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Feeling Sentimental about Television and Audiences

From: Cinema Journal
47, Number 3, Spring 2008
pp. 144-151 | 10.1353/cj.0.0015

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Television is in transition, and we wish to argue for the present and future understanding of the medium in ways that focus on continuity as well as change. In particular, we wish to salvage from the weight of technocentric models of “user engagements” early theoretical work about the intimate relationship television has (had) with its audiences. The old screen medium of TV, we argue, whether multiple and diffuse in new arrangements of time and space, or diversified in content and form, is as durably and consistently located in the fabric of everyday life as it ever was.

We empathize with Lynn Spigel, who, in her contribution to “In Focus: The Place of Television Studies,” admits to feeling “some personal nostalgia for the ‘Golden Age’ of TV studies.”1 The current period, where industrial, technological, and economic features of convergence seem to obscure the object of television as a discrete entity and reinforce its relationship not just to film, but also to the In-ternet, seems to suggest that new media studies is the way forward. Yet, this runs the risk of reasserting a hierarchy in which television’s established scholarship can neatly be bypassed, thereby theoretically reconfiguring audience attachments as overly mechanistic engagements. Indeed, one could be forgiven for feeling nostalgic about television audiences after surveying the extant work on new media that renders empirical ethnographic audience work almost invisible.

Several scholars in “In Focus: The Place of Television Studies” remind us that television has always been in transition, but must this moment of rapid technological change mean that the morphing of the object necessarily cleanly replaces the ways in which the medium has been thought about and experienced before? Not so for Michele Hilmes, who suggests that to study broadcasting has always been to study new media.2 Indeed, Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin argue that “television was hyper-mediated even before the advent of digital graphics,” thus, for them, it can never entirely lose its identity by convergence with computer-controlled media. Similarly, Pyungho Kim and Hameet Sawney stress that the possibilities of “interactive TV” are difficult to realize when faced with the weight of the broadcast tradition.3 Let us also not forget that television is not that old.

Central to the field of television studies has been the reassertion that television is not just a machine. Scholars have fought against the caricature of the medium as a “toaster with pictures”4 and have concentrated on the specificity of the medium, establishing the study of television as text and culture, not just as screen. This foregrounds the possibly now-melancholy lament over broadcasting’s democratic potential, rooted in the rhythmic dailiness traditionally associated with domesticity and home. These issues might signal the traces of nostalgia in Spigel’s account, reinforced, for British scholars, by the acknowledgment that the claims television once had on the national familial and public culture are being eclipsed.

Television, as a “dynamic transgenerational medium,” is facing the market-led fragmentation of audiences taking people away from family viewing in what William Uricchio identifies in his essay for Television after TV, as the “subtle but important shift in the concept of flow away from programming strategies toward viewer-determined experience.”5 The idea of the “shared cultural menu” of public service broadcasting is increasingly eroded, while “smart” television services (such as TiVo and Double Agent, or in the UK, Sky+), offer increasingly personalized program packages that tailor to tastes, lifestyles, and individual interests. In this way, audience members are being reconceived as a series of individual “cultural programmers,” a phenomenon often connected to fears about the breakup of community, implying that we are “bowling alone” rather than experiencing shared cultural and social space.6

When scholars describe such technological change, the inscribed sense of the audience is given new meaning too. Audiences apparently converge to produce new hybrid interactive consumption practices: “viewers” combine “using” and “viewing” to make the new “connected consumers” of the future.7 The “nowness” and pseudo-liveness characteristic of the traditional medium will, according to Uricchio, be replaced by virtuality in “television’s continued convergence with the computer,” which “will empower new commercial sectors specialising in viewer-program inter-faces...



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