Film-Philosophy

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Vol. 6 No. 33, October 2002

 

 

Geoff Lealand

 

Television as the Centre of the Universe

 

 

_Television and Common Knowledge_

Edited by Jostein Gripsrud

London: Routledge, 1999

ISBN 0-415-18929-2

209 pp.

 

John Ellis, in this important collection of essays by leading European media scholars, begins his contribution, 'Television as Working-Through', with the most apt question: 'I think it is time again to ask the big question: 'What actually is television?'' (55). Seven or more years on (the essays are mostly derived from a 1995 colloquium at the University of Bergen), this question should intrude even more firmly into the thoughts and discussions of media scholars.

 

In the ensuing years, changes in television have accelerated, in both content and delivery. Digital television now seems inevitable in countries with developed television systems and there is much talk (but, as yet, little realisation) of *convergence* between computer technology, the internet, and television. We have seen the arrival of new television formats, and increased hybridity or blurring of genres (such as docu-soaps and infotainment).

 

Most importantly, we have seen the return (if it ever went away?) of television as the global stage -- or, as this collection puts it -- 'the widely shared pool of information and perspectives from which people shape their conceptions of self, world and citizenship' (2). One of the traditional ideas of Maori -- the *tangata whenua* ('people of the land') of New Zealand -- talks of islands and continents as being 'holes in the ocean'. To employ such a startling idea to television, you could say that, as citizens of a new century, we still float in a sea of televised images. They continue to shape our world and our understanding of the world.

 

Which is to say that the ideas about television in this book, as they were written in 1995, still have enormous potency. Television has repeatedly reinforced its place as the primary global medium, through extraordinary events such as the Oklahoma city bombings, the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the World Trade Center bombing. But it has also cemented its place through the televising of the regular and the ordinary, assisted by the proliferation of personal digital cameras and amateur footage.

 

I posed a question, in their final exam, to my first year Media in Society students by quoting the television critic of our local daily newspaper _The Waikato Times_. This critic, Susan Pepperell, was writing four days after about the events of September 11, and said: 'Television really has been the centre of the universe this week -- who would have it any other way?' [1] I asked my students to interrogate this claim and most responses tended to agree with it. The role of television over these days -- most especially prolonged feeds from CNN and the BBC -- seemed to convince my students that television was the only real source of knowledge. But 'knowledge', in this respect, was often confusing, contradictory, half-formed, ill-informed, or just plain alarming.

 

I think they would have found some solace or understanding, in this book -- in, for example, the discussions by Ellis and David Morley of the narrative tensions of television news, or the positioning of viewers as constituents of the audience in the contributions by Sonia Livingstone and Peter Larsen.

 

Several chapters in this collection are fairly standard fare. The contribution by Graham Murdock, 'Rights and Representations: Public Discourse and Cultural Citizenship', is thorough and tightly-written but very similar to his other work on the media and the public sphere. Likewise, John Corner's critique of the contemporary television documentary can be found elsewhere. The more interesting contributions are those which take the reader a little further, into new ways of seeing. Good examples of this are John Ellis, who is one of the clearest writers about narrativity in television, and Jostein Gripsrud, who engages with the difficult terrain between the worlds of the media scholar and the public domain.

 

Unlike many collections, however, there is a sense of purpose and coherency in this book. In his Introduction, Gripsrud writes: 'Even if we maintain a focus on TV as a primary contributor to *common knowledge* . . . the complexity of this role is almost overwhelming' (2). To put it another way: how can something that seems so simple ('the goggle box', 'the idiot box') be so complicated? This collection takes us a substantial way towards a better understanding of the relationship between the apparent simplicity of television as a household appliance, and the perplexing processes that bring us to an understanding of ourselves, and our place in the world.

 

University of Waikato, New Zealand

 

 

Footnote

 

1. _The Waikato Times_, 15 September 2001, p. 20.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Geoff Lealand, 'Television as the Centre of the Universe', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 33, October 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n33lealand>.

 

 

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