Television: a window on the world?

June 6th, 2002

Module: 310CCM – Television
Student Name: Guy Carberry
Tutor Name: Ruth Cherrington
Date Due: 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 Frunkfurt 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 main
genres: 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 it’s 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, 1987
in 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 Alister Burnet. (Richard
Spriggs 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 Falklands
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 airforces were doing to Saddamn Hussaine’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
Falklands 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. “In
1982 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 Falklands
the 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

“Soaps are populated with “real” people in a knowable
landscape, people and places we are familiar with. Familiar in te 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 say 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, aestheticized hallucination of reality.”
For Baudrillard (1993), culture has become “free floating”.
It is everywhere. It is “actively mediating and aestheticizing the
social fabric and social relaitonships.”

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 Bourgeoise retain power and ideology due to the subordinate groups
acceptance 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, the
docu-soap is far from resembling real-life.

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 sceptical of programmes
more in line with Althusser’s notions. Documentaries now cater for
the sceptical 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 scepticism and cynical

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 and
Izod 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’ (Kilborn
and 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


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