Gray and Lotz, Television Studies


In Television Studies (Polity, 2012), Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz argue that television studies is best understood not as a field but as an approach (p. 23). They dismiss a number of alternative formulations, especially those that rely on ideas of television as a specific technology. Instead, they propose that scholars are engaged with with television studies whenever they study “at least two of the program, the audience, and the industry” (p. 25).

In each of their four chapters (programs, audiences, institutions, and finally contexts) they provide a historical sketch describing how television studies came to be characterized by the “at least two” approach. For instance, with respect to programs, they describe aesthetic analysis, rhetorical analysis, Althusserian screen theory, and semiotics. They also produce a genealogy of scholars (starting with Horace Newcomb and his notion of “cultural forum,” ending with John Fiske and polysemy), before settling on critical analysis, which “pries under the surface for deeper meanings and connects these meanings to broader social analysis and commentary” (p. 46).

They provide similar histories and genealogies for audience and institutional research. They privilege the Birmingham School (so-called because it developed at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies), and its later incarnations, especially fan studies à la John Fiske and Henry Jenkins. Especially revealing is their discussion of the “The Battles of Vilas Hall” in the 1990s, which pitted political economy (whose standard-bearer, Bob McChesney, worked on the fifth floor of Vilas Hall at the University of Wisconsin) against cultural studies (whose standard-bearer, John Fiske, worked one floor up).

Beyond its broad conceptual scope, this book’s value is its demonstration of a side of academia that is often hidden from students, namely the role of personal relationships, especially between advisers and advisees. People’s friendships affect how they go about their work, which ideas they support, which they contest. Although Gray and Lotz do not say so explicitly, it’s striking how influence works — not in a petty sense where someone’s distaste for someone else causes them to dismiss their ideas, but in the conversations that develop between scholars who are also friends. Ideas develop in conversation, and the genealogies are insightful because they show not only who was talking to whom, but how that influenced the scholarship people produced.


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