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Writing for the Medium: Television in transition

Thomas Elsaesser
Jan Simons
Lucette Bronk
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 211
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  • Book Info
    Writing for the Medium
    Book Description:

    This collection of essays, by well known writers on the subject of writing for television, is divided into three sections, with the first one devoted to the debates on quality television. The second one focuses on literature and television. The final section examines 'Science on television', with series editors from Britain and Germany giving first-hand accounts of the scope for serious science reporting on television. This title is available in the OAPEN Library -

    eISBN: 978-90-485-0349-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
    (pp. 7-12)
    Thomas Elsaesser

    This collection of essays was inspired by a desire to bring together some of the arguments that have, in recent years and all over Europe, shaped the debate about the future of television. It is undeniable that the commotion came from a certain anxiety and sense of crisis, although in some quarters (not represented in the pages that follow), the crisis was perceived and seized as an opportunity: to dismantle regulations and state controls, to discredit television’s civic accountability, and above all, to make lots of money. Those, however, who felt that public service television – in its old, government-monopoly form...

  4. Part 1 Quality Television

      (pp. 15-20)
      Thomas Elsaesser

      The first point to make about the great ‘Quality Television’ debate that has swept the countries of Western Europe since the mid-1970s is the name itself. Put simply, there was no need for a term like ‘Quality Television’ until that moment in time when another kind of television had either challenged it or seemed poised to supersede it altogether. Quality Television, one might say, started life as a retrospective and perhaps even a reactive notion, positioned on one side of a divide (one often speaks, and not always ironically, about the ‘golden age’ of, for instance, British television), whose other...

      (pp. 21-34)
      Lutz Hachmeister

      The change of programme was unexpected; the advance warning came too late for several TV listings magazines. On December 15th, 1990, the ‘blessed’ year of reunification, ARD moved the third part of the US mini-series Favourite Son to the early hours of the morning, and in its place, after the main evening news, an extensive programme from East Germany was shown, with lots of folk music. Similarly, the end of the bankrupt East German TV station DFF1 was being marked with patriotic tunes and brisk marching music, along with the assurance that the best DFF programmes would continue to be...

      (pp. 35-40)
      Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

      The context for this paper is the massive shift throughout Europe from state monopoly television to a system in which there is a multiplicity of service providers, predominantly run for profit, and in which the nation-state plays a much reduced role, whether as operator or as regulator.

      The paper is in two parts. First, I contest the widely held view that this multiplication and deregulation of television services will inevitably lead to a rush down-market and the universal domination of trash. Of course there is plenty of evidence that in some places this has already happened, is still happening, and...

      (pp. 41-48)
      Sonja de Leeuw

      Quality is a beautiful concept: in such a nice way, it divides people and leads to homicide. If there is one thing people will never agree on, it is quality, and while there may not be many taboos in The Netherlands, talking about quality is one of them.

      The concept of quality is amorphous. It evokes all kinds of associations, most of which are based on prejudices. In our Dutch perception, British quality stands for civilization, German quality lasts over a thousand years, and French quality generally speaking means that it looks very nice but will not last very long....

      (pp. 49-53)
      Olga Madsen

      When talking about quality television many people confuse their personal taste with a more detached view of what quality television is or may be. Their definition of quality television is therefore too limited. It may be a paradox, but my ideas about quality television are very much the result of my personal experience as a filmmaker and producer. My career moved from being strongly involved in film to producing a daily soap for the Dutch commercial television station RTL4. This development may serve as a good illustration of what I think quality television is about.

      For the sake of clarity...

      (pp. 54-63)
      Thomas Elsaesser

      As a relatively recent arrival to The Netherlands from Britain, I have become used to dividing my life into BC and AC. Before cable and after... With it goes a new pastime: zapp TV5 Bernard Pivot and Bouillon de Culture, zapp BBC2 The Late Show with Michael Ignatieff or Sara Dunant, zapp Adriaan van Dis at the Ijsbreker, zapp West 3 Linie K, Zapp Ziggurat, zapp ARD Kulturreport. I had no idea there was so much culture on TV. Even so, I’m only scratching the surface, since I keep missing De Literatuurmachine, and I never seem to get up early...

      (pp. 64-76)
      Jon Cook and Thomas Elsaesser

      Ever since television first became available as a mass medium in Europe in the early 1950s, its cultural status has been the subject of controversy. Occupying legislators and social scientists, as well as philosophers and cultural pessimists, the quality debate as such is not exactly new.¹ Furthermore, the frequency of official reports and parliamentary commissions (Peacock, Pilkington, Annan, to name only the most prominent British ones) demonstrates that unlike the USA, where within regulatory guidelines mainly intended to allocate the scarcity of broadcast frequencies, television was left to find its own (commercial) level, European governments never quite trusted their national...

      (pp. 77-88)
      Jan Simons

      Although television has already been in existence for almost half a century and, apart perhaps from radio, has become the most widespread medium of our times both socially and geographically, there still seems to be neither consensus about what counts as ‘good’ television, nor any agreement about the way such a consensus might be achieved. As Jon Cook and Thomas Elsaesser argue elsewhere in this volume, there is not even agreement about the norms by which judgements of matters of quality might be considered as consensual. On what community for instance does such a consensus depend? Is it the community...

  5. Part 2 Literature on Television

      (pp. 91-97)
      Thomas Elsaesser

      Nowhere is the sentiment that ‘traduction, c’est trahison’ more quickly on everyone’s lips than when the discussion turns to literature and television. It hardly appears worth arguing that a writer is trivialized by being visualized, a fate bad enough when a novel is adapted for the cinema, but an enterprise compromised beyond redemption once the small screen is involved. In the case of dead writers, television can at least claim a public duty when bringing the nation’s literary heritage to new generations of viewers. With living authors, the medium stands accused of crass insensitivity, sensationalism, philistinism. If, having sold the...

      (pp. 98-106)
      Malcolm Bradbury

      First I have to tell you the story of my life. Not the story of how I first fell in love, or how I became the kind of mess I am today. I want to tell you how I became the kind of writer I am, which is a novelist who also writes a great deal for television and is very interested in both of these two different artistic activities. I started writing at about the age of sixteen, and I wanted to be a novelist; it was the great dream of my life. I couldn’t play sport, the army...

    • ON ACHIEVING GOOD TELEVISION (The 1991 Dutch Screenwriters’ Network Lecture)
      (pp. 107-117)
      Fay Weldon

      In Britain, this has been TV Franchise Year: the year in which the commercial network companies get looked at; if the quality of what they are beaming into people’s minds and homes looks too bad, they are stopped from doing it. Some other collection of people gets to have a go. The BBC, the State non-commercial company, is spared this process. Common wisdom is that if you do something for a fixed salary rather than a profit, your problem is not going to be falling standards in response to commercial greed, but a tendency to bore your viewers rigid. Most...

    • SPEAKING TO NATIONS (The 1993 LIRA Lecture)
      (pp. 118-130)
      Alan Plater

      All writers are thieves, and I have stolen my title from the BBC motto, which is: ‘Nation shall speak peace unto Nation’. It is a worthy sentiment, albeit edged with bitter irony, when we consider that the 70 year life of the BBC has seen one World War and a blood-stained garland of so-called localized wars. The conclusion, for broadcasters, is that you may speak peace – indeed, you may yell peace at the top of your voice, but if it suits the politicians to send in the troops, that is exactly what they will do. In my bleaker moments, it...

      (pp. 131-136)
      Jon Cook

      I want to begin with an argument that is made more fully elsewhere in this volume: that television, at least in Britain, has shown a peculiar respect, even reverence, for the identity of the literary author. The evidence for this is both various and compelling. It spans different modes of television narrative, from the one-off play, to the mini-series, to the literary adaptation, to the television novel. It can be identified by different names: Dennis Potter, Malcolm Bradbury, Mike Leigh, Alan Bennett, Andrew Davies. Whether these writers are primarily identified as writers for television, as is the case with Dennis...

      (pp. 137-148)
      Thomas Elsaesser

      Let me start with a quotation by Jean Luc Godard: ‘La télévision fabrique de l’oubli, tandis que le cinéma fabrique des souvenirs (television is in the business of making you forget, while the cinema produces memories)’.¹ Whether we agree with Godard or not, his aphorism has the virtue of clarity, since it polarizes not only the two media we are concerned with here, it also marks a historical parallel. Eighty years ago, in 1913, a very similar sentiment was expressed by Georg Lukacs, contrasting a medium of ‘fate’ with one of pure ‘surface’.² The difference, of course, is that Lukacs...

      (pp. 149-156)
      Jan Simons

      Literature and the cinema enjoy a very complex and ambiguous relationship. On the one hand, film is said to have learned to speak its ‘own language’ the day it adopted narrative technique, and this is roughly correct if one means by ‘narrative’ a certain way of telling a story, rather than the mere fact of the story itself, since obviously, to tell stories the cinema did not have to wait for Griffith’s legendary introduction of the close-up and editing patterns that were to become the hallmark of classical cinema. Film is supposed to have learned its language once it moved...

  6. Part 3 Science on Television

      (pp. 159-163)
      Jan Simons

      Television is a medium where science and popular imagination meet. Television itself is a product of advanced technology that addresses its electronically produced images and sounds to a mass audience. It is a paradigm example of how science and technology have radically changed both the private and public sectors of social and cultural life. Television has drastically transformed family life, social habits, leisure time, consumer practices and many other ways of social behaviour. It has transported public forms of entertainment from the theatre, the cinema and the sports fields into private homes, and it has become for most people the...

      (pp. 164-181)
      Thomas Elsaesser

      Science on television: it may not be a perennial favourite of talk-shows like ‘sex, death and violence’, but the fact that in the discussions about television relatively little is heard of science and scientists should not deceive us: it is a topic in need of some attention. The general neglect underscores the contention I want to put forward, namely that media representation of science and scientists, but also the scientific community’s attitude to television, is as good a barometer as any of television’s changing function in the world of ‘neo-TV’.¹ In this sense, the section on ‘science on TV’ rightly...

      (pp. 182-185)
      Aart Gisolf

      The science journalist is a foreign correspondent in the land of science and not a translator for scientists. More attention is paid to science in the media these days than ever before. This applies as well to the print media as to radio and television. And this is understandable since there are now more media, more journals, more radio and television channels than 10 years ago, and more scientific research is conducted than ever before. Moreover, science has discovered that the media can be extraordinarily useful where money is concerned. And finally, many a scientist is driven by vanity into...

      (pp. 186-190)
      Graham Creelman

      There can be a real excitement – a charge of energy almost – about the making of natural history programmes. Occasionally, it is possible not just to open people’s eyes to some spectacular piece of behaviour, but also actually to create a climate of opinion which alters the perception of a particular species. It is more like being a movie director than a documentary maker. A documentary most often moves relentlessly towards a detailed and argued conclusion. Even those forms which deal with the randomness of life proceed in a way which is part of a process accountable inside the logic of...

      (pp. 191-193)
      Jana Bennett

      Do science broadcasters know if they are serving their audience with what they want or are deemed to need? Are they tackling the ‘right’ stories for their audience? There has long been a creative tension within science programme making over what we are trying to achieve. I'm not talking about specially tailored programmes with a specific educational brief, but mainstream television.

      Is our primary purpose ‘educating by stealth?' or are we examining science, medicine and technology because of their relevance to society at large (this includes explaining important findings about the world around us). If it is the former, then...

      (pp. 194-202)
      Jaap Willems

      In The Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain and Germany, about 2% of broadcasting time on TV is devoted to science and technology. In relative terms, there are no pronounced differences between these countries. In absolute terms, however, the differences are remarkable: German TV devotes about twice as much time as the other countries to these subjects. In other respects, too, clear differences can be found in the TV coverage of science and technology.

      Science and technology are fields of activity which do not usually manifest themselves conspicuously to a large public. Nor are they very accessible. Scientists and technicians develop new...

    (pp. 203-206)
    (pp. 207-209)
    (pp. 210-210)
    (pp. 211-211)