Mediamatic Magazine 3#1 Philip Hayward 1 jan 1988

Spheres of Interest and Sites of Struggle

PHILIP HAYWARD reports on ITSC 3 - London's third International Television Studies Conference.

The series of International Television Studies Conferences (ITSCs) of which this July's was the third represent an ongoing project. Along with other diverse activities arranged by bodies such as the British Film Institute's Television Unit, the ITSCs have, over the last five years, attempted to project a homogenous identity Television Studies upon a diverse group of speakers, papers and delegates whose fields of study (as diverse as Anthropology, Communications Studies, Economics, Education, Film Studies, Media Studies, Politics, Psychology, Sociology et al.) all have a point of convergence around the institutions and practice of broadcast television.

The yoking together of such disparate and often contradictory approaches produces a wide spectrum of inter-relations. At its best it allows for lively confrontations between conflicting paradigms which serve to illuminate each other's limitations and specificities. But at its worst, it results in a completely alienated and irreconcilable clash of mutually exclusive approaches which serve no function except to polarize the positions of respective adherents and bewilder the neutral.

The international aspect of the conference was also not without its qualifications. Though the conference was unarguably international, it was, as might be expected in a London based conference, largely anglophone and thereby significantly under-attended by francophone speakers, papers and delegates; with the result that major tendencies in French thought and writing over the last decade were largely absent aside from their diffuse absorption in some of the more accomplished of the American papers. This absence lead much of the conference to concerning itself with many of the same issues and concepts as had been explored in previous ITSCs. While this is perhaps no bad thing given the transcience and superficiality of many past fashionable waves of theory; it resulted in a general background dullness to many of both the formal conference discussions and the informal debates which took place in the bars and eateries scattered around Russell Square.

Indeed overall, it was the most directly informational pieces of research on specific international issues which provided the most stimulating contributions. Papers on such topics as the political history of Brazilian Television and the dearth of regional production; the CIA's uncertain manipulation of the Filippino media and popular politics during the AQUINO coup; the expansion of Australia's commercial media into the virgin territories of Fiji and Papua New Guinea; the development of broadcasting policies in Eire and Spain and the development of drama styles in Dutch Television which proved the most effective.

In terms of critical theory there was then little which was either new or significantly elaborated. The lingering wisps of postmodern theory that lingered round the conference were, for instance, stale and uninspiring. Papers such as TORBAN GRODAL's Miami Vice, Melancholia and Postmodernity exemplified this by not only dragging together a superficial collage of Postmodernist theory and various more established approaches, but also being reliant on popularly accepted truisms about their textual referents which are simply not born out by either analysis of their subjects (GRODAL for instance reiterating the truism that Miami Vice's textual construction closely resembles that of Pop Videos (it doesn't) and asserting that there is something distinctly Postmodern about the social and value absences in the thematic and apparently character motivational levels (there isn't- a whole history of American genres from the Western, the Film Noir and the Melodrama are predicated on similar (though not identical) underlying senses of loss). Needless to say the whole massive area of video was all but ignored.

No doubt the organizers would put this down to the lack of papers offered on the subject, but it more accurately reflects both the continuing indifference on British cultural agencies to the video medium and consequent lack of effort to invite such contributions (the BFI even went as far as to refuse Mediamatic a press pass). This also reflects a further factor, the uncertain and and apparently contentious presence of video within the Television Studies discipline itself. Of the four (out of ninety) papers specifically addressing video, only MARIE GILLESPIE's socio-cultural analysis of video viewing in Southall and ANDREW GOODWIN's summarization of the principal styles and operations of Pop Videos on MTV were substantially interesting - the others being ROY ARMES' inadequate and redundant account of the place of Video in TV history and RANI SHARMA's cursory and uncritical account of one local community video scheme.

The ITSC undoubtedly represents a unique international forum whose organizers, the British Film Institute and University of London Institute of Education should be applauded for their major effort in funding and organizing the event. But rather like the construction of the unwieldy discipline Television Studies itself, it is no longer enough to be passively non-directional about the specific content direction of the event. Agendas have to be proposed, even if to be instantly overturned if the conference is to progress beyond being simply a useful information exchange and London stop-off on the Summer tour circuit for non-European academic visitors and move towards a key role in the promotion of a coherent body of study. Such a role for the conference may be beyond the time resources and inclinations of its organizers, but must at least be introduced as a desirable aim (and could even be moved towards by a more active and open ongoing planning and consultative structure).

If you'd like to quote something: Hayward, Philip. "Spheres of Interest and Sites of Struggle." //Mediamatic Magazine vol. 3 # 1 (1988).