- Is Television Studies History?
In British “New Wave” films of the 1960s such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960) and A Kind of Loving (Tony Richardson, 1962), television [End Page 127] is a classic “bad object,” associated with commercialism, consumerism, lack of authenticity, and the destruction of both family life and traditional working-class communal values.1 This television, clearly gendered as it shrieks and chatters in the corner, is uncomfortably squeezed into cramped working-class living rooms, but is shown to inspire desires and behavior that will transform these living spaces. In that often rather revealing party game, if this television was a person, it would be a bottle-blonde, commodity-obsessed housewife, one of the many feminized embodiments of mass culture in a history that reaches at least as far back as novel readers. However, this figure, although brash and slightly vulgar, with more than a hint of the American, at least had modernity and the future on her side, even if she must be repudiated by the virile young men who are the heroes of these fictions.
Forty years later, in the North London–set About a Boy (Chris and Paul Weitz, 2002), television again figures as both a maker and a marker of identity. However, now the hero Will (Hugh Grant) lives in an apartment furnished in leather and chrome and organized spatially around the new entertainment technologies. Far from being crammed in, the screen structures the living space and is itself controlled through a selection of remote control devices. For Will, domestic media technology offers choice and enables him to structure his days and to pass the time. He is strongly invested in the construction of identity through the consumption and possession of cool artifacts, be they gadgets or shoes, CDs or movies. However, not all of Will’s acquaintances inhabit the same black-and-chrome media landscape, and he is unfortunate enough to become involved with a woman who doesn’t have “cable or satellite or DVD,” and so the couple are stuck on the sofa with an endless made-for-TV movie on broadcast terrestrial television. Broadcast (network) television, what you watch when you have no choice, is inextricably linked here with excessive emotion, domesticity, needy women, being trapped. A final shot from this relationship sums it up as the couple sit watching television on the sofa. The shot is taken from behind the television, and shows Will’s face framed tightly between the television and the sofa. We do not need to see what he is watching to understand the kind of television he is stuck with, but the way in which his face is caught between those two horizontals epitomizes the way in which this television makes him feel, just as the soundtrack offers “oh no, oh no, oh no.”
Television once was new, but is now old-fashioned. No more a brassy blonde, she is now embodied by depressed single mothers. The technologies may develop, but the gendered metaphors through which they are thought persist. Initially, television was inferior to cinema—and to older, more authentic (music-hall) or prestigious forms (theater); now it is inferior to “digital media,” as well as having a bit of an identity crisis of its own. This identity crisis shapes discussion of television in the twenty-first century. The best-selling collection Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, edited by Lynn Spigel and Jan Olssen, poses the question of the historical periodicity of television in its title.2 John Ellis has proposed a tripartite periodization, in which television has had ages of “scarcity,” “availability,” [End Page 128] and “abundance.”3 Jimmie Reeves, Michael Epstein, and Mark Rodgers have developed the notion of TVIII (which succeeds TVs I and II) to address the changed conditions and modalities of television in the current, “post-network,” digital era.4 The European public service broadcast models, while still dominating ideas of national television, have in a sense been pushed aside by a televisual landscape re-figured by new modes of production, regulation, and delivery. Television is in transition; on this, both producers and scholars agree, although from what to...