Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"If you watch a lot of TV you're not considered well-viewed"

So our shiny new Vice Chancellor decreed that there should be a celebration of research at our not so shiny and new university. He also decreed that it should take place this week. Last night the Bundaberg campus held its event, an evening of 5 minute talks by researchers for the community and students to attend if they so desired. I did a little talk about watching TV. I decided that if I talked about my actual research everyone would fall asleep and/or look at me strangely, given that the bulk of the audience were local councillors, sciencey-type people from govt departments, and local business people. So I gave the following very light talk. I got a bit nervous with the audience demographic. Some of them even looked like they woke up. They did laugh in the right places which was good.

For your enjoyment or otherwise:

TV is nothing if not constantly changing medium. We can watch it all shapes and sizes - from our mobile phones to our gigantic media rooms and everything inbetween. This technological development is one part of TV’s interest for me. The other aspect of TV that is fascinating is of its programs: the shows we sit down and watch each night. My particular interest is television comedy. In my PhD I examined some iconic moments in Australian TV comedy –including Graham Kennedy, Norman Gunston, Roy and HG and Kath and Kim. The future of my research as an Early Career Fellow with CQUniversity’s Learning and Teaching Education Research Centre lies in the genre of the television mockumentary, those TV programs which appear as documentaries, but blur this look with black, satirical comedy allowing them to often cuttingly critique various aspects of our culture. For instance, those of you who watched We Can Be Heroes it may be impossible to ever take the Australian of the Year awards seriously ever again. And if like many of us you watched Roy and HG tear apart the pomposity of the Sydney Olympics, it may well be that you will never watch an opening ceremony or mens’ gymnastics with quite the same innocence that you once were able to. My intention over the next two years is to consider the past, present and future of television comedy, particularly looking at the mockumentary. This means I will get to watch a lot of television, including groundbreaking programs like The Office, The Hollowmen and Summer heights High among others.

Some of you might be wondering how and why TV is taken seriously as a research topic. You might agree with Groucho Marx:

"I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set I go into the other room and read a book"

I’m the first to agree that my research isn’t life-changing in quite the same way as curing cancer, cloning a sheep or growing an ear on the side of a mouse might be. You might be asking how television fits into the great big exciting world of research? The task of research is to further our understanding of the world in which we live – its problems, its complexities and its contradictions. So with this in mind, let's return to the title of my talk this evening, “What can we learn from watching television?”

Now, the answer to this question is not “Nothing”, but rather “Plenty”. Television matters to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. If you wear your disdain for television as a badge of honour I may not be able to convert you to my cause. However, if you have watched any television in the past week or so I hope to convince you that in doing so you were actually engaging with arguably one of our most powerful cultural technologies.

Television presents the world to us but let us not pretend that it presents the whole world to us without fear or favour. No indeed. Television “represents” the world to us. Perhaps the simplest way of explaining this is to consider what it chooses to broadcast. Television teaches us that some events are more important than others. For instance last week news and current affairs were saturated with Tiger Woods. Never mind that there was an earthquake on the American west coast or the government was being overthrown in Kyrgyzstan. I even understand that Britain is having some kind of election. This all paled into insignificance because an overpaid, although highly talented sportsman lost some sponsors but made a return to professional golf. Here, television is teaching us that a fallen celebrity making a comeback trumps politics and natural disasters – on the commercial stations at least. What does this example teach us when we see that so many of us then discussed Tiger rather than Gordon Brown around the lunch table or over dinner? It tells us that we may well have been influenced by the choices made by a television editorial executive. This is a simple example of how television represents the world to us; how it teaches us what is deemed important, what is valued, what we should be fascinated by and of course, what we should not bother ourselves with.

As citizens living in a media age we ignore TV at our peril. Instead, we should watch television and lots of it. And we should watch it with a critical eye. As Clive James noted in one of his 1970s television columns for The Observer, “Practically everyone who watches television has a critical attitude to it to some extent”. For those TV watchers among us, we are all quite certain as to what we like and what we don’t. But I am encouraging you to watch television even more carefully than that. Ask yourself, what is it that you particularly like or dislike about certain programs. Is it the fast paced action, the excruciating close-ups of human remains and autopsies, the wit, the jokes, the silliness, the arrogant whinging of airplane passengers, the time travel, the medical procedures tinged with romance, the solving of crimes and mysteries, the melodrama of Ramsay St, the apparently desperate housewives of Wisteria Lane. Perhaps it’s watching people transform from obese to healthy while being gently tortured, or the indepth analysis of current affairs. Perhaps like me you take an interest in the colour of Alan Kohler’s tie each night on the ABC News, or maybe you are confused as to why Tony Jones insists on taking questions as comments on Q and A. Do these things amuse you, horrify you, mystify you, entertain you, make you cry, inspire you or even just plain annoy you? Television, like all our other forms of popular culture can do all these things.

You can try and ignore it if you like but I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. It is one of the ways in which we make sense of the world, so if we are to be well-rounded, informed citizens we might like to consider comedian Lily Tomlin’s comment:

"If you read a lot of books, you're considered well-read. But if you watch a lot of TV you're not considered well-viewed"

As a TV studies researcher I am in the process of becoming well viewed and it’s my challenge to convince everyone else of the importance of doing the same. So in conclusion this evening I am going to set you on the path to television enlightenment with some homework. You might want to note this down under the heading of "Programs I Must Watch".

Revisit The Young Ones on ABC2. Try Burn Notice on Channel Ten. Enjoy Margaret and David battling it out on At the Movies. And give the wonderful British comedy Beautiful People a try. Once you have completed those set viewing assignments you might want to consider the following recommended viewing (some of which you will need to seek out on DVD) - Grand Designs, Talking About Your Generation, Doctor Who, Seinfeld, Torchwood, The Big Bang Theory, The Colbert Report, Bones, Frasier, MASH, Northern Exposure, Seachange, The Antiques Roadshow, The Daily Show, Rockwiz, The West Wing, Black Books, Father Ted, and The IT Crowd. This extra viewing is strongly encouraged, but please be aware it doesn’t attract any extra credit.


2paw said...

Fabulous talk, well done!! I note with pleasure that I have completed almost all of the TV Viewing homework you have set!! There is good TV and bad TV in the same way there is good and bad literature, art, music etc.

The Second Half said...

Very interesting and I do have to say I belong to your school of thought!
And I've done most of my homework too! The Young Ones appeared on one of the new digital channels the other week and I watched it by accident and loved it anew !

Emma said...

I really enjoyed this speech and now I understand where you are coming from with your a simple way that is!

Wendy said...

simple is best!!