Screening Socialism: Television, Public Space and the Ideals of Progress

March 26, 2015
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Post by Sylwia Szostak, Research Associate, Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University

This is the third installment in the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond,” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media.  This week’s contributor, Sylwia Szostak, completed her PhD in the department in 2014.

The majority of existing research on television, its functions, history, and development has been focused on the Western democracies, leaving the narratives of progress of the countries of the Eastern Europe largely unexplored.  This lacunae of research is making television from former socialist states “invisible,” to use Brett Mills’ notion explored in the journal Critical Studies in Television.  Recent years, however, have seen a growing interest in socialist television, demonstrated by the proliferation of edited collections on the topic as well as specialist conferences.

A huge milestone that pushes the field of socialist television forward is Loughborough University’s research project Screening Socialism.[1]  This project investigates the diverse cultures of television in five countries from socialist Eastern Europe: Russia, Poland, East Germany, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia.  It draws on archival documents, programme and schedule analysis, and oral history interviews, all to investigate television’s role in everyday life, the changing messages it disseminated to the public, as well as its role in forming public memory of the socialist period.  Researching the project in Polish archives, I came across material on television in socialist Poland that contributes to a better understanding of television’s placement in the socialist system, while challenging some of the ideas we commonly associate with socialist television.

Dziennik Telewizyjny (Television Daily) Evening News Edition Opening Credits, Channel 1 

Prevailing narratives typically associate socialist television with propaganda.  Propaganda was inarguably part of the paradigm of broadcasting in the socialist states, and news bulletins are the most straightforward example of this trend.  But it’s time to challenge notions of socialist television as simply an instrument of political control, and to demonstrate instead that socialist television was associated with a much wider range of social, political and cultural functions.

There is convincing evidence that in Poland, television was not only a provider of programing but was treated as a public institution to which viewers sent letters.  These letters not only expressed opinions about particular shows but also raised concerns over a variety of issues regarding public life as well as private problems.  Between 1967 and 1972, nearly two million viewers contacted Polish radio and television with a complaint or a request for an intervention. Putting this number in context, in 1967 there were around three million registered television sets in Poland.

Image 1

A family with a child watching television on an Alga TV set (1977) (Courtesy of Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe. Click for full size.)

The letters included complaints about poor living conditions, uncomfortable work environments, and the functioning of public institutions including the service sector and public administration — as well as unjustified enforcement of rules and laws.  To deal with audience letters, television as an institution set up a special unit, Biuro Listów—the Bureau of Letters—whose role was to analyze letters and advise viewers accordingly, or take action with appropriate relevant institutions, executing the right of intervention on viewers’ behalf.  Additionally, the Bureau of Letters prepared bulletins with summaries of problems raised by TV viewers, summaries then passed on to Poland’s Communist Party and relevant public-administration institutions.

While viewers treated television as an arena for social critique and a platform to exercise control over public matters and social issues, the authorities treated audience letters as a way of monitoring social discontent with the public sphere.  In this sense, television functioned as a mediator between the state and its citizens.  And television fulfilled this role quite well: an audience study from 1974 revealed that 40.6% of respondents nominated Polish TV and radio (combined in the study) as an appropriate institution through which to file complaints.  This result placed television and radio as the second most-popular institutions people trusted to handle complaints, giving way only to national councils but ranking ahead of newspapers, work unions, courts, militia, and even the government.

Television served other functions within the public sphere of the socialist state as well; it gradually became an important part of the military life, for example.  At the end of the 1950s, the first television sets found their way into the lives of soldiers through bottom-up organic initiatives, where soldiers would buy their first television sets with money earned farming state lands.  But as the technology developed and television became more popular, Poland’s socialist authorities recognized the positive impact television might have on Polish soldiers.  Television viewing was becoming the most popular and attractive way for Polish soldiers to spend their free time.  This was considered to have positive impact on general conduct in the military barracks, as television was seen as distracting soldiers from causing trouble or seeking adventures outside the barracks.

Recognizing this role of television, relevant authorities passed decrees that guaranteed each military base a given number of TV sets, installed in barracks’ common rooms.  As such, television watching and easy access to the technology itself served as safe entertainment within the barracks, preventing social misconduct.  Over time, television found other uses within the military.  According to research conducted in 1969, 98% of high-rank military personnel believed television to have positive educational impact on soldiers, and soon TV was employed in planned educational activities for the military.  TV watching, in this instance, was seen as broadening general knowledge among soldiers as well as knowledge of politics and current affairs, acquainting soldiers with various forms of culture and art, and providing them with appropriate models for behaviour and social conduct.

This consideration of Polish television’s social functions in its early years, years that coincide with the height of socialism, demonstrate that socialist television was not only a channel for political propaganda but also an important part of the general narrative of progress and change.  Television was seen to have practical benefits for the military, and fulfilled the important role of mediator between the socialist state and its citizens, suggesting that socialist media aspired to be closer to the ideal of the public sphere then one might expect.

Understanding socialist television can inform research beyond this specific field.  The story of socialist television adds new dimensions to the debate about television’s functions, which are usually considered only in the commercial vs. public service binary, where the income-generating function of television is set against its educational potential.  Overall, the social functions envisioned for television in Poland contribute to key debates about television as a cultural and political formation.


[1]Screening Socialism is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by Sabina Mihelj of Loughborough University. The project involves public lectures, conference talks and various publications, and will culminate in an international conference and a book on television in socialist Eastern Europe.


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