Confessions of a Television Academic in a Post-TV World

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The recent translation of Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (Granta, 2008) caused a little stir in the review pages of various newspapers in the UK. The book’s basic premise was to suggest that we should stop being anxious about the books we haven’t read and accept that it was of similar value to ‘know something’ about the book – its ‘place in the culture’ – and that we should feel free to discuss books we hadn’t read, and instead make informed observations from the reviews and the opinions of others.

Like many Flow readers (I suspect) as an academic I have already been doing this for years, though since I teach film and (and mostly) television studies, this is more often in relation to films and television programmes I haven’t seen. In fact as time passes I know that I talk, though I don’t write, in what I hope appears to be an informed manner about entire television series I haven’t seen. (This would include The Sopranos, Curb your Enthusiasm and Desperate Housewives.) For instance, I could tell you about Desperate Housewives’ intriguing generic mix that borrows from Twin Peaks and the suburban sitcom, or about Teri Hatcher’s life story and her use of botox, but I couldn’t tell you what her character is called.

Perhaps I should come straight out with it – and I’m not proud about this – I don’t watch television very much at all. In fact, I don’t watch TV (much) anymore. It might seem that I’m in good company here; after all, it seems that some of the coolest people don’t either. On closer examination however, what they actually mean is that:

1) They don’t watch ‘mainstream’ television – network television in the U.S, or the ‘terrestrial channels’ in the UK – but niche cable or digital channels (HBO, BBC4).

2) They don’t watch the ‘TV’ anymore but use a screen to access television programmes when they want. In the UK they might set up personalised schedules via Sky+ (or in the US via Tivo) or they ‘gorge’ on box-sets of programmes (in the UK this is often American series such as Dexter or Heroes)

3) They watch audio-visual content but on a computer screen via sites like YouTube, or ‘best bits of’ sites, or news channel sites but they no longer watch television on the television screen.

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Watch TV online promo

This is, for some, television viewing in a post-TV world. Unfortunately, I don’t do this either. At least I almost do, I saw four episodes of Dexter (after the recommendation by a ‘Flow’ columnist) but I couldn’t be bothered to watch the rest. Luckily my husband did, so I know who the ‘ice truck killer’ is, although I didn’t watch the episode where he’s first introduced.

So, what do I do? Read a book, fall asleep, do the washing up, you know, ‘stuff’. Why don’t I watch television anymore? – I used to, maybe four or five hours a night and in the mornings too. Of course, there are obvious social and domestic reasons why I would watch less than I used to – I work full time, I have three small kids, I’m getting older and I fall asleep earlier than I used to. And, as time passes, the novelty of watching television ‘as my job’ has dissipated and it now feels like work. Equally, perhaps, as I’ve aged, I’ve become more wary, more vulnerable and less robust – I resent it when television ‘sucks me in’ as E.R. can still do. I have a muted but increasingly stubborn resistance to being pulled in to a narrative trajectory I’ve seen before, that creates an emotional charge that seems like a waste, getting trapped into a sentimental tango with characters that will die off or leave, who will be replaced by others that might drag me back to the dance floor all over again. And, although I do hover over the television when its watched by other members of my household and I still occasionally hang around for the punch lines in Scrubs and The Simpsons and I am intrigued and pleased by the absurd aesthetics of In the Night Garden, I no longer feel like watching, I no longer regularly watch, I actively choose not to watch.

So what? I’ve been watching television since I could sit up on my own – haven’t I watched enough?

Tivo Screenshot

No, of course I haven’t. It is my job, and I recall my early irritation with more senior colleagues who used to laugh politely about how they ‘didn’t watch television’ (mostly film colleagues, but sometimes they taught television too.) I remember my amazement when sub-letting an apartment from a film studies lecturer in my department that the television didn’t have an aerial (which meant they couldn’t have watched broadcast television). I also remember cheekily pointing out that John Ellis, in the preface to Visible Fictions, ‘outs’ himself as a ‘cinephile’ and that by admitting that he watched only certain genres of television he would necessarily limit his view of television itself. And I felt wholly supportive of the way in which television studies became increasingly informed by feminist-led research that addressed how television was watched by people (women) other than male academics and thereby uncovered new genres and pleasures for analysis as a result. Now the current generation of television scholars are led by male and female ‘fans’ – academics who are frequent and heavily invested viewers – who have encyclopaedic knowledge of their favourite series, who watch and enjoy television across a variety of different genres, who are generally indifferent or gleeful about enjoying and critiquing a mix of highbrow and lowbrow programming.

I’m getting left behind; and I can’t afford to do this because I know that television is inherently about ‘keeping up’ – a pressure driven by the ‘this-is-next-ness’ of television’s narrative dynamic. And I passionately believe that understanding television is about understanding context, about mood, about the groove that television makes within and between private and public lives. I need to get back on the dance floor. That I haven’t, is partly because so many popular programmes now rely on public humiliation (I’ve always been a wimp about this) and partly because as there is more space – more channels, more scheduled time – the programmes have got longer and longer yet paradoxically shorter and shorter. I feel disoriented by the time warp of ‘Discovery’-ised documentaries with fifteen minutes of content and a sixty minutes running time and overwhelmed by the increasing dominance of the US series with twenty or more episodes (where each episode has the same narrative arc). The dominance of the format in contemporary television simply increases my feeling that, after all, I really have seen enough, or at least that I have seen it all before.

YouTube Apple Promo

Certainly, this is my problem, but my disenfranchisement from television is also related to a larger concern: television is not a book, or even a canon of ‘approved’ books. What you used to get from television was not intellectual capital (the kind Bayard describes), or a fan’s acquisition of high intensity insider knowledge. It has, or used to have, a public role that was not just about ‘knowing something’ but feeling. Television engaged the private me – us – with public life, with a ‘structure of feeling’, to use Raymond Williams’ well-worn phrase. Not just with what was happening in the news, but by gauging the emotional temperature of the mass audience who, whether they liked it or not, watched many of the same programmes at the same time and in which we sometimes recognised ourselves and, more often, recognised other people. Television used to mediate – however imperfectly – between private and public selves. As production and reception are privatised and tailored increasingly to individuals, that sense of the audience as a ‘public’, rather than a heavily invested community of fans or as a ‘demographic’, has eroded. The common culture of ‘public concern’ and ‘public sentiment’ articulated by ‘old TV’ tried to secure ‘public opinion’ and in reality this was often met by a healthy mixture of participation, resistance and scorn; nonetheless it meant that ‘we’ had something in common. In a post-TV world I no longer need to watch television that is ‘not for me’ and is no longer about ‘we’: in fact I might just as well read a book.

Image Credits:

1. As seen on TV?
2. Watch TV online promo
3. Tivo Screenshot
4. YouTube Apple Promo

Please feel free to comment.

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9 comments

  • I have just recently canceled my cable and don’t have an aerial on my television; it is purely an instrument for DVDs and the occasional video game now. I have also never used Tivo or DVR, so in the past 6 years (while I’ve been out of my parents’ house) television has undergone a series of changes that I have missed. With cable content being produced with the intention of going to DVD, I see little incentive in tuning in anymore. Taking this article in conjunction with Jennifer Holt’s column, I see little reason to “keep up” with television unless a series merits investigation on its own. I’ll have my Netflix ready.

  • I feel that this article really articulates what so many people have been feeling and noticing in recent years: there is a pressure to keep up with shows, but it’s a completely unrealistic pressure. Not only am I to keep up with what’s on, but I need to go get caught up on older shows that have now been released onto DVD. Even amongst television scholars it seems hard to actually sit down and discuss television because we all watch so many different shows via different outlets; the niches seem to continually be shrkinking. Not to mention, one always runs the risk of spoiling something for someone who is a few seasons behind but getting caught up online or with DVDs. I wonder what kind of long term effects the loss of the “we” will have on both the general public as audience as well as the scholarly community.

  • Karen’s wonderful confession resonated very strongly with my experience. I used to comfort myself with the observation that a lot of the film studies scholars I know enjoy and write about movies from the 1940s and 50s, or that Stanley Cavell notes a similar loss of interest (in The World Viewed) with recent movies. In other words perhaps it’s something that just happens when we master a period that we, thankfully also enjoy – there just isn’t time left for anything new. But somehow I don’t think this is what is happening, and I don’t think it has all that much to do with post-tv (since youtube/web etc is parasitic on TV to a large extent…) Karen is certainly onto something when she notes that the erosion of a sense of something in common at stake in television. However, this may be less than it seems, or feels. To what extent is the felt need to keep up with the ‘now’ of television – however disaggregated that now might be – simply another in a long line of historical examples of the gravitational pull of television’s claim to immediacy?

  • Here’s the thing: I’m a grad student at a public university; I am paid at a wage below the poverty line; I somehow am expected to go to conferences and pay airfare and registration fees in order to disseminate my research on TV…..thus making it nearly impossible for me to afford a television, let alone cable. I watch my DVDs on my MacBook computer screen, which many view as a travesty, and I view as necessity. I wish I could skew my finances differently…or I wish that my university could pay me at a level that would facilitate my research (a DVR, please?) but that’s not on the horizon. I can, however, access tons of recent programming view itunes (pricey) or online (annoying, but free).

    I simply loved this article for its willingness to articulate the reality of being a scholar and being expected to watch (and know, and buy) it all.

  • Hi and thanks for all your comments: I’m glad (?) that my experience is shared in different ways by several of you. I think it does reflect changes in the television environment but Jason and Annie are also right when they imply that it is also tied to the need of the television scholar’s to feel that they ‘know’ it all (or enough) added to and amplified by the ‘gravitational pull’ of television itself which is to go on to the next thing (and the next). However, there is a personal sense for me that it is about not being able to ‘hit the right note’ with my students, not knowing the references that will make my point clear – which used to seem easy when I felt there was a common TV culture. And although my musical tags are probably a bit naff I think there is something akin to the way I used to feel about television and the the way in which we more readily think about ‘feeling’ popular music, that is somehow ‘knowing’ popular music when obviously we actually know ‘musics’. As an aside, I think that music comes to me so obviously as a comparison because my other difficulty with a lot of TV is the sound, where the mix of sound – voice/music – is often increasingly difficult to manage (but perhaps thats another story!)

  • I’m sorry, but this seems like an outrageous confession to me. It’s the kind of think I can’t imagine anyone in other subjects saying; people in literature might acknowledge there are certain books they haven’t read, but to say you’ve given up on reading at all would be a travesty.
    For me, there’s something really depressing not only about the original article, but also the support in the subsequent postings. I disagree that a ‘common culture’ has been lost, and all the empirical research supports this. I spent last weekend visiting my family, none of whom are academics, and we chatted about telly in the way we always have. The problem seems to be that academics (and journalists, for that matter) watch television in a very different way from ‘ordinary’ people; this has significant implications for the validity of subsequent pronouncements the academy makes.
    I’d also add that it’s noticeable that most of the programmes mentioned are ones which, ratings show, not many people watch, but which are instead talked about a lot. Acknowledging you don’t watch them might, then, simply align you with the majority of the viewing public, who are watching lots of other, less talked-about, things instead.
    I’m an academic, and I still watch lots of telly; this is partly because I feel like I should, but mainly because I still think telly is great, exciting, interesting, fun, and surprising. I don’t think I’d carry on being an academic if these feelings ever left me.

  • Hi Brett, and thanks for your comment. I feel in my gut that you’re right and in fact your response is similar to the way I felt when I first started work on TV. In my defense I was careful to point out that I never write about television I don’t know well and I certainly don’t teach stuff I don’t know. And because of the changes in my viewing habits, I’ve changed what I research and how I do so. And I have also wondered whether I should continue being a ‘television’ academic (and perhaps even an academic at all.)However, I now work mainly on children’s TV (which I do see a lot of, though I don’t watch in quite the same way I might watch other shows) so I guess that does perhaps align me with many non-academics!

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