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  • Studying Television:Same Questions, Different Contexts
  • Horace Newcomb (bio)

Three questions, almost always interrelated, seem to motivate the academic study of television, even when one or the other seems more forcefully to drive the work. My framing of these questions may be idiosyncratic, but I find them embedded in almost everything I read.

First, how does television tell stories? I include almost all television "content" in this category, almost all questions of form and narrative strategy, as well as production studies, genre studies, auteur studies, industrial organization, technology as applied in production. I include news, documentary, "reality programs," and so on in this category, as well as "fiction."

Second, how do the stories found on television relate to (express, control, limit, expand, shape, etc.) the societies and cultures in which they appear (including, of course, all those in which they appear, not merely those in which they are made)? Here I include all studies of audience, viewer, reception, effects, and so on, up to and including space, governance, culture, and ideology.

Third, and finally, why television? I will get to this one later.

Over time, responses to and applications of these questions, both practically (evidence, analytical technique, and critical methodology) and conceptually (what do the terms "story," "society," "culture," "industry," "franchise," "audience," "viewer," "express," "space," "shape," etc., mean?), change with individual instances and within the larger body of work that has come to be known as the field of television studies. A further result of our focus on the academic study of television appears in the organization of settings where this field is located, as in departments, colleges, courses offered, projects funded, journals published, editorial angles chosen to drive those journals, book series from publishing houses, and so on.

Clearly, all these matters are and have always been interrelated. Moreover, they are not limited to the academic study of television. Versions of the questions emerge as concerns of interest groups, public-school teachers, religious leaders and practitioners, politicians, media industry executives, and the writers, producers, performers, editors, development executives, agents, and others who produce/create/schedule/perform (choose your term) television. Indeed, some of the most sophisticated and complex notions related to the large categories of questions I pose above have emerged in the settings and social arenas frequented by these professionals.

As addressed by intellectual enterprise and inquiry, whether professional or academic, all of these questions, problems, approaches, large questions, and subquestions are informed by historical conditions. From this point, I will focus primarily on the academic side of our concerns, although the professional overlap I describe above is always shadowing what we do and emerges at times into full prominence. [End Page 107]

For the academic study of television, the shifting historical conditions comprise a huge range of institutional arrangements. Who studies television? How and where in the academy do they study it? Where do they publish? What courses do they teach? How do professional organizations "name" themselves (better put as what does "naming" mean)? To some extent, some of these questions have been answered in academic settings. No longer, for example, is it obligatory to make a full "defense" for the study of television (which still leaves the "why TV?" issue begging outside the frame).

The difficulties and, more significantly, the opportunities we face, however, are powerfully affected by historical developments outside the academy. I refer mainly to the changes in technology, policy, and economics, including political economy, and the consequent alterations surrounding what television means industrially and creatively and, perhaps most important, culturally and socially as experienced in homes, hotels, shopping malls, and other settings.

The significance of these changes is visible in strains of analysis purporting to address, and sometimes to explain, television. As suggested above, the intersecting, interrelated, interacting aspects of television have always been present. However, it certainly was easier to segment them in earlier times. It was easier to suggest that some aspect of television studies was insignificant, as was often the case when actual program content was dismissed or ignored because of assumptions regarding quality, or value. It may have been strategically important to explore one facet or another for purposes of precision and to "fill gaps" left by other questioners...


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pp. 107-111
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