Book review: Canadian Television: Text and Context
Marian Bredin, Scott Henderson, and Sarah A. Matheson, eds., Canadian Television: Text and Context (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2012)
Reviewed by Michael Stamm
Academics studying television face a number of practical, intellectual, institutional challenges. At the practical level, there is a problem of source material, as many television programs were never recorded at the time of their broadcast. Having been aired, they disappeared as primary texts and remain only as entries in printed program guides and objects of selective human memories. In many cases, even those broadcasts that were recorded have never been properly archived, preserved, and made accessible to researchers. Like scholars of radio history, television scholars often find themselves trying to study cultural artifacts to which they have no access.
In the fortunate situations in which the programs themselves are available for consultation, the intellectual challenge remains of how they should be contextualized and analyzed. Should scholars consider the cultural work of a single serial program, for example, when the audience watched that show once per week amidst hours of other programming? Is it better to consider the “flow” of everyday televisual content, as Raymond Williams suggested, and seek to understand how the varied bits of programming and commercial advertising create what seems to be a natural integration of content that is in fact a highly fractured and incongruous mélange of messages and themes? Should we focus on institutional producers rather than programs? How important are laws and regulations in structuring what is broadcast? How much does television matter is a distinct medium? What of the public debates about television, and how do we untangle how these cultural texts had a public existence similar to novels, music, and movies as the things that we understand as our cultural fabric? And finally, there is the problem of the ever-elusive viewer. What did people make of what they watched? What did they like and dislike? How much influence did television have on the attitudes and values of those who watched them? These are just a few of the significant intellectual challenges facing television scholars.
At the institutional level, television specialists can face the occasional legitimacy problem. Though their numbers and stridency are diminished today, there are still scholars at major universities who question the validity of studying television (and other forms of popular culture) as an academic enterprise. Why spend one’s time and the university’s resources studying something of such low artistic merit and cultural significance? And with relatively few departments or programs devoted specifically to television, scholars of the medium find themselves dispersed in various units around campus, including (among others) history, sociology, communication, media studies, film studies, journalism, and cultural studies.
The editors of this exemplary collection are all faculty members in a multidisciplinary Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University, and they have assembled a wonderful collection of essays from leading and emerging scholars in the field of television studies, all of whom make significant contributions to our understanding of television. This is a book about both the substance and practice of television studies, and offers myriad solutions to some of the above challenges facing those studying the medium.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Television Studies in the Canadian Context: Challenges and New Directions,” contains three essays. The opening selection from the volume’s editors gives a great introduction to the broader themes and issues that the subsequent essays will address and provides a brief tour through some of the major works in the field in the last quarter century. Essays by Mary Jane Miller and Jennifer VanderBurgh offer thoughtful overviews of the main trends in the scholarship on Canadian television as well as fascinating first-person descriptions of the practical challenges facing scholars trying to locate and gain access to archives of historical programs.
The second section, “Contexts of Television Production in Canada,” contains three excellent accounts of the variety of cultural work done by Canadian television. Liz Czach offers a fascinating account of the visual “Canadian star system,”(p. 62) which she argues is more oriented toward television than film. Given the relative paucity of Canadian feature films compared to what is imported from the United States, and absent an infrastructure of awards shows, magazines, and publicity apparatus, Czach argues that Canadian cinema does not have the basis for a domestic star system on the big screen. However, “Canada does have the semblance of a star system,” Czach argues, and “it is one that has been developed and sustained through television.”(p. 65) This, she suggests, can explain why people like Rick Mercer, George Stroumboulopoulos, and Don Cherry have larger public profiles than most Canadian movie stars. Marian Bredin and Kyle Asquith offer analyses of networks aimed at niche audiences, in Bredin’s case the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and in Asquith’s case the youth-oriented YTV. Taken together, these essays delineate the variety of the political economy of broadcast outlets, and outline some of the strategies that these outlets use to remain economically viable and appealing to their distinct audiences.
The last section, “Contexts of Criticism: Genre, Narrative, and Form,” offers accounts of four specific genres and programs. In each essay, the authors are sensitive the question of national identity, and each addresses how programs and debates around them offer audiences ways of working out what it means to be Canadian. Michele Byers focuses on a series of serial programs about Canadian youth, and makes some fascinating points about their portrayals of racial and ethnic issues. Sarah A. Matheson’s essay on the program Little Mosque on the Prairie demonstrates how the show became a touchstone for people wanting to promote diversity and tolerance in Canada while being sensitive to the limitations on the ultimate efficacy of one show to do that. Derek Foster focuses on the “discourses surrounding”(p. 135) television, and the essay makes the interesting point that television content is important not only as content that we watch, but as culture that we debate in a “vernacular public sphere” that includes “newspaper columns, letters to the editor, blogs, online discussion boards, and face-to-face interaction…where differently situated publics interact, evaluate, and make sense of these discourses.”(p. 143) Foster’s particular focus is American reality television, and he devotes significant attention to a show created in the United States on the ABC network called The One: Making a Music Star, which the CBC aired briefly to great criticism in 2006. The public debate about that show and other reality programs aired on the CBC eventually formed a discourse about both the CBC’s mandate and about the widespread desire to resist American mass culture. In assessing these debates, Foster demonstrates that audiences make meaning of cultural texts (and occasionally reject them completely) in ways that the creators could not have anticipated, and he makes the provocative point that “there are few things more “Canadian” than debating the role of public broadcasting in Canada.”(p. 145) And finally, Scott Henderson writes about the historical biopics produced by Jerry Ciccoritti, in particular his 2005 CBC program about Shania Twain that focused much of its attention on her Canadian roots. Though the story was “overtly stereotypical”(p. 189) in some of its representations of Canada, Henderson also finds it useful. In language that might be attribute to a number of other programs considered throughout the volume, Henderson writes that the Twain biopic “[u]ltimately…demonstrates how television’s current structures, both textual as well as industrial and cultural, can be harnessed to provide content that reaches Canadians with texts that address their concerns and help to forge a collective sense of nation.”(p. 189)
This is an interesting time to study television in general and television in Canada specifically. Viewers around the world are given increasingly wide ranges of choices of what to watch on television and how to watch it. With the proliferation of DVR’s, DVD box sets, and a wide range of legal and illegal online purveyors, those seeking to watch television are often doing so asynchronously and often on screens other than traditional televisions. Many skip commercials while watching recorded programs, and advertisements can be avoided entirely on DVD’s. In Canada, the expansion of viewer choice has had a significant effect on the CBC. As Scott Henderson notes, the “growth in digital cable and satellite television in Canada means that where once the CBC was one stop on a limited dial, it is now one of many options available.”(p. 185) The CBC is also facing increasing public pressure about future funding, and the Canadian media system may well face significant changes in the future.
One thing that might have added to the book is some additional consideration of how television is structured and understood in Quebec. This book is almost exclusive about English Canada, and very little attention is given to French language programming or to programs, laws, regulations distinct to Quebec. This is raised in a couple of points in the volume, for example Kyle Asquith’s discussion of the “hypercommercialism”(p. 95) of YTV, a channel aimed at children and marked by aggressive salesmanship to young (and presumably impressionistic) viewers. Noting that Quebec in 1980 enacted a ban on all advertising at pre-teen viewers, Asquith points out that, while “blanket bans are potentially simplistic in the twenty-first century television environment…such measures show us that policy can be used as a tool to push back against the over-commercialization of commercial television.”(p. 109) This would seem like an issue where comparative work across language and provincial lines might yield additional significant insights. But this is not so much a criticism of this volume as it is a suggestion for future research in the field.
Overall, this book is an excellent overview of the state of the field of Canadian television studies. Those within the field will find this rewarding reading, and those working within other national paradigms will find interesting comparative material. Those teaching graduate or advanced undergraduate courses might find the collection to be a useful teaching tool, as the variety of approaches and research questions motivating the various inquiries offer useful bases for classroom discussions about methods and practical models for student research.
Michael Stamm is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and School of Journalism at Michigan State University. In 2012-13, he is the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Public Policy at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in Montreal.