Speaking to Each Other at Last? The Ghost of TV Past, Present and To Come…

This is my fifth and last Flow column, all of which I have enjoyed writing – I hope you have caught one or two of them. If by some oversight you’ve missed them, they are archived here:

1. Disappointment and Disgust, or Teaching?
2. Flowers Powers: Mars or Venus?
3. To Have and Have Not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)
4. Laughs and Legends, or the Furniture that Glows? Television as History

There’s not that much space for pleasurable discourse among peers these days. So it was instantly appealing when co-founder Avi Santo (along with Christopher Lucas) offered me a chance not only to write about my own specialist field again, but to engage with the comments of others. The Flow journal wanted us to ‘engage with television at the pace of the medium,’ he said.

Horace Newcomb

Horace Newcomb

It was then that I began to hear the rustle of the Ghost of TV Past. Actually it wasn’t a ghost, it was the Spirit of Horace Newcomb. Here he was, large-as-life, not exactly rustling in those Texan boots, taking me back to 1984 or thereabouts.

I see a big drill-hall of a conference venue somewhere in Michigan, or is it Illinois, where it seems Horace has invited me and another British guy to join with himself and plenty of others – American media academics and a sprinkling of media professionals – to talk about TV.

They’re calling me Fiskan; Fiskan Hartley I was in those days.1 There was a deep chime. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was the very ‘moment’ of High Theory. A shudder went through me, as if from a Ferment in the Field. Everyone began speaking in tongues: I spoke Althusserian, Fiske was babbling away in Certeauvian, young Docrock2 was there too I think, talking in a Birmingham accent. Two giant but shadowy figures – Charlie and Percy – lurked in the background as they Measured our Meanings, muttering:

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
Du kannst mir sehr gefallen!
3

Then the Genial Spirit politely rounded us up, I think there was some embarrassed hanging back and a general feeling that we were stepping out of our comfort zones. He wants us to do what? To sit up on the podium; to watch a pilot episode of an as-yet-unseen TV sitcom called 227; and he wants us to review it? There and then, in public, no rehearsals … oh and 227‘s proud producers are sitting there too in the drill hall, waiting with the usual grad-student crowd to hear what Media Academics had to say.

Hell, this vision is turning into a nightmare, surely? But no – it was Horace Newcomb, quietly trying to do what he has never stopped attempting, which is to get the worlds of professional media production and criticism to talk to each other. It has proved to be an uphill struggle.

We got through our ordeal-by-criticism on that night, but I wasn’t very impressed with us. There was just not enough common understanding of what TV criticism in an academic context might be for. So as each of us took our turn on the podium, what came out of our mouths told the audience much more about us than it did about the hapless 227 – which however survived our critique and went on to five successful seasons.

227 was an ordinary product of the network dream factory, with no particular critical, avant garde or oppositional merits to recommend it to the assembled Young (well, mostly older) Turks. Its merits were that it was funny in a sitcommy way, and it proposed to put a predominantly African-American cast, playing working-class characters, in front of Americans each Saturday night. Everyone could think about neighbourliness while they laughed at the vicissitudes of apartment-block life. Check it out.

But someone on the podium thought it was too much like the Cosby Show; someone else thought it had its class analysis all wrong; a third (it might’ve been me) thought it reeked of network values rather than those of the culture it purported to portray.

This was the last time I ever heard media academics doing ‘live’ TV criticism, in sync with the rhythm of TV itself. In fact criticism itself became a nearly forgotten art after that painful night in the wilds of East Lansing (or Urbana-Champaign).

During the long slog through Ideological Critique and the posts- (structuralism, modernism, colonialism etc.), it was hard to get a judgement in edgeways. It seemed that criticism had had its day. It was either an oppressive discourse imposing DWEM [dead white European male] values, or it was self-deluding infantile wish-fulfilment universalising the self of the critic, or both. Just then the Bennett & Miller gang, the tough guys of Cultural Policy Studies, rode into town, shot the place up with their Foucault-45s and declared the unattached universal intellectual dead.

Criticism became the love that dare not speak its name. Those of us trained (as unattached universal intellectuals) to make skilled judgements, both aesthetic and moral, about texts, in order to provide expert guidance in matters of culture and value to the public at large, with due understanding of the context of class, you know, like Richard Hoggart, learnt to keep our big mouths shut.

Until Flow. And suddenly all the memories came flooding back, because Flow has Horace Newcomb written all over it. It is tolerant, open, polite, passionately interested in connecting the industry with the academy and both with the audience, and of course it comes from Austin-Texas.

TV Present

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me

And all of a sudden I hear an eerie clanking again. This time it’s none other than Toby Miller … oh and I can make out other figures in the modernist gloom … Anna McCarthy, Michael Curtin, Mimi White, Tom Streeter, Sharon Ross, Henry Jenkins … no wonder there’s a big noise.

These are collectively the Ghost of TV Present, and there’s a hell of a lot more of them crowded around. Their ghostly words surround you now, as you read this. Go on, check the archive (it’s one of Flow‘s attractions); read their stuff, it’s terrific.

Indeed this is the other thing that appeals to me about Flow. I like the idea of an interactive but asynchronous and global medium – a useful conversational tool for those of us living and working in Australia.

I especially like the idea of the comments that can be pasted under each column. This had been my own introduction to the site – I’d posted an irreverent comment on a piece by Michael Curtin.

Flow‘s comments are by an interesting mix of senior figures and grad-students, and they often bring some entirely new insight to the column in question, or else they race off at a tangent on some new line of thought entirely, forgetting the poor columnist altogether.

According to Avi Santo, each issue gets about 8000 hits, although as yet there’s no way to tell which columns they’re reading.

But as time has gone on on, it has been interesting to observe how many comments a given column attracted – a sort of beauty contest or instant poll that might tell us who or what topic was hot. Eventually Henry Jenkins won, with a column on the humour of Sarah Silverman that at last count had attracted 58 comments.

The fact that Henry is one of the best and most thought-provoking writers in our field has a lot to do with that. But so, it seems, do extra credits. Someone had had the bright idea of getting a class to post comments as part of a class assignment. Not a bad idea: it made the students think, write, and communicate in public about sexism and racism on TV; a good outcome for everyone and an absorbing read for any educator.

But there is a whiff of ‘insider trading’ about this particular manifestation of conversational democracy. Was it true, as Horace Newcomb had claimed in his own column, that the audience for Flow is ‘predetermined’? Perhaps. Despite the global reach of the Internet we still live in tight little demographic villages, and judging by the traffic on Flow, one type of community simply doesn’t interact with another.

So I thought I’d try to write a column that would speak directly to TV audience-members, about the experience of watching a show that I really liked, which was Dead Like Me. Imagine my delight when comments starting appearing from actual fans. They do read Flow! Posts are still trickling in, five months later. To date there are 22 of them. Not a patch on Henry’s score and of course nothing like what you can find on the comments pages of IMDb, Amazon.com, petitiononline.com and myriad fansites. But here they are – and every one of them shares my feelings about DLM. Welcome, TV fans!

The only fly in the ointment, or clank in the chain, is that there was not a single post from a ‘Flower’ (regular contributor to Flow), or even from another media academic (apart from the obligatory editor’s comment). There were posts from Australia, the USA, Croatia and four from Canada. But from my peers, silence.

So it remained true – we don’t really interact across the demographic boundaries. Academics and audiences can appear on the same site, but academics talk about one thing; audiences another. Professionals are nowhere to be seen (and students are seen but not heard).

Now I see again the lowering bulk of the Ghost of TV Present. I hear the doom-laden voice … of Toby Miller:

Sometimes it appears as though critical public intellectuals in the US are, in the words of the Economist, ‘a tiny, struggling species, whose habitat is confined to a few uptown apartments in New York and the faculties of certain universities’ …

Things are even worse on TV itself, he intones:

There is minimal room for intellection on network television, as the still-extant mass audience is the target, and is assumed to despise universities.

Hell’s bells! What are we going to do about that?

TV To Come

TV Future

Is the promise of Flow – for technologically and critically enabled steps towards an interactive consumer co-created ‘conversational democracy’ – a mere illusion?

Well maybe; certainly the symptoms diagnosed by Miller suggest that the ‘imagined community’ of modernity is in a pretty sick condition, if broadcast news in the USA is the thermometer.

And maybe that’s true – maybe we are nearing the end of the modernist paradigm when public intellectuals, whether critical or universal, could aspire to speak to entire nations. Maybe nations themselves, or big ones like the USA, are evolving past the point where even network broadcasters can hope to address them as a unified whole – the ‘unum’ has gone out of the ‘pluribus.’

And so perhaps we’re reaching the end of the paradigm in which anyone thinks television itself is targeted at ‘the still-extant mass audience,’ whether they despise universities or not.

There’s a whispering breeze at the window; a trail of indeterminate smokey haze slides into the room, across the computer terminal … it’s the Ghost of TV to Come.

I can’t tell you what it looks like, since I have never met Jason Mittell, who in any case keeps morphing into Jonathan Gray … now it’s John McMurria, now Avi Santo … these guys, oh dear, are they really all early-adopter boy-toy guys? … no, here’s Tara McPherson … these guys seem to have got this thing licked.

They reckon TV will evolve from universal broadcasting to customised consumption. Jason Mittell writes:

A sizable, motivated, and demographically desirable audience … awaits the advertisers and distributors who are willing to buck the centrality of ratings as determinant of television’s hits and misses. … By only investing in the traditional currency of ratings, networks ignore the multitude of ways that viewers are already actively engaging with their programs, and forego the option for people to actually participate in the selection of television programming that they want to see.

If they’re right, we no longer have to assume that all television needs to be directed towards something as wide (and anti-critical) as ‘Americans.’ It just won’t matter whether or not ‘most people’ despise intellectuals or foolishly refuse to recognise the things that we like. Good TV shows – such as Dead Like Me, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development – won’t have to be cancelled if they ‘fail’ in the Neilsen lottery.

This new generation of scholars is putting together the case for a television ecology that can exploit the Internet (‘Web2’ McMurria calls it), BitTorrent, TiVo, video-iPods and DVD. It is becoming possible for passionate fans to support their favourite shows directly, without relying on network providers.

Not only that, but fans can use digital equipment and software to make their own TV. In fact I’ve done it myself with ‘digital storytelling.’ Out there now are tribute versions of sci-fi shows, local documentaries, digital storytelling, or even full-length feature films. Some of these will attract their own audiences, driving new distribution options.

And so, alongside, underneath and (at least as far as IP goes) in defiance of the closed expert system of broadcast television, will develop a new open innovation network. You can already inhabit it. Actually Flow already does.

This brave new world does have a couple of dystopian elements. One is that no-one knows how to fund non-universal TV production. Another is that any future ‘imagined community’ will have to get used to the fact that most people aren’t inside it. There will no longer be one technology of communication that combines broadcast television’s universal access, affordability and appeal with content that – at least in principle – addresses everyone from time to time; from the top of society to the bottom.

Instead, different groups can just ignore each other. Television will become more like publishing, and as is already the case in that medium, no-one will be able to claim any longer that their particular audience equates with a universal subject or with ‘the nation.’

Mind you, it does seem – if Miller is right about the fate of the critical intellectual on American TV news – that the broadcast era hasn’t got much to shout about in this regard anyway. Entire demographics co-exist but ignore or bad-mouth each other.

TV claims a universal subject but viewers increasingly resent that. Flow columnists like Mittell and Jonathan Gray are rebelling against the Neilsen ratings, the ‘representative’ apparatus that levels out national taste.

Back to the Future?

Conversational democracy still seems a long way off. But in fact we do need to recognise that the apparently simple act of ‘speaking to each other’ is quite hard work – it’s not a natural outcome of any technology or ideology.

Luckily, the future-facing folks at Flow are onto this simple truth, and they’re doing something about it. Avi Santo tells me they’re planning a Flow conference later this year (2006).

But it won’t be the usual academic thing. There’ll be no papers, panels or plenaries. Instead, there’ll be conversation. Why?

  • There are too few television and media conferences.
  • Traditional conferences provide too little time for discussion.
  • Wider conversation and the circulation of ideas can promote collegiality, a less polarized discipline, and the promise of engaging real publics with our ideas.
  • Critical media studies will be more effective if it grapples openly with the immediacy and breadth of its object of study.

Says Santo:
The roundtable would be open to the public. … In this manner, we hope to ensure a lively conversation … Our goal is to spark a conversation that is both immediate and consequential.

Presumably it’ll be at Austin-Texas, a place whose drill halls I’ve never had the happiness to visit. But I would love to go – if only to search for the spirit of Horace, for clearly he stalks the corridors still.

It is to their credit that ‘the Flowers’ are looking for more effective means by which we can continue ‘speaking to each other.’ But it is right to recall that this is exactly where cultural studies first came in. ‘Speaking to each other’ is the title of two books by ‘our founder,’ Richard Hoggart.

Notes
1 Fiskan Hartley is a reference to Reading Television (1978) by John Fiske and John Hartley,which enjoyed a moment of academic celebrity in the 1980s.

2 Docrock is Larry Grossberg. Docrock is his email alias.
3 Charlie and Percy are (were) Charles Osgood, inventor of the sematic differential, and Percy Tannenbaum (who co-authored a book called, from memory, The Measurement of Meaning, with Osgood, in about 1967). Both were still around when cultural studies hit America, and neither of them approved!

Image Credits:

1. Horace Newcomb

2. Dead Like Me

3. TV Future

Please feel free to comment.




Laughs and Legends, or the Furniture that Glows?: Television as History

1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

2006 marks the fiftieth anniversary of broadcast television in Australia. It was launched just in time for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

The anniversary has provoked a flurry of events in this country. Among them is a national conference to be held in Sydney on the history of TV in Australia.

With colleagues Joshua Green and Jean Burgess I’ve been preparing a paper for this event. There will be plenty of contributions on the development of the industry, programming and audiences, so the idea we’re working on is not to trace the history of something on TV, but instead to look at television as history in Australia.

No origin; no “it”
One trouble with “television as history” is that it’s not a coherent object of study. TV is one of those things that isn’t really an “it” at all. It doesn’t have an essence, either technically or as a broadcast system, so “it” was improvised, emerging as the work of many hands, individual, corporate and governmental, over a lengthy period.

TV history was and remains strongly national. There’s even a whiff of competitiveness that plays itself out through the public record. For instance Wikipedia plays up the US contribution. There is no doubt that the most influential and widespread forms of broadcast programming and formats, from news to sitcom, originated in the USA in the 1950s. But TV was up and running as a scalable broadcasting system in Europe well before then. Key inventions came from Germany and Britain, while TV as we know it today; i.e. a corporately-owned variety medium playing for leisure consumption in the early evenings to families at home, was launched in Britain by the BBC on November 2, 1936. The US system launched in 1941 (when Europe was at war but the USA wasn’t).

Such national differences mean that any anniversary is pretty arbitrary, even if you concentrate on the launch of broadcast systems as opposed to technical inventions. Thus, 2006 is the 70th anniversary of broadcasting for the Brits; 69th for the Germans, 65th for the USA; 54th for Canada; and so on up to Bhutan, where TV is six years old.

Each of the pioneer countries developed different standards, including internally competing ones. Television was invented twice in various countries, like the USSR, which established electromechanical TV as early as 1931, but then re-started with imported cathode ray tubes in 1938-9.

The context of viewing was also not uniform. The BBC targeted a domestic audience in order to boost receiver sales, which meant in effect that the very first broadcast TV audience was confined pretty much to electrical retailers. The BBC scheduled programming specifically for them during the afternoons, so that they might demonstrate the sets. Meanwhile television was launched in Nazi Germany as a public medium, projected in TV viewing halls.

Australia sat this history out, importing existing technology, system and product. TV was launched in New South Wales and Victoria in 1956. But it didn’t reach the other mainland states until 1959. Tasmania and Canberra waited until the early 1960s and the Northern Territory did without it until 1971.

Academic history
Academic histories of television are less common than you might think, especially histories of programming as opposed to broadcasting systems (Alan McKee has made this point). With few exceptions the academic study of television is stuck in the endless present tense of scientific or policy discourse, pondering questions of effect, behaviour, technology, power and profit.

There are histories, of course, and excellent scholarship, but such work is rarely at the cutting edge of the discipline. Indeed, that is why media scholar Liz Jacka organised the upcoming conference in the first place, because the neglect of television history is especially pronounced in Australia.

Cultural Institutions
Academia is not alone in this regard. Given that watching TV is the most popular pastime in the world and in all history, it is surprising how little the major institutions of cultural memory have taken any notice of it. Museums, galleries and archives that pretend to national status have almost completely ignored it. Television as cultural history is strangely elusive.

On the whole, where they’ve noticed it at all, cultural institutions have not been kind to television. After all these years there is still too much of what Roland Barthes once called “either/or-ism”: Either Cultural Institutions, or the dreaded Tube, viz.:

Cultural Institutions TV
institutions of collection medium of diffusion
public commercial
memorialise art and culture memorialise schlock, dreck, kitsch
city and civic experience suburban and domestic experience
extraordinary ordinary
art behaviour

You know the script.

While the national institutions are a cultural wasteland if you’re interested in popular media, there are specialist museums, archives and cultural institutions. In Australia the National Film and Sound Archive (ScreenSound) has a permanent collection of “representative” TV programming. Its premises in Canberra also feature walk-through exhibitions which include sections on the history of TV.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, host of the conference we’re attending in December, is planning a major exhibition in 2006 called On the Box. They’re billing it as “a spectacular exhibition examining the impact of television on the lives of Australians.” We’ll see “The largest collection of television costumes, props and memorabilia ever displayed in Australia!” “Landmark programs and key personalities, as well as studio technology and behind-the-scenes production!” Thought-provoking displays will explore the role of television in the community. Classic Australian clips will show how TV has kept us entertained for five decades”.

Even though such exhibitions are quite rare, they already conform to what Raymond Williams once called “the culture of the selective tradition.” Some aspects of a cultural form are selected over others, such that “the history of television” — where it is noticed at all — is so standardized that it has itself become a genre.

In the process, television usually becomes a symptom of something else. Part criminal, part fool, it stands for our collective fears, desires and follies. If you’re in a serious mood, it’s the history of social and cultural impact (read: negative) or cultural imperialism (read: Americanisation). But meanwhile let’s wallow in nostalgia and see the ads, comedy shows, kids’ TV and sport from, well, yesteryear. Let’s laugh at those hairstyles, cringe at those clothes, wince at how our favourite celebs used to look (pretty bloody awful if the truth be known — why did we put up with them at the time?).

Such topics also correspond to various target demographics: nostalgia and “the history of me” for the oldies; arch critique and knowing kitsch for the urban sophisticates; celebrities and games for the kids.

The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne is also planning to mark the anniversary. I’ve been working with a group of researchers from QUT to assist ACMI with their plans for this exhibition. It has been fascinating to be involved in the very practical problems associated with trying to make television into history.

Not the least of the issues is a familiar conundrum for any curator or artistic director interested in popular culture — what will persuade people to switch off the TV and come in here to watch TV? It all seems counterintuitive. Immersed as everyone is in popular culture, why would anyone bother to invest time in visiting more of it?

It is really hard — so much so that I haven’t discovered an instance of it yet — to find an exhibition on television that takes the medium and its practitioners just as seriously as artists, photographers and filmmakers are taken in galleries. What would television history look like if it were curated for the Tate modern or MOMA? (If anyone knows an example please tell me.)

1956 Television

1956 Television

The closest thing I’ve seen was the inaugural exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1991, to celebrate 35 years of Australian TV. TV Times was curated by David Watson and Denise Corrigan, and one of its exhibits was a large black box with peepholes through which visitors could spy — as if through an open fridge door and other vantage points — on a suburban couple (played by actors) who sat there watching television (and looking bored leafing through magazines etc.). Very Foucauldian, and an artwork in its own right.

But the MCA collapsed financially soon afterwards and had to be re-launched with a different business plan. Memorialising the popular arts in a serious way seems not to be part of it.

Television on television
There’s an odd but equally standardised genre of TV show that celebrates the history of television.

The very first broadcast in Australia (September 16, 1959) started with announcer Bruce Gyngell (who went on to head up TVam in the UK) saying “Good evening and welcome to television.” He actually did do this. However, the familiar footage that is endlessly re-shown was recorded a year later — to celebrate the first anniversary of Sydney TV station TCN9.

I’m sure Derrida would have something to say about that, but in any case the die was cast. This was how you did television history on television. By faking it. It was simply a matter of promoting the station in question, and if you didn’t have the appropriate materials you just “recreated” them. And on no account did you celebrate the stars, shows or scoops of the opposition.

TV marked its 20th and 21st birthdays with back-slapping gala events in ballrooms packed with personalities. As TV matured and budgets for junketing fell, somewhat, TV history shows moved out of the ballroom and into the archive. The 30th and 40th anniversaries were studio-based affairs, less about the live experience of making television and more about the content screened and the magical moments that television has provided for the delighted viewer. The emphasis was on genre divisions and viewer nostalgia, leavened by celebrity presenters making painful scripted jokes.

In 1991 Channel Nine’s 35 Years of Television made history of its own. It claimed to be the first show that covered commercial TV as a whole, not just one channel. It was presented by stars and personalities from the three commercial networks (although it complained that “the other networks” were reluctant to share their material).

Celebrations for the 50th are already well under way. For instance Kerry Packer’s Nine Network has recently aired a “special” called Five Decades of Laughs and Legends, on the curious grounds that we are now inside the year of the anniversary (tell that to someone who’s 49 and one month!).

As Graeme Blundell (a.k.a. “Alvin Purple”) commented in The Australian, “Five Decades smacks of a grab for ratings desperately — and cheaply — fashioned from the junk pile and the banal hysteria of TV’s supermarket. But despite the less than lofty motives of the networks, the history of TV can’t help being compelling viewing.”

Junk? Banal? Hysteria? Supermarket? Hey — that’s my life! Blundell conceded, however, that “it does illustrate just how far we’ve come since 1956.” Well, yes and no.

Pro-Ams
To fill the void left by “official culture” and television itself there are the amateurs, fans, and the retired technicians and announcers from the heyday of broadcasting. They maintain museums in barns and sheds. They have migrated enthusiastically to the net. They are the “pro-am” consumer co-creators of television history (e.g. the Australian Museum of Modern Media).

The pro-ams tend to fall into two broad groups, organized around technologies on the one hand and programming on the other.

Those interested in programming tend to be the fans and cult followers (to sample, see facts and trivia about iconic Aussie soapie Neighbours).

The techies divide between “pros” and “ams.” Professionals are those who have worked in the industry and can discuss details down to the question of whether the electron beam in early cathode ray tubes swept right-to-left or left-to-right. Amateurs are those who love the furniture that glows (Television History: The First 75 Years”).

The pro-ams are proving to be much more interesting and useful to the cause of television as history than the great cultural institutions of memory that soak up the tax dollar. Like eBay their websites make accessible curios that would have been impossible to find before. And unlike “official” curators they’re really interested in TV history, in which many of them have played an active role, on both sides of the screen.

Some of them even seem to be working for broadcasters now. The BBC especially seems drawn to the possibilities .

The future of history
It’s clear that television history is not the work of one agency or even one “discursive regime” (as we used to say). The work of producing it is shared among academics, cultural institutions, pro-ams (including fans and TV professionals), and the history that emerges is different in each case, and in each country.

TV history overall still seems to be mostly “folklore” or “ideology” rather than “discipline” or “science.” Legends are spun that serve the interests of the teller, and these stories tell us more about the source of the narrative — whether a national, cultural, academic, commercial or consumerist speaking position — than they do about television as such.

But as we’ve investigated the cultural memorialisation of television it has also become clear that something new is afoot. The internet offers entirely new possibilities for TV as history, and the number of potential participants in the work of piecing it together has dramatically increased with the inclusion of the “pro-ams.” At the moment the various parties to this work have little in common and less mutual contact. But the future of television history looks a lot more interesting than its past. As they used to say; we have the technology.

Links to more “pro-am” sites:
Early television (treasure island)
Radio history (check out the recommended reading)
House of broadcasting (weird enough for you?)
Museum Victoria (an official site, but nerdily it boasts possessing the “first cathode ray tube television in the southern hemisphere”!)
International
Vintage Electronics Museum (a guy from Hove with a lot of TV sets)
Birth-Of-TV (a European project)

Image Credits:

1. 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

2. 1956 Television

Please feel free to comment.




To Have and Have not (You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone)

Dead Like Me

Dead Like Me
George: Well, I want my life back!
Betty: It’s not like you were doing anything with it.

Mondays, 7.30pm: everyone in Australia knows that’s the time for Desperate Housewives. At my house we’ve been trying to give ourselves to this hot new series, and it certainly does have bright sets, a polished ensemble cast who show the right balance of allure and repellence, the promise of secrets to be revealed, cruelties lurking beneath. And a dead leading character.

But it’s slow, and that polished look sometimes just says “look at the money on the screen,” which flatters the production system, not the viewer. In fact Desperate Housewives feels more like another episode in the long slow death-wish of American TV.

So while my partner is out of the room, and the three girls are watching it on the other telly upstairs, I find my attention drifting and hit the “booper” (the remote). In Australia Desperate Housewives is on free-to-air Channel Seven, currently resurgent in its ratings battle with arch rival Nine, not least because of this very show, together with some other high-profile buys from the US like Lost and 24.

Unlike the majority of Australians we subscribe to Foxtel (cable TV). The channel that sits between Seven and Nine is Fox8. Fox8 has its moments — early America’s Next Top Model being one of them. So it didn’t take much commitment to “boop” from Seven to Eight, but that’s as far as I got.

What is this? That delicious TV rarity, something that you can’t “place” in a millisecond. Coming to it cold, Dead Like Me did not make a bit of sense, to such an extent that we decided — partner was back now and not missing the Desperates — that it must be Canadian. So we watched it, just long enough we thought to figure it out before going back to our Housewives duty. But we never made it back.

This dead chick rocked; their dead housewife reeked.

Our family (two parents, three teenage girls) generally doesn’t eat or watch TV together. But Dead Like Me achieved that minor miracle. Week by week, the girls drifted in while it was on, and we ended up in a row like the Simpsons on the big yellow sofa, sometimes — it being what passes for winter in Australia — all snuggled under the one doona (quilt). We began to look forward to Mondays. So now, here’s another rarity; family communion, celebrated at the altar of “George” (Georgia Lass, played by Ellen Muth) — a teenager who’s dead, killed unglamorously by a toilet seat crashing to earth from Russian space-junk Mir. How useless was that, seems to be the story of her life, now that it’s over.

We all agree that Ellen Muth is “drop dead gorgeous.” But it isn’t just that. Her expressive face catches perfectly the bemusement and frustration of her character’s situation. Then there’s the deadpan humour, the fact that she says “fuck” a lot, and the inexplicable scenario and plotlines. We like her blue coat too.

It took a while to learn the internal logic of the series — how being dead worked, especially as the five main characters (all dead) interact at will with the living, even to the extent of Our Heroine losing her virginity to one of them. We had to understand George’s two workplaces: the diner where she picks up her post-it assignments from taciturn boss-reaper Rube (Mandy Patinkin), and the Happy Times temp agency, presided over by Dolores Herbig (Christine Willes), who suffers from terminal perkiness.

There’s an excellent ensemble cast of really strange characters, each of whom requires attention before you “get” them. At first all this seems united by little more than Ellen Muth’s really terrific voice — her character is narrator as well; somewhere between dead Desperate Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), and Clarissa Darling (Melissa Joan Hart), who once “explained it all.” The timbre is a gravelly contralto, somewhere between teenage “fuck-you” and Lauren Bacall’s line from To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you?”

The Cast of Dead Like Me

The Cast of Dead Like Me

Over the weeks Dead Like Me slowly resolved into sense, revealing itself not to be Canadian at all, even though it was shot in British Columbia. Part of the attraction is that it is not like American TV as we’ve come to expect/dread it, even though it’s playing around with a very familiar genre (teen-angst sitcom) in a very familiar bit of the zeitgeist — have you noticed how many dead people there are on TV these days?

Its textual pleasures are to do with freshness and unexpectedness within a format that audiences want to see disrupted a little; “jaded” humour (as my daughter puts it); script-led drama; taking the piss out of sacred cows (death, mothers, spirituality). It has insights into both family and work situations (sitcoms usually choose between these). Georgia’s mother is far from being a sympathetic character (teen sitcoms usually delete/idealise these). Creator Bryan Fuller knows his craft but is also audacious.

There’s quite a bit to say about it, but it is well covered in the review, fan and feedback sites, so why not browse them directly:

Dead Like Me Online
Ellen Muth site
Showtime

Anyway we like it and we’re currently watching it through to the end of the second series, which has been playing on Foxtel in Australia (and also on Sky in the UK) over the past few months. For us it’s new.

But in fact, Dead Like Me is already dead. It was made in 2003 and 2004; two series on Showtime and then cancelled. In the American market, almost the most interesting thing about it was that it was not on HBO, nor was it Six Feet Under.

Which raises another issue; the question of life after death not for characters but for TV shows, for TV itself. Once upon a time you watched broadcast shows when they were on in your country and then they died. But that’s no longer the case. There are ways to keep in touch with them, dead or alive.

First, we had to go through our “toilet seat moment” — the one where we discovered that this show we’d just fallen for was already dead in the USA. The experience of watching it changed right away — knowing that there was a finite number of episodes meant that the characters could only develop so far. Now there was no chance that Dead Like Me would be recognized for what it is and enjoy a shift to free-to-air prominence, ratings glory and umpteen seasons. It would never become Desperate.

On the other hand, it did enjoy plenty of post-broadcast action. The web yielded many interesting sites on which one can follow its afterlife, as well as those of its creators, cast, consumers and competition. We soon learnt that creator Bryan Fuller went on to do Wonderfalls. That was cancelled after only four episodes, despite 13 having been made. It went on to posthumous glory on DVD and global pay-TV channels.

Links:
Bryan Fuller Bio
Bryan Fuller interview
Save Wonderfalls

Not surprisingly, both seasons of Dead Like Me have also been released on DVD. Lots of folk think as highly of it as we do. You can read their comments on many sites, from Amazon to IMDb, and you can even sign a petition to MGM (who own it) to get it back. Last time I checked there were 47863 signatures.

Links:
Amazon
Petition
SirLinksalot: Dead Like Me

Following this show has been like modeling what it means to “watch TV” these days. It is not an of-the-moment experience in real time, not live, not even broadcast. You have to “sit up” not “sit back” — enjoyment becomes less snuggling under the doona, more like working on the computer. It just goes to show how far TV has evolved from the broadcast era.

But some things have not changed, among them American corporations. We tried to order the DVDs, feeling mildly pleased that they cost only US$75 (down from $99) for both seasons. But we found they’re encoded for DVD Region 1, and we live in Region 4 so there’s no point ordering them. Then we tried to get them locally, but the suppliers don’t yet stock this DVD. Just to rub it in, when we went to the Showtime website to find out more stuff about the show, we were greeted with this message: “Sorry. We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States. You have requested data that the server has decided not to provide to you. Your request was understood and denied.” No wonder all the posts on the US websites are so rude about Showtime.

So — perforce — just until the final season ends, we can still enjoy sitting back and watching the show like a real TV family watching a real Brady sitcom. It won’t last. The DVDs will arrive, something else will come on Fox8, and everyone will drift away. It’ll be the end of TV as we knew it. You don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone.

Image Credits:

1. Dead Like Me

2. The Cast of Dead Like Me

Please feel free to comment.




Flowers Powers: Mars or Venus?

by: John Hartley/ Queensland University of Technology

Mars-Venus

Mars-Venus

It’s been interesting to read Flow lately. Much talk of “media reform.” But what really seems to have inspired “Flowers” (those who use Flow) to write is not so much the reform of media as of media studies. I’m referring to the flurry of columns and posts from Aniko Bodroghkozy, Horace Newcomb, Henry Jenkins, Toby Miller, Rick Maxwell and others, in the case of McChesney versus Fiske.

I suppose I ought to have something to say about this. In the USA my first name has long been “Fiskan” (as in Fiske & Hartley), because in 1978 I co-authored a little book with John. It claimed to be the first to study the medium from a textual and cultural perspective (and it’s still in print).[1]

But to be frank I don’t recognise any of myself, former or current, in the exchanges about Vilas Hall and its disputatious denizens. Instead, I found myself interpellated much more directly by Anna McCarthy’s column on Benny Hill, Little Britain and the transatlantic flow of TV sitcom, during the reading of which a wicked thought began to form in my brain. I can’t resist sharing it with you. It’s the thought of Robert Kagan.

Kagan coined that memorable line about Americans being from Mars and Europeans from Venus: “On the all-important question of power … American and European perspectives are diverging … On major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: they agree on little and understand one another less and less.”[2]

Of course, people crowded round to point out that this was a simplification, and few in my disciplinary neck of the woods took any public notice at all. After all this was about strategic rather than cultural power. And Kagan himself is a neo-conservative writer; not a dispassionate scholar to be quoted with approval by people interested in media reform.

But, nevertheless, I read his book and as Kagan himself remarked “the caricatures do capture an essential truth.” He draws attention to two divergent models of strategic policy: one based on hegemony and unconstrained power (Mars), the other on the arts of weakness: “negotiation, diplomacy, and commercial ties, on international law over the use of force, on seduction over coercion, on multilateralism over unilateralism” (Venus). Europe has embraced Venus; miraculously, the “German lion has lain down with the French lamb.” Meanwhile, since WW2, the USA has taken over the Martial mantle from imperial (“Old”) Europe.

Kagan’s own interest is confined to strategic power – military supremacy and the willingness to use it on the world stage. He does not expand his analysis to include other spheres in which the USA and Europe have diverged since the Cold War. But a parting of the ways has also occurred in the sphere of culture. Europeans persist in seeing culture in national terms (i.e. “French culture”) and therefore – perforce – also in the context of trans-national negotiation governed by law, to preserve and promote national cultures without overwhelming the national culture of others. This is the essence of the EU. On the other hand US policy (via the WTO, GATT, GATS) defines culture in market terms (as entertainment), and sees no reason why market forces shouldn’t prevail internationally. Market strength becomes a metaphor for military might. It follows a “Hobbesian” model of power where competition throws up winners and winner takes all.

Not surprisingly, economic globalization is seen as Americanization by another name; and American popular culture as the harbinger of neo-colonialism, the USA’s manifest destiny in trade, which should not be constrained by protectionist laws in other countries, especially the EU. US military power has increasingly broken free of the constraints of international law. Concomitantly, people around the world have come to see American consumerism as a global threat to their own freedom and democracy.[3]

So the Kaganite divergence – power versus law – divides US and European culture as well as military strategy. As a result, exported US culture, from Fox News to Hollywood fantasies, seems also to embody Martial values; and people around the world believe that the USA wants these values to prevail. From the US perspective it’s easy to see the powers of Venus as illusory; the weakness of Old Europe revealed in its citizens’ rejection of its own constitution and its leaders’ inability even to agree a budget.[4]

With such thoughts in the back of my head, I read Anna McCarthy’s piece on Benny Hill in Flow. I was struck by the extent to which European TV is hedged about when it gets to the USA. It must be contextualised, negotiated, explained, apologised for, before it can be put in front of American eyes (and then not on Network channels). European TV, even English-language light entertainment, comes to America weakly, under “Venusian” negotiation; the only question is whether or not Americans “get” it (see the posts following McCarthy’s article). This simply doesn’t apply the other way round. US sitcom is a TV staple across the planet, like it or lump it.

But then another thought occurred to me. Anna McCarthy’s considered tolerance for one of the most derided, least worthy products of British TV, especially among intellectuals, came as something of a shock. Brits don’t usually talk about Benny Hill that way. I grew up with The Benny Hill Show as she did, and I liked Hill’s talent for and obvious pleasure in sight gags, which are not that common in TV comedy despite its status as a visual medium. I was interested in McCarthy’s discussion of the politics of an upcoming biopic that promises to replay British attitudes towards Benny Hill – from the “spiteful” to the “aggrieved.” So the fact that she was able to rise above all that and say something serious about the show was quite a revelation.

In effect, she is teaching media studies to show respect for TV history, and media reformists to acknowledge the place and achievement of those with whom they may share little sympathy at the level of taste or personal politics. She “relocates Hill in history, placing him in a lineage of knowing, ironic comedy stance that does not currently acknowledge him.”

It is this gesture of tolerance for positions towards which one might be expected to be hostile that really caught my attention. It reminded me of what Henry Jenkins said about John Fiske: “He was a gracious mentor who never demanded that we enlist in his cause… He greeted healthy and civilized debate with a twinkle in his eye. Fiske was always far more generous with his critics than they were to him.” (Flow V2:6)

In contrast, Jenkins characterises Robert McChesney’s world as “all or nothing. Either you are the most powerful force in the room or what you do has no real consequences. Fiske’s theories allowed for partial victories and contradictory outcomes.”

In other words, Fiske was a Euro-Venusian; McChesney a standard Martial American. Their mode of critique follows the map of strategic culture. I am very tempted to make something of that distinction. How about this: American media studies – and “media reform” – is from Mars (it’s about power); European from Venus (it’s about tolerance)?

At once I know that this is not true at the individual level – indeed many of the respondents to the Flow debate call for cordialization and multi-perspectival work. Rick Maxwell catches the mood: “I’m happy to say that Aniko [Bodroghkozy]’s dualism isn’t really relevant anymore. So here’s my point: The time for feuding is over. Let’s get together and rock the system in all the ways we’ve learned how to do it.” (post to Jenkins, Flow, V2:6)

Yes, of course. However, saying “the time for feuding is over” requires a change of strategic culture from Mars to Venus. Has that happened? A strong strand of academic criticism of the work of other academics still only goes as far as Martial foe-creation. Is it American? Or perhaps disciplinary? It identifies the ideological parameters within which approval may be expressed and then shows the extent to which other people’s work fails to measure up. Authors are divided and marshalled: approved positions stand to the Left; disapproved to the Right (turning politics into science). While individuals may escape such dualism I fear that there is still an institutional imperative and perhaps also a disciplinary culture that promotes it. Whether it is also a geographical distinction, dividing Europe from America, is a matter for Flowers to debate.

If “media reform” is to mean anything culturally then we must pay attention to what’s on TV and what citizen-consumers do with it. Horace Newcomb has been advocating engaged criticism of TV since the 1970s. Such criticism (unlike ideology critique) is founded upon the skill of reading things that one may not like, or watching what one would not have chosen to watch. It’s an art of Venus. Newcomb has lately extended the idea to media studies as a whole: “In one sense, ‘television studies,’ as an intellectual accomplishment in itself, should best exercise a form of modesty.”[5]

Is it possible to be modest – i.e. to recognise the limits of one’s own position and to remain open to others without barging in and throwing insults – while asserting a strongly argued position of one’s own? I certainly hope so, as that is what I do. I’m not trying to impose unity on the field but I am keen to defend my corner of it. For instance I have no desire to see textual or cultural analysis prevail over political economy; only to co-exist with and be taken seriously by it. Newcomb says I’m “the resident provocateur” who “goes around (or simply crashes through) many conventional modes of understanding” television (Flow). What he describes here is the art of negotiating the borderlands between often incommensurate disciplines, politics, regions, methods. It’s a robust but still Venusian practice, dedicated to finding compromise among domains that remain distinct.

But even as the field ignored the importance of TV criticism in favour of adversarial critique, TV criticism as a social practice was changing. The responsibility for identifying “excellence” (the Peabody criterion) and for building up a true, knowing literate sensibility about TV content has been privatised, as it were. It is no longer the responsibility of professional critics, but of audiences themselves. TV itself is changing, from broadcast Network TV to downloadable, hyperdistributed, post-broadcast, user-curated choice, citizen-journalism and the blogosphere. More than ever it is the heavy responsibility of viewers themselves to choose stuff that may surprise them. More than ever a good public discourse of TV criticism is needed to assist in that process, because citizens can now avoid everything that deviates from their narrowest self-image. The only person they can rely on to make good aesthetic and moral judgements about what they ought to see is themselves.

Within media studies we’re not teaching toleration for other perspectives; we don’t make it a “law” that those who seek “media reform” should emphasise Kagan’s Venusian values of “negotiation, diplomacy, commerce, law over force, seduction over coercion, multilateralism over unilateralism.” Instead, we teach critique that seems designed to produce winners over losers. Academics get used to knowing in advance what they think. Scholars and shows alike are approved or not for positional reasons, not for their internal quality. We learn to deploy our views on particular TV programs as a kind of ideological heat-shield: right-on views defend us from critical attack; admit to liking the wrong thing and. … Zap! Are we sending graduates out into the world who believe that the only TV they can watch with approval is “TV-like-me”? That the only critical positions that need to be acknowledged are the ones already on our side? And that arguments from other traditions or positions need to be defeated?

In the broadcast era everyone watched a lot of stuff without choosing to. Now, it’s excellent not to have offensive opinions rammed down our throats if we can choose an alternative. But might our generations-long enforced exposure to the others of our world have been producing a level of diplomatic sophistication, a Venusian skill in negotiating “partial” and “compromised” meanings in situations where you’re not “the most powerful force in the room”?

Here’s where Kagan comes in handy; not to justify American power but just the opposite. Viewers and “media reformists” alike need to be Venusians. They need to be tolerant of and guided by regimes that are not their own. They may find that what looks like weakness from the perspective of power is the basis of relationships built on toleration. And they may learn to tolerate really strange people like Benny Hill. If the Venusian strategy prevails, then what we need is respect for a “law” of interdependent toleration of positions with which we don’t agree, which are held by people we don’t like. The usual name for this remarkable achievement is – “TV comedy.”

Notes
[1] John Fiske and John Hartley. Reading Television. 25th Anniv. ed. London: Routledge, 2003. Amazon page.
[2] Robert Kagan. Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. London: Atlantic; New York: Knopf, 2003. 3.; see also: Kagan online article; and see Robert Cooper, ‘Why we still need empires.’ 2002.
[3] Toby Miller. Anti-Americanism and Popular Culture. Budapest: Center for Policy Studies Working Papers, 2005. 38 pp. Miller paper.
[4] On the recent EU summit see EU summit news; There was much talk of ‘grave crisis,’ chaos and even warfare – commentators were not slow to point out that the EU summit collapsed on the 190th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a previous Franco-British stand-off that determined the future shape of Europe (standoff). American response to this has been couched in the same terms: (American response).
[5] Horace Newcomb. ‘The Development of Television Studies’. A Companion to Television, ed. Janet Wasko. Blackwell, 2005. 15-28. Newcomb book page; see sample.

Links
Robert McChesney’s website
Benny Hill information
More Benny Hill information

Image Credits:
1. Mars-Venus

Please feel free to comment.




Disappointment and Disgust, or Teaching?

by: John Hartley / Queensland University of Technology

Prince of Wales

Prince of Wales

It was that kind of day. I was in London for the conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), held for the first time outside of the USA. Was anything quite as it seemed? Knowing that the British press loves to celebrate April Fools Day by publishing spoof stories that fool their readers, I opened The Times (it was that kind of conference). I was quite unable to distinguish actual events from April Fool jokes, especially anything related to the British Royals. On this occasion the Prince of Wales had been recorded having a hissy fit about how much he hated the BBC correspondent, in front of the cameras, which naturally required front-page headlines and a photograph. An April fool, doubtless, but not a spoof. Inside, The Thunderer permitted itself a Leading Article regretting that ‘Textual criticism is no longer the principal discipline’ of ‘our educational overlords.’ Come again? The Times (a scion of the Evil Murdoch Empire remember) praising textual criticism? But this was no joke either. It turned out to be a fit of nostalgia brought on by an academic conference – not SCMS of course, but the Classical Association. Ah, of course: ‘the roots of Western civilisation.’ The Times must be serious.

Another conference – not SCMS but the British Psychological Society – rated a full-page news story. The Times announced that ‘Grumpy old men are just a myth. It’s women who are really raging in old age, research indicates.’ Was this the April Fool? No, it was academic research, whose truth-to-life was demonstrated by the fact that it seemed to illustrate the themes of the British sitcom One Foot in the Grave (1990-2000), and the BBC’s Grumpy Old Men (2002-3) and Grumpy Old Women (2004-5).

“‘Victor Meldrew [lead character in One Foot in the Grave] was the exception and not the rule,’ Jane Barnett, of Middlesex University, said. … She added that the Grumpy Old Women television programme, featuring people such as Janet Street-Porter and Germaine Greer ranting at a succession of irritants, was far better at reflecting reality than its counterpart Grumpy Old Men.” —The Times: April 1 2005, page 5.

Despite so much news about textual criticism and TV shows, there was nothing in the paper about the SCMS. The opening plenary speakers were Charlotte Brunsdon and Thomas Elsaesser. His paper was called ‘Cinephilia’; hers was called ‘Poor Old Television.’ A theme linked the two. Brunsdon spoke of the ‘teaching of disgust.’ Elsaesser spoke of something he called ‘disappointment,’ that formed what he said was the ‘core of the discipline.’ This was the moment when ‘love’ (behaviour) turned into ‘teaching’ (thought); when tacit knowledge and personal experience (going to the movies), was transformed to explicit knowledge and critical discourse (reading Screen). The trigger for such alchemy, it seems, is disgust.

Brunsdon focused on a couple of recent instances that highlight television’s public repute. The first was fictional, a clip of Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult watching TV in the 2002 movie About a Boy. Brunsdon observed how the scene sets up TV in opposition to Grant’s character’s self-regarding cool, despite the fact that he spends all day watching it. This is ‘poor old telly’ – the perpetual bad object, first of Culture, then of Theory, now of Digital Media. So critical ‘disappointment’ with television appears never to have been preceded by ‘love.’ If there were such a thing as ‘telephilia’ it would not be a fine upstanding manly affection like Elsaesser’s cinephilia but – as Brunsdon pointed out – a feminised and domestic symptom of social pathology, loved only by fools and not only in April.

The other clip she showed was from factual television – the Channel 4 series Jamie’s School Dinners. Brunsdon showed a clip of celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver ‘teaching disgust’ to children who like junk food such as chicken nuggets. Oliver prevailed by performing what can only be described as a close textual analysis of the nuggets. He laid the ingredients out on the table – not lovely legs and breast but slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails and mechanically processed carcasses and skin and white powder. Then he put them through the blender. The horrified children’s innocence turned to experience. Disgust and disappointment precipitated not only teaching but also learning. They started to eat what was good for them rather than what they wanted.

Brunsdon expressed doubt that the Jamie Oliver episode represented the kind of television pedagogy I espouse in Uses of Television. And maybe so, because my preferred model of schooling is based on ‘desire’ rather than ‘fear’; i.e not pathologising but liking the object of study. Jamie Oliver himself apparently prefers a pinch of fear: “‘A constructive amount of fear in a school was always a good thing,’ he says. We are beginning, I tell him, to sound like two grumpy old codgers. He shrugs, as if to say he has much to be grumpy about.” (Interview with Jasper Gerard; The Times February 20, 2005.)

However in one respect I do want to claim Jamie’s School Dinners for my kind of TV pedagogy. He uses the entertainment format of lifestyle/reality TV as a device for enlightening the population, and via them the political sphere, about the need for healthy diets among schoolchildren. And the impact of his show on public policy in the UK was ‘educational’ to the point of miracle. Oliver collected over a quarter of a million signatures on a petition for better school meals. Even before he had presented it to the Prime Minister, the Government announced a £280m funding increase, including a £60m School Food Trust to train ‘dinner ladies.’

Jamie School Dinner

Jamie takes school dinner petition to Number 10

The day following this coup, a news story appeared in the Independent announcing that Oliver was to be adopted as the Conservative Party candidate in the seat of Arundel. It had recently become available because the incumbent had been sacked by the Tory leader. Jamie’s astute, can-do celebrity made this story shockingly plausible, including the revelation that his ‘progress towards election in the Tory heartland, which boasts a 14,000 majority, will be made into a documentary by Channel Four.’ But this one really was the April Fools joke (Independent, April 1, page 3). And it fooled us all, including Charlotte Brunsdon and I, who exchanged startled ‘disappointment’ if not ‘disgust’ at the very idea of it. Full marks to the Independent.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. This being television, the repeat of Jamie’s School Dinners was already on Channel Four even as Charlotte Brunsdon analysed it at SCMS. And now Jamie’s set to go global. The series has been sold to twelve countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Thailand, Sweden, Hong Kong, Slovenia and Finland. The big target is the USA: “It is in America, the spiritual home of obesity, where the demand for healthy eating television is greatest. US networks will bid for Jamie’s School Dinners at a television market in Cannes next week.” World gets a taste for Jamie’s menu, Adam Sherwin, The Times April 4, 2005.

Jamie’s School Dinners can be seen as celebrity populism, but it is also a good example of how television can teach, not by inspiring fear, disgust or disappointment in its audience but by recruiting them to a useful public campaign. It uses a familiar format to turn consumers into active citizens. It looks like lifestyle/reality TV, but Oliver is impressively willing to bring the viewer with him on the thankless slog through institutional complexity and defensive hostility. The odds always favour the failure of his efforts to win the grudging consent of the education authority, kitchen workers and reluctant clients. You can see exactly why they don’t want to adopt his expensive, time-consuming, hard-to-scale ideas, even as the kids dump his food in the bins.

When things do start to improve, it is clear that they need not have. That’s what makes it good teaching, good television. And beyond ‘poor old telly,’ the miracle of a real outcome; not government funding or political gain (mere foolishness of April), but something harder to make: a new awareness, shared among schoolchildren, citizens and education authorities, that they can do better, for and by themselves.

So here’s a question on which I invite the comment of Flowers (those who Flow): Is ‘disappointment’ and ‘the teaching of disgust’ the ‘core of our discipline’? Or might teaching better be accomplished by inspiring positive civic action. Either way, doesn’t reality TV do it better than we do?

Image Credits:
1. Prince of Wales
2. Jamie takes school dinner petition to Number 10

Links
Society for Cinema and Media Studies
Theory.org
Reality Blurred
About a Boy
Jamie’s School Dinners

Please feel free to comment.