Communication and Culture | Media Criticism: What is Television?
C606 | 1098 | Chris Anderson

What is television?

The history of television studies, as a scholarly field, is a series
of attempts to answer this simple question.  The object of any study –
much less a field of study -- must be distinguished from the remainder
of the world’s endless flux.  But it is extraordinarily difficult to
extricate television from the rest of modern life.  At this point,
television is so deeply interwoven into American society and culture
that it makes almost as much sense to ask: What isn’t television?

In its most familiar form – the box in the living room -- television
is ordinary: so much a part of everyday life that it is easily taken
for granted or dismissed with a casual generalization, but difficult
to study with any precision or clarity.  In its most spectacular form
– the commercial networks and their programs -- television is vastly
complicated: so deeply influenced by media conglomerates and
free-market plutocrats that a focus on television nearly always blurs
into other subjects – the effects of global capitalism or neo-liberal
politics, for instance.

Any scholar who wants to study television, therefore, must begin by
defining a particular version of television that constitutes a
coherent and relatively autonomous object of study.  Will you study
television primarily as a mode of communication, an expressive medium,
or an electronic technology?  Will you study television’s economic
function in global capitalism and consumer society, its status as a
type of public sphere, or its role in circulating meanings and
pleasures within a culture?  Will you study institutions, audiences,
or programs?  Will you study production practices or the reception
practices of audiences?  Will you organize your study around
individual programs, entire genres, or the programs on particular
networks?  Will you distinguish between broadcast and cable television
or between television and home video?  For that matter, what
distinctions will you make between the terms, “television” and
“video”?  Is there a difference between television and film in the age
of home theaters and digital filmmaking?  Is there a difference
between television and computers in the age of the Internet and video
games?  Will you study broadcast television, home video, video art,
surveillance video, video games, or webcams? Will you study television
as a form of narrative or a discourse system?  Will you ask historical
questions or concentrate on contemporary phenomena?  Will you study
within national or international contexts?  Finally, can the field of
television studies provide specific insights that make it more than a
sub-field of films studies, cultural studies, visual culture, or any
other related scholarly field?