Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 15, July 2003



Rosemary White


Television at a Distance:

Corner's _Critical Ideas in Television Studies_



John Corner

_Critical Ideas in Television Studies_

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

ISBN 0-19-874221-5 hb; 0-19-874220-7 pb

139 pp.


While television production grows ever slicker, the production values of critical works about television remain stubbornly prosaic. The Oxford Television Studies series, while undoubtedly providing an invaluable collection of writings on this visual goliath, have cover designs reminiscent of school textbooks circa 1975. Fuzzy black and white photographs coupled with a single, 'vibrant' colour (turquoise for Corner's book; scarlet for Brunsdon, D'Acci, and Spigel's 1997 collection _Feminist Television Criticism_) recall the early days of colour television in Britain, where skin tones were liable to turn blue or green if you attempted to adjust your set because the reds had turned day-glo. These designs imply that academic work is perceived by its publishers to require creaky cover design in order to signal its 'serious' content. Yet this idea is confounded by the output of younger publishing houses such as Tauris or Manchester University Press, who at the very least provide full-colour covers with a range of (usually) appropriate images. Naturally, beginning a review of a book about television with a critique of the cover design plays into the hands of those readers who still harbour a grudge against the superficial depthlessness of television as a medium, compared to, say, the academic validity of cinema. Television has been the cheap and cheerful cousin of film studies -- or literature or cultural studies (depending on the history of particular institutions). This series, in all its seriousness, is clearly an attempt to confirm the status of television studies as an increasingly valuable part of any curriculum within the humanities and social sciences. Television studies is eminently attractive as a degree programme or as a component of a degree programme; not least because television *sells* in the new market of student recruitment and retention. This is one of the tensions which John Corner's study is implicitly and explicitly addressing: both the magnetic attractions of television studies for students, and the suspicion amongst some academics that television is not a subject worthy of study. Much of this tension is concerned, on both sides, with the pleasure element of television: pleasure draws students but also leads some academics to question whether something so pleasurable can, indeed, be good for us.


The Oxford Television Studies series provides invaluable material for teaching and research in this burgeoning field. John Corner, like other contributors to the series, has a history of publication on television and his writing speaks of a continuing enthusiasm for the subject. In this volume he takes a step back from detailed analysis of the various components of television, to consider what these components entail in critical, theoretical, and philosophical terms. At times this can be frustrating, as it is tempting to demand specific examples of the general cases cited, but this approach also forces the reader to consider television in new ways, and to think about television and the study of television from a more distant perspective. This approach can occasionally have an odd effect on the writing, or the process of reading, as the language appears to come from an alien perspective; one which is both distant and alienated in the Brechtian sense. Corner considers television as a strange object, a peculiar pastime, a perverse practice, and this perspective produces a defamiliarizing effect which leads this reader, at least, to reconsider how, and why, we study television.


Corner's knowledge of the field is evident from the Introduction, which gives a usefully concise account of the problems with 'television studies'. Not least of these is the question of what constitutes 'television' as an object of study; technology, public policy, cultural production? Corner's response to this is neatly divided into the social sciences approach to television as an object of research, and the humanities approach to television as a subject of criticism (a distinction employed with the caveat that it is not a hard and fast divide -- nor should it be). As a technology, television is no longer new when measured against the last twenty years of computer and digital innovation, but as an academic subject it is barely out of its teens and, as already mentioned, often seen as trailing on the coat-tails of films studies, etc. This book works hard to assert the specificity of television studies, while problematizing the either/or choices presented by approaches from the social sciences or humanities. Consequently, this volume has its work cut out: as the Introduction argues, television studies is not a discrete discipline or a unified body of work. This is both its strength and its weakness; and the latter is visibly problematic when it comes to writing about television from a distance. Corner's style is precise and, at times, frustratingly even-handed. Nonetheless, even some of his most apparently straightforward statements about the medium can be illuminating.


One example of this is the statement that: 'Television is an industrialized way of managing time and space in the production and circulation of recorded images and sounds.' (4) Clearly this statement also applies to cinema and to forms of new media, but it is most useful when applied to television because it defamiliarizes the normalizing invisibility of television's structures. Television, as a domestic object and as a way of organizing information, has been so completely subsumed into 'everyday' life that to consider it as an object of study involves a shift in world-view. Nowhere is this more evident than in the undergraduate seminar. Asking students to consider television as a peculiar form of entertainment, as a forum for culturally constructed forms of representation, can at times seem to be asking the impossible. Television and the media which surround and support it (television magazines, for example) has successfully produced its own discourse of self-analysis -- a discourse intimately tied to the promotional needs of particular programmes and networks. Such television 'chat' is what often emerges in seminar discussion and even in written work. It is the task of the lecturer as tutor to resist this largely uncritical approach, and to attempt to expose it as a form of commentary which works hard to deny or disguise the assumptions on which its judgments are based. Like television itself, such 'criticism' rests heavily on unexamined assumptions about how the 'world' (meaning North America and Western Europe) works. In this form of 'chat', as in much terrestrial television, gender equality is achieved, everyone is white (or at least not from any form of ethnicity that might offer a viable alternative point of view), and we are all wealthy, healthy bourgeoisie. Where is the undergraduate essay on _The Simpsons_ that does *not* propose the yellow family as the epitome of televisual evolution, representing 'ideal' familial, intellectual, and social values right back atcha? Work like this adds fuel to the strand of academic television criticism that proposes a breakdown in television between the fictional and the factual, often citing docudrama and reality television as the prime suspects.


Corner, like Brunsdon et al, works hard to make television strange. The statement cited above, for example, indicates firstly television's industrial identity as a product of consumer culture; that it is above all a modern object, and that its content is symptomatic of modern (and postmodern) cultural interests and anxieties. Secondly, the statement indicates television's artificiality; in particular the strange ways in which it manages time and space both within programmes and across schedules. Terrestrial programming provided a conceptual clock for the late 20th century, regulated by, and regulating, familial behaviour through such inventions as the 'children's hour' and the watershed. In the 21st century programming on the multitude of channels now available still breaks up its twenty-four hours into segments intended to attract a variety of audiences. Thirdly, the end of the statement, asserting that television is concerned with 'the production and circulation of recorded images and sounds', indicates television's remarkable facility for making and selling representations of 'life' that we are invited to misrecognize as our own. Television's familiarity, together with its use of realist tropes across genres, has often allowed it to offer us a form of heightened reality; in particular, to imagine that there is an 'us' as such.


Corner is careful not to lean too heavily on approaches which celebrate television's potential for diverse productions and diversity of reception (cf. Fiske's _Television Culture_), or approaches which treat television as, indeed, the opiate of the masses. What emerges most convincingly from this even-handed approach is the sheer difficulty of studying television. Moving beyond the problem of defining the subject and the discipline, such difficulty is evident even with terms which are often seen as deeply rooted in the history of television studies. The thematic chapters, covering Institution, Image, Talk, Narrative, Flow, Production, Reception, Pleasure, and Knowledge, provide evidence of complexity and absences within particular areas, as well as indicating that each area is not discrete. Corner is constantly cross-referencing across the book, as issues raised in the chapters on Institution and Image recur and connect with those in the chapter on Knowledge. This thematic structure also lends itself to an historical perspective on television studies, as he deals with work that was to establish or provoke other work in the field, such as McLuhan's _Understanding Media_, as well as more recent studies.


In such a multitudinous field this overview provides a useful map for particular areas. Corner's archaeology of 'flow', from its earliest days in the work of Raymond Williams, through to the ensuing debate in work by John Ellis, Rick Altman and John Fiske, provides a kind of history of television studies itself. Williams's definition of flow offers a more fluid understanding of television production and consumption than that based on television simply as a sequence of programmes. As he states in _Television: Technology and Cultural Form_ (1978): 'There has been a significant shift from the concept of sequence as *programming* to the concept of sequence as *flow*' (cited by Corner, 61), and this perceived shift, together with the particular context in which Williams' work was produced (a British academic's experience of American television after a transatlantic crossing to Miami), provides a useful commentary on a term which is often employed casually but which, in this chapter, is opened up and examined as a diverse and suggestive concept. Summing up the discussion, Corner notes one of the central difficulties with the term:


'It is the problem of essentialism, whereby use of an idea of flow, wittingly or not, produces in the analysis an essential television artefact along with its related experience. It is a tendency consonant with a totalizing imperative in certain strands of television criticism: television has always to be seen in sum; attention to the parts is never enough.' (68)


In particular, he shows how 'flow' is employed in pessimistic discourses about television as mass culture, discourses which hark back to the literary traditions out of which Williams was writing (69). Corner thus argues strongly for a constant recognition of television's diversity and the concomitant need to resist the still effective pull of making absolute moral or political judgments about 'television'. What is also evident here is how problematic it can be to apply a particular term without regard for the contexts which produced it and the specific manner in which it was originally employed.


It is not surprising, considering Corner's acknowledgement of the fragmentary nature of television and television studies, that Baudrillard casts a small shadow on this volume, although his work only makes explicit appearances in the chapters on Image and Knowledge. Corner cautiously acknowledges the importance of such accounts of postmodernity. While insisting on the importance of studies which examine specific aspects of television, and which emphasize television's specificity within the academy, he is not averse to drawing a larger picture of television's impact on cultural life:


'The extension of the public knowledge field by television, a process coextensive with television's steady colonization of everyday life (a process noted at points throughout this book), has changed the nature both of public life and private life. I remarked earlier that it has seemed to some not simply to have blurred but to have collapsed the boundaries here.' (118)


Rather than following a pessimistic route which views such developments as signifying the end of culture, however, Corner questions the extent to which the blurring of private and public lives on television can be taken as a simple symptom of decay. Again, he raises the difficulty of assessing the effect of changes in representation upon public knowledge, and concludes the chapter on Knowledge with a more optimistic argument: 'The 'culture of testimony' which is apparent in many new formats is no substitute for analysis but it redresses what has been within many broadcasting systems an inadequate interest in ordinary feelings and too foreclosed a sense of ordinary life.' (119)


In the closing chapter Corner looks at the future of television -- 'Television 2000: The Terms of Transformation' -- and notes that this chameleon medium is still in process, still evolving. The problems this causes for television studies are manifold and manifest; a constantly changing field produces a vertiginous sense of time past, present, and future all clamouring for scholarly attention at once. As Corner comments, the study of television 'has barely begun to make a full political, social and cultural assessment of 'television as we know it', yet its very object of study is shifting towards 'television as we knew it' with some speed' (121). He is also pessimistic about the ability of academic study to have any impact on the political debate about the future of television -- the academy's role, as in many fields, seems to be that of recording, analysis, and commentary, rather than any direct impact on debates within the industry -- and in this case argues that the 'modest amount of achieved scholarship' (121) in the field is a major handicap. The study thus ends with a call for more work -- and more sustained work -- on every aspect of television. Any researcher looking for a new area of study could do worse than consider Corner's map of the absences and weaknesses in existing knowledge about television, such as the scanty cultural history of television, or the lack of work on representation across different genres. He concludes with the comment that the study of television 'was always bound to be messy, with speculation and polemic strongly to the fore' (127), but this is not a call to raise 'standards' or endorse a hierarchy of 'quality'; rather this volume is an investigation of the messy field of television studies and an invitation to further study.


Northumbria University

Newcastle Upon Tyne, England



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



Rosemary White, 'Television at a Distance: Corner's _Critical Ideas in Television Studies_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 15, July 2003 <>.


Read a response to this text:

John Corner, 'Keeping a Distance: A Response to Rosemary White', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 16, July 2003 <>.


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