Why bother studying television?

Who knew television could be open to such in depth analysis. Brian certainly persuaded us that it could by starting the lecture with a clip from Jamie’s Fowl Dinners, posing the question ‘what’s so television about this?’. I quickly realized that this course would require thorough and critical thinking about a medium that I have always loved, but not ever considered in a historical and social context. The definition of television that best resonated with me was the idea of it being a social experience associated with producing, viewing, listening, talking about, reading about, being captured by, appearing on, and being influenced and effected by television. It was this idea of being ‘influenced and effected by television’ that fascinated me most, and not just the influence on individuals, but also on cultures as a whole which was stressed in the screening Hollywood: The Rise of Television Series.


Firstly, it is worth noting that with the rise of digital production, the 90s saw a TV revolution in Hollywood. The documentary went as far as to say that TV is as popular if not more so than movies in Hollywood and had a real ability to shape people. How so? By creating characters whose personal growth and chance appeals to audiences, as human beings. The Sopranos is perhaps the best example of this, highlighted in both the documentary and the week’s readings. Many argue The Sopranos is the most influential show in the history of television. The premiere of the fourth-season saw a staggering 13.5 million tune in to watch (note it aired on cable). The show demonstrated that by following the lives of characters over a period of years, an epic narrative is created, like that of a great book, that simply can’t be achieved in a feature film, putting to rest the view of TV as an inferior medium.

Other shows have had this effect. Take Sex and the City for example, there’s not a girl out there who hasn’t thought about which SATC character they are (I certainly have), and why they are most like them, not to mention the fashion influence the show has had on girls around the world!

Graeme Blundell’s article The Past is Another Country, also saw The Sopranos and Sex and the City, amongst the best shows of the decade, along with The Office, The West Wing, and Mad Men, to name a few. Blundell believes it is the unprecedented level of realism on screen that gives these shows the edge. By ‘exploring the subtleties of character against the larger dynamics of the social world’ these long-running series played with genre and expectation and challenged and appealed to audiences. Blundell too stresses the idea of the ‘human condition’ apparent in these shows that makes them better than mainstream movies.

HBO certainly tops the field in terms of quality dramas, because they assume that a chunk of their TV audience is as intelligent as the consumers of the finest films and novels. Quality writing along with adherence to film-quality production values, once set them apart from the rest, and today has influenced the way in which Television in general is created.

But just when you thought television was all quality in came reality TV, a medium that seems to polarize opinions. You either love it or hate it. From beach rescues, to hospital procedures, to police pursuits, you name it, there’s a show about it. But the one that instantly comes to mind when I think of reality TV is Big Brother. I personally couldn’t stand it and never understood its gross popularity. Blundell has helped me understand why arguing the show ‘wittily crossed the grey precincts between public and private, consumer and producer…a precursor to the truly Orwellian world of fully interactive television’. I could go on about this, but I think reality TV might need an entire post of its own somewhere along the way…if the popularity and ratings of channels tens MasterChef have any influence!

Reading Alan McKee’s article ‘Why do I love television so very much’ proves to me why television is worth studying in a university context. McKee believes that watching TV makes him a better person, and reinforces his best qualities. He notes he is genuinely interested in the lives it shows him, and the way they are different to his. He argues TV flatters its viewers that their opinions matter. He argues its generous, warm nature and ability to draw communities together, makes it the ultimate civilized medium. If something can have such a profound effect on people, culture, and society then it is definitely worth exploring in detail.

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