The Internet Challenge to Television, Latin American Television: A Global View & Television: An International History

Bruce M.Owen, The Internet Challenge to Television, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999 ) ISBN 0 674 87299 1 (hb) 372 pp US$29.95
(Review copy supplied by Harvard University Press)

John Sinclair, Latin American Television: A Global View, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) ISBN 0 19 815930 7, 0 19 815929 3 (pb) 187 pp A$45.00
(Review copy supplied by Oxford University Press)

Anthony Smith (ed), Television: An International History, 2nd ed, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0 19 874249 5, 0 19 815928 5 (pb) 294 pp A$64.95
(Review copy supplied by Oxford University Press)

Uploaded 30 June 2000

Television and history: three perspectives

Three books on television, aimed at very different audiences. Anthony Smith’s Television: An International History is clearly a general student textbook (a successful one, judging by its having reached a second edition within four years), providing an overview of a huge subject, with no citation to interrupt the flow of the commentary, but with reference lists to allow keen readers to pursue any aspect of the subject. Bruce Owen’s The Internet Challenge to Television works on several levels. It is an intervention into a current debate, making a persuasive case directed both to policy-makers and to the writer’s peers in the academic world: but it would also make a useful textbook, as it provides an overview of the subject, clearly and concisely presented for student readers. John Sinclair’s Latin American Television speaks primarily to academic readers, as well as to a limited general audience with a specialist interest, establishing its theoretical base and providing both citation and reference lists.

All three are important contributions to the growing literature on television, but what brings them together in this review is their acknowledgement of history, and it is on that aspect that this review will concentrate. It is not so long ago that the academic world seemed oblivious to the idea that television could have a history. For the fans, nostalgic popular illustrated histories existed, but academic writing on television seemed limited to the medium’s present, whether it was discussion of programme genres or institutional structures or government regulation. But now it seems that the medium is at last old enough for its past to be studied, and for its present to be acknowledged as growing out of that past – even for that history to be seen as a model for new technological developments. These three books are all in their various ways part of that paradigm-shift.

But “television” can mean different things to different people. The study of television may be a study of technical innovation and diffusion – a technological history. Or it may be a study of changes in ownership and regulation – a commercial and institutional history. Or it may be a textual study of programme genres and examples – an aesthetic and semiotic history. Or it may be a combination of any of these. The three books discussed here all have their own particular take on the subject.

As a general textbook, Smith’s Television: An International History employs the widest definition. It aims to provide “a broad account of the ways in which television has evolved”(2), with sections on “Origins and institutions” (chapters on the beginnings of television technology, American television as a model for much of the world, and television as a public service), “Forms and genres” (covering drama and entertainment, non-fiction, sport, and special events), “Television and society” (chapters on the family, on standards and on terrorism), and “Television across the world” (eleven chapters on individual countries and broader regions), with a final “Epilogue: the future”.

The editor, in his introduction, acknowledges that television is currently in a state of flux, and suggests that this may be “a good moment to pull together the various strands of television’s multicultural history” (4). These strands include the technological, the commercial, the social, the ideological and the aesthetic, with different contributors placing the emphasis differently, according to their particular concerns, and with the editor acknowledging that the main problem was deciding what to leave out. The various authors are specialists in their fields, and provide clear and concise coverage (despite occasional lapses out of idiomatic English), appropriate to under-graduate students as well as to interested lay people. It is this very breadth that can be read as a problem – nothing can be pursued in much detail, so readers are left to follow through in their own time.

Owen’s The Internet Challenge to Television does not cover such a wide field: it is clearly focussed on the technological, picking up the kind of issues introduced only at the end of Smith’s book, in his “Epilogue”. Owen’s book is about the possibilities (technological and commercial) of the convergence of television and the Internet. In the author’s own words:

..In this book we are concerned with consumers’ use of the Internet for video information and entertainment, and advertisers’ use of the Internet as a marketing tool, relative in both cases to conventional broadcasting and other technologies.(197)

It does not set out to provide international coverage of these issues: it is confined to the US experience. But within that limited brief, it is very thorough. The first section provides technical explanations of analog media, with the history of their implementation in USA and comment on their commercial success and on their continuing potential. The second section does something similar for digital media. The final section describes what is/was happening at the time of writing, and speculates on which of the myriad possibilities might take off in the future. Judgments are made on efficiency in each case – the cost/benefit ratio, the likelihood of government regulation distorting the market, the possibility of consumer demand or resistance. The conclusion is simply that there is not yet a conclusion – and that the stakes are so high (both for winning and for losing) that entrepreneurs are likely to stay reluctant to commit themselves.

This is a valuable book, suitable for the general reader, and an ideal textbook for use with upper secondary/college/university students. The writing is clear and concise: it assumes a reasonably intelligent reader, but not one with previous technical knowledge, so it starts every section at a very basic level and gradually builds upon that foundation. Analogies are constantly drawn between information that the author presumes is new to the reader and what he assumes to be familiar, so, for instance, bandwidth is likened to the capacity of a concrete pipe. He can also produce evocative images. In explaining that water can diffuse microwave signals he comments that: “Many a telephone conversation has thus fallen as warm rain on the western plains.”(184) There is a very useful glossary of terms, and a comprehensive index.

The difference between a general textbook and a thorough academic study of a subject is illustrated by the difference between Silvio Waisbord’s chapter on Latin America in Smith, and the third book to be considered here – Sinclair’s Latin American Television. In a mere ten pages, Waisbord’s chapter sums up the whole history of television – the dissemination of the technology, the national variations in organisation and audience, the issues of public versus private, globalisation and new technology – across the whole of South and Central America. It is a chapter based on thorough knowledge of the politics and economics of the region, and producing valuable insights into the key issues at stake at various periods and in different locations within this story. It sets out to “make sense of” these complexities, by generalisations and explanations, and this is likely to be enough for the student reader, particularly as it is easy to read and it wears its scholarship lightly.

Part of the difference between this and Sinclair’s book is the geographic coverage. Sinclair selects only some countries for detailed examination and at the same time extends beyond South America by conceiving Latin America in two related geo-linguistic regions – one speaking Spanish (Spain and its former South American colonies), and one speaking Portuguese (Portugal and Brazil). There are connections and divisions within and between these regions: the Spanish-speaking against the Portuguese-speaking, as well as both of them together against the rest of the world, particularly the English-speaking world. The geographic divisions of South America against north America, particularly USA, and of South America against Europe, particularly Spain and Portugal, complicate the linguistic picture. Finally there are political divisions between the colonial and post-colonial, as well as between former colonies and their colonisers. He produces a finely detailed description of the changes in technology, institutional structure, and government regulation of television in various parts of the region/s: chapter 2 deals with Mexico, chapter 3 with Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina, chapter 4 with the Hispanic community in the USA, chapter 5 with the European colonisers (Spain and Portugal).

But the difference from Waisbord’s chapter goes much deeper than geographical coverage. Addressing an academic (rather than a student) audience, Sinclair does not wear his theory lightly: in fact he is very self-conscious about the book’s theoretical base. Among other attitudes, he favours the “cultural industries” thesis over “cultural imperialism”, which allows a concentration on language and culture as “market forces”. The story is told with such a wealth of detail that a reader sometimes feels in danger of being buried under the avalanche of information, making it easy to see the trees, but rather harder to grasp the wood. It is there, however – the influence of patriarchal business practices, the effects of colonial and post-colonial politics, the tension between European influence and the influence of the USA, the effects of globalisation and new technologies. It comes together in the final chapter, where we are given some insights into the cultural specificity of such forms as the telenovela, though this is still basically within an economic context.

Though these three books all address television through history, their attitudes to history are very different. Sinclair, for instance, is not particularly comfortable with the idea that he is writing (about) history, even though the story he tells is fundamentally grounded in history, well before television enters the picture, so that television history is coloured by – and in turn contributes to – the cultural history of each of his geo-linguistic regions. The political and cultural history of the region, and the history of the media which preceded television (particularly radio), are therefore central to the story being told. He tells this story, however, through secondary sources, and seems fearful that ‘a narrative of genesis’ might be seen to be insufficiently theoretical.

In dealing with a current phenomenon like television, one historical element of significance is the history of the book itself. For instance, the research on which Sinclair’s book is based seems to have ended in early 1997, three years before it reached this reviewer’s hands. Clearly, the story became more and more complicated, and the sources richer and richer, the closer they came to the present of the book’s writing. But as I read, in April 2000, all that is old news – a great deal can happen (and has happened) to the people and companies and governments involved in this complicated story in three years! It is not the author’s fault that the book can only predict what might happen, and that readers are left to find out for themselves how accurate the author’s predictions have been.

Owen has a similar problem. Internal cues suggest that the book was completed early in 1998, and, as the author himself acknowledges, two years is a long time in digital technology, and already much of his information is out of date: some things which were planned at the time of writing have either happened or been abandoned, some of his predictions have already been proven or disproved. So, if this were simply a book explaining technology current at the time of its writing it would have become already out-moded. Fortunately it is more than this. It is nothing new to claim that if we ignore history we will be condemned to repeat it, but I was surprised to find this premise functioning so strongly in a book on technology. More than half of the book is devoted to detailed discussion of those earlier communications technologies which continue into the present, providing object lessons in what works (commercially and technically) and what is to be avoided. It is a persuasive argument, and its presentation in scrupulous detail provides very useful context for the present complexities of the communications map.

Of the three books, Smith is the only one to acknowledge history in the title and to confront historiographical issues directly, particularly in the introduction and in chapter 7 (Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, “Political ceremony and instant history”). The latter is a chapter which addresses those special events which interrupt the flow of television: not the unexpected news stories such as the assassination of President Kennedy, but the programmes which are built around planned and orchestrated events and ceremonies (such as Kennedy’s funeral). So, “this chapter critically examines the claim of television to the title of historian and custodian of collective memory.”(99) The authors divide such events alliteratively into three groups – Contests, Conquests, and Coronations. The final three pages of this chapter provide one of the best summaries I have read of the argument between professional and popular history. My only regret is that the concentration of this chapter on the television special event means that the extension of these arguments across the rest of television programming (both fiction and non-fiction) is not pursued. The editor’s introduction, though intended mainly as an explanation of the limitations of the volume, does address these wider questions of historiography, and the two chapters balance each other usefully.

History aside, I have another serious disagreement with Owen. I find less than convincing his premise that new communications technologies should be left to find their own level within market forces, independent of governments. The economic reasons for this premise are clearly-stated: regulation is described as being entirely to the benefit of established industry players, never to the benefit of the community. This is an argument mentioned in passing also in Smith’s volume (for instance by Elizabeth Jacka and Lesley Johnson in the chapter on Australia). But in Owen’s case, these economic questions totally overshadow other issues which I find at least as compelling – issues of community welfare, of moral and aesthetic value, of cultural significance.

No – I do not want to censor media content: I would certainly like to find ways of introducing effective community sanctions against some uses of the media, such as the dissemination of child pornography, but (even more than this) I want to promote the free flow of information. I do not yet know (and I believe the international community still does not know, though these questions are rehearsed in Smith – in Colin Shaw’s chapter on taste and Philip Schlesinger’s chapter on terrorism), how to reconcile citizens’ rights of access to information, with the dangers that absolute freedom entails. No – I do not want to force consumers to accept what someone else has judged to be aesthetically or morally “good”, or politically “correct”: I want both majority and minority opinions and artistic expression to have access to their public. I do not know how to ensure such freedom of expression for both what is “good” (read high culture) and what is “popular” (read low culture). But I am quite certain that I do not want the decision on these very important questions to be, as Owen seems to prefer, entirely a result of market forces – that what survives (to become available on the Internet or any other medium) is only what is commercially viable.

Perhaps I am misjudging Owen here, but he is described on the dust jacket as a “communications economist”, and his view is always the economic one, with the assumption that economic efficiency equals social benefit, so the cheapest, most efficient communication to the customer should be the primary goal. For instance, in a theoretical case to illustrate what determines which television network will survive in a competitive environment, he assumes that cost absolutely determines value: “Suppose each spends the same on programming and therefore is equally attractive to those viewers who can receive its signals…”(100 – my emphasis) It is not till more than halfway through that he hints that content is also important. In another example, he proposes that a hypothetical TV channel uses 600 times the bandwidth of an AM radio station: “but it is easy to imagine programming on the TV channel that drives away most of its audience, and programming on the AM channel that produces a vast audience. Bits are not the same as meaning or value.”(195) By this time, such a statement seems to need further discussion, which is never provided.

Despite the above, I recommend Owen’s book, particularly for its constant appeal to the lessons of history – and its refusal to predict the future. For disagreeing with a book does not mean that I do not value it: in fact, as I have already stated, I consider all three books make important contributions to the field of television studies, despite the reservations expressed above about each of them. Above all, it is a great relief to find history (even reluctantly and awkwardly) acknowledged in discussion of something as contemporary as television. Perhaps this is possible only because television as we know it is currently being transformed under the pressure of new technology, and so being pushed into the past tense. What a pity it will be if what results from that transformation is once again conceived of by academic commentators as being without history…

Ina Bertrand

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →