- Television Studies Goes Digital
Lynn Spigel’s essay in the 2005 In Focus on the Place of Television Studies in Cinema Journal asks, “What is to be gained from studying TV under the rubric of new media?”1 This paper takes this question as its central concern, by thinking about changing ontologies of television: from the ideological “liveness” of flow to the emergence of “real-time” in database structures of digital television. Studies of television as new media are increasingly prevalent in U.S. scholarship, as nine panels or workshops addressing this theme took place at the SCMS annual conference in 2007; but the issue remains underexplored in the UK. This is particularly problematic given, as Charlotte Brunsdon argues here, the peculiar heritage of UK television studies with its entwined interest in the texts of television and the role of public service broadcasting. Where there has been engagement with the future of television, scholars have tended to privilege one site or the other, with entries such as Matt Hills and Cathy Johnson’s in New Review of Film & Television Studies exemplifying an interest in textualities, while work by scholars such as Richard Collins and Patrick Barwise have used the switch to digitalization to launch renewed attacks on the BBC (advocating free-market approaches to television regulation).2 Insofar as these two distinct areas of scholarship do converge, there is an interest in the way the experience of television is increasingly removed from the linear flow of broadcasting, privileging viewer choice to more or less degrees. In treating television as new media, I suggest that the twin concerns Brunsdon outlines can ground an approach to the study of digital television that draws on new media studies and also pays attention to the specificities of television as a cultural form. [End Page 158]
My focus is therefore on BBC content, discussing the development of a database approach to television that emerges with interactive television in 2001 and finds its current incarnation moving increasingly toward multiplatform programming, articulated in the Corporation’s 2006 Creative Future five-year strategic plan to adopt a commissioning strategy, producing content that spans multiple platforms (TV, Web, interactive TV, mobile, etc.), which begins to move the BBC from public service broadcaster to public service content-provider.3
For my purposes here, this shift is best encapsulated by the recent launch of the BBC’s long awaited iPlayer. The iPlayer was approved by the BBC Trust in April 2007 in the first “public value” test under the BBC’s new, digital, Royal Charter. The iPlayer allows users4 to download BBC content that has been broadcast on linear TV over the preceding seven days and keep it on their computer for up to thirty days.5 While the service is currently only available over the Internet, raising questions as to the sites and screens of television as well as issues relating to the “digital divide” and the BBC’s obligations of universalism, within the constraints of space available here I focus on the issue of choice and user control that this change engenders. However, it is worth noting that the BBC will launch a cable-television version of the service for Virgin Media’s platform before the end of the year, bringing these changes to the traditional screen in the corner of the room, as well as television to the PC. Moreover, a year prior to the launch of the iPlayer, the UK’s other major public service broadcaster, Channel 4, began offering its viewers “catch up” television online through its “4 On Demand” service, which works on a similar peer-to-peer basis. Perhaps even more significantly, at the end of 2007, the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 officially confirmed the development of a joint video-on-demand venture that will commence online in 2008 before expanding to the free-to-air digital terrestrial platform, Freeview, at a later date. Under the working title “Project Kangaroo,” the broadcasters will offer not only “catch up” services but, as a central strategy in maintaining their relevance in the digital age, will also make their massive back catalogue of programs available for download. While the involvement of the...