Television: Policy and Culture

Richard Collins (British Film Institute)

Robert Fowler suggested in the opening sentence of the 1965 Report of the Committee on Broadcasting, which he chaired, that programming was really all that mattered in broadcasting; all else was mere housekeeping. In the first sentence of the final essay in this thought-provoking volume of essays, Richard Collins reminds his readers with equal force and validity that "all broadcasting systems however organized and controlled have to command the assent of their audiences to their messages" (p. 255).

The 11 essays, three written afresh, eight reprinted from earlier publications, provide a wide range of information about and reflection upon: a perceived change in the paradigm for media studies; the state of contemporary media studies and research; satellite television; the 1988 British White Paper on Broadcasting; the information society; national cultures; bias in news; and naturalism and realism in filmmaking. All written in the late 1980s, they focus on the United Kingdom in most instances, but two bring great light to bear on the Canadian scene, while others bring in useful observations about Western Europe.

A collection of essays poses greater difficulties for a reviewer than does a work written as a coherent whole. No effort will be made to comment on each of the essays, but an attempt will be made to draw some general conclusions from them. It is important to note, for instance, the breadth of scholarship, both in terms of the subject matter and of the geographic areas surveyed, the wealth of statistical data, the literature reviews, and the superb referencing of each essay. One can perhaps regret that the previously published essays were not updated. It would be fascinating to witness the author's analytical skills being brought to bear on the new broadcasting acts in both the United Kingdom and Canada. This reviewer at least agrees with the author's contention that, in fact, most of the conclusions "drawn from the data available at the time of writing continue to be sustainable" (p. vi).

The essay entitled "Paradigm Lost?" challenges theorists in the field of communication studies to assist in seeking a new paradigm to replace the now outdated dominant ideology thesis. The essays on satellite broadcasting in Western Europe and the United Kingdom provoke thought, not only about the European scene, but also about Canada with respect to language and transnational broadcasting, and the relationship between terrestrial and satellite distribution. The essay on U.K.-U.S. television trade clearly leads one to question some of the traditional clichés about American cultural imperialism. Film buffs will be intrigued by the discussion of the British film industry in the seventh essay and by the analysis of the work of BBC-TV documentary producer Roger Graef in the eleventh.

For the Canadian reader, the essays of greatest interest must surely be "National Culture in Canada" and "National Culture: A Contradiction in Terms?" While the recent federal election might lead some to question Collins's confidence in the robustness of the Canadian polity, one cannot help but give serious thought to his analysis de-linking culture and polity in the Canadian context and to his concern for the "fit" between audience and programming. Collins's questioning of the utility of cultural policies that have produced programming consistently ignored by a large number of Canadian viewers must surely cause the Canadian policy-maker to think. The Canadian content regulations have been in effect since 1959. Why in the 1990s has Canada one of the most advanced cable systems in the world? Why do Canadians still spend roughly 75% of their viewing time watching a foreign signal? This phenomenon, which might be termed "the revenge of the viewer," does force one to question the nationalists' paradigm of the congruence between polity and culture. Perhaps, in quoting Mr. Trudeau's version of decoupled polity and culture, Collins is correct in suggesting that "In time cuius regio eius culturo will be as quaint an archaism as cuius regio eius religio" (p. 223).

Collins has given students of communication and of television policy a great deal about which to think. While we may not agree with all of his specifics, as we move into the uncertain world of convergence, digital compression, and "death stars," we should be grateful for and willing to reflect seriously upon the wide range of issues which Collins has raised so ably--all the while keeping in mind the important role of the audience in television policy and culture.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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