The "Turn" in Canadian Television Studies

By Czach, Liz | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The "Turn" in Canadian Television Studies

Czach, Liz, Journal of Canadian Studies

Outside Looking In: Viewing First Nations Peoples in Canadian Dramatic Television Senes. By Mary Jane Miller. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008. 494 pp. $85.00 (cloth) ISBN 978-0-7735-3366-0. $32.95 (paper) ISBN 9780-7735-3367-7.

Programming Reality: Perspectives on English-Canadian Television. Ed. Zoë Druick and Aspa Kotsopoulos. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008. 354 pp. $34.95 (paper) ISBN 978-1-55458-010-1.

Rain/Drizzle/Fog: Film and Television in Atlantic Canada. Ed. Darrell Varga. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2009. 318 pp. $34.95 (paper) ISBN 978-155238-248-6.

In a polemical essay published in 2003, media scholar François Demers suggested that Canadian television scholarship, after having achieved a high-water mark in the 1970s, was in crisis. Demers argued that, in the fragmented, post-network era, the prominent cultural sovereignty paradigm that had linked television policy and programming to nation-building, identity, and citizenship was exhausted. Furthermore, he suggested, the fatigue of this cultural nationalist stance was apparent in the decline in publication and research on Canadian television. Demers was correct in noting that Canadian television study was indeed in danger of becoming redundant and moribund. The reasons for its stagnation, however, cannot be attributed solely to a cultural nationalist model, which in fact shows little signs of exhaustion, but to a number of factors that have slowed research advancement in the field. These include an overreliance on communication studies approaches that demonstrated little overlap with television studies, film studies, and cultural studies methodologies. This was coupled with an overinvestment in the analysis of public broadcasting (i.e., the policies and programming of the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]), to the exclusion of serious inquiry into private broadcasters and programming, as well as a striking lack of attention to the actual content of television shows. Since the publication of Demers's rather alarmist commentary, however, the study of Canadian television has emerged as a reimagined and reinvigorated field of study. The revival of publishing in Canadian television studies reflects new approaches and methodologies, but the single most promising, and long overdue, shift has been towards close readings of individual television episodes, series, or movies - the examination of the content of television shows is finally taking its rightful place as a necessary component of Canadian television study.

The analysis of actual television shows has seriously lagged behind that of American or British television studies, and this new "turn" towards textual analysis acts as a necessary corrective. Following in the path of a number of recent studies, such as David Hogarth's Documentary Television in Canada (2002), Serra Tinic's On Location (2005), and Bart Beatty and Rebecca Sullivan's Canadian Television Today (2006), the books under consideration here examine specific production contexts or content of television programs. This attention to textual readings is having a positive impact on the field, as the late media scholar Paul Attallah noted in his review of Beatty and Sullivan's Canadian Television Today, one of the book's "pleasures" was its examination of actual television shows; this strategy "points plainly and abundantly to the potential renewal of Canadian television scholarship - it actually examines popular shows!" (2009, 164; emphasis in original). Attallah's exclamatory surprise must be read as astonishment at the serious consideration of not only the content of television, but audience-friendly programming at that. His comment is no doubt a pointed jab at the prevalent tendency of Canadian television research to focus on the arguably "unpopular" CBC.

In fact, the question of the CBCs popularity and its role in the cultural sovereignty model has long been a defining feature of Canadian television scholarship (Collins 1990). …

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