Monday, July 18, 2005

On Television

Some weeks ago, a question was raised here about the literary depiction of work. My interest then was in work as vocation, and its relation to love. But there was another issue, about the representation of work in all its repetitive, miniature glory. I was provoked by the claim that, while this is neglected by the novel, it is the daily bread of television.

On reflection, I doubt that this is true: someone argued at the time that much of television "work" is sensational: the work of detectives, criminal lawyers, astronauts. This observation echoes Raymond Williams, in Television: Technology and Cultural Form:
it is doubtful whether, before the epoch of television series and serials, anything like the current proportion of dramatic attention to crime and illness had ever existed.
One reason for this is obvious enough: we have to be hooked, both in order to resist channel surfing, and in order to survive the incessant distraction of advertising breaks.
There is a characteristic kind of opening sequence, meant to excite interest, which is in effect a kind of trailer for itself. [...] It is then not surprising that so many of these opening moments are violent or bizarre: the interest aroused must be strong enough to initiate the expectation of (interrupted but sustainable) sequence.
Some of the most ambitious parts of Williams' book are attempts to analyze the distinctive "flow" of television sequencing, the pattern of an evening's entertainment, which he finds almost unprecedented.
It is indeed very difficult to say anything about this. It would be like trying to describe having read two plays, three newspapers, three or four magazines, on the same day that one has been to a variety show and a lecture and football match.
These excerpts may suggest that Williams always argues from medium to message, finding the content of our experience to be determined by apparently extraneous facts about the economics and technology of its production. That isn't so: his central theme, in fact, is the role of intention in the organization of broadcasting, its indeterminism, and our responsibility for it.

But, however qualified it must be, the slide from form to content is irresistible...

I love television, but apart from sporting events, I rarely watch for an extended period: I don't want the kind of structure and flow that Williams investigates. What I like is to have "my show": an engagement of ritual and habit, of repetition, a weekly encounter with distant friends. Can it be a coincidence that the shows I adopt are themselves quotidian, if sometimes in playfully eccentric ways, series of variations on a theme, like Northern Exposure and Scrubs?

These programs are about work, in both senses of the earlier post: about trying to inhabit a meaningful role, and about the small triumphs and failures of doing so. They treat relationships (not always romantic love) as ongoing projects of mutual attention. They are exercises in the moral philosophy of everyday life. And the form is not irrelevant to this: it is a pattern of routine and renewal; these are shows to be watched each week, not in the marathons that the networks occasionally put on.

The medium may not be the message; but for me, the television of love and work could only be television – nothing else.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I found the accessibility of this entry really refreshing, even though there weren't any responses.

Thanks for keeping us amused with your thoughts,


1:54 PM  

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