- Network Nations: A Transnational History of British and American Broadcasting
In Network Nations (not to be confused with the similarly titled Network Nation by Richard John), Michele Hilmes tackles the histories of American and British broadcasting, subjects that have been explored many times. These two systems are typically cast in opposition to each other, with the British Broadcasting Corporation depicted, in broad strokes, as the stiff hand of the state, determined to make sure listeners eat their vegetables. The American broadcasting system, on the other hand, is said to be so dominated by advertising, popular music, and (most recently) bloviating talk-show hosts that any genuine public service from the medium is all but impossible. Hilmes argues that the best way to understand the British and American systems is to view them not in contrast but in conjunction.
Network Nations is a well-researched, comprehensive account of the transnational influences that flowed in both directions across the Atlantic, focusing on the decades of the 1920s through the 1970s. There are many explicit instances of exchange between Britain and the United States, such as during World War II, when many personnel and much programming were shared. We are also reminded, for example, that much of famed journalist Edward R. Murrow’s early training came from the BBC. Hilmes is particularly attuned to the use of electronic media to preserve a national identity, a concern that was much stronger in England than America.
Viewing the American and British broadcasting systems in conjunction calls attention to issues that could be glossed over otherwise. In her recounting of the origins of the BBC, Hilmes emphasizes that the centralized system of control, meant to enforce a particular view of British national character, was a deliberate reaction to the chaotic condition of early American radio. There was nonetheless a definite commercial imperative to the BBC’s original mission. The organization began as a consortium of radio manufacturers, determined to make sure there was a reliable over-the-air service that might compel listeners to purchase the new appliance. Commercialism was also present on British airwaves with the sponsored programming that originated from European stations at first, backed by American advertisers, and then from ships anchored just outside official national borders.
The most significant strain of influence that flowed from east to west was the notion and definition of “public broadcasting.” In the 1930s, when U.S. reformers attempted to tamp down the commercial nature of American radio, the BBC was a model for what could be achieved. In the United States, there was also a burst of post–World War II activity in serious radio drama and documentary, and Hilmes indicates that much of the inspiration came from England. The BBC continued to inspire American efforts [End Page 951] to increase its public-service programming, culminating with the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. To paraphrase Hilmes, there is a reason that PBS speaks with a British accent.
The transnational focus of this book is an admirable and welcome antidote to most works of media history. Scholars in this area have often lamented the resolutely national nature of most such research. This situation results from the significant influence that governments have on their respective media systems, and also the nature of national archives in general. Hilmes’s 1997 Radio Voices has inspired many radio historians, and it would certainly be a positive if this newer work had the same influence on the field. There is, however, the unavoidable financial barrier to doing such ambitious, border-spanning research, and faculty at many universities may lack the necessary resources. If Hilmes’s level of research proves difficult to imitate, perhaps it will be successful in calling for increased attention to transnational influences.
This work will appeal to many readers, not only those who have a specific interest in the history of broadcasting. Scholars interested in the relationship between the state and technological development will find the book of value, as will those interested in the relationship between media and...