Notes on: Thompson, G.  (1979) 'Television as text: Open University "case study" programmes'.  In Barrett, M.  et al (eds) Ideology and Cultural Production, 160-97.  London: Croom Helm

Dave Harris

The Open University (OU) has taken over existing styles for making television programmes rather than developing its own.  They have imported the BBC notion of professionalism, involving a 'general service' standard, a notion of 'good TV'.  The real issue is what counts as good educational TV, and whether the OU media people [including Bates] have penetrated this issue.

A case study for the Social Science Foundation Course [D101] is examined as an example of a common form.  It takes a realist and naturalist stance, a point of view that takes the real world of experiences as privileged. Different theories are then made available to read the effects:

  1. Author theory.  This is reductionist and sees the effects of a television programme as an expression of the intention of the makers.  This conception is found in the programme notes for OU students.  It would be possible to analyze this in terms of coding and decoding, but the real point is that the author is a constructed position, and the text is an emergent phenomenon produced by a signifying practice.
  2. [Reception theory].  The OU gathers statistics on individual viewers and decides if programmes are 'useful' or whatever, instead of measuring the effectiveness of the text more directly.  The notion of the 'student viewer' is especially problematic, and, again, it is a position constructed by the discourse of the programme.  There is also intertextuality [especially links with other TV programmes].  We might expect educational TV specifically to open up certain negotiations with the other TV programmes.  However, we need to grasp first the specifics of TV as a text, paying attention to its signifying practices rather than assuming it can be coded and decoded in some neutral or external way.  We need to be able to read these processes including the absences, silences, slippages and lacunae of the text (167).  There can also be contradictions in texts.

Case study programs often offer a kind of realism, where the real world speaks, academic intervention is minimal, and has the role only to develop the story.  Is this compatible with education?  What about the possibility of breaking with experience?  The effects of realism have been discussed in pieces like MacCabe's, which show how it's possible to apply the effects of narration, for example even if there is no narrator, emphasizing signifying practices again.  Realism positions spectators, relaxes them, encourages emotional identifications, and depicts the real as unproblematic.

Case studies are usually set in work or home.  They do not attempt to transform the meanings of the settings.  Students are treated as general viewers.  Emotional identification is encouraged rather than cognition.  OU case study programmes look like the general service stuff produced by the BBC [which could also explain why students do not feel a particular need to go out of their way to view them?] (169).  Educational TV should be providing concepts rather than experience, and to encourage a stance that is quite different from the everyday world.  There is no 'real world' except that which is constructed in discourse, and the same 'knowledgeable discourse' can clearly affect viewing.

The actual example of Programme 1 from D101 follows.  It is not a strict case study, because it also includes interview material.  In fact interviews structure the discussion of unemployment, with an emphasis on spoken text.  [Detailed analysis follows 172f].  The main themes are the experience of the unemployed, and a constant contrast between past and present.  The producers use existing documentary material and extra interviews, both of which clearly provide an opportunity for the deployment of 'general service' codes.  For example, there are classic cuts.  The aim is to give the 'real feel' of unemployment, but another structure also appears at the end of the programme, implying that experience provides the best account.  The participants are not interrogated.  They stay at the level of experience.  As a result, unemployment appears to be produced by personal and subjective characteristics: we see unemployment as a personal threat and tragedy, through a discussion of the implications for families.  Our emotional responses are sought, and a couple are represented as pathetic and inadequate, even if sincere.

The structural elements of unemployment do not appear, even in the interview questions, leaving an open question about what the unemployed can actually do about it.  They are then contrasted with a successfully reemployed character.  Again, there is no examination or criticism of this person's account.  The summing up reemphasises these tendencies, and implies that pretty easy solutions are on offer, such as a better redistribution of leisure opportunities.

The programme is orchestrated by an absent metadiscourse (179), based on neo - classical economics.  This also personalizes unemployment, and sees it as a feature of market forces alone.  This is the only theory addressed in the entire course unit.  It is articulated through a positivist/realist discussion.

The visuals emphasize this structure.  There are concerned looks, the authority of a presenter is maintained, there is an emotional use of the camera depicting the effects of unemployment, close-ups, for example which then back off.  There are shots of interiors or 'depressed' exteriors for the unemployed, and positive and energetic ones for the reemployed.  The sequence is also important, to show that failure can be followed by success that it's possible to reestablish order and equilibrium.  This is emphasized by the positive suggestions to gain employment in the summing up.  It is a classic example of academic balance operating as 'equilibrium within difference' (183).

It is acceptable of course to begin with realism and the positivist material, but it is also necessary to disturb the viewer as well.  The programme should have emphasized intellectual effort and rigour not just the passive pleasures of viewing.  An interrogative mode within the programme would have helped to encourage students to do the same (184).  The technique should have involved disassembling common experience and then reassembling it differently.  Technique should have been deployed to show that people are being filmed, that the programme is being constructed and is not 'spontaneous'.  Editing also could have been unconventional, with conscious interruptions, including replays.  Of course it is a particular problem for teachers knowing when to intervene (185), so programme makers should keep their options open, and aim at particular conceptions not 'universal' ones.  There should be no neatly closed narratives.

[A shot by shot analysis ensues, 186f]

[inspiring and useful as critique -- but how do you make a TV programme depicting structural unemployment, without having an academic bore on in front of camera with diagrams etc? How can experience be used to lead to concepts? NB Gallagher tried avant-garde formats for TV programmes on OU students and they just rejected them

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