BOOK REVIEW / Live wires can upset the programme: Talk on Television: Sonia Livingstone and Peter Lunt - Routledge, pounds 12.99

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'ALTHOUGH you can learn a lot from television,' Mrs Thatcher once said, 'you must do things yourselves. You must be doers, not watchers.' Doubtless many people would have preferred her to be a little more of a couch potato herself, but that's not to deny the persuasiveness of her injunction. In its innate promotion of passivity the tube does seem to make tubers of us all.

Television offers us such an enticing surrogate moral universe that we now spend more time (at least in Western societies) watching the box than in any other leisure activity, and, cumulatively, far more time in front of the television than in education. It has colonised our culture. For one thing, public debate, previously managed elsewhere, increasingly occurs within a media context. Yet is that so unwelcome? Was Huxley right - in this brave new world, is what we love really ruining us? Or does television itself provide a form of salvation? Has the audience discussion programme created a genuine, alternative, public sphere in which citizens debate issues in a democratic forum and those in power are held accountable to the public? In short: are Donahue, Oprah, Kilroy et al offering deliverance?

The authors of this robust study of the genre have not settled for being cultural Jeremiahs; they could easily have launched into a caustic lamentation with real gusto, secure in the knowledge that it would have been well-received by their intended readership. Many contemporary critics have registered the dissolution of public discourse (especially in the US and Britain) and its conversion into show business. For that matter, the theoretical models that inform the work of Livingstone and Lunt generally suggest that television is at its most dangerous when it attempts to be remotely serious.

Habermas and his Frankfurt school colleagues, for instance, regard most televised public debate as modern vaudeville, designed precisely to distract the laity from concrete forms of political action. More to the point, it doesn't exactly require the insight of a renowned social theorist to spot that often such programmes are indeed utter travesties of political

exchange.

All the more admirable, therefore, that this plucky pair have chosen to explore the progressive potential of the audience participation genre. Admittedly, their tentative conclusions (arrived at by combining a grounding in theory with empirical research in the form of focus group discussions) point more to possible benefits for participants than for viewers. One is therapeutic: clearly some individuals may be aided in the exorcism of traumatic experience by the public expression of their grief (though the dividing line between sympathy and sensationalism is notoriously difficult to draw, and there will be others who are left feeling merely exploited).

An allied - though more arguable - claim, concerns the effects of the role experts play in audience discussion shows. It's certainly legitimate to argue that most of these programmes prefer 'ordinary' and 'authentic' accounts offered by members of the public to academic abstractions offered by experts, and that this represents something of a shift from the role of experts in many other forms of programming.

There is generally too little in this volume on the institutional and historical context of audience discussion programming, and for that matter a marked absence of discussion of the implications of the penetration of this genre's forms into other areas of programming (such as current affairs). But the book has many strengths. Not only does it display a particular sensitivity to the conflicting imperatives that guide television production, it also bears witness to the variety of ways in which the intentions of broadcasters do not by themselves always determine the final nature of their product.

Studio audiences are, after all, volatile bodies, and they have often been known to tear up the rule book in a manner that leaves programme-makers fuming. Ironically, of course, this invariably makes for great television.

Comments