Television: a window on the world?

Television Student Name: Guy CarberryDate: May 2000 Question: To what extent does the assessment of television as a ‘window on the world’ remain relevant? Discuss with reference to at least two genres. This essay will answer the question detailed above by asking whether TV can ever be considered as a window on the world? To imply that television is a window on the world is to say that looking at a television set is the same as looking out of a house in a window, except people can choose anybody’s window in the world to look out of. There are two essential arguments to the question. The first says yes, television is a window on the world because it allows people to see other parts of the world where they would perhaps never visit in their own lifetime. It is a window on the world because it portrays life as it is through news, soaps and documentary. The second argument says that television is not a window on the world because television programmes are constructed. The process of making a television programme involves more than placing a camera in from of some action and filming. There is directing, editing, scheduling and ratings to consider. For this reason television must be carefully constructed to appeal to an audience. The essay asks whether the notion of television as a window on the world remains relevant? This essay will argue that the notion was ever relevant. With the rise of people such as The Frankfurt School, Glasgow University Media Group and the Birmingham School, television and the media have been studied with some depth since the seventies. Marxist theory from the likes of Adorno Chomsky suggest that television is merely a means to replicate dominant ideology and ensure the status quo in society. Postmodernist writers such as Baudrillard (1993), Harvey (1991) and Lee (1993) suggest that it is becoming harder to tell whether television is a window on the world because the boundaries between reality and fiction are getting increasingly blurred. For them it is almost as if the “simulacra”, the simulated and non-real has become more real than the real. In a few generations time, television will be the reality. In the past the BBC claimed to be an unbiased organisation, merely reporting facts and informing, educating and then entertaining. Many, such as Lord Reith, would claim that television was a ‘window on the world’ when it was created. This essay will discover the extent that it can be considered as one today. It will look at three maingenres: Television news, soaps and documentaries. By using the work of the theorists mentioned above it will outline why the genres argue for and against television as a window on the world. The first issue that this essay will analyse is the idea that television

news is a ‘window on the world’. Television news is traditionally about facts. In Britain television news is supposed to broadcast information about current events in a non-bias fashion. As Hartley, (1989 p82) points out unlike the British Press, television is required by law not to report in favour of one point of view or another. The press must merely watch and report, as an observer. The BBC news guide states the following: “The BBC has no editorial opinions of its own. It has an obligation not to take sides; a duty to reflect all main views on a given issue.” - BBC News Guide. In Boyd, (1993) p157. The BBC is a ‘public service broadcaster’; it gets its revenue from the license fee which is paid by the public. It has an obligation to provide for all of its main viewing groups. It would consider itself a ‘window on the world’. Boyd (1993) explains that the BBC news carries no editorial and merely presents fact: “Our job is to present fact and truth with clarity, dispassion and neutrality, however inconvenient or dismaying much of that information may be.” - A distinguished editor of BBC news, 1987in Holland, 1997. The government provides the BBC with its charter and steps in when it thinks that the corporation is being bias over certain issues. The BBC does not carry commercial advertising and therefore does not have to answer to sponsors. ITV has is governed by the Independent Television Authority (ITC) which steps in when issues of unfair portrayal or liable are seen to take place. Independent British Television is not allowed to carry editorial bias either. All British television must present the facts and not judge. On the other hand, many disagree that television is unbiased and therefore not a ‘window on the world’: “The very selection of news involves bias, there is some bias in every programme about public policy; the selection of the policy to be discussed and those to discuss it means bias.” - News at Ten newscaster Sir Alistair Burnet. (RichardSpriggs memorial lecture, 1970). - Boyd (1993) p157. Burnet here is illustrating the point that it is a futile exercise to try to be a ‘window on the world’ as there will always be some bias. It can be seen as impossible to represent everybody’s point of view without leaning toward one of them. “People who defend pure journalism are operating in a world that’s unrealistic.” - News consultant Steve Meacham,Guardian, 22nd July 1985. The point is that the world is bias, every person on the planet holds prejudices of some sort and in this case television news can be seen more as a mirror than a window, reflecting back the national consensus. As Cockburn elaborates: “the first law of Journalism- to confirm existing prejudice rather than to contradict it.” -Alexander Cockburn in Boyd (1993) The greatest example of news not being a window on the world can

be found at the time of war. In two examples, The Gulf War and the earlier Falkland war, this essay will illustrate how television news can not be seen as a window on the world during war -time. Mark Urban, BBC News Night journalist during the Gulf War explains that it was impossible to show on television what the air forces were doing to Saddamn Hussain’s armed forces: “The allied tapes were released…were sanitized so that the people obviously being killed were never shown, and the Iraqi restrictions ensured that only civilians who were killed by accident were ever shown by western reporters.” - Mark Urban, BBC News night on the Late Show, BBC2 June 6th, 1991. “Myths inevitably supplanted reality; and papers such as the Sun exulted in tales of Desert Rats, Battle of Britain type tornado pilots, carrying on the tradition of the Dambusters in their low flying bravery…”(Walsh, 1995,p5). He continues to suggest that Myths are more important than economic and political facts and that during the Gulf War, even televised news was fuelled with such myths, as no camera footage of the ground war was ever broadcast. He says that Tony Benn still talks of 200.000 Iraqi deaths, Laurence Freedman and Efrain Karsh suggest 35,000 whilst John Simpson says the figure is more likely to be 30,000. However, at the time of the war there was no reporting of this. There still has never been a single photo of the ground war ever released publicly. If television news is supposed to be a window on the world, it appears that the blinds were down on this occasion. Similarly, In Boyd (1993), Tony Dunn says that the MoD would not let Falkland’s broadcasts go out until they had screened them for content. During the Falklands, Boyd explains the MoD were very much against anti-British footage being broadcast and as a result a large quantity never was. “In1982 some TV film took as long as 23 days to get back to London, and the average delay for the whole war, from filming to transmission, was seventeen days.” (Harris, 1983). Harris continues to explain that when the coverage was eventually broadcast, after Argentine surrender, it included some harrowing shots of badly burned faces and blown off limbs. The worst material was never shown. Whenever material came back from the Falklandsthe MoD was informed. When HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Argentine Missile it took 3 weeks for footage to be broadcast. The window on the world became somewhat delayed. Harris (1983) explains that when the Argentine ship The Belgrano was sunk by the British, the footage was not shown at all. Sir Frank Cooper elaborated on why this might be: “We did not produce the full truth and the full story and, you, as a politician, know as well as anyone else that on many occasions the news is handled by everybody in politics in a way which rebounds to

their advantage. I regard that as something for politicians to decide but where lives are a t stake, as they were in this case, I believe it was right to do as we did and I have never lost a moment’s sleep on it.” Sir Frank Cooper (Harris, 1983, p70) Harris (1983) says that the unique circumstances of the Falklands war gave the authorities complete control over news of the fighting. Information, especially pictures, came out in a thin trickle. The British government is seen by Boyd (1993) to hold the strings of the BBC. They provide it with its charter and therefore have the power to control its content. Most of the time they leave the BBC to itself, but in times of war, they often take control of footage. This arguably suggests that television news is not an accurate ‘window on the world’. Turning now towards ideology to locate the reasoning on why television news is not an accurate window on the world this essay will examine some Marxist theories. Holland (1997) talks of the Glasgow University Media Groups (GUMG) criticism of television news. In the 1970s they launched a powerful attack on what they saw as the “smug self-satisfaction of television news”. They criticised it for its conservativism and its easy acceptance of the status quo. Along with the Birmingham School, GUMG accused television of “bias against dissenting political views, working class understandings and the perspective of women and minority groups.” (Holland, 1997,p182)GUMG’s 1976 book “Bad News” analysed coverage of certain industrial disputes to see what media was perceived to favour. Research showed that apparently neutral media actually concealed attitudes and opinions. It can therefore be argued that television news can not be seen as a window on the world as it is seen by the public to favour certain groups of people. A window does not share this bias. This essay has looked at news as a possible reason for maintaining that television is a window on the world. It has concluded that it can not be seen as such, since there is blatant existence of footage doctoring. It turns now towards the television soap. The television soap is said to mirror the reality of the real world. It raises contemporary issues which many have stated help have helped them out of similar occasions. “One of the most popular images of a daytime soap opera viewer is some one who can’t tell the difference between reality and fiction” (Allen, 1995, p182). He uses the example that some viewers send wedding presents to soap couples who get married and attack soap villains when they see them on the street. For these types of viewer, the television truly is a window on the world. Althusser would suggest that most people do not behave in this way because they know the wider reality of television. Examples can be seen in Allen’s (1995) work on soaps. In his study he writes that non viewers think

soaps “lack plausibility” and that they are unfaithful to people’s ideas of reality. “The extravagance, the unlikeliness, the hyperbole departs from the limits of common sense.” Postmodernist theorists would suggest that television soaps can be seen as a window on the world as they resemble the fragmented reality of real life: “Soaps are populated with “real” people in a knowable landscape, people and places we are familiar with. Familiar in the sense that we have seen them in soap operas before and familiar in that they have aspects that are not too dissimilar to people and places we know about from real life texts, such as news stories or a friends account.” (Allen, p184). Marxists would argue that this idea that television soaps are more real because they are like television and currant affairs stories is dangerous. Dangerous in the way that has been discussed earlier in this essay. If it is to be accepted that television news is hardly a window on the world then it cannot be true for soaps either. Lee (1993) talks of time/space compression. This is evident in Soap operas where many dilemmas and occasions happen often with incredible frequency. Allen (1995) postulates on the fact that television soaps can not accurately represent reality as there are large periods of dullness and inactivity in real life. However, it could be argue that just because on person’s life is dull and unexciting, it does not mean that this is representative of everybody in the country. Eastenders, Brookside all have aspects of people’s real lives within them at some point and for this reason they can be seen as a window on the world. “Soaps are here and now. They conform to real life seasons and holidays and often refer to contemporary social issues like aids, sexual harassment and homelessness. They will sometimes adapt recent news stories.”(Allen, p184). Marxists such as Gramsci, Althusser and Chomsky would see soaps as another means to represent the hegemony and ideological state apparatus in society. The idea that the soap could be a ‘window on the world’ is preposterous to them. Television soaps for Marxists merely fuel capitalism to keep the proles down. They would say that contemporary issues are represented but always with outcomes which do not rock the political boat. The Marxist age is today not what it once was. Today is the realm of the postmodern, where people are aware of their own domination but are more accepting and cynical than before. People such as Abercrombie (1996) suggest that it is harder to see whether television is a window on the world or not. He talks about the fact that as a society, people live less in reality but more in the images of representations of reality. He says people live in an image-

saturated society. He uses the example taken from Fiske’s research (1991) who says that in one hours television a western person is likely to see more images than a member of a non-industrial society is likely to see in a lifetime. Abercrombie agrees with the likes of Jean Baudrillard (1993) saying “We live in a postmodern age where there is no difference between the image and other orders of experience.” Baudrillard (1983) claims that television creates a “simulated culture”. The “window on the world”, the television set has created a “hyper-reality”. A notion that Featherstone(1991) in Abercrombie (1996) elaborates on: “A world in which the piling up of signs, images and simulations through consumerism and television result in a destabilised, aestheticised hallucination of reality.” For Baudrillard (1993), culture has become “free floating”. It is everywhere. It is “actively mediating and aestheticising the social fabric and social relationships.” Kellner (1991) agrees with this and also puts forward another notion: That it is hard to tell whether television informs the masses or masses inform television. Maybe television is a window on the world more than ever because western society is living and breathing television. To suggest that television is a window on the world is to suggest that it is entirely passive. McQueen (1988) argues that television is active in creating false needs.. “Television creates false needs. In capitalism these ‘true needs’ are hidden by the ‘false needs’ of consumerism. Real freedom - to participate in a genuinely democratic society as a free thinking, creative individual - is replaced by a series of choices between products and lifestyles offered by the market and political parties all representing the interests of the dominant class.” It can be seen that television soaps create false needs too. Glamorous lifestyles or gritty realism portrayed in soaps can be seen to create false needs in people to become more like these people. Rather than being a “window” Television can be seen as being a bourgeois ideal to maintain the status quo in society: “The color film demolishes the genial old tavern to a greater extent than bombs ever could…No homeland can survive being processed by the films which celebrate it, and which thereby turn the unique character on which it thrives into an interchangeable sameness.” (Adorno,1991, quoted by Strinati, 1995). McQueen (1988, p242) uses some Marxist ideas to explain why the notion of a window on the world is irrelevant. He says that Althusser talks of Ideological State Apparatus’ but unlike the Frankfurt School, suggests that the masses are not unthinking and will challenge the

ideologies. Chomsky says the role of the media is to reduce the subordinate population’s ability to think - reducing the group to apathy. Gramsci talks of “hegemony” to understand the media. The media represent dominant forms and ideas. The Bourgeoisie retain power and ideology due to the subordinate group'sacceptance of the ideology. This results in hegemonic consensus and therefore the idea of “common sense” comes about. In return for proletariat support, the Bourgeois give wage increases and benefits. Gramsci’s ideas seem to serve the interests of the ruling class. Hall says that television creates moral panics to keep social order. When political consensus breaks down scapegoats are found to take the blame. If this is the case then, far from soaps being a window on the world, they are merely tools of the government to replicate the hegemony and status quo. Turning to the documentary and recent “docu-soaps” this essay will try to find some form of television which can today be seen as a window on the world”. The so called “docusoap”can be found in programmes such as “Airport” , “Ibiza Uncovered”, “Neighbours from Hell” etc. These are often broadcast as a ‘slice of real life’. The documentary team follow around certain people over a series of programmes to be a ‘fly on the wall’ of their lives. This type of programme really began with the BBC 7up documentary in the 60s. Today, many would argue, thedocu-soap is far from resembling reallife. Kilborn and Izod (1997,p184) argue that whilst documentaries might “engage with the real world” they still have a narrative structure. They are ruled by the notion of linear time. The documentary can never be one camera recording for half an hour at a time as this would look out of place on the television screen. The fact is that the television channels are constantly fighting a ratings war and are aware of the audiences ability to change channel. For this reason documentaries and docu-soaps must subscribe to sensationalism of television soaps. The documentaries must have observable‘events’ which propel the programme into new areas of meaning.Kilborn and Izod continue by outlining the fact that in today’s world there is a blurring of boundaries or reality and fiction. They outline some techniques to keep the viewer’s attention: “eye catching shots, expressive music and flamboyant cutting patterns…dominant narration can be imitated from fiction films to enhance the impression of truthfulness.” They continue to talk of documentaries today. They (p239) explain that the relationship between programme maker and audience has developed to the point where audiences are now far more knowing and sophisticated in relation to television. They also suggest that television documentary makers are less inclined to patronise their audience by taking the pious BBC style documentary of the past. Rather than trying to educate the audience, film makers are more inclined to talk to their viewers in a language they understand. There is an acknowledgement that the

audience, far from being Gramsci’s unthinking mass, are skeptical of programmesmore in line with Althusser’s notions. Documentaries now cater for the skeptical viewer, often taking his or her side. The problem with this idea is that the documentary, typically a factual work, becomes more like fiction, but the ideology remains placed within the real world. It could be seen that this kind of programme is the most real-life like, not by content, but by relating to real people’s skepticism and cynical outlook. In conclusion this essay has addressed the question “To what extent does television as a window on the world remain relevant” by looking at the genres of television news, soap and documentary. Using relevant theory it has seen that news is not a ‘window on the world’ in times of war. The examples of the Gulf and Falklands wars were covered. With reference to soaps, Marxist theory in the form of Althusser and his notion of the Ideological State Apparatus was discussed. The window on the world in soaps was found on some levels, yet, still, the idea that the people are merely actors and not real life people comes into play suggesting that soaps are more of a mirror than a window. Kilborn andIzod close with the following notion “As with and piece of creative or critical work, the final arbiters are always going to be the audience or readers at whom the work is directed.” (p239) From this point of view it is possible to conclude that television is not a window on the world. It is also possible to conclude that whilst indeed television is not a window on the world, neither is it the organised controlling of the masses as some Marxists would like to suggest. There is a notion of the public being unthinking and accepting of television yet this does not tally when watching documentaries of ‘real people’. In such documentaries the subjects appear to ‘play up’ (Kilbornand Izod, 1997) to the camera and are only too aware of the medium. When looking at early documentary such as 7up the subjects behave far differently to people in today’s docusoaps. In this postmodern age television is the new God and as Baudrillard (1993) suggests - it is harder to know whether television informs the masses or masses inform the television. The blurring of boundaries is certain. For the purposes of this essay a postmodernist conclusion will not suffice. Therefore on the evidence gained the essay agrees that the assessment of television as a window on the world does not remain relevant today, if indeed it ever did. Guy Carberry, 3rd May 2000.Words: 3,346
Bibliography McQueen, David (1998) “A Media Student’s guide”, ArnoldAbercrombie, Nicholas (1996) “Television & Society”, PolityHolland, Patricia (1997) “The Television Handbook”, RoutledgeWalsh, Jeffery (1995) “The Gulf War Did Not Happen”, Arena Harris, Robert (1983) “The Media, The Government & The FalklandsCrisis”, Faber & FaberKilborn & Izod (1997) “ An Introduction To Television Documentay” Manchester Uni PressAllen, Robert. C. (1995) “To be continued..Soap Operas Around theWorld” RoutledgeBaudrillard, Jean (1983) “Simulations”, Baudrillard,

Jean (1993) “Symbolic Exchange & Death”,Lee, Martyn (1993) “Consumer Culture Reborn”, Routledge References Milner, Roger (1983) “Reith”, mainstream publishingHarrison, Martin (1985) “TV News, Whose Bias?” Policy PressHartley, John (1989) “Understanding News” RoutledgeNeil, Andrew (1996) “Full Disclosure”, Pan BooksFiske, John (1987) Television Culture”, MethuenMorrison, David E. (1992) “Television & The Gulf War”,John LibbyBonner, Paul (1998) “Independent Television In Britain”, Macmillan PressHarvey, David (1989) “The condition of postmodernity”, Published on June 6, 2002

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful