogical shift in the teaching of television address its crucial role in shaping how we learn about national and global events?

  • issuing control

    There are a number of important issues now circulating in this exchange, so I’m not entirely certain where best to begin. I am struck by the phrase “de-politicize television criticism,” however, so I suppose I’ll start there. Criticism is, in my estimation, political by definition. Regardless of perspective, it “produces” discourse about society. As all discourse is value laden, its production seems to me to be decidedly political. So, “no,” I am not suggesting that “we de-politicize television criticism.” But I am suggesting that we “re-politicize” it. Perlman asks if I think “critical viewing” (e.g., diagnosis) and “inventing meanings and pleasures” (e.g., intercession) are antithetical. Not at all! I just happen to believe that “a discourse of critique” is of little value unless it is accompanied by a “discourse of possibility.” So, in my previous response, I said that critics should aim at teaching “in addition to” doctoring. I purposely adopted a teaching metaphor as my critical model because I think we’re lousy doctors. Here’s why. Diagnosis is only the first step in good doctoring. In order for the patient to recover, the doctor must prescribe a course of treatment AND furnish the patient with medicines to pro-actively fight the infection. Critics are great at diagnosing the media’s ills, but often not very good at prescribing medicines. Medicines enter the blood stream and combat the disease at its source; antibiotics “interrupt” the (re)production of bacteria (read: hegemonic ideology). This is precisely what I am proposing we as critics do—that we fight the infection at the source by disabling bacterial (re)production. How to do this? Well, one way is by collapsing the producer/consumer dichotomy. Students are poised (ready), at all times, to become producers (of meanings and pleasures). But when we treat television as a set of closed and coherent texts (e.g., programs), we as critics “position” students and citizens as relatively passive receivers. When we ask students, “What is your ‘response to’ this TV show?” we (like the media) interpellate them (hail them) as consumers. But when we say, as I did in my initial column, programs no longer exist, we “re-position” students as creators, producers, and bricoleurs. Instead of succumbing to control issues, we issue them control! I’m going to save the matter of the “news,” which in my estimation is pure entertainment, for another day (perhaps even another column).

  • Television Criticism

    Response to Brian Ott

    I try to avoid the isolation of the TV text encountered by TV critics by focusing on The X-Files (in my Television Criticism course a pop culture frame spanning Mary Shelley, Poe, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Quantum Leap. So we do focus on the flow of this kind of storyytelling. And I try to illustrate good TV criticism with critics who write with insight and panache (Sarah Stegall).

    Plus there is an X-Reviews site that includes responses to specific episodes that provide terrific critical commentary and points of departure for the TV critics in my class.

    I am able to show the episodes on DVD in a movie theatre in the X-Files true cinematic form.

    My focus is on the critical thinking, the writing, connections, and on original theorizing (the student critic codes)about the X-Files universe. And we try to connect a series debuting in 1993 with the horror.sci fi/mystery detective genres back to 1816.

    With a course web site instead of pieces of syllabus paper I can get students to navigate the flow you value.

  • How?

    Hello Brian. I agree with all of your criticisms. I struggle with these issues in my own work and see them in the work of others, as I think many people do. However, it’s still difficult to fix them on the practical level. I appreciate your attention to theory, but was wondering if you could give some examples of what you have in mind as a way to overcome these problems. In other words, theorizing a problem is one thing, knowing how to fix it is another. For example, if a researcher doesn’t focus on reception, how would she or he focus on fragmented flow as you describe it? What would these studies look like? I assume you would like something more than studying programs in conjunction with the ads within the flow or studying related programming across channels.

  • help wanted

    Shana, you mean that you want a practical solution too? As a media critic, I’m only trained to diagnose problems ;-) All joking aside, I have been expending considerable energy on your question as of late. I’m working on a project that poses one possibility, but I’d love to hear what others think on this matter. I *think* one thing we need to try to do is shift the aim of criticism from hermeneutics to pedagogy. Instead of trying to “reveal” the meaning or ideology of a text–both of which treat the text as relatively stable and finished (e.g., they assume a final signified), I think we need to teach students to appreciate the endless “play” of the signifier. “Texts,” at least in the Barthesian sense, don’t have rigid boundaries, nor do they have traceable origins. We need to teach students that language and images are NOT products (which assumes they are closed), but that language and images are always “in production.” “The text,” as Barthes (1981) would say, “is a productivity. This does not mean that it is the product of a labour … but the very theatre of a production where the producer and reader of the text meet” (p. 36). The scholarship on aesthetics may be of some value here, if we don’t try to systematize it. But we use it to teach students to appreciate color, shape, and movement, so that they can create their own meanings and pleasures. I would personally love to see an essay in which a critic writes not about “a” show, but about a collection of image impressions that was meaningful to them after watching TV for 3 hours. No one else could recreate that reading, but such a reading might just show others how read without traditional limits.

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