Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture

By Collins, Kathleen | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture


Collins, Kathleen, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


* Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture. John Hartley. Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 290 pp. $36.95 pbk.

John Hartley's name has been on the short list of influential television studies scholars for over thirty years. He has held numerous academic posts and is now distinguished professor, Australian Research Council Federation FeUow, and research director of the Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. He has earned the right to use a similarly authoritative and profound primary title for his most recent book.

What is "truth" with regard to a medium? In Television Truths, Hartley addresses the TV via lenses of epistemology, ethics/politics, aesthetics, and metaphysics. He does so by dividing the book into four parts, each headed by a question: Is TV true? Is TV a polity? Is TV beautiful? What can TV be? While perhaps not entirely or definitively answered, they are the types of questions that cut to the very core of television's being. Hartley covers both the breadth and depth in an eminently portable book.

By turns Hartley teaches, theorizes, and muses. He provides, for example, a mini-primer on TV ratings systems and useful definitions of "globalization" and "mediasphere," as weU as an analytical passage on the movement of social identity from the poUtical arena to the cultural arena, often within the same page. Using specific details from programs in the United States, Australia, China, and the United Kingdom, he expounds on his baiUwick of the interplay between television and the public, and its effect on the collective - or what's left of it in today's fragmented media world. Most of what Hartley wrestles with in some way touches upon the consumer-citizen binary. After all, he coined "democratainment" in his 1999 Uses of Television, and it has proven to be perhaps the foundation of his work and a succinct description of at least one school of thought. In this book he spends abundant time on "plebiscitary" formats (those constructed by or around public opinion sampling). He discusses the use of entertainment to reach the popular voter, the popularity of voting for pleasure, DIY participation in reality TV, and connections between voting skepticism in American Idol and in U.S. elections. With regard to news, he observes that today's media content is shaped by editorial practices rather than authorship, and consequently our most trusted sources are organizations as opposed to individuals (which I interpret as CNN: 1, Walter Cronkite: 0).

Hartley also makes important statements about the mediated environment as a whole, of which television is only an element. He reveals some optimism about the current mediasphere in pointing out its positive attributes. For instance, "People are responding to different speeds of public communication, but this doesn't necessarily mean the end of democracy. It's not dumbing down but speeding up."

While he may not directly answer his four questions, he nonchalantly embeds small truths throughout the text. …

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