Contemporary World Television

John Sinclair and Graeme Turner (eds),
Contemporary World Television.
London: British Film Institute, 2004.
ISBN: 1 84457 010 X
204 pp
£15.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI Publishing)

When I was an adolescent, one of my hobbies was shortwave radio, and a primary goal was to listen to faraway stations and then get them to send collectible postcards that confirmed they had been heard. Toward this end, there was a mini publishing industry of books with titles like “World band radio” that dutifully offered pages of listings of countries and the frequencies they supposedly were transmitting on. It was as if the globe could be simply divided up into definable components which would be catalogued and offered up for simple delectation. Invariably, though, the data would turn out to be wrong – nations would fall, government support of non-territorial transmission might ebb, signals might be where they were supposed to be but rendered inaudible by deliberate interference (for example, Voice of America blockage of broadcasts from Communist countries). Without yet really knowing what to make of it, I think I was beginning to get a first and inchoate intimation about the lack of fixity in the very idea of nationhood and its representation in the space of global culture.

Scholars who set out to theorize, in more systematic fashion, the relations of national and global in arena such as media, encounter similar issues. For example, today’s film professor discovers that the traditional mainstay of university curricula – the survey course alternately named “International Cinema” or “World Cinema” – is no longer teachable in an unreflective way. Is cinema, at a planetary level, about a convergence of themes and styles in forms of seductive entertainment? (And if so, is Hollywood the causal agent for such convergence?) Is it about the durability of national models that set up art-style or politically demonstrative alternatives to global entertainment? Or is it, perhaps, about the emergence of new post-national alternatives in the form of local initiatives and/or the search for regional voices and trends?

Like my naive books on “World band radio,” like the unquestioning way in which “International Cinema” used to be taught as a fixed set of quality national cinemas, each with their own list of themes, Contemporary World Television might seem, at first glance, also to be promising an easy empirical grasp of television across the planet. A recent addition to the British Film Institute’s series of short books on television that evidently set out to work both as standard reference guides and as accessible textbooks for high school and college teaching (the other volumes include Television StudiesThe Television History Book, and The Television Genre Book), Contemporary World Television might appear to take a matter-of-fact approach to the question of mapping television across the spread of nations throughout the world. The book certainly works as a guide, and it can be dipped into for factual information about the disposition of television industries around the globe.

But the editors of Contemporary World Television have put the volume together in a fashion that well shows how “world television” today has to be understood not as a simple fact so much as an open-ended set of interrogations. Although the BFI series includes an aforementioned volume on television history, and although the reference to “contemporary” in the title of Contemporary World Television would seem to aid in its encyclopedic presentation of image industries as they are now, John Sinclair and his associate editor Graeme Turner have understood that current configurations are themselves mere moments in a historical flux that itself raises questions of method and interpretation.

Take, for instance, the very structure of the volume: a first part that looks in three sections at world-world shifts in tensions between television as forum of public responsibility and as commercial enterprise; at the impact of globalization in relation to policies such as deregulation; and at implications of new technologies for television’s medium specificity (or its lack thereof in an era of convergence); and a second part that catalogues the politics and economics of national or regional television systems place by place. This bipartite structure might seem straightforward: broader reflection on global trends followed by the ways in which local industries exemplify and live out those trends. But between the two parts – and within the very articulation of arguments in the parts – the arguments are offered up in ways that assume there are no easy answers. For example, the first part of the volume tends frequently to adopt a sort of “on the one hand, on the other hand” structure. Thus, on the one hand, it is clear that many television industries are giving up on public responsibility mandates. On the other hand, as the case of the BBC so infamously shows, public responsibility was often interpreted in the network age in a top-down paternalistic fashion by which lessons of homogeneity and obedience to nation were inculcated. Consequently, the breakup of the philosophy of public accountability has, in some cases, meant the possibility for new forms of responsibility to emerge: for example, the responsibility to recognize identities – racial, sexual, ethnic, and so on – that don’t match one-size-fits-all paternalism. In this regard, Graeme Turner, in a chapter with the apt title “Television and democracy: Threats and opportunities,” references previous television scholars Jane Shattuc and John Hartley who argue respectively that popular trash television can “offer an opportunity for previously silenced voices to be heard (largely, those of working-class women and of people of colour)” and that commercialization can involve the “opening of television to the demotic voice as distinct from the institutional or government voice” (5-6). It may be that today’s television participates, at times, in a salutary redefinition of public responsibility.

Or, to take another series of issues… On the one hand, it is clear that big media companies have a dream of technological convergence in which everything becomes digitalized, transmissable through one pipeline (for example, fiber optic cable), and rendered available in one common format (perhaps the computer screen on which, it is hoped, one will do email, web-surfing, television-watching, as well as more seemingly futuristic activities like smart-home management). On the other hand, it seems that at the point of consumption, many citizens are resisting the big-business convergence and persisting in keeping various media platforms separate: many people still seem to like watching television on TV sets while using computers for other activities. As John Caldwell notes in his trenchant contribution entitled “Is television a distinct medium?: TV and convergence,” television stylistically has always involved a convergence with other cultural forms. For instance, 1950s commercial television in the U. S. was caught between a model based on vaudeville and radio – sponsored shows made of sketches and performative bits – and one inspired by theatre and literature and incarnated in a so-called Golden Age of well-written live drama tele-plays. At the same time, this stylistic synergy has not always been accompanied by convergence of economic strategy: television industries world-wide frequently continue to operate with older economic models that pre-date dotcom fantasies of new free-floating forms of financialization. Indeed, in ironic reversal of techno-euphoric imaginings of a new world rooted in cyber-economics, Caldwell asserts insightfully that traditional industrial practices from television often are used as the underpinning for some of the most seemingly hip up-to-date emergent media which find that they can’t really break free into a utopian world of the virtual. In his words:

In the dust of the high-tech and dotcom collapses of 2000, for example, many of the surviving new-media/old-media ‘synergies’ had to justify their value for capitalisation and expansion by deploying corporate strategies once thought to be archaic remnants of televisions analogue era…. [T]raditional television practices – ‘programming’ tactics, ad-revenue generation, sponsorship, licensing and subscription, and accountability via ratings research and quantified market share – are now built into various web and digital media initiatives (56).

This, then, would be a convergence backwards as new technologies reveal themselves industrially frequently to be little more than addenda to, or extensions of, a fundamental televisual model.

Not that nothing has changed. By downplaying new technologies and cyber-driven financialization, Caldwell is not arguing that television is a cultural practice that, once its economic structures have been honed, comes to be fixed in place and have no further history to it. Quite the contrary, Caldwell finds historical openness to have been part of television’s operations from the start: it is simply that its way of living its history in fact predates the new media models and works independently of them. For Caldwell, television – as a hybrid medium in its very origins – has always been about reaching as many audiences in as many sites as possible, and a technological convergence model, in which all media merge on one platform, is not necessarily the only way to accomplish that goal. Media companies may have converged into ever larger mega-corporations but they’ve done so not to deliver one single and singular product but astutely to offer audiences “the prospect of choosing between extensive forms of heterogeneous programming and cultural diversitycontained within a single, giant, reconglomerated entity” (ibid; emphasis in original).

More generally, Contemporary World Television seeks overall to examine what has changed, or not, in the global disposition of television practices. And here the bipartite structure of the volume contributes in its own way to mediating tensions and critical positions. On the one hand, as its discussions of satellite communications as an increasingly important platform for delivery of television content make clear, the first part of the book establishes that new technologies can indeed have unforeseen political consequences that call into question older models of governance. In this case, satellite communication has the power to dis-respect national borders and cross frontiers in ways that were less possible with terrestrial television, especially cable. It is hard to regulate a signal in the ether. Consequently, as Graeme Turner notes, many people are tuning into transmissions “originating in other countries entirely” (5). Or, as Manuel Alvarado puts it:

In a situation where it is possible to receive programmes and movies through dozens of channels via cable, satellite and terrestrial digital television, it is increasingly difficult to regulate national broadcasters and virtually impossible to regulate international media moguls (8).

On the other hand, the transcendence of the national model shouldn’t be overestimated, and it is one intent of the second part of Contemporary World Television to use its locale-by-locale catalogue to chronicle the diverse means by which individual nations and regions respond to new contexts of globalization, deregulation, commercialization, border-crossing, and attendant threat to national identity and ideology. While some countries do set out to emulate a Hollywood-derived entertainment model, others find myriad strategies to resist a post-national homogenisation. For example, in his fascinating entry on “German television,” Rob Burns notes how an early policy decision of the governors of media in Germany – namely, to put jurisdiction over television in the hands of regional boards so that “responsibility for cultural matters rests with the individual administrative regions” (71) – offered German television a diversity of resilient identities faced with the homogenizing forces of globalization. For example, German television regularly finds space for artistic experiment and regionally inflected investigative journalism. Burns is not unduly sanguine but nor is he irremediably pessimistic. In his words:

While this [provision of space for diverse programming] scarcely amounts to the ‘internal pluralism’ that the public service corporations must demonstrate, it nevertheless enhances the diversity of broadcasting output (71).

If regionalism within the country’s borders is one way in which nationhood is reinvigorated, another intriguingly has to do with spaces beyond the border-line. As a number of contributions to Contemporary World Television note, the diasporic movement of populations now means that nations exist beyond their frontiers and are themselves globalized. Citizens abroad continue to tune into national channels. Not for nothing does the volume end with an entry (by Noureddine Miladi) on “Television in the Arab-speaking world” accompanied by a side-bar on Al-Jazeera since here most famously is a case of television that speaks to an ethnic identity that now no longer is tied to one region, let alone one nation.

In keeping with a project of direct utility, teachability, and accessibility, Contemporary World Television is a very short book composed of individual contributions, few of which are more than three to four pages in length. But in its concision and its seeming straightforwardness, it manages to raise a great deal of important questions about the place of television in our historically variable cultural and critical context.

Dana Polan
University of Southern California, USA.

Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: 19-Jul-05

About the Author

Dana Polan

About the Author

Dana Polan

Dana Polan is a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of eight books in film and media, including The Sopranos (Duke University Press, 2009), and The French Chef (Duke University Press, 2011).View all posts by Dana Polan →