What Do We Want from TV Studies?

by: Sharon Ross / Columbia College Chicago



The last time I wrote for FLOW, I discussed “Meaningful Mysteries,” examining the pleasures of TV shows focused on serial questions. As I’ve been tracking this journal and thinking about what to discuss next, I’ve noticed that every issue seems to circle back to a central tension: pleasure “vs.” work, programming/viewing “vs.” the industry/policy/technology. Because FLOW aims for dialogue, I am offering my “polite rant” on this tension in the hopes of prompting debate and concrete suggestions.

In my own work, I am a member of the cultural studies “camp.” I focus on audience reception and issues of gender and sexuality in TV–not because I think that’s the end-all be-all of media studies, but because a) it’s where my academic strengths lie and b) I like it. I mention this because of some recent articles that have raised issues central to cultural studies approaches to TV, specifically Aniko Bodroghgkozy’s piece on media reform, John Hartley’s on disgust in teaching TV, and Megan Mullen’s on gated communities. These three articles have provoked excellent discussions on the “point” of studying and teaching TV in today’s political economy, each posing questions about what scholars and teachers should be doing with their work and in their classrooms. What I have found interesting is that few have addressed the elephant in the (chat)room: How do we bring together the TV studies areas of viewing pleasure/the text and political criticism of industry/policy/technology?

As Toby Miller pointed out in a response to Aniko’s piece, scholars exist who work to integrate these areas of study. And call me hopelessly optimistic, but I think many of the grad students coming into the field now are very much concerned with such an integrated approach. However (here’s my polite rant), must we expect every single scholar to do this in their work every single time they write and research? While I myself espouse the integrated approach to studying TV, I must admit that (especially for grad students and junior faculty), “pulling it all together” requires time and money that most of us cannot spare. So on a practical level (and assuming that “we” all agree that studying fans’ attempts to revive Joan of Arcadia online, or the specter of God in the same show, or how the corporate structure of CBS may have contributed to said show being cancelled, or how digital conversion might make a revived Joan of Arcadia $50 more expensive yearly for 21 million TV set owners, are all equally valuable scholarly endeavors) …On a practical level, how do we as scholars, teachers, and activists manage to address the many facets of TV today? What do we want from TV Studies?

3 Suggestions – Mix Business with Pleasure to Promote Literacy

So here I take off from where many FLOW articles tend to end (including my own). Today I refuse to stop at the question mark and instead offer three suggestions for how we might address these tensions within media studies. You might disagree–but at least you won’t be able to say I didn’t make an effort!

1) View your work as “our” work. As a grad student, I remember the panic of finding out that someone else in the field a year or two ahead of me seemed to be engaging in the exact same work that my dissertation was focusing on – only to find (usually at a conference) that they were moving in quite a different direction. Then I would heave a sigh of relief and all too often move on. As scholars, we need to see our work as shared, and battle the urge to see others as either competitors or as “separate entities.” You might not be able to “write/research it all,” but you can remind yourself and others that our work is complementary even when we disagree with each other. All right, you say…So what? We need to start seeking each other out, mixing business with pleasure to promote media literacy among each other. (How can we teach literacy to our students otherwise? – see #2) At the next conference you go to, make a point of attending at least one panel that makes you roll your eyes or yawn in boredom when you see it listed in the schedule. Take notes. Talk with the folks presenting on that thing which for you is “business,” but for them is their “pleasure.” You’ll be surprised at the ways in which your respective pleasures can come together. (Opposites attract, don’t you know.) Let’s think like anthologists and seek out those whose work might be in a different subset of TV studies to work with us as conference presenters, article writers, and even book writers. Senior scholars, push for conferences (MIT’s Media in Transition conference is a good model) that defy categorization and promote discussion and debate. Media literacy is about expanding your horizons.

2) Know your academic environment. As Aniko pointed out in her article, and as I have heard too many colleagues lament, many of us work in departments and colleges full of interesting, vibrant scholars with whom we never truly converse. Taking the conference model above to its next logical site, we need to be exploring our academic departments and colleges more thoroughly. Senior faculty especially should push the limits (it’s safer for them to rock the boat): cross-list classes, blend syllabi, bring in the guest lecturers. Even within my own department, which is quite focused in its approach to TV, we have trouble keeping up with what we all really “do” and how our courses truly interact with each other. In teaching media literacy to our students, we need to commit to giving them the Big Picture as a faculty unit, rather than as discrete entities. Also: Listen to your students! If we want change (be it better TV, improved policies, or even “just” better work from them) we have to inspire it – and inspiration is firmly rooted in talking with students. Guess what? They watch a lot of The Daily Show and Family Guy and Grey’s Anatomy … we should be, too, to find that common ground upon which to build myriad discussions.

3) Read a book, and then follow your bliss. It’s summer – go for it! In my grad days at UT, we had an infamous class referred to gravely as “395.” In one semester, we read works by people half of us hated, and then it swapped for the second semester. We bitched, and whined – and we learned. As Mary Poppins would say, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down (one semester of meds, one of candy). So this summer, read a book from a class you wouldn’t take in this field (or read that one you faked reading in grad class). Then, follow your bliss (i.e., your own research) in your newly informed mindset.

May you all have a great summer. I eagerly await Harry Potter and The Historian and the new season of DeGrassi and its attendant online discussions. Now, can someone recommend to me a book I should read about media policy?

Bodroghkozy, Aniko. “Media Studies for the Hell of It?: Second Thoughts on McChesney and Fiske.” FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Vol 2, issue 5 (May 27, 2005).

Hartley, John. “Disappointment and Disgust, or Teaching?” FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Vol 2, issue 2 (April 15, 2005).

Mullen, Megan. “Television’s Gated Communities.” FLOW: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Vol 2, issue 3 (April 29, 2005).

Joan of Arcadia.
The Daily Show.
Grey’s Anatomy.

Image Credits:
1. Discussion

Please feel free to comment.


  • Pingback: FlowTV | This Issue on Flow (24 June 2005)

  • Losing the Myopia

    As a yet relatively new graduate student, I simply don’t have enough experience to confidently respond to everything Sharon covers this time around. What sticks with me most here is her call to lose the myopic focus to some degree, to revel in the multidisciplinary nature of TV studies, to build upon our own work through dialogue and the kind of fervent intellectual curiosity that brought us here. This is a useful insight, as there is such a wealth and depth of work taking place right now, and so many sites of overlap, that one would think we can all learn from others’ approaches and sites of interest, even if they might initially seem irrelevant to our own work.

    However, the ability to do this indeed is limited by a number of constraints, whether they be time, money, or the need to jockey for position. I for one have been fairly single-minded in my own studies thus far, partly because I am so enthralled by my current primary research subject (TV poker), and partly because as a newbie to the discipline, I have simply assumed that I need to maintain such a narrow focus in order to confidently carve out a niche for myself and my work. Am I wrong in thinking this? I hesitate to even mention what I’m researching here, as the last thing I want (before I finish my thesis, anyway) is for a more prominent scholar to take it on! Then again, there are numerous ways to approach the texts I have chosen to analyze. And ultimately, the discipline as a whole will benefit from a greater sharing of ideas, perspectives, and approaches, and the willingness of scholars to explore other tiers of the dial.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *