THE question of television's impact upon popular knowledge, a question both about processes and their consequences, has been the most frequently asked question in television research. However, it has been asked in such a wide variety of ways that the degree of continuity, coherence, and development across different research perspectives has been low. Questions of knowledge feature significantly in the long tradition of influence and effects research, conducted principally within the terms of the social sciences (see my comments on this in the introductory chapter). They are also directly at issue in that broad range of work which has used the notion of ideology as a key concept in exploring the relationship between television and the political and social order.
In this chapter, I want to look at the ways in which questions about knowledge and television have been posed. While some are concerned with the range and quality of knowledge made available through television, others are more interested in the processes of knowing--what is distinctive about television as a medium of knowledge? What is the nature of the cognitive experience which it offers when compared, say, to reading a newspaper? Many studies have looked at knowledge exclusively in terms of factual programming, but a recognition of the way in which knowledge functions are also performed by drama and entertainment genres is now more widely being shown.
Among critics and researchers, anxiety about the potential of television to hinder the formation and communication of knowledge (and thus to limit the scope and efficiency of the public sphere, see Chapter 2) far outweighs any sense of its positive capacities either in presenting knowledge in new ways or in extending the range of the knowledgeable in different fields. I shall consider at some length those who make a positive assessment of the medium, but first I want to divide the very large number of those who do not into three broad categories of approach.
By this, I mean those studies which, theoretically and analytically, attempt to show the ways in which television acts as a gatekeeper, admitting only a selection from available knowledge to receive the endorsement and amplification of television. This may be seen to operate in respect of political and social knowledge (news and current affairs) but also in respect of artistic, historical, and scientific areas of knowledge too. Television is, of course, necessarily selective as a medium but if its selections are judged to be unduly