Hidden package of mythology created
by TV content, journalism about TV
Television Mythologies, Stars, Shows and Signs,
edited by Len Masterman, Comedia Publishing Group/MK Media Press,
London, U.K., 140 pages, $5.50 U.S.
Reviewed by Werner Bartsch
Television programs, commercials, even a station's own promotional
announcements, derive their cohesion from an unspoken, but clearly
identifiable, set of socio-political beliefs. Journalists and professors
specializing in media studies argue in Television Mythologies
that these beliefs merge with their television environment to form
the impression of reality in viewer's minds. In this way, the content
of television becomes the mythology of modern life.
This hidden package of beliefs is usually subtly disguised as content;
sometimes it is visible only to a careful observer. Yet always it
is there, forming a curious, complementary relationship between
fact and fantasy. Each feeds off the other and, in so doing, each
strengthens the other.
Television is perfectly suited to the job of myth-making because
television redefines reality as "that which appears on television."
The central fiction of soap operas, says Charlotte Brundson, a professor
of film at the University of Warwick, is that the "communities
represented exist outside the box, as well as on it."
The idea that the characters in a soap opera "could watch the
news, just like us," she adds, "is supported and sustained
across a range of media material. Newspaper articles, novels, souvenir
programmes, TV Times promotions, even cookery books"
all join together to support the simultaneous co-existence of them
and us." It is even possible to "wear the same clothes,
use the same decor, follow the same recipes and pore over the same
holiday snaps as the people in the Street, the Close and the Motel."
Although it's apparent that the soap operas are not real, the stories
they tell do seem to represent reality. This representational accuracy
is achieved partly by the aforementioned promotional material and
partly by the internal continuity of the values of soap opera characters.
In the British soap operas Crossroads, Coronation Street or Brookside,
for example, the programs' continuity is based on packages of values
shared by all characters. One of the most evident value packages
is the firmly established WASP myth that happiness equals a white,
middle-class, heterosexual, house owning family.
Tomorrow's World, a futuristic British program about scientific
progress, magnifies the myths and mystique of science, say Kevin
Robins and Frank Webster, authors of Information Technology,
A Luddite Analysis. Rather than interpreting or analysing scientific
achievement for the benefit of the common man, Tomorrow's World
further mystifies the role of the expert, of science and of technology.
Science programs that heap praise on scientists and their creations
unwittingly short-circuit our understanding of scientific matters.
At the same time, they obscure central issues such as whether science
and technology improve our quality of life. Robins and Webster note
that, "When Roland Barthes says of myth, 'It purifies (things),
it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification,'
" he recognizes that myths transform history into nature. What
could be a more powerful and resonant myth, they ask, "than
one which naturalizes and neutralizes science and technology."
"For Tomorrow's World," Robins and Webster say, "science
and technology are the panacea for all social problems. The technological
fix. So we have an energy crisis? Then the scientists will find
techniques for the synthetic production of oil. No mention of why
and how natural resources are being squandered and depleted."
The notion that the lives, personalities and ideas of stars are
somehow superior to those of ordinary people is a film-industry
myth now co-opted by television. When someone becomes a "personality,"
the mundane tedia of their life suddenly become interesting subject
matter for a profile. Television workers are "profileable,"
says John Thompson, a lecturer in communications studies at Liverpool
University, if they are the sole creators of a program, or if they
are visible on the screen. Inevitably, this means that writers and
actors are interviewed most often. Production technicians, on the
other hand, are never profiled.
What makes the profiles so bizarre, Thompson observes, is their
tendency to focus on the unreal, the irrelevant or the imaginary.
In other words, personality profiles are myths compounded by myths.
Actors are continually asked, for example, about the differences
and similarities between themselves and characters they play. The
resulting interview, says Thompson, makes both the characterizations
as well as the actor's "television-interview personality"
appear real. In fact, both the characters and the actor's "public
personality" are phony, as is the interviewer's own "on-air
style." Profiles of "personalities" are mythical
The creation and perpetuation of myths is not restricted to programming,
however. Even something as minor as how a station advertises its
own programs reveals some powerful television myths. The disembodied
voice that announces coming programs on the BBC, for example,
"is the voice of authority, speaking in the tones of Standard
English," says Ed Buscombe, an editor at the British Film Institute.
In contrast to the competing network ITV, the BBC
announcer is never seen, only heard.
The BBC's use of a faceless voice, says Buscombe, indicates
the network's belief in a suprisingly popular myth among high-ranking
television figures. Although their livelihood depends on visual
stories, many television journalists and executives still hold to
the myth of the supremacy of words. A voice, "speaking in the
tone of standard English," conveys programming information
with "a particular cultural authority, . . . of a class which
has appropriated to itself the right to define what is true culture
. . ."
Although Television Mythologies is a British book focusing
on British television, many of the programs described originate
in North America. A number of others are well-known British imports.
The conclusions of the authors, therefore, relate directly to the
North American experience. Even when the discussion focuses on programs
seen only in Great Britain, readers still learn about the mythology
of television. It's easier to be critical when studying something
unfamiliar. Once acquired, however, the critical skills can be redirected
onto more familiar material.
Werner Bartsch is a freelancer living in Toronto.
Published in Sources, Summer 1986
Sources, 489 College
Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
Include yourself in Sources
Mailing Lists and
Media Names & Numbers
Names & Numbers