restricted access 6. Aids on television
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Aids on television The reality of Aids is probably no closer to most of the population than the character in Woody Allen's film Hannah And Her Sisters, who observes sadly that her dental hygienist now wears rubber gloves because so many of his clients are gay. The underplaying of the line carries a sharp resonance of loss and regret condensed in the tiny incident - a recognition of what is going on, and to whom. Although Aids is not mentioned, this is the only example of which I am aware in mainstream culture of Aids "coming home" as a reality for gay men, who are not simultaneously regarded as if they were creatures from another planet. A recent survey of the British media found that although "it is estimated that at least ten per cent of the population is lesbian or gay", representations "of lesbians and gay men took up 1.85 per cent of television actuality broadcasting time and 0.93 per cent of radio actuality time".1 Unfortunately, the London Media Project which organised the survey, framed its findings in terms of a straightforward distinction between "negative" and "positive'1 images, with an in-built tendency to think of them as either false or true, as if there were some single "truth" of sexuality which could somehow be broadcast directly across the whole structure of the mass media. Nonetheless, these statistics speak for themselves to a large extent, and behind them lies a series of assumptions about audiences which dominate British and American network broadcasting. I have argued that homosexuality is constructed as an exemplary and admonitory sign of Otherness in the press, in order to unite sexual and national identifications amongst readers over and above all divisions and distinctions of class, race and gender. Given the close relations between the press and broadcasting, it is not surprisingthat a similar situation obtains in both television and radio, although the latter, with its stronger commitment to regionalism, is more able to admit lesbians and gay men to the airwaves. We should, however, note that sexuality is subject to a curious double-bind in relation to television, which is regarded as private at the point of viewing, but public in its duties and responsibilities. Unlike newspapers, which strenuously maintain their independence from the state (even andespecially 97 6 POLICING DESIRE when they are supporting the economic and political status quo), television has, since its invention, been understood to require official regulation, especially in relation to questions of obscenity and indecency. The BBC was founded in the 1930s on an assumption "of cultural homogeneity: not that everybody was the same, but that culture was single and undifferentiated".2 The zoning of programmes at "special interest" groups has maintained this central fiction of a unified national audience, and subsequent legislation has sustained a "concensus" orientation which categorically excludes homosexuality from projections about actual audiences.Thus theTelevision Act of 1953, which permitted the establishment of commercial broadcasting in the UK, was far more stringent than existing laws about indecency,just as legislation about video in the 1980s has led to greater control than ever over home viewing. The home emerges as a site of great moral danger, with the focus of attention fixed firmly on the possibility of children watching adult programmes. In this context "adult" means sexually explicit, and the result has been a widespread tendency to infantilise the entire notion of the viewing public by preventing the broadcasting of anything which might seem to acknowledge and stimulate childhood sexuality. The organisation and working practices of television and radio are thus drawn from a reservoir of concerns and categories which in turn derive from a drastically over-simplified estimation of who the televisionaudience is. Any minority which cannot be easily submerged within the flow of television production values will be seen as a "problem", quite independently of its actual social position and experience. Hence the general tendency for lesbians and gay men to find their lives contained within the format of "current affairs" programmes, which are closely subject to direct regulation, and have to maintain strict criteria of "balance". Thus every image of homosexuality is read as a polemic "on behalf of" lesbians or gay men, requiring an answer of some kind, generally in the familiar form of homophobic commentators who are supposed to reassure the "general public". It was this context which guaranteed the failure of London Weekend Television's two series of Gay Life magazine programmes in 1980 and 1981...