BOOK REVIEW / Turning Coke into wine: 'Media Events' - Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz: Harvard, 23.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
THIS BOOK should have been called Television with a Halo, because that's what it's about. It studies those occasions when television stops being junk food for the eyes, and becomes instead a semi-religious event.

Subtitled 'The Live Broadcasting of History', it uses the term 'media events' to refer to those miraculous moments of TV coverage - state funerals, historic meetings, moon landings - when television reaches beyond itself; when Coke is turned into wine.

As evidence of the phenomenon, the authors remind us how we felt watching the Royal Wedding in 1981, and how Israelis felt seeing live coverage of President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977. On those days, we didn't hop channels, we stared respectfully, we felt a 'sense of communion' with our fellow viewers; we even, they suggest, dressed differently - all behaviour befitting a holy day. When Americans saw the funeral of John F Kennedy, the television set was a 'ceremonial object', like a 'dining-room table . . . made festive by adding extra leaves and the best tablecloth'.

What these media events have in common is the fact that they are set-pieces, planned and staged in advance. But this is an unfortunately limiting definition: surely spontaneous happenings on television are not only equally important (or more so), they often provoke responses similar to those triggered by 'official' occasions. Dayan and Katz's definition leaves them arguing that JFK's funeral is a 'media event', while somehow his assassination on film is not. Nor can their model have room for the television coverage of Mrs Thatcher's resignation, which glued a nation to the box.

Still, there are some useful insights. The book is particularly good on the effects of live, ceremonial coverage on politics and diplomacy. 'There is,' it argues, 'a strong fear of failing with the whole world watching.' When a peace summit is on television it suddenly becomes subject to the demands of a medium used to carrying stories with happy endings. Reagan and Gorbachev, in Geneva, were embarrassed into succeeding by the conventions of televison. As the book says: 'The pressure is not only moral but aesthetic.'

Media events, we are told, can even have a profound effect on the structure of society. It is well known that live coverage of the coronation repaired the image of the monarchy tarnished by the 1936 abdication. Dayan and Katz insist there is a further, generic, effect: that the live outside broadcast affords the charismatic leader a chance to talk over the heads of society's middlemen. That is how Sadat in Jerusalem talked, unmediated, to the Israelis.

Of course, ever since Protestants used print to bypass the clergy and bring God's message to the people direct, all mass media have been deployed in democratic leapfrogging of this kind - television is just the latest method. What the authors fail to make clear is just how the set-piece event is any more potent in this regard than everyday coverage.

But the chief criticism to be made of Media Events is that it is written in an unreadable sociological babble. Every point is buried in pseudo-academic jargon ('the schematics of disintermediation', 'the locus of ceremoniality', etc) and is surrounded by ceaseless hair- splitting about whether x fits better into category y or z, when the categories concerned are merely the creation of the authors and have no standing in the real world.

Perhaps this is an insurance policy against the common practice among academic critics of dismissing work because of flaws in methodology. Either way, it confirms the general prejudice that this kind of futile tail-chasing is what the grandly titled Professors of Communication Studies are up to.

Still, there are enough tasty nuggets to sustain the interest: such as the peace treaty between Israeli and Egyptian television, which established an ad hoc microwave link between Cairo and Jerusalem to cover the 1977 visit, or the fact that in 1983 Korean television aired a 65-hour telethon to reunite people with relatives lost in the civil war. It soon became a popular weekly show.

A broader book would have had room for more such tales, and a clearer style would have fitted the subject better. But television plays such a starring role in our collective memories that even a flawed attempt to understand it is welcome.