Television history has developed relatively recently. After pioneering work in the UK (Briggs 1961–1995) and the US (Barnouw 1976), national histories of television (and broadcasting) have been written, mostly in Europe and sometimes beyond (bibliographies can be found at André Lange’s history of television website). Historians have focused mostly on political and institutional history. Television content has long been ignored except for countries (or researchers) rich enough to have access, and this remains a problem except in privileged situations (as in France, where the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel [INA] archives televsion programs for free access: www.ina.fr).
However, the growth of cable television has made, somewhat haphazardly, some past programs available. The main missing link in historical work is the audience, a notion hard to historicize both from a methodological and epistemological viewpoint. Therefore television history has trouble connecting with major debates of the field that focus on audiences. In sum, globalizing mostly national efforts and digging into the past of television viewing remain the major challenges facing television historians. Taking stock of their efforts cannot be done without first attempting to integrate varied national data.
There is a paradox at the heart of television history (Bourdon 2004). Not only has it mostly been written on a national basis, but researchers often insist on national specificity without clarifying its comparative basis – e.g., on the close relation between television and government in France, the penetration of political parties into public television in Italy, the relation between television and the army in militarized societies, etc. The only major attempt at an “international” history is framed mostly as a set of national (at best continental) histories (Smith & Paterson 1998). And yet, the reader of all these works will easily realize that global similarities are no less striking than celebrated differences. This should not be interpreted as technological determinism. Television has not necessarily forced similar trends, or at least similar debates, on different societies. More probably it has accompanied, and to some extent encouraged, some globalizing trends. “Global,” however, needs heavy qualification.
The Origins: Television As National Tool And Art Form
Television was framed, from the start, as a national medium, which quickly became important for national culture and politics, despite some resistance. The first major media events (Dayan and Katz 1992) had strong national implications, whether a royal (UK, 1953) or imperial (Japan, 1961) marriage, or a major electoral or sports competition located in the country. A technological competition to be the first television country began in the 1930s before World War II, starting with the UK and the US. Everywhere, a television station was considered, unofficially, as part of the outfit of a “fully fledged” nation. Witness, after the war, the tremendous efforts made by poor countries such as African nations and India to set up networks of transmitters for populations that could barely afford television sets. Often the real or imagined threat of transmissions spilling over from neighboring countries (and sometimes from US army stations) accelerated the setting up of stations, while for stronger nations the willingness to export their culture encouraged the development of television. Israel started television in 1968, mainly to counteract the popularity of Arab stations among Arabic-speaking citizens (Jews or Arabs) and also to reach the population of the newly conquered territories. In the 1950s, France promptly set up a transmitter in the eastern part of the country where people were exposed to West German television. West German television, in its turn, played an important part in showing the capitalist world to its communist Eastern counterpart. Neighbors of Brazil worried about the popularity of Brazilian telenovelas on their borders.
Beyond the emphasis on the nation, there is another common feature to early television, in the 1950s in the UK and the US, and in the 1960s in much of Europe (including Eastern Europe). Whether commercial or public, many national stations tried to appropriate television not only as a new medium, but as a new art form. A hybrid class of creators excluded from cinema – engineers dreaming of poetry, avant-gardists willing to experiment with technology – entered television to experiment, mostly in drama – especially live drama, with Shakespeare being a “global” favorite, but also in the documentary, where British television culture was the major exponent of the trend. Although with less encouragement from heads of programming, this was true both in public and in commercial stations.
Public Versus Commercial
To a certain extent, this contradicts the well-established view that media developed according to very different national traditions. The notion of “media models” (or “theories”) was first proposed (albeit not for TV) by Siebert et al. (1956), and has been re-elaborated several times since (see notably Curran & Park 2002; McQuail 2005). Radically, this will be simplified into two models, which themselves should be sub-classified: public and commercial.
As defined in this article, “public television” applies to stations controlled by the state, whatever the means of this control are. It is financed by general taxes or by a specific tax, the license fee (“invented” for radio by the UK), although advertising is sometimes added to the financing mix. Within this model can be included stations working within public service (as in western Europe), authoritarian, dictatorial, and (formerly) Soviet frameworks. In all cases, the state directly or indirectly regulates the content of television. Television is not only a question of national sovereignty and identity (as it is everywhere), but also of national culture and education. In authoritarian, dictatorial systems, it is attached to a ministry of information (as it was also in France until 1974), but everywhere public television emphasizes its educational mission. Feedback from viewers and audience ratings do not really matter. The aims are those that were first set for radio in the BBC royal charter of 1927, to “inform, educate, and entertain.” Entertainment came third, while it was always first in commercial television. Public television also includes McQuail’s “developmental” model (2005), where television is mobilized to unify new nations. Even older European nations had something akin to developmental television, such as postwar Italy, which used television to spread literacy in the national language (notably with a program tellingly called It Is Never Too Late).
Commercial television is financed by advertisements only, and state control is relatively weaker than in public television. Within the typology used by Siebert et al., there is only one model, the liberal one; according to this, the media are organized on a free-market, commercial basis, and this is linked to political independence. There is no room for a situation where commercial media are politically controlled, although this has since occurred, and is still occurring, in many countries. Strong commercial television stations are there to maximize the audience and to make money. The big media groups that emerged early in the history of Latin American television, like the Brazilian Globo, launched in 1965 one year after the rise of the military regime that ended only in 1989, knew how to adapt to the military dictatorship of their country quite well. Commercial television is related to political independence, which can draw prestige and audiences, especially in situations where commercial television is born out of authoritarian or monopolistic systems. But sometimes independence comes at too high a cost. Witness what happened to oligarch Gusinsky’s station NTV in post-Soviet Russia in 2001, when President Vladimir Putin had the state conglomerate Gazprom take over NTV and force the owner into exile. Present-day semi-commercial Chinese television is by no means politically independent.
From Public To Commercial
The global history of television can then be summed up as follows: in the beginning, the public model was dominant. Commercial television reigned mainly in the United States. Quickly, however, it spread, first south into the Latin American backyard, where educational attempts (notably in Chile) quickly yielded to the ambition of media entrepreneurs supported by US networks. The US also made inroads in countries not formerly colonized by Europe, such as Iran, Thailand, and Japan, or in Anglo-Saxon areas of influence. Commercial television coexisted with public television from the start in Japan (1953) and Australia (1956). In the UK it was born in 1955, whereas most of Europe waited until the deregulation of the 1980s to launch commercial television.
US stations might have been relatively independent vis-à-vis governments and political parties. They can impose their agendas and formats on political life (like the Kennedy– Nixon debates in 1960, which would become a reference for pre-electoral debates in the west and beyond). However, television became a tool of imperial commercial policy, supported by the state (Segrave 1998), to export programs, formats, technologies, and even modes of regulation to the rest of the world. US executives viewed with surprise the reluctance of Europeans, but quickly (and aggressively) sold their programs in poorer countries with networks officially based on the public model, using strategies like block booking (popular programs had to be bought as parts of a package) or dumping.
Public television was vulnerable: US programs and formats were cheap and attractive, which can be explained both by their competitive commercial character and by their targeting of multicultural audiences of immigrants. By the early 1960s, I Love Lucy was popular in parts of South America, Africa, and Japan. Game show formats were adapted in many places, openly and eagerly by British and Australian commercial TV, more discreetly by public European stations, which domesticated popular American recipes – loosely adapting them without paying copyrights at a time when the idea of internationally selling “formats” on the basis of existing copyrights was still in its infancy. In the 1970s, many public television countries talked of promoting a “New World Information and Communication Order” (NWICO) to counteract US influence. Their efforts culminated in the publication of the McBride report (Many voices, one world, published by UNESCO in 1980). At the same time, several American series were proving to be successful with audiences around the globe, notably Dallas at the end of the decade. Dallas was not the first major American export, but its west European triumph came at a time when European public television felt threatened by financial crises and rising costs, increased criticism from social movements demanding more space in the air waves, rising neo-liberalism, and pressures from capitalist groups eager to use the media. Western European television executives then wondered how to produce their own Dallas.
The Meaning Of Deregulation
The deregulation of television affected the whole of western Europe first, but spilled to the south, and also to the east after the fall of the Berlin Wall. New commercial stations were born everywhere. Media barons became key figures, openly embracing populism, and sometimes entering politics. The emblematic figure here is the Italian Silvio Berlusconi, pioneer of wild deregulation in the late 1970s, head of Italian media conglomerate Mediaset, and Prime Minister in 1994 and from 2001 to 2006. Other media barons took a less direct interest in politics but entered the field of television, globalizing not necessarily culture per se but certainly formats, schedules, and ways of working. The (formerly Australian) press baron Rupert Murdoch successfully (but after heavy losses) created a fourth American network, Fox, in 1986, and the main British bouquet of channels, British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB). But smaller markets also have their media barons, wielding much political influence, and controlling major national TV channels.
International format convergence seems to be the order of the day. This is clear when considering the rise of a new genre, reality television (Holmes & Jermyn 2004). “Reality television” is a blanket term used originally in the US in the 1980s for programs foregrounding ordinary viewers in “real-life” situations, such as America’s Most Wanted (itself adapted from a German show). However, it is the rise of European “reality games” which made the genre universal, such as the Dutch Big Brother, in 1999. While major flows of export worldwide still run from the US, reality TV offers many examples of European global hits. In those games, contestants expose themselves to the camera in personal, emotional, intimate, stressful situations. They participate in their own elimination from the program (sometimes with the intervention of a jury and/or the audience. They have triggered media panics, but now seem to have settled down, sometimes recycling wellknown formats like couple games or talent shows in American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, adapted in 2002 from the British format Pop Idol. Comparative analysis shows that national cultures domesticate these formats in different ways.
However, this is not simply the victory of a commercial model of television, a media version of Fukuyama’s end of history. Undoubtedly, some professional norms, ways of scheduling, formats (the anchor-person for news), and audience measurement methods (push-button audimeters) introduced in the 1970s and now adopted in more than 80 countries, still continue to spread. Commercial television has many faces, however. Its relation to democracy remains problematic, as in many parts of the former Soviet empire, where one could talk of commercial authoritarian television. There are also varied degrees of commercialization. American (including Latin American) television still leads the trends. Public service television, despite persistent criticism, remains different from and more regulated than its commercial competitors, despite being taken to task for aping them: it still schedules more news (at a slower pace) and current affairs. Weak production infrastructures and the persistent exaltation of individual authorship contribute to explaining why most of Europe still struggles to produce long-lasting series and serials; soap operas and telenovelas tend to remain an American monopoly.
The End Of Television?
The “end of television” has been prophesied many times. It refers to the end of national channels as assemblages of clearly identifiable genres in coherent schedules. The schedule is the same on every weekday (breakfast news, talk, games, mid-day news, soaps) while it changes weekly in the evening, with mostly series (national ones in rich countries), variety shows, and talk (especially in poorer markets). Advertising is the only genre which pervades the schedule at all times, with more interruptions in aggressive commercial markets.
Some researchers have argued that fragmentation – e.g., in themed cable channels, digital TV and interactivity, video on demand, diffusion of programmes on the Internet or the mobile phone – will destroy this assemblage. They highlight the implications for daily patterns of living, social memory, and even social cohesion. Since the early 1990s, the rise of cable and satellite television has changed television but not fragmented its audience into specific groups according to taste and culture, as many had predicted. Major channels did lose audiences, but still garnered the majority of viewing time, and some old genres became the matrix of the new themed channels based on fiction (Home Box Office, 1975), news, children’s programs, sports – in short, old genres, although one should note the addition of musical videos (MTV, 1981) and later reality TV as the basis for themed channels. Old television also keeps on expanding. It passed the bar of the majority of world households in the late 1980s (with China becoming a television country), and there is still much room for expansion in Africa and parts of Asia.
Finally, television culture remains very much national through the content of some genres (information and light entertainments) and their specific stars (hosts, newscasters, etc.), despite some globalizing trends. Although media conglomerates have shares in different countries, the dream of a global diffusion of the same program cherished in the 1980s has been forsaken. No channel has embodied this dream as vividly as Viacom’s MTV, created in 1981. The idea of a global music youth culture was enticing both to idealists of a universal world and to advertisers of global brands for the young and affluent. After a noisy start, MTV underwent a process of “renationalization” and created national (French, Italian, or even British) or continental (Latino) channels with a mix of “international” (Anglo-Saxon) success, and local clips. This example illustrates how a globalization of formats goes hand in hand with constant hybridization.
Most recently, MTV has announced the launch of MTV-K for Korean Americans. This is a symptom of another major change, connected to the rise of global migration movements. The national public is fragmenting, but it seems to be fragmenting along nationaldiasporic lines. This was heralded by the rise of video in the 1980s, which reached communities of immigrants in the west. Cable channels now allow for a de-territorialization of national cultures, with Turkish immigrants in Germany, Russian immigrants in Israel, or Pakistanis in the UK keeping in touch with their country and culture of origin.
“Old” channels have shown not only resilience, but the ability to combine with new media. The relations between television and the Internet are the best example of this convergence. In reality television, audience participation plays a major part (through the Internet and mobile phone). Official and unofficial sites of such programs are key places for (un)planned exposure of the instant stars’ privacy and biography. Older genres also combine with the Internet, where Internet development has been devoted to constantly updated news in an online environment. On the Internet, the ever-popular US television series grow into a whole sub-culture, not only about celebrity gossip, but also alternative screenplays, with international hits like Lost (entering its third season in 2006–7) or 24. The vitality of these programs and their international exposure suggest that (relatively) “old” television still exerts a powerful influence. Undoubtedly, television channels now promote a more instant, more commercial, more individualistic culture than in the past. But this culture remains steadily national and related to major television genres, with reality television as an important addition.
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