Jolts: The TV Wasteland and the Canadian Oasis

Morris Wolfe

Literary sources on television criticism are conspicuously absent from Canadian libraries. Television criticism as an intellectual exercise and as a responsible discourse is undeveloped as yet in North America. The multipurpose usage of the television medium, the multilevel programming of daily television, and the lack of studies centring on the idiosyncratic nature of television, are some of the reasons for this lack of development. Television commentaries, reviews of various programs, speculation on the content of programs, and analyses of popular prime time programming can be found in abundance in text books, popular and trade magazines, and newspapers. However, these types of television critiques are short-sighted in that they centre the discussion on the content of the television program, leaving out the other important elements: the medium that translates and transforms the program's message, and the impact the message has on the target audience, the viewers. A genuine television program critique, regardless of the particular TV program criticized, will always be elliptical and incomplete if the medium (the instruments, the materials and the techniques utilized to transmit the message) and the intended scope or the anticipated impact of the message, the TV program, are not fully analyzed and discussed.

In the U.S.A., among the books that deal with television criticism and which come close to incorporating all the elements of media criticism, are R. R. Smith's book Beyond the Wasteland: TV Criticism of Broadcasting, Television as a Social Force: New Approaches to TV Criticism and Television as a Cultural Force by the Aspen Institute on Communications and Society, and H. Newcomb's Television: The Critical View.

An attempt to fill the gap in Canada has been made by Morris Wolfe, a former journalist and TV critic for Saturday Night in Toronto, with the book Jolts: The TV Wasteland and the Canadian Oasis. To my knowledge, this is the only source in Canada which deals with television criticism as an acceptable academic endeavour. It is the only source that attempts to make a responsible comparison between American popular network TV programming and its Canadian counterpart. Wolfe often succeeds in showing the difference in the way Canadian television producer/directors use TV gimmicks ("jolts," or attention-getters), and the way U.S. producer/directors measure the success of a TV program by the number of "jolts per minute."

The book is divided into eight parts. In Part 1, "The First Law of Commercial Television," he explains the difference between English-Canadian and American culture, and sets the bases for his discussion on the difference between American and Canadian approaches to television programming, with some measure of success.

In Part 2, "The Canadian Oasis," Wolfe makes an attempt to point out that non-dramatic programming on Canadian public television is structurally different from American commercial television. However, he writes only about content and totally leaves out the structure or the way in which the medium shapes or structures the message. His analysis is one-sided.

In the subsequent Part 3, "Dramatically Speaking," Part 4, "The Canadian Competition," Part 5, "The Difference in Mood and Tone," and Part 6, "Where We Are and How We Got Here," Wolfe examines the various television program formats by pointing out the Canadian response to the various popular American television programs, explaining that what Canadian programs lack in "jolts per minute" they make up for in reflecting the relaxed attitude and slow pace of Canadian life. This is an oversimplication. His analysis is vague and lacks empirical data to support it.

In Part 7, "Implications," Wolfe raises an interesting question regarding the visual stimulus, the brain and the viewers. He hypothesizes that television jolts alter the viewer's otherwise natural process of visual and auditory perception. He contends that the constant exposure to news, music, sports, etc., programs which overuse jolts, influences perception.

In Part 8, "Conclusions," Wolfe provides a series of suggestions for the improvement of Canadian television, starting with the government funding of CBC (which he sees as an important Canadian social force). He also suggests the creation of another network, the production of more heterogeneous programs and the promotion of critical thinking on the content of Canadian television programming.

The book is a collection of the author's personal thoughts and reactions to his day-to-day experiences with American and Canadian television programs. It certainly raises some important questions but it does nothing about offering solutions. His observations remain only a commentary, lacking empirical data to support it, and his critiques are one-sided since the role of the medium as a structural force in shaping and transmitting the message is left out, along with the intended scope, the communication purpose of each of the television programs he analyzes.

This book is a good start in the right direction. But it remains just that, only a start.



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