Raymond Williams: Television

[Readings] (01.10.09, 11:02 pm)

This text was originally published in 1973, and is one of the first critical works to look at television as a medium. Williams is coming from the perspective of Marxist cultural criticism, and looking at historicization and the forces behind the emergence of technology. It is important to compare the study of television during its emergence to the emergence of the internet. It is also worthwhile because at the time of its publication, the book was one of the first books to examine television as a media tradition. Much of what Williams has to say is outdated, but he does predict many of the future developments in cable and cassette tapes. He offers an important view of how the technology informs the rhetoric and content of television. It is also useful to juxtapose Williams with Postman, who was writing later. Williams still has an optimistic view of the possibilities of television to enable progressive social change. He also encourages an understanding of how a medium may be used, co-opted, and even subverted by its users.

The technology and the society

An opening dilemma is the status of television (and technology in general) as either a cause or an effect. The question is whether it fits the role of technological determinism, or was instigated by someone or some group with a particular motive. Williams gives a set of bullets which provide several possible accounts of the emergence of television: (p. 11-12)

  1. Television was invented as a result of scientific and technical research. Its power as a medium of news and entertainment was then so great that it altered all preceding media of news and entertainment.
  2. Television was invented as a result of scientific and technical research.Its power as a medium of social communication was then so great that it altered many of our institutions and forms of social relationships.
  3. Television was invented as a result of scientific and technical research. Its inherent properties as an electronic medium altered our basic perceptions of reality, and thence our relations with each other and with the world.
  4. Television was invented as a result of scientific and technical research. As a powerful medium of communication and entertainment it took place with other factors – such as greatly increased physical mobility, itself the result of other newly invented technologies – in altering the scale and form of our societies.
  5. Television was invented as a result of scientific and technical research, and developed as a medium of entertainment and news. It then had unforseen consequences, not only on other entertainment and news media, which it reduced in viability and importance, but on some of the central process of family, cultural, and social life.
  6. Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific and technical research, was selected for investment and development to meet the needs of a new kind of society, especially in the provision of centralized entertainment and in the centralized formation of opinions and styles of behavior.
  7. Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific and technical research, was selected for investment and promotion as a new and profitable phase of a domestic consumer economy; it is then one of the characteristic ‘machines of the home’.
  8. Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific and technical research, and in its character and uses exploited and emphasized elements of a passivity, a cultural and psychological inadequacy, which had always been latent in people, but which television now organized and came to represent.
  9. Television, discovered as a possibility by scientific and technical research,and in its character and uses both served and exploited the needs of a new kind of large scale and complex but atomized society.

These bullets convey many different scales and means of interpretation of television. These are all valid accounts of the emergence of television, but represent many gradated positions within the scope of determined technology to technological determinism. The idea Williams brings in is that television was created by intention, but it does not determine the ultimate reception or use of the technology. Williams notes that each of the bullet points assert that technology is isolatable. This is an interesting claim, because according to recent work in anthropology and cognitive science, there is argument that technology is not isolatable from culture.

Williams gives a historicization of the emergence of television. This comes from both technological and social perspectives. Under historical circumstances, needs appeared that would later be met by television. The paradigm of transmission and reception are internally problematic and economic. This led to the contemporary broadcasting model. “Unlike all previous communications technologies, radio and television were systems primarily devised for transmission and reception as abstract processes, with little or no definition of preceding content. When the question of content was raised, it was resolved, in the main, parasitically.” (p. 25)

Institutions of the technology

Discussion is on the federal regulation of communication. There is a conflict and competition between state, corporate, and public interests. Williams discusses reviews the FCC and the institution that network television has become. The concerns are between local and large scale levels. There has been a failure of local and independent broadcasting, which enables global expansion and colonialism in broadcasting. This is interesting in comparison to the internet and digital media, because the authoritative nature of television contrasts sharply with the rampant independence and individualism propagated by the internet. In this perspective, the difference that prevented the internet from reaching the same corporate level as television, is caused by the simple economic cause that independent publishing is less expensive than television broadcasting.

The forms of television

Williams reviews the various kinds of television. These are split into two categories. The first category of content are the forms which existed before television, but are used by television: News, argument and discussion, education, dramatic films, variety, sport, advertising, and passtimes. These are extensions of old media into television, originally developed as forms of remediation. These come with their own political epistemologies. News anchors carry a voice of authority and superiority, discussion shows is presentation of existing views, actual politics are over heard, not heard.

New innovations to forms which are unique to television are: drama-documentary, education by seeing, discussion (talk shows), features, sequences, and the medium of television itself. These forms are indicative of qualitative changes, and are genuine new innovations to media. This is exciting and interesting to Williams, coming with potential to overcome existing political hegemonies.

Effects of technology and its uses

Williams rejects technological determinism, and also the idea of determined technology. When released, technology does take a life of its own. It may be subverted and co-opted by agents acting against authority. However, the emergence is the result of much history, and we cannot disregard or forget that history. Television has a controlled system of publishing and broadcasts. The method of overcoming this that Williams suggests is to develop technology for reform. This is interesting because it comes in opposition to the perspective presented by Postman. Instead of encouraging literacy within the existing technology, Williams suggests that new technology could be developed to enable alternative modes of technology use.

Alternative technology, alternative uses?

Looking ahead in television, Williams predicts the new technologies and institutions that might grow: cable, satellite, “interactive” television. The relative story of these is varied, in terms of how they actually happened. These developments would lead to political issues. Williams predicts a broad political struggle in global communication via television, depending on who controls it, who accepts it, and so on. This again relates to claims regarding the internet.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorWilliams, Raymond
TitleTelevision: Technology and Cultural Form
Tagsmedia traditions, media theory, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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