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Reviewed by:
  • Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously, and; Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America
  • Philip Auslander (bio)
David Bianculli, Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously. New York: Continuum, 1992. 315 pp., $24.95.
Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 236 pp. $46.75.

David Bianculli’s Teleliteracy is not a scholarly work but, rather, a primer and polemic for the general reader, especially the reader inclined to think of television as unworthy of serious discussion. Bianculli, a television critic and analyst for two daily newspapers and National Public Radio, defends his area of interest with energy, conviction, and a penchant for dreadful puns. His basic argument is that our common culture today derives from television, and that the medium therefore deserves thoughtful consideration rather than the snide dismissals it often receives at the hands of self-appointed guardians of culture. He plays two such guardians, Allan Bloom and E. D. Hirsch, off of one another by countering Bloom’s mandarin revulsion at television with the fact that “even Hirsch’s Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, in its Fine Arts section, lists ‘Bunker, Archie’ as an entry” (p. 120). Indeed, in what may be his cleverest gambit, Bianculli’s title is clearly intended to provoke the champions of “cultural literacy.” He even includes a “Teleliteracy Pretest” as the second chapter of the book, and his next book is a Dictionary of Teleliteracy, described by the publisher as “television’s answer to the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.”

Teleliteracy is an effective polemic. Bianculli makes his points clearly, though too often: his style is marred by repetitions that could easily have been eliminated through closer editing. He also provides the general reader with some useful tools, especially a minihistory of broadcast technology and practices and a historical account of the relationship between the press and the military that ranges from the Civil War to the Gulf War. Upon examination, however, Bianculli’s concept of teleliteracy itself is surprisingly limited. The teleliterate viewer is knowledgeable about television in the sense of being able to answer questions like “What was the name of the dog that Jeff, then Timmy, played with for years” (an admittedly easy question from the Pretest, p. 17) and to discriminate good television from bad television. Such a discrimination rests, of course, on the assumption that there is such a thing as “good television”—a point some of the medium’s detractors are loath to concede.

Bianculli is interested primarily in individual television programs, their content and quality. Conspicuously absent from his primer for the teleliterate viewer is any substantial consideration of the nature of the medium itself and the [End Page 573] conditions that govern the production and dissemination of the material ultimately seen by the viewer. He says virtually nothing about the structure of the television industry, the way the commercial character of American television affects both the form and content of programs. When he claims that The Singing Detective is “the single best television drama I have ever seen” (p. 268), Bianculli barely acknowledges that it is a British production and does not take the opportunity to discuss why the structure of the British television industry seems to permit the production of limited-run, serial dramas that are more artistically ambitious than almost any American miniseries. He makes scant reference to such basic characteristics of the television text as flow, segmentation, and seriality, but treats the programs he discusses primarily as discrete and autonomous texts, preferring to “look at the content instead of the delivery system” (p. 138)—as if those two things were separable and the “delivery system” essentially irrelevant. Although he cites McLuhan often and approvingly, he seems not to have absorbed McLuhan’s basic tenet that “the medium is the message.”

In a chapter discussing academic analysis of television, Bianculli makes the following revealing remark: “You can take anything too far, though, as when John Fiske, in the book Television Culture, analyzes Hart to Hart as a ‘contemporary urban myth.’ (Unless, by dismissing Hart to Hart as escapist romantic nonsense, I’ve completely myth-ed the point)” (p. 284...

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