What Can We Still Learn about Television from Raymond Williams?

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by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

When I was invited to write this column for Flow, I wondered where to start. So, I turned to Alan O’Connor’s edited collection, Raymond Williams on Television – Selected Writings (1989). Williams died in January 1988. One of his last acts of publishing was to write a preface to O’Connor’s collection. Williams dated his signature to the preface, December 1987. The collection is largely made up of short articles from Williams’s monthly column in The Listener between 1968 and 1972. There are a few later pieces as well. The now defunct Listener was a BBC weekly publication of discussions and occasionally transcripts of what was going on in broadcasting. Its demise might suggest that television has become less the focus of urgent public debate now than it used to be. That’s unfortunate.

Williams wrote surprisingly little about television. The first edition of his book Communications, published in 1962, concentrated on the press. Much of the material was drawn from adult evening classes that Williams taught in the 1950s when video tape was only coming into use in television programme-making. Later, of course, domestic video recorders were a huge boon to education about television. In fact, they made it possible from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, Williams must have made notes when watching the uninterrupted flow of TV before the advent of domestic video recording. His observations became copy for The Listener, some of which also appeared in the third edition of Communications, published in 1976.

The Listener column effectively ended in December 1972. A couple of later pieces from The Listener, dated 1974, are included in O’Connor’s collection, but Williams never did resume his column on a regular basis. What had Williams been up to between suspending his column at the end of 1972 and the few afterthoughts he added in 1974? He went to the USA. While at Stanford in California, Williams began work on Television – Technology and Cultural Form, which was published after he had returned to Cambridge in England. Williams watched a lot of American television in a state of bemusement, especially with regard to the incessant advertising’s surreal interruptions of editorial content, and learnt about cutting edge technological developments in the medium at Stanford’s Department of Communications. In his book of thirty years ago, Williams not only commented on the form and content of television but also its developing technologies, including video-cassette recording, satellite transmission, large screen receivers and cable distribution. The cultural critic had become, to an extent, a political economist of televisual technology.

Williams concluded Television – Technology and Cultural Form prophetically. Permit me to quote the key passage, a passage that I am fond of quoting and have done so before:

Over a wide range from general television through commercial advertising to centralised information and data-processing systems, the technology that is now or is becoming available can be used to affect, to alter, and in some cases to control our whole social process. And it is ironic that the uses offer such extreme social choices. We could have inexpensive, locally based yet internationally extended television systems, making possible communication and information-sharing on a scale that not long ago would have seemed utopian. These are the contemporary tools of the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy, and of the recovery of effective communication in complex urban and industrial societies. But they are also the tools of what would be, in context, a short and successful counter-revolution, in which, under cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities (p151).

So, thirty years ago, with trepidation, Williams spotted what was likely to happen. Conventional wisdom tells us that the reason television has developed in this way is due to technological advance. It is indeed to do with technology but not only technology. Instantaneous satellite communications, channel proliferation, digitalisation and convergence of television and computing are all important but their deployment is a matter of decision-making, a matter of politics and economic pressure, as Williams always insisted. Profitability, not social use, is the driving force. This has put enormous pressure on the European tradition of public service broadcasting, a tradition that has barely existed at all in the USA. Even the most illustrious organisation of public service broadcasting – the British Broadcasting Corporation – behaves these days like a business in a competitive market. Yet, the public service aspect has not been entirely obliterated. There is still a debate to be had.

How does the situation differ now from thirty years ago when Williams sought to comment on the ordinary output of British television and theorised the development of the medium? Then, television in Britain was governed by public service principles, including commercial television. The Independent Television (ITV) network was established in the 1950s as a federation of regionally based companies, with regional responsibilities, under the supervision of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which became the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) with the subsequent advent of commercial radio. The regional franchises were once described as ‘a license to print money’ since the ITV companies had a monopoly over broadcast advertising revenue in their regions and could, therefore, sell time and audiences at exorbitant rates. The Wilson Labour government of the 1960s put a cap on ITV profits. The companies were left swimming in money, which could be lavished on production and high wages for staff, technical and administrative, not only managerial and creative. The so-called ‘golden age’ of British television – the 1960s and into the 1970s – was exceptionally well funded by advertising and license fee revenue. This was when Williams was writing about television.

The Thatcher Conservative government of the 1980s seriously considered the introduction of advertising to the BBC, not uncommon in public service broadcasting elsewhere. The ITV companies successfully protested against such competition that would inevitably force down rates. The competition came anyway, from cable operators and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB satellite service, which really took off with satellite sport, especially live Premiership football, in the 1990s. Channel proliferation, then, and segmented audiences. All of which entailed extra payments by the viewing public, in addition to the BBC-funding license fee and the costs of advertising in the shops. Until then, the viewing public had been getting its television on the cheap. Now, they were paying through the nose for it, though with greater ostensible ‘choice’.

In the meantime, labour conditions in the business had changed dramatically, involving a shift from Fordist to Post-Fordist arrangements. Outsourcing product, de-unionisation, casualisation and career insecurity all grew apace. There were still huge rewards but only for the very few. Some young entrants to the business were working for virtually nothing. Making programmes for BBC4, the ‘intellectual’ digital channel, originally named BBC Knowledge, is a form of philanthropy that is, no doubt, appreciated by its viewing public (normally counted in the tens of thousands).

What does all this mean for the programmes? Here, it is necessary to avoid – or, at least, be sceptical – of two tendencies. First, there is the celebration of cornucopia and choice, which simply repeats the industry’s PR and marketing rhetoric. Second, there is the nostalgic comparison of the present and the past when things were supposedly so much better. There is some justification for the latter, particularly in Britain where the public service and market compact of the 1960s and ‘70s was, indeed, a notably successful way of organising TV and enabling creativity to flourish. Williams, however, complained about it at the time. He and other critics attacked the ‘consensus’ TV that suppressed deeply felt differences. Marketisation may well have contributed to opening up representations of difference. Enthusiasts for the present find plenty to praise, most remarkably in terms of changing social mores, such as openness to sexual differences, an openness that was inconceivable, frankly, when Williams was writing about TV. Multiculturalism has had a significant impact too. Nevertheless, let’s be realistic, ultimately the bottom line rules now more so than ever, in a way that would have stifled great innovations of the past at birth.

As an armchair critic, Williams was fascinated by television’s representation of the world in factual and fiction forms. I believe that for him television was a democratising medium in a fundamental sense, already contributing to what he liked to call ‘the long revolution’. The mobile access in a private space to so much that was hitherto unavailable on a daily basis had to be acknowledged by intellectuals who might otherwise write television off as beneath them. In his Listener column, Williams offered an immanent critique of television that is a critique on the grounds of television itself, registering its successes and identifying its failures, in the hope, against the odds, of making it better.

Links of interest:
1950s British Television Nostalgia
TV Resources – British Shows
TV Museum: Raymond Williams
Pop Cultures: Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams

Please feel free to comment.

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4 comments

  • Considering he wrote a few decades in the past, Raymond Williams’ concerns about a few transnational corporations dominating the media are strikingly accurate today. Instead of providing more options, the open markets in the media industries seem to reinforce the dominant power structure and serve the interests of the elite class. However, many would argue that the direct alternative to this, a fully public system, runs the risk of simply becoming a governmental mouthpiece. Is it possible to have a television system that truly serves the public interest first and foremost? If so, what kind of system would this be? Some hybrid of the two main ones, perhaps, or something altogether different?

  • Williams Now

    McGuigan certainly does us a service by placing in the second issue of this new venture a timely reconsideration of Williams. Still pondering Ott’s piece on TV criticism, I now to think of Williams’ remarks on American TV as the most illuminating theoretical perspective from which to consider TV, perhaps all of TV and not just American. It is certainly disappointing that not only has the American model influenced the turn away from public service broadcasting in the rest of the world but that American TV remains so national. I wonder how to hold on to Williams’ optimism about the long revolution of a democratic culture in face of a short term counter revolution that seems destined to last at least my life time.

  • Williams and the internet

    When I read the quote, “We could have inexpensive, locally based yet internationally extended television systems, making possible communication and information-sharing on a scale that not long ago would have seemed utopian”, I couldn’t help but think of the internet. If I can write a website and pay someone $50 a year to host it, and anyone in the world can access it, then hasn’t the internet fulfilled Williams’ hope? Of course, the internet has become as full of ads as the media that preceded it. However, interested parties can google a topic and have a reasonably good chance of hitting upon a low-profile website, which seems to indicate that choice hasn’t been as limited or as dictated by advertising as it has with television (yet). Perhaps the possibility of a long revolution is alive – it just migrated from TV to the internet.

  • In this book Williams suggests that the future of TV is in large screens and that was in 70s! And here we are now in 2008 where we have almost every home owning at least one large screen set (plasma or LCD). I find this fact very interesting :)

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