Popular Television

The study of television as a textual-cultural object only began to take something of a systematic form during the mid-1970s.  At that time there was no adequate theoretical basis for such an object of study.  The existing critical discourses were either directed to formal considerations of texts (semiotics and literary criticism) or to aspects of cultural production seen  in terms of their behavioural, cultural, or socio-political effects (sociology, political theory and journalism).


Stuart Hall’s ground breaking “Encoding and decoding in television discourse”  (1973) opened up new possibilities for analysing television.  John Fiske and John Hartley’s Reading Television  (1978) developed a textual and cultural approach, which could analyse television “as an instance of cultural production within the context of contemporary, urban, democratic popular culture”  (Hartley 5).  This approach, which had to be constructed, borrows materials from linguistics, anthropology, literary theory, sociology, political philosophy, structuralism, semiotics and cultural studies.  What emerges today in the form of television analysis certainly owes its beginnings to these critical discourses but the form it takes is more clearly a result of the nature of the medium of television itself.


Television: an undecidable object

The analyst of television is caught in a double bind.  Either we can study television for its empirical forms, evaluate the programs from some implicit or explicit (and value laden) ground of assumptions; or we can study specific aspects of audience response (employing psychological and behavioural criteria).  John Hartley proposes a modification of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle:


which states that an observer can determine the position or the velocity of sub-atomic particles, but not both at once.  Audience practices and textual phenomena can be isolated and described, but what happens when they fuse together cannot be observed without changing the circumstances of the fusion.  (Hartley 6)


What this passage implies is that the television analyst, while not simply a passive viewer, is nonetheless implicated in the specific moment when meaning is produced.  This is because the TV audience is randomly determined, innumerable and extremely varied, each  viewer  contributes to the determination of meaning.  Thus meaning cannot be understood simply as the product of text and context alone, but rather as a creative act performed by ‘readers’ themselves.


Relative Autonomy

After Stuart Hall, it is possible to assert that the production of meaning and pleasure is not determined by the moment of a cultural commodity’s production.  The two events must follow the rules of the dominant system or code, but the code is itself dependent on a radical indeterminacy with regard to addressees.  Hartley argues that the notion of a TV audience is itself a necessary fiction.  Thus if we in principle accept that a black lesbian may produce a “different” meaning to the one a white heterosexual man might produce for the “same” family show, then we must accept that each dominantly coded text is from the beginning open to readings which contest and therefore problematise that dominant reading.  Hartley calls his mode of television analysis “intervention analysis” and describes it as “a strategy for interrogating various centres, whether intellectual, aesthetic, or political, from their margins.”



Go to this page to read about issues regarding Agency and the TV ad.


TV as technology and cultural form (some critical responses)

Raymond Williams:


In all developed broadcasting systems the characteristic organization, and therefore the characteristic experience, is one of sequence or flow.  This phenomenon, of planned flow, is then perhaps the defining characteristic of broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and a cultural form. (Television: Technology and Cultural Form).


TV’s mode of narration does not distinguish sharply between fiction and non-fiction (i.e., documentary drama or drama-documentary).


The Series (soap-opera, sit com, documentary, TV ad, news report, discussion programme) is composed of segments.  John Ellis:


Repetition in the TV narrative occurs at the level of the series: formats are repeated, situations return week after week.  Each time there is novelty.  The characters of the situation comedy encounter a new dilemma; the documentary reveals a new problem; the news gives us a fresh strike, a new government, another earthquake, the first panda born in captivity.


The unifying principle behind TV programmes is not as it is in cinema (significant patterns of repetition and innovation of meanings; narrative sequence; central problematic); it is the series which provides coherence between segments.  The series provides the unity of a particular programme, pulling together segments into a sense of connection which enables a level of narrative progression to take place between them. (Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video).


Stuart Hall identifies 3 hypothetical positions from which decodings of televisual discourse may be constructed:


Dominant-Hegemonic Position

Negotiated Code (or Position)

Oppositional Code


He writes:


One of the most significant political moments (they also coincide with crisis points within the broadcasting organizations themselves, for obvious reasons) is the point when events which are nominally signified and decoded in a negotiated way begin to be given an oppositional reading.  Here the “politics of signification”--the struggle in discourse--is joined. (“Encoding/Decoding”)


Charlotte Brundsdon thinks that the critic has an obligation to influence TV programmes:


The recognition of the creativity and the competencies of the audience must, I think, be mobilised back into the relation to the television text and the demands that are made on programme makers for a diverse and plural programming which is adequate to the needs, desires, and pleasures of these audiences. (“Television” in Mellencamp (ed.) Logics of Television)

The following links offer various ways of developing a study of TV:




Blind Date


TV References and Web Page Links