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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #83, May 1998. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

Why TV sucks


[Order a copy by clicking on the title link on the following line, or the cover image further below.]

Pierre Bourdieu, On Television (New Press, 112 pp., $18.95).

In leftish circles, it's an article of faith that the reason the corporate media are so awful is the increasing concentration of ownership. Now there are ways in which this may be true; book agents report that they're no longer able to play publishing houses against each other, because they're all owned by a handful of giants. But how much awfulness can concentration really explain?

The point is usually treated as self-evident, not something to be proved. Yet partisans of the concentration thesis, armed with their ominously tangled cross-ownership maps, have little to say when asked just how these sinister interlocks explain content. Was Chet Huntley doing tough reports on nuclear power before GE owned NBC? Did People magazine run investigative pieces on the consciousness industry in those golden days before Time merged with Warner and both ate up CNN? Just what are we implicitly nostalgic for - the days of David Sarnoff? William Randolph Hearst?

Bourdieu's book is a way to think beyond concentration into the way journalism is practiced. It's hardly a flawless book, though. He highmindedly focuses only on news, though TV spends most of its time entertaining us, even in France. Most left-of-center media watchers do only the news (except for the cultural studies people, who somehow uncover a hidden counterhegemonic discourse in Jerry Springer), leaving about 95% of TV programming unexamined. And within this limited focus, Bourdieu often says things we've long known - the drive for ratings produces mediocrity! - in thick academic prose. But there's still some very good stuff to excavate here, and it makes you think about the media a bit more systematically than usual.


Field effects

Elsewhere, Bourdieu has developed a sociological model of culture, which many highbrows consider to be vulgar because it suggests that "taste" has a lot to do with class and status. Avoiding all the old Stalinoid base-determines-superstructure stuff, Bourdieu treats the various disciplines - painting, literature, science - as fields with their own internal structures. Writers, painters, whatever, all respond in varying degrees to economic and political pressures, but they also respond to each other, positioning themselves within a tradition and a set of contemporaries. So to understand journalism, or TV, you have to look at how the craft is practiced to understand why it is the way it is.

Elitist critiques of TV frequently lament the vulgarity of the public, and assume that the producers are just serving up what the masses want. But we don't really know what the masses want. How much have they had to do with shaping the choices they've been given? Ever since the commercial model of broadcasting took over the U.S. in the early 1930s - for details, see Robert McChesney's Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy - the menu of options has been written by profit-maximizing companies in search of big audiences. Editors and producers, typically the more senior the more cynical, project the constraints inherent in their situation onto the audience, usually assuming the worst - that they are dullards who can be aroused by only the most sensational novelties.

That's unfair to the masses for several reasons - we don't really know what "the public," whatever that is, thinks. No one ever asked people what they wanted from the media - they're just repeatedly presented with a incrementally changing, preselected set of choices. In recent years, more people have told pollsters from the Pew Center for People and the Press that they were closely following the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the state of the U.S. economy than the Simpson trial - but have we gotten the wall-to-wall coverage of money and nature that OJ got? The more interesting, and more important, massification is that of the producers - the hordes of writers and talking heads who all respond similarly to the same sets of stimuli. Of course there are distinctions, but usually within a familiar grid of market segmentation; a Fox news producer would have a pretty good idea of what would or wouldn't be appropriate for the Lehrer NewsHour, in part because the two styles define themselves against each other.


River of factoids

Let's look at some of the characteristics of TV and then try to figure why it works out that way. TV moves fast, especially commercial TV, where a minute can be worth a million dollars. In news, then, speed of thought and language are prized, meaning, says Bourdieu, no real communication can take place. Real communication, and real thought, take time; what can be done in an instant is only to pay homage to received ideas. TV loves - and it's amazing how instinctive one's idea is of just what is right or wrong for TV - "fast thinkers," who aren't really thinking at all. And, as other forms of culture sell themselves, and increasingly model themselves, on TV, the more they reward the glib and telegenic, and imposing more market discipline on once highminded zones.

 Bourdieu bibliography
 Bourdieu's profile at the Collège de France
 Spoons Bourdieu page


"Because they're so afraid of being boring," writes Bourdieu, "[producers] opt for confrontations over debates, prefer polemics over rigorous argument, and in general, do whatever they can to promote conflict. They prefer to confront individuals...instead of confronting their arguments.... They direct attention to the game and its players rather than to what is really at stake, because these are the sources of their interest and expertise." The journalists, far from wanting to expose the game, are among its players and rulemakers. The reason that the press is so obsessed with the horserace aspects of political campaigns rather than the substance is because they know that it really is just a matter of personalities, since all the players, journalists included, are in agreement on the fundamental nature of the game. No wonder the public holds politicians and the media in equally low esteem. If this really was what the masses want, why do they rate reporters somewhere around used car salesmen on the esteem rankings?

Polls and simulated referenda fit nicely into TV-land. They provide an endless stream of novel events to report, usually in complete isolation from each other. But polls are more than instruments "of rationalistic demagogy" that bound political discourse, by defining what are the reasonable range of opinions to hold. Their major function, argues Bourdieu, is to set up direct relations between the political elite and the voters, undermining institutions like unions and parties. Unions and parties offer solidarity, analysis, and institutional power - all those things that could offer a counterweight to the elite and their opinion managers. Polls create the illusion of democracy, while undermining the institutions that could make real democracy possible.

Journalists seem allergic to context. War and famine are presented as isolated disasters, as inevitable as other staples like tornadoes: the media see "history as an absurd series of disasters which can be neither understood nor influenced." It's a scary world, full of "senseless" crimes, inexplicable ethnic hatreds, and collapsing buildings - "a world full of incomprehensible and unsettling dangers from which we must withdraw for our own protection." It's a formula, concludes Bourdieu, that encourages "fatalism and disengagement, which obviously favors the status quo." Or, as Alexander Cockburn once observed, TV's fascination with meteorology can be explained as an attempt to make the social world seem as inevitable as the weather.

But the weather is always producing little dramas - trailer-smashing tornadoes in Oklahoma, mudslides in Italy - and journalists love the unusual, the exception, the curiosity (though its always their eyes that judge the extraordinary, of course; in U.S. TV, those eyes are usually somewhat educated and very well paid). The best kind of novelty is the exclusive, the scoop, the story that no one else has. But the result of this competition is, paradoxically, "uniformity and banality," as every journalist chases after the same kinds of unique stories. The quest for novelty ends up in the production of an enervating, barely differentiated litany of scandals and disasters.

Curiously, though, not a single major U.S. national news outfit seems to have found the great rebellion by Australian dock workers fired by a union-busting firm with the complicity of a right-wing government to be of much interest, even though any one of them could have easily scored an exclusive by reporting on them. Plane tickets to Oz cost less than Dan Rather's hourly wage. Scenes of workers blocking the wharves they once worked and of cops begging strikers for mercy would have been highly telegenic as well as novel, but clearly only certain types of novelty are welcome on the tube.


Market conformities

As Bourdieu says a few pages later, "free market economics holds that monopoly creates uniformity and competition produces diversity." But in the cultural world, and many other parts of the world as well, competition produces sameness. The competitive quest for ratings doesn't encourage product differentiation; anyone who broadcasts for money wants the biggest audience possible. Attracting it requires a deft mix of reassurance and titillation. Even transgressors like Howard Stern thrive on the conventions they appear to violate. Actual experience in reasonably democratic countries shows that state subsidies can do more for diversity, at least in the media and culture, than competitive markets can. Audience sponsorship in the U.S., from PBS to local community radio, can do similar things, but once corporate funders come in and/or the execs become obsessed with ratings, the fluff and drivel begin to flow. This isn't because the people who program TV are stupid or venal (though, God knows, plenty of them are), or because the number of owners has been reduced from six to three; it's the inevitable result of broadcasting for profit under competitive conditions.

Looking only at competition for ratings would overlook another important force for uniformity among the journalists themselves: they're the greatest consumers of journalism; few other kinds of people read as many newspapers or watch as many talk shows as do those who make the news products. They do this to know what the conventional line is, and to see what kind of scoops the others are getting, thereby reinforcing the dominance of a spurious novelty. This is especially true of TV news; network producers at places like 20/20 get most of their ideas from print stories, and CNBC seems to derive its programming from the morning's papers. If the New York Times thinks a story is important, the rest of the U.S. journalistic world usually follows along. (It's a lot like Wall Street, with most economic and profit forecasts conforming to a mean; no one wants to stick out.) But, amidst this sameness, individual actors want to differentiate themselves, so they go after the same kinds of spectacle their colleagues do, spinning it as an exclusive, or maybe experimenting with a new technique (Doppler 4000!). Though the audience might miss most of these forms of competition, it's typical, writes Bourdieu, that "you do things for competitors that you think you're doing for consumers."

A journalist named Hal Hinson, reviewing On Television for the webzine Salon, mocks Bourdieu for making the "obvious" point that TV is run for the "almighty franc." It is obvious, and is often repeated. But what does it mean? It means that even capital's apologists have to concede that culture run for profit is homogenized crap. This is, you'd think, a serious drawback for a society so enthusiastically ordered on market principles. But it's not; it's merely "obvious," and, like the weather, unalterable. It's a clever way to dismiss criticism; asking someone like Hinson just how it was that an admittedly sorry state of affairs became "obvious" would no doubt induce eye-rolling. But the "obvious" sometimes deserves the most serious scrutiny, since, as Bourdieu says, a society's most serious decisions often are made by no one in particular. They're just so obvious.

Hinson also hammers Bourdieu for neglecting the "proliferation of channels" thanks to cable and satellites. The channels have proliferated, but not the content. Springsteen was a bit off when he sang "57 channels and nothing's on"; we now have more like 77, on our way to 507, and there are about five things on. Oh, but wait, there's the web - that'll save us!

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