Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 34 (2009) 163-170
©2009 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Review Essay

Reading Television

Paul Attallah
Carleton University

The late Paul Attallah (1954-2009) was the Associate Director of the Communication Program at Carleton's School of Journalism. He was also an Associate Professor and co-editor of Mediascapes as well as the President of the Canadian Communication Association.


bookCanadian Television Today. By Bart Beaty & Rebecca Sullivan. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2006, 168 pp. ISBN 1552382222.


Canadian Television Today by Bart Beaty and Rebecca Sullivan, both of the University of Calgary, takes on the most entrenched tradition of television study—cultural nationalism—and subjects it to criticism from several perspectives. The most prominent points of criticism involve understanding the audience and notions of nationhood. The book does not, however, confine itself to these criticisms; it also asks questions about technology, cultural regulation, and television reading strategies.

Indeed, one of the book’s pleasures is its examination of actual television shows. This is always a fraught exercise, because real television shows invariably confront us with the thorniest issue of all: how do we account for audience behaviour? Why do audiences respond to X but not Y? Why do they refuse so persistently to conform to our insights? Why does one network schedule succeed and another fail? It is a tricky business.

Reading television

Two shows in particular may exemplify the authors’ analytical approach. In examining Corner Gas (CTV), the authors note astutely its particular strategy of audience contact: it uses familiar tropes of Canadian nationalism, but it does so ironically in order to suggest their datedness. However, Beaty & Sullivan immediately add that this strategy “helps to perpetuate an artificial divide between … series designed for the global market that consciously hide their identity … and the more inward-looking form of homogeneity that … resonates with all the common indicators of how we are like America, but not” (p. 81). If I understand this correctly, the authors claim that although Corner Gas may be successful, its success depends upon tired Canadian stereotypes that create a space for other shows to avoid Canadianness altogether. As a result, Corner Gas is complicit in naturalizing “industrial Canadian” television while marginalizing “culturally Canadian” content.

The authors’ judgment of Canadian Idol (CTV) is considerably harsher and less ambiguous: “As the ultimate branch-plant program, Canadian Idol certainly demonstrates the worst that can happen when the homogenizing influences of globalization take hold of the airwaves” (p. 83). Ouch!

Whether the authors are right or wrong in their particular judgments—and one wishes to both agree and disagree—a characteristic element of their analysis rises above the specific examples. They read Canadian television relative to its ability to be truly Canadian. This may happen in two ways: (a) either a show (e.g., Corner Gas) gives off the signs of Canadianness as part of a strategy to excuse shows that, while made in Canada, are not authentically Canadian, or (b) a show (e.g., Canadian Idol) merely imitates a foreign original and dresses it up in inauthentic Canadian garb. Either way, the significant measure of merit is not the show’s connection with audiences, its entertainment quotient, its professionalism or originality, its entry into the lexicon, or its generation of stars, spin-offs, desires, et cetera, but whether it contributes to a sense of authentic Canadianness.

One can certainly read television in this manner, and in Canada there is a strong tendency to do just that. However, I draw attention to the analytic approach because it illustrates a contradiction at the heart of this book. On the one hand, the book points plainly and abundantly to a potential renewal of Canadian television scholarship—it actually examines popular shows! It dares take on audience behaviour! Yet, on the other hand, it lapses into the very same habits beyond which it points—the shows have to be measured for their Canadianness. Hence, Canadian Television Today sits on the cusp of renewal and repetition.

How else might these shows be read? Corner Gas could be compared with Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and other “fish out of water” sitcoms. Indeed, like many sitcoms (Home Improvement, Roseanne, Seinfeld, et cetera), it is constructed around the personality or routine of a single comedian. The world of the sitcom becomes an externalization of the comedian’s shtick. Furthermore, the success of Corner Gas—which the authors note, but do not explain—seems to derive from three sources that may characterize most successful sitcoms: (a) its relentless promotion, (b) its use of forms and styles familiar to audiences, (c) the fortuitous presence of good writing and acting. To try to decipher it as “specifically Canadian” may miss the point of how and why it connects with audiences. (My brush with fame: I had dinner with Brent Butt, the show’s producer and star, who revealed that Corner Gas is a huge hit in Norway. Indeed, a Norwegian comic paid him the highest tribute by declaring that Corner Gas depicted life in small-town Norway perfectly. Go figure! Audience familiarity with specific forms is transnational. Our TV culture is industrial, not national.)

Likewise, why chastise Canadian Idol for imitating an American or British original? Surely the global Idol phenomenon tells us not that American culture is homogenizing us, but that in a world of increasing competition and fragmented audiences, everybody is looking for program formats that are both cheap to produce and wildly popular. The truth of the matter is not that American reality TV dominates us, but that American TV generally now finds itself in the same situation as smaller television markets around the world, due largely to evolutions within the U.S. market (overabundance of supply, audience fragmentation, new technologies, and so on). Indeed, many reality formats are not American in origin, but European. Furthermore, there has long been an international trade in program formats, which predates the Idol phenomenon significantly. Game shows, for example, were not just syndicated internationally, but re-cast for various markets, beginning with Wheel of Fortune (the original is Australian). Reality TV is likewise easy to trade across markets because of its “contest” element. However, All in the Family was adapted from scripts written originally for the British program Till Death Us Do Part. Québec’s Tout le monde en parle is a direct appropriation of a French original of the same title. The British The Office has spawned remakes in at least three markets (including Québec). The international trade in program formats is a phenomenon more complex than “American cultural imperialism,” and it escapes a reading strategy that merely assesses shows against their national authenticity.

Alas, in condemning Canadian Idol or so-called “industrial” television, we merely condemn popular taste and therefore deny ourselves the opportunity to study taste in relation with its own history, industrial arrangements, spontaneous preferences, creativity, originality, et cetera.

Nationalism versus multiculturalism

Of course, Canadian Television Today is not concerned exclusively with the analysis of particular television programs. It is also centrally concerned with how we conceive audiences and how the discourse of television has evolved. However, the same central contradiction—pointing beyond itself but lapsing into the past—seems to characterize these efforts in the book as well.

The book opens with the hope that television may some day better reflect our demographic composition. This is a wonderful hope, which assumes both that television currently fails at the task and that content improves us by being representative statistically. To that end, the authors call for more “international” TV, which will strengthen our various cultural tendencies over and against American TV.

While not rejecting the call for more international content—indeed, even while embracing it—one may perhaps recognize the book’s contradiction. The call to internationalize TV is not new; it is part of a long-standing meliorative project consistent with the most ancient strands of cultural nationalism. Like cultural nationalism, the call claims that content that mirrors us and strengthens us, and it paints American TV as the bad object against which “good TV” becomes visible. The innovation is that old cultural nationalism is now converted into new multicultural nationalism.

There is no reason not to have TV—or books, movies, newspapers, music—from around the world. But this includes American TV. It belongs as indissolubly to our culture as any other televisual form, and we do ourselves no favour by stigmatizing it for the mere fact of being American. Indeed, we deny ourselves the ability to begin to understand what makes it compelling. Virtue is the enemy of intelligence.

Hence, although multiculturalism is an excellent stick with which to beat cultural nationalism, it nonetheless enshrines strikingly similar objectives: stigmatization of American TV and culture and the elevation of other televisual and cultural forms (regardless of their actual content, class location, political/ideological/religious motivations, et cetera).

That last point—the celebration of otherness for the sheer fact of being other—poses its own problems. How can we tell when the celebration strays into irrationalism or territory that we absolutely do not wish to celebrate? An extreme example may prove enlightening: do we want Taliban TV in Canada? It is certainly un-American, so maybe the answer is yes. But it probably also incorporates ideas and impulses that most would find distasteful. So what to do? A multicultural perspective alone provides no guidance; it tells us not which otherness to celebrate, only to celebrate otherness. In order to know where to draw the line, multiculturalism must itself be inserted within a prior reflection on the nature of the society in which we wish to live. Hence, if we have chosen liberal democracy, for example, it is likely that we would approve of Taliban TV, not because it is un-American, but because it creates opportunities for free speech and debate. We may, of course, favour some other social arrangement that would command other outcomes, but the point is this: it is the prior political choices that allow us to decide when “otherness” is not worth celebrating. Otherwise, in the purely reflexive celebration of otherness, we provide evidence of our virtue, but not of our intelligence. The tendency to celebrate otherness for the sake of otherness disqualifies cold analysis of the “other’s” political implications. Yet all cultures carry with them norms and values that can and should form the object of free debate. That is the limit of the multicultural perspective espoused by the authors; it needs a larger framework within which the sheer assertion of multiculturalism acquires meaning or valence; it points beyond our current arrangements, but in terms drawn from those arrangements.

Television versus nationhood

Canadian Television Today is also centrally concerned with concepts of nationhood. In this respect, television is demoted from the centre of the authors’ attention to a mere locale in which we can observe how the concepts of nationhood are enacted via institutional dispositions and their accompanying discourses.

Naturally, given the book’s multicultural parti pris, it argues that television should promote a multicultural notion of nationhood. The multicultural notion is certainly more open, generous, modern, and alive demographically than earlier nationalist notions that presumed to derive identity from conformity with a set of pre-established cultural markers. However, the very structure of the argument is entirely consistent with the old nationalist notion. It continues to assert a homological relationship between (a) television, its representations, and its institutions and (b) the nation which it serves, shapes, and strengthens.

The book asks not whether audiences like television, but whether television shapes audiences. It therefore invites us to assess television diagnostically, relative to the accomplishment of goals. It also therefore posits the classically cultural nationalist relationship between television and audiences. Its novelty is that its multicultural definition of the nation causes it to prefer slightly different institutional arrangements: instead of indigenous production, multinational TV; instead of centralized broadcasting, diasporic networks, and so on.

Audiences versus ethnoscapes

The concern with multiculturalism leads us directly to the book’s central question of how to approach the “audience.” It does so through the concept of “ethnoscapes,” which proves to be surprisingly unhelpful.

It is clear that the authors refer to “ethnoscapes,” rather than “audiences,” due to their multicultural perspective. An “audience” implies a culturally homogeneous entity, whereas an “ethnoscape” seems to capture the free-floating nature of contemporary migratory patterns. However, in leaping from audience to ethnoscape, the authors also avoid an empirical study of the audience or ethnoscape. They do not undertake an audience ethnography. They do not pore over ratings numbers. They do not even review existing scholarship on the audience. Instead, they imagine the audience as composed of mobile masses finding at least temporary refuge in Canada.

As used in this book, however, the ethnoscape emerges as a strangely schizophrenic concept, because the authors use it to advance two mutually exclusive arguments. When we think of audiences, we think of groups of people bound together, however temporarily, by a common experience. They may individually express divergent opinions about the nature of the experience, but that they are bound by it is undeniable. This fact of audience unity is precisely what the concept of ethnoscapes undermines. Audience unity implies strongly that audience members eventually come to share judgments, to seek the same types of experiences, to value them similarly, et cetera. Indeed, the success of Hollywood appears to be based on precisely such a process. However, what is the value of such unity when faced with audiences—ethnoscapes—that hail from entirely different cultural horizons? It becomes exclusionary. The ethnoscape shares neither the experiences nor the judgments of the unitary audience. It yearns for a reflection of itself. And to refuse to accede to that demand becomes evidence of the brutish insensitivity of unitary audiences.

The concept of ethnoscape, therefore, undermines the notion or desirability of a unitary audience. As such, it calls into question presumably stable cultural formations as examples of exclusion, rather than examples of collective self-making. Yet here lies the concept’s split personality. The fact that an ethnoscape’s members experience an enduring linkage to their past indicates that, in another time and place, they constituted a unitary audience of the type able to yearn for the past—of the type that the very concept of ethnoscape undermines.

Hence, in the Canadian context, the concept of ethnoscape serves to prevent us from asserting the existence or desirability of a potentially unitary audience. From this perspective, the mythical Canadian audience united in its presumed love of hockey now emerges as an aggressive and potentially bigoted denial of difference.

The concept of ethnoscape both asserts audience belonging in another time and place and denies its possibility in the here and now. It both asserts and denies the possibility of audience; indeed, it asserts in order to deny.

Yet the authors appear to use ethnoscapes to mean even more than this. It is axiomatic that members of a group—even an ethnoscape—change over time. Their numbers die off and are renewed; they adapt, integrate, and melt away; they resist and re-combine; they disappear and re-invent themselves in unimagined configurations. Hence, all culture is hybrid. The book, however, sees ethnoscapes as essentially invariant. Ethnoscapes never reject their past, fear it, seek escape from it, or condemn it; they never hope for integration, abandonment of the old, or immersion in the new. They merely yearn permanently for what they always were.

Unfortunately, this picture of audience yearning is not only inaccurate, but also tells us nothing about empirical audiences. What would a statistical survey reveal about the viewing habits of ethnoscapes? That recent arrivals can never hear enough about the old country, but that their grandchildren prefer MuchMusic? An actual audience study might clear up much of the confusion generated by the concept of ethnoscape and might even confront us with the mythology embedded within it.

Obviously, we should not forbid ourselves from thinking in terms of ethnoscapes. However, neither should we presume them to be static or necessarily good. Their meaning can only be determined within a larger reflection on the nature of society. The authors see only one side of the phenomenon: it is brutish and unworthy to think in terms of unitary audiences; it is good and ennobling to dissolve all audiences into the Brownian motion of ethnoscapes.

The concept of ethnoscapes is an excellent cudgel with which to beat cultural nationalism, because it highlights its narrowness. Alas, it also provides a poor analysis of the audience. It substitutes wishful thinking for actual study. Indeed, it serves to dispense us from actual study.

Cultural regulation

The book also tackles the question of cultural regulation, and on this point many of us may agree that the CRTC is the focus of evil in the Western world and that simultaneous substitution is its greatest folly. Simultaneous substitution invites Canadian broadcasters to coordinate with U.S. broadcasters, it protects them from competition, and it forms part of the argument that U.S. hits should cross-subsidize Canadian content.

Alas, this is virtually the only piece of broadcast regulation examined in the book. So much could be said about the CRTC’s authority to compel expenditures on specific program genres, to guarantee a monopoly of genres in the allocation of licences, and to pick and choose among potential licensees.

The point system alone is hugely amusing and drives an equally hilarious funding structure. Between 1982 and 2002, if one adds up all the direct subsidies through Telefilm, FACTOR, special grants, and the like, along with indirect subsidies through tax concessions, co-productions, twinning projects, advertising and distribution subsidies, the tax write-offs for which broadcasters are eligible, and so on, the people of Canada have spent untold billions of dollars “telling our own stories.” One might submit modestly that this has been a waste.

Furthermore, what should one make of the arguments of ACTRA, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, and all the other interveners at CRTC hearings? Are we to take them at face value? Near face value? Are they part of the solution or part of the problem?

Clearly, regulation is bigger than “simsubs” or the CRTC. It involves innumerable actors who simply do not feature in this book. This is because we imagine that we already know the history of Canadian television and can therefore treat it lightly. In fact, we know only a highly particularistic version of that history. For example, like most TV scholarship, this book is virtually silent on private broadcasters, thereby enacting the particularistic history. Canadian television history is mostly unexplored, and the failure to investigate it allows misperceptions to endure and to substitute for real understanding.

Technology

Finally, the authors take on technology and reach one of their most discombobulating conclusions: they dismiss HDTV as a technology that Canada should neither have nor speak about. They claim that its prominence within Canadian policy discourse is due to private broadcasters’ ongoing desire to co-ordinate with U.S. broadcasting. Second, they argue that the current uptake of HDTV is such that we may conclude that no one really wants it, or that audiences have only a weak desire for it. Finally, they state that other technologies—PVRs, especially—are much more deserving of regulation and attention, because audiences actually use them. Why one would argue for the multicultural liberation of ethnoscapes while simultaneously recommending the regulation of technologies that permit this liberation may be left to another discussion.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Canadian broadcasters want to co-ordinate with their U.S. counterparts. The motivation for HDTV, however, also rests upon audience impulses that reflect a re-valuation of the very experience of watching TV. The “home theatre” concept—which is driven by movie studios, the perception of external danger, the phenomenon of cocooning, audience habituation with and expectation of high-quality sound, the immersive experience of videogames, et cetera—is not the same as “watching TV” in the 1980s. It is a qualitatively different experience. To condemn or dismiss the nature of that experience—whether or not we value it ourselves—is, again, to dismiss audience tastes and judgments. It is difficult to grasp the analytical advantage of dismissing these phenomena.

Consider the analogy of colour TV. It was launched under its current standard in the United States in December of 1953, but most shows were still broadcast in black and white until September of 1966. Canada did not even begin colour broadcasting until January of 1967. And the sale of colour sets only outstripped sales of black-and-white sets after 1973. By these tokens, we should conclude of colour TV what the authors conclude of HDTV: nobody wants it or needs it.

It seems as though the authors yearn for a situation in which Canada would use a technology incompatible with U.S. broadcasting—one that would let a thousand ethnoscapes bloom. Yet it is difficult to think of any economic sector in which rational actors exclaim, “Let us adopt an infrastructure incompatible with that of our major trading partner!” We could mandate electric cars to keep U.S. auto manufacturers out. We could mandate a 50-cycle power grid to prevent interconnection with U.S. energy suppliers. We could mandate narrow-gauge railroads, non-HTTP-compliant Internet connections, books printed on rice paper, et cetera, with the same view in mind. Technology can always be engineered to express and impress desired behaviours. To do so, however, would cut us off from the world; it would deny us the benefits of technological advances everywhere. Worse, it would cut the world off from us by imposing conversion costs that would act as a barrier to the circulation of our culture. For example, which of the following is more likely: (a) that Canadians would avoid converting the tsunami of foreign content into their own technological infrastructure because of the associated conversion costs, or (b) that the international market would blithely avoid converting the comparative trickle of Canadian content into its infrastructure because of the associated costs we would have created? Canada has more to lose than the rest of the world. Technological barriers are parochial. They do not protect culture; they diminish it by narrowing its potential market and depriving it of the oxygen of exchange.

Conclusion

We have no strong tradition of television study in this country. Instead, we have royal commissions, Senate inquiries, and bureaucratic investigations with all their wooden compromises, unexpurgated agendas, political meanness, and incumbent posturing. However, we may be witnessing the beginning of a change, of which Canadian Television Today is a hopeful symptom. I take Serra Tinic’s recent On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market (2005) as another hopeful sign. Her decision to study production on a regional level is wonderful; her lapse into policy recommendations is simply uninteresting. Nonetheless, these books indicate the beginning of a shift away from assessments of production as “essentially” or “industrially” Canadian toward an actual assessment of production strategies—these tend to empty the study of television of its ideological obstacles.

Canadian scholarship also suffers from a distressing tendency to confuse production with distribution and an equally distressing tendency for authors to substitute themselves for the audience. The study of the audience is an underdeveloped genre in this country, and yet it is the most essential to understanding television. At most, TV audience behaviour is observed for its pathological depravity or as a site for beneficent intervention. The audience should be in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, in the study of Canadian TV, it is rarely even welcome in the vehicle.

References

Tinic, Serra. (2005). On location: Canada’s television industry in a global market. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.




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