Defining Television Studies

We’re in the final stages of drafting a volume on Television Studies for Polity’s Short Introductions series. While we’ve negotiated a fair bit of ambivalence in this task, we ultimately decided it would be valuable to offer something more than an “I know it when I see it” definition of television studies. The book is mostly a stab at an intellectual history/ lit review of the field, but to do so required calling a field into existence. We’ve tried to anticipate a wide array of criticisms about the contours that we suggest and have come to the following conclusions that we’d like to throw open to others’ consideration. We’re more or less agreed on the substance of the distinction, but continue to find it inelegant and wonder if a conversation among more minds might help with greater finesse. Here are some passages:

~ We regard television studies not foremost as a field for the study of a singular medium; rather, we see television studies as an approach to studying media. ~

~ Television is a ubiquitous enough entity that other disciplines would be remiss in their duties if they did not study television at times, and thus other disciplines and approaches frequently inform television studies. Whereas other disciplines may study television with a solitary interest in its texts, its audiences, its producers, or its history and context, television studies sees each of these as integral aspects. As an approach, it is not solipsistic; it is and must be disciplinarily ambidextrous. Granted, individual studies within television studies may analyze only one or two of program, audience, industry, and context out of necessity, but a television studies approach should at the least be mindful of all aspects, and see each intricately interwoven with the others. ~

~ Television studies will not always seek to understand television for the sake of understanding television alone; on the contrary, works of television studies examine the operation of identity, power, authority, meaning, community, politics, education, play, and countless other issues. Television studies, though, starts with the presumption that television is an important prism through which these issues are shared, and hence that a multi-faceted and deliberately contextualized approach to the medium and its programs, audiences, and institutions will always help one understand those issues better. ~

~ As we’ve drafted the book, we’ve loosely referred to the distinction of television studies in our conversations as the “at least two of these” rule, hoping a more refined way to express this classification would emerge. Yet it has not, so we distinguish television studies as an approach to studying television or other media that typically references at least two of these—program, audience, industrial—analyses. Regardless of focus, television studies takes great effort to specify the context of the phenomenon of study in terms of socio-cultural, techno-industrial, and historical conditions. ~

~ We don’t believe that we are path breaking in marking off this distinction for television studies. Indeed, what we describe here is fully consistent with the “circuit of media study” offered by Julie D’Acci in her chapter “Cultural Studies, Television Studies, and the Crisis in the Humanities,” as well as the approach taught to generations of students, several of whom have been central in defining television studies in the last decade. ~

For better or worse, the book will be out this September.


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10 Responses to “ Defining Television Studies ”

  1. Jeffrey Jones on January 4, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    All this is fine and well, and I agree. The question is, of course–as both of you have articulated before–“what is Television”? Beyond just posting this to be a smartass, the question does relate to your undertaking. If TV Studies is an “approach,” how daunting does the “at least two of these” task become when “television” is such an expansive thing? What exactly are audiences for The Daily Show, for example, when the answer is politicians, journalists, television set viewers, Facebook users, bloggers, activists, partisans, industry executives, and so on. Television as experienced and used in so many ways truly raises the bar on what it means to study “it”, whatever it is exactly.

    • Amanda Lotz on January 5, 2011 at 3:39 PM

      Thanks for chiming in Jeff. We’re actually proposing that television studies is not defined by studying television, which I think is consistent with how television studies is understood–as a big tent space less worried by what a medium may or may not be and distinguished more through the approach to study. It does make it an odd name (for many, media studies does just fine, but this has its own history and baggage).

      • Jeffrey Jones on January 5, 2011 at 3:42 PM

        I see, and thanks. That will deal with problems that people like Tim Anderson might have with this.

  2. Jason Mittell on January 4, 2011 at 1:09 PM

    I’ve grappled with the same question of trying to define what makes TV Studies unique beyond its object, and similarly agree that it’s about intersectionality – not only acknowledging that there are multiple facets of the circuit, but the need to study them in tandem and conjunction. How to say that clearly to outsiders is hard…

    FWIW, this is the relevant quote from Television & American Culture (p. 8): “We can consider all six facets of television as individual points in a broader circuit of culture model, in which all parts are interconnected to comprise American television. Any approach that excludes or overemphasizes one part of the circuit cannot account for the complexity of television. Thus this book promotes a multidisciplinary approach that considers all six facets of television both on their own terms and wired within a larger circuit.”

    • Amanda Lotz on January 5, 2011 at 3:45 PM

      Yes–this contributed to our thinking as well. I really like the six facets as well. I think one thing I’ve struggled with in fashioning a distinction of television studies is trying to explain what might “count” as excluding or overemphasizing–or in our language “being mindful of.” Given the book is aimed at upper-level undergrads there’s a way I’d like to be very clear that am finding really difficult.

  3. Tim Havens on January 13, 2011 at 12:40 PM

    So, I’ve wanted to jump in here but I wanted to also say something really profound and field-defining, so it’s taken me a while 🙂

    Truthfully, though: I like the “two of three” rule of thumb, but I do think it’s a little restrictive, or seems so when you talk about it. Instead, I think the statement about being “mindful” that TV always has industrial contexts, representational strategies, and audience uptake is closer to the definition I have: so, for instance, a purely textual analysis won;t necessarily address industrial contexts, but will recognize within its analysis their presence and the ways in which they might shape textual strategies.

    A related element of TV studies, then, might be working from a Gramscian theory of hegemony, via Hall, that sees each of these moments–production, text, reception– as contingent and contested, shot through with attempts to secure and resist social consent. For my money, when I start insisting that something I’ve read “isn’t TV studies” it’s usually because it has a singular reading of a particular phenomenon (series, genre, industrial development, reception practices) that doesn’t account for that contingency, or that presumes an absence of struggle in one of the three moments.

    • Amanda Lotz on January 15, 2011 at 5:31 AM

      Thanks for this Tim. I do worry about the restrictiveness of the two of these claim and prefer the mindful criteria as well. This is countered by concerns though, of whether the language of being mindful will be meaningful to an undergraduate audience. Since part of the goal was getting beyond an “I know it when I see it” distinction for TV studies, I wonder whether the mindful language goes far enough.
      Thanks for raising hegemony theory as a way at this. That might be a more helpful and concrete route.

  4. Jeremy Butler on January 14, 2011 at 7:36 PM

    I think television studies, initially, was held together by a desire to challenge empirical, quantitative, “mass communication” scholarship. And thus, like many young disciplines, in the 1980s television studies was defined by what it was not. Consequently, when I first wrote an overview of TV-studies methods for Television: Critical Methods and Applications in 1994 I began with an extensive description of MC research and then proceeded to explain how critical studies of TV was different. At the time, “television studies” was still so amorphous and the term so sporadically used, that I didn’t even use the phrase as a label.

    I’ve been working on a new, fourth edition of Television and I greatly expanded the methods chapter. In fact, it got so long that I divided it into two chapters. I also moved the MC discussion to an appendix as I think TV studies is now able to stand on its own, rather than being recognized as “not MC”. The fact that 8 or 9 books with “television studies” in their titles have been published since 1998 suggests to me that the discipline has come of age, regardless of the slipperiness of its definition.

    I look forward to seeing what you come up with!


    P.S. As I discovered as I was recently exploring the origins of the phrase:

    The first mention of ‘television studies’ in Cinema Journal was in Jane Feuer’s 1982 review of a BFI monograph on the British soap opera, Coronation Street. And ‘television studies’ first appears in Screen in an ahead-of-its-time 1971 comment by Edward Buscombe about the SEFT Summer School: ‘Everyone agreed, I think, that it was high time television studies were developed, and that next year’s Summer School should be a much more ambitious programme on the same subject.’

    • Amanda Lotz on January 15, 2011 at 5:39 AM

      Indeed Jeremy, and much of more of the book is tracing intellectual histories than arguing for definitions of television studies. We explore the various ways humanities fields, social sciences, and cultural studies as intellectual forces come together to inform television studies, and as you note, as forces of opposition. There were great sources for this in a variety of writings by Newcomb, Fiske, and Allen in the 80s and early 90s.
      That said, I think the more controversial assertion that we make (at least in these quarters), is also drawing lines between television studies and its film studies influences–particularly approaches that fail to transcend the text.

  5. Max Havelaar van Essen on January 18, 2011 at 3:15 PM

    The pertinent question is, can Television Studies move beyond its Anglo-American context and be applicable to television texts outside of this nexus?

    Max Havelaar van Essen