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

by: Brian L. Ott / Colorado State University

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please feel free to comment.

Media Lag: The TV Revolution in Asia

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

I’ve traveled to Asia many times over the past decade, and if everything works flawlessly, the trip takes roughly 24 hours door-to-door from my home in Madison to a hotel room on the other side of the world. Then it usually takes another 72 hours before my body begins to adjust to the rhythms of Asia. In the semi-hallucinogenic haze of jet lag, one becomes acutely aware that America and Iraq figure little in the daily calculations of citizens in this part of the world. President Bush’s crusade against terrorism pales by comparison to more pressing concerns regarding democracy in East Asia, as citizens in both Hong Kong and Taiwan struggle for political autonomy and rights of free expression. Compared to Bush’s war on terrorism, these battles are just as epic in proportion and may in the long run be equally significant in their implications for the rest of the world.

Little of this registers in American media, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers poured into the streets of this city on four occasions over the past sixteen months demanding democratic reforms that had been promised them during the 1997 handover. Indeed, the largest demonstration drew more than half a million people, most of them educated middle class citizens who are usually touted as the very backbone of this city’s economic success. Recent elections likewise drew a record turnout, despite electoral ground rules that were heavily skewed to benefit Beijing loyalists. Resisting intense pressure from the mainland leadership, almost two-thirds of all votes were cast for democracy candidates, including a Yippiesque pundit known as “Long Hair” who, clad in a Che Guevara tee-shirt, refused to shake hands with the territory’s Chief Executive, choosing instead to recite a protest poem at their first official meeting.

Political passions in Taiwan likewise roil along at a fever pitch as the island emerges from a tumultuous presidential campaign last spring and heads into crucial legislative elections before the end of the year. Political sparring most centrally revolves around the island’s continuing assertion of independence in the face of more than a decade of pressure from Beijing to “reintegrate” with the motherland. As citizens of the Chinese world’s first and only democratic society, most Taiwanese seem willing to risk full-scale attack from the PRC rather than surrender hard-won rights of free expression. In fact, opinion polls show that support for independence has grown significantly over the past five years despite the volatile state of cross-straits relations.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, PRC politics are undergoing significant transformation due to recent maneuvering within the Communist Party prompting the unexpected departure of Jiang Zeming. This has consolidated the influence of a reform faction that is pushing for more institutional transparency and social welfare spending in a society predominantly characterized by crony capitalism and government corruption. Depending on whom one listens to, China is either teetering on the brink of economic greatness or economic ruin. It is at once the most powerful economy in Asia and perhaps the most fragile, with some experts estimating that more than a hundred million of its citizens have taken to the road in search of work, while hundreds of thousands of others have stayed at home to organize demonstrations for economic equity and social justice. Sit-ins, marches, and militant clashes with authorities are now regular (though underreported) occurrences, as government officials scramble to respond to the rising tide of protests.

Such a world is a long way from the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama and others anticipated only a decade ago. At the time, it was suggested that the most momentous decisions in the post-Cold War world would revolve around a set of rather mundane choices: Coke or Pepsi? Sony or Panasonic? MTV or ESPN? Media metaphors flowed easily then. Satellite TV and the dawning of the Worldwide Web seemed to augur a collapsing of boundaries and the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism, leading to an era of global peace and prosperity. Implicit in such speculation were presumptions of the development paradigm that had been so thoroughly discredited by scholarly criticism and practical application only four decades ago. Yet in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary, US leaders during the 1980s and1990s contended that that trade liberalization, new technologies, and Western expertise would unleash the productive power of lesser-developed nations. They likewise resurrected the “end of ideology” as the “end of history,” which played as a companion theme to the “weightless economy” and the “global communication grid.”

Of course the worm turns and now, in the new millennium, cultural and economic difference again seem as intractable as jet lag, as global communication technologies seem to be engendering a disjunctive set of social relations that one might refer to as media lag. That is, rather than fostering spontaneous development, television exposure seems to be exacerbating tensions between global imagery and local experience. So for example, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, it is commonly suggested by scholars, journalists, and government officials that the recent diffusion of television throughout the Middle East has fueled a wave of resentments regarding disparities within the region, as well as between lifestyles East and West. Yet it’s important to note that this phenomenon can also be found in societies to the north, south, and east of Baghdad.

Indeed, television spread throughout Asia at a remarkable pace during the 1990s, adding an estimated two billion new viewers to the global audience. In China alone TV access has risen from virtually zero to some 90% of the population over the past twenty years. A medium that was originally intended to foster economic development, unify the country, and strengthen the bridge between the party and the people, has become a source of significant anxiety among leaders in Beijing, engendering debates over “rising expectations” and subsequent social conflict. A similar trajectory of rapid adoption has taken place in India and the Middle East where policy makers also fret that the rapid diffusion of television exerts intense pressure to deliver the fruits of economic and social development. Just as jet lag challenges one’s physical and mental capacities, so too does rapid diffusion seem to challenge the institutional capacities of Asian societies. In this state of disjuncture, disparities of wealth seem to take on a vivid significance in the lives of viewers. Rather than fostering aspirations for modernization and “development” (a desire to “catch up”), television makes uneven development fantastically apparent to TV’s newest audiences. Put another way, if one looks carefully at a map of the world’s proven oil reserves, it is glaringly obvious that resources in the Middle East dwarf the combined reserves of the rest of the world. Likewise, if one examines the geographic distribution of the world’s manufacturing workforce as a function of labor cost, one quickly is alerted to the significance of places like Guangdong province in China or Andra Pradesh in India. Now compare these global maps of resource distribution to maps of resource consumption, energy use, and per capita income. The disparities are stunning but nevertheless commonly pass without critical comment in the mainstream media. Yet even though television rarely acknowledges these disparities at an explicit level, it prismatically refracts them through the disjunctive delivery of fantasy images of consumption to the shantytowns and cramped quarters of the world’s working poor. Moreover, television’s fixation on female consumerism offers up relentless images of feminine agency that are commonly embraced by young women who leave behind the drudgery of familial servitude for a chance to migrate to the workshops of transnational capital. Social tensions therefore multiply beyond class issues to controversies over gender relations and “family values,” as well. Media lag like jet lag is therefore commonly experienced as intensified sensitivity to difference and change, and regardless of how one responds, all are exposed to social disparities and tensions that seem enduring despite television’s promises to the contrary.

It’s noteworthy then that the “end of ideology” coincided with the rise of development communications during the 1950s and that the “end of history” augured a mistaken revival of faith in the development paradigm since the 1990s. Yet we have neither transcended ideology nor history. The former remains important for its ability to reveal that which is concealed by the everyday operations of power, while the dialectics of history remind us that dramatic disparities of wealth inevitably invite revolutionary responses. It is therefore worth paying attention to the operations of both ideology and history as we reflect upon the recent growth of television viewing around the world. For in one sense, media lag invites ideological awareness despite (or perhaps because of) television’s fixation on abundance and consumerism. In another sense, media lag is an historical phenomenon, for the transformations that accompany new media often take time to register in social relations. Consequently, our preoccupation with broadband Internet and other digital technologies may be obscuring the fact that for much of the world the television revolution is only beginning.

Links of Interest
BBC on Asia-Pacific News
Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”
Global Television

Please feel free to comment.