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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 documentaries.

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


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