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Gillian McIver
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part 5

Watching the Box

"Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." Walter Benjamin [31]

Who can forget the late winter of 1991? Sitting glued to the television as CNN delivered the horrendous news from the far-flung desert wastes of Iraq: war. [32] As the scene unfolded, we watched in enchanted, stricken horror, never knowing whether it would all result in nuclear annihilation. As the days passed, we gradually became aware that the news reports and interviews with steely-eyed military personnel were more and more broken by commercial advertisements. This was war, brought to you by Coca Cola, McDonalds and The Gap. At any moment it seemed that Sly Stallone would turn up and "waste" Saddam Hussein, and everything would be all right. The very unreality of the war on television, a "spectacle" unlike any hitherto seen, made it seem like an entertainment. Jean Baudrillard even went so far as to claim that the war never really happened, that it was a media construct. [33] This would certainly have been possible. Instead, as we now know, the coverage of the Gulf War was as biased as it could possibly have been, hiding the realities of heavy civilian casualties and the murder of retreating Iraqi troops.

As noted earlier, television viewing is essentially a private activity, but one in which the "sudden and violent intrusion of the whole world into family and 'private' life" means that the world comes to us; we do not have to go 'out there' for our information about the world around us; we don't have to go into the marketplace or out on the road. [34] As we passively contemplate the world through the rectangular box, we are sharing our private experience with others all over the globe. The technology of television is global and, increasingly, the content of what we see is global too. The homogenisation of culture is a fact. American cultural producers dominate television broadcasting internationally, just as they dominate film production. Economies of scale mean that vast media conglomerates, including networks and their subsidiaries, can reproduce and recycle almost infinitely a relatively small amount of cultural product. George Gerbner, a media researcher and outspoken critic of global media consolidation explains:

"Most of what we see and what our children see on television is not produced for us [Americans]; it is produced for the global market. The reason other countries import it is because our syndicators present them with an irresistible deal. They say: "We can sell you an hour's worth of this television show or motion picture for less money than it would cost you to produce one minute of your own programming." That's destroying their own industries, their own creative people, the integrity of their own culture ... [for the sake of] dumping action-packed cheaply produced violent material on them." [35]

Gerbner goes on to explain why this tendency has negative consequences for the American people: their own culture and society is not represented accurately, nor are their interests in terms of everyday life addressed. Since programs essentially serve as an atmosphere for sales, they have to be compatible with the advertising message. That means they present a world where the best customers dominate. In this world, men outnumber women three to one...One third of our population - namely people with lower incomes and less education - is represented by 1.2 per cent of the characters.

The sort of programming Gerbner is talking about is concerned with selling not only a particular product (say, sports shoes), but a way of life in which we see these products as essential to living. This is not only happening in television, but in the full range of the "media corporations'" services. "By eroding cultural differences between nations, [media multinationals] dreamt of an international electronic marketplace where all forms of information would be traded under their control." [36]


Here Gerbner has been talking about programming that is overtly "entertaining" - sitcoms, films, game shows. But increasingly, "news" and documentary television has been reshaped to reflect the obsession with entertainment. Finding the "entertainment" angle on the news is easier than one might think: in the afore-mentioned example of the Gulf War, once it became clear that the world was not going to be blown up by the nuclear arsenal, people felt free to cheer on "their team" and to collect Gulf War trading cards. [37] In terms of day-to-day news programming, the Undercurrents video "Snodland News" features a typical ITN "human interest" story that takes up a full two minutes of news time, and over the saccharine tale lists nine important news stories which didn't make it into ITN's broadcast that day, including:

Seven London police charged with assault and attempt to pervert the course of justice. Muslims clash with Government forces in Nigeria following the arrest of their spiritual leader. The first senior French politician is forced to stand trial for sending Jews to death camps. MoD blocks a Newbury District Council survey of radiation leaks from two atomic power stations. Australian maritime unions impose a ban on shipping movements to protest at the arrest of two Indonesian labour leaders.

Any of these would have made an interesting and informative two minutes, but ITN chose instead the story of a toddler who ran away from nursery school and was found safe at home?! [38] Television documentary film-making is likewise under pressure to create a "human interest" angle. Commissioning editors invariably want a documentary with distinct "characters" and for the piece to unfold in a dramatic way, that is, to resemble dramatic entertainment.

Both George Gerbner and Richard Barbrook believe that "the imposition of a marketing formula on journalists and creative people" [30] forms a particularly tight noose of censorship, as "the majority of the population were only offered a choice between almost identical one-way flows of communications." [30] Both blame the deregulation and privatisation of the electronic media, which sacrifices creativity, public input and fresh approaches to representation, to the financial bottom line.

Public Service Broadcasting

Outside the United States, most countries have at least some form of public broadcasting. This is a publicly-funded (through taxes and/or license fees) television network which may or may not have advertising. In Britain, the BBC was founded in the 1920s, and the Canadian CBC was modelled upon it. Both the BBC and the CBC were supposed to completely independent of any kind of direct control by Government or other interests. [41] In recent years public service broadcasting has come under attack from neo-liberal "market force" advocates who claim that private enterprise has the money to buy in the creativity to make better programmes and thus provide greater choice. Notable exceptional programmes from private broadcasters do not unfortunately prove this true. The license fee debate is represented in the popular press as a "cash grab" by the snob John Birt to rip off the television consumer, who would rather watch private, cable or satellite television anyway. It is no accident that the papers which make this claim (the Sun among others) are owned by corporate media magnates that are ideologically hostile to public broadcast television, such as Rupert Murdoch. Governments are following on this trend, with swingeing cuts as a result. The BBC has just laid off thousands of workers as it closed many departments in favour of "contracting out." In Canada, the CBC, which is financed by a direct government grant (no license fee) and advertising, was severely cut in the recent Liberal budget. Approaching election year, the CBC fought back. In a carefully-staged "town hall" style public meeting, the campaigning Prime Minister Jean Chretien was to meet with members of the public to answer questions and listen to their views. Alas for Chretien, the CBC staffers had carefully chosen the most verbose, aggressive and angry voters for the meeting, and the Prime Minister, a career populaist whose image has been crafted to represent that of an "ordinary guy," was made to look foolish, arrogant and vague as he was bombarded with questions about unemployment and the future of the resource industries under NAFTA, issues he had wanted to side-step. [42]

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