Are National Television Systems Obsolete?

Thursday, Oct. 30, 2003
5-7 p.m.


Emerging digital and satellite technologies are transforming the world's experience of television. News and information channels such as CNN and al-Jazeera reach audiences across national and regional boundaries. These developments are complicated and fortified by entertainment formats, movies and forms of popular music in particular, that also aim for global audiences. This Forum will address these and related questions bearing on the past and future impact of television in local, national and global communities.


Elihu Katz is Trustee Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is professor emeritus of sociology and communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his numerous publications is an influential book (co-written with Daniel Dayan), Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (1992), which examines television's handling of ceremonial or public rituals that reach global audiences.

James Carey is CBS Professor of International Journalism at the Columbia University
School of Journalism and the former Dean of the College of Communications, University of Illinois. His books include Television and the Press (1988) and Communication as Culture (1989). During the fall 2003 academic term, Carey is a fellow in the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

William Uricchio is acting director and Professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT. A specialist in media history, his books include Reframing Culture (1993 ) and a forthcoming study of silent film culture. He is currently head of the media and identity research team in the Changing Media/Changing Europe project of the European Science Foundation.


ELIHU KATZ's thesis, intended as a provocation, was that "television is dead." According to Katz, there are at least four central ways in which we talk about media: in terms of technology, content, ownership, and "the situation of contact." This last idea, the situation in which we make contact with a medium, is what Katz focused on.

Consider examples of the situation of contact in other media, such as the experience of cinema in a darkened movie theatre; or the way newspapers used to be read in cafes, but are now primarily read at home and alone. Although the medium of television privileges the home, it is not limited to the home. For instance, in Germany during the Nazi era television was envisioned as a public technology, in which single massive screens would deliver messages to large audience in open spaces or massive auditoriums. Today, much of India still receives television in village public spaces. Our idea that television should be in the home is so taken for granted that we often forget the situation of contact, and its implications.

When Katz says that television is dead, he means television of the broadcast era when a monopoly system dominated by three major networks, or a government sponsored "public interest" channel delivered programs to viewers in their living rooms. With the multiplication of channels, the shared experience that was once a part of national television is over. The shared experience within the home has also diminished. In the past, television was the altar of the living room; now there are multiple sets within the home. Today, viewing times are also fragmented and movable. Appointed times for viewing are displaced by recording systems and all-day news channels. All these factors have undermined what used to be a national experience.

Countries that have had monopoly one-channel television systems present an ideal scenario for the situation of contact. Having one channel is an ideal not only because it guarantees a level of shared experience, but also a shared agenda. Katz argued that one-channel television is more functional for a democracy than a hundred channels, despite the appearance of contradiction. Provided that the channel is independent of government and commerce, and truly professional in its organization, viewers would see every aspect of society reflected on that channel. Katz's "ideal" might be the BBC before the commercialization of British TV or Israeli television in the years before globalized television channels. With multiple channels, people tend to select the ones that reflect their own views. As a result, the role of television as an agenda-setter for a society is lost.

Katz offered the example of television in Israel, where there was one channel for twenty years, from 1970 through 1990. When a second channel was introduced, the combined number of people watching the news on both channels was fewer than that total number of viewers before. Paradoxically, having more channels attracted fewer people. Katz believes part of the explanation is that with multiple channels, viewers could no longer assume that others shared the same agenda.

Katz also argued that not only is this form of national or consensus television dead, but that it has no obvious successor. In the history of mass media's role in the integration of national states, newspapers were displaced by radio, which were in turn replaced by television. Now that television is fragmented, there is no clear successor (especially not the Internet) that will become a medium of national integration.

Another effect of fragmentation is the disappearance of "media events," the great events broadcast on television that were watched by whole societies. Media events such as coronations, royal weddings, or presidential debates were live broadcasts of history that riveted entire nations. Celebratory events that marked the end of conflict, or proposed a shared way of looking at a problem, are no longer as gripping as they used to be. Instead, coverage of war or terror such as the events of September 11th, have taken their place.

One possible reason for the decline of media events is a growing cynicism. For example, audiences used to be impressed with summitry, when world leaders came together to sign peace treaties. Now, there is a greater cynicism that such treaties will not last. Secondly, these events were once "performative" -- events not only reflected or displayed by television, but also in part created or enabled by the medium. With the fragmentation of television, the feeling that "the whole world is watching" has declined.

The experience of viewing television used to be comparable to a holiday like Passover or Christmas, when groups gathered to focus on a shared symbol or myth, made ritual conversation, and knew that others in the society were doing the same. The situation of contact created a unified awareness of society, and made for social cohesion. Today, this is a role that television seems to be abdicating.

JAMES CAREY pointed out that the title of the next scheduled forum, "Covering Iraq: American Media Versus the World," implies that our national television system is not obsolete. This is the idea that Carey wanted to follow.

There is no doubt that over the last 25 years what we have thought of as national television has changed in the ways Katz mentioned. However, to say that these systems are obsolete may be inaccurate or at least premature.

It is true that news and information channels such as CNN and al-Jazeera reach audiences across national boundaries. Al-Jazeera is a television service for the Arab world that was started by refugees from the BBC, many of whom trained in the west. Their object was to modernize Arab societies by creating a system of free and open expression. At this level, al-Jazeera does not sound much different from American channels.

Yet the purpose of al-Jazeera was not to de-Arabize Arab societies, but to make them both free and more Arab. In fact, as al-Jazeera added more staff to the original BBC contingent, it reflected all the modern ideologies of the Middle East, including Islamic fundamentalism, pan-Arabism, and powerful nationalisms at the same time. In fact, if al-Jazeera is successful at leading the establishment of a modern television system in the Middle East, it is possible that the nationalist tendencies will override the pan-Arab ones. As a result, the people from Saudi Arabia working for al-Jazeera will go back to working for Saudi Arabia. But it is still an open question as to what will happen.

For now, al-Jazeera is much like CNN. As a television service, it reaches 35 million out of a population of 280 million. Viewers still turn to more established national news services, particularly in moments of crisis. Al-Jazeera makes a lot of money, but mostly through selling tapes to western broadcasters.

CNN was highly successful when it had no competition. It followed a transnational policy, localizing certain specific content for particular national audiences. Its audience has never been large relative to the commercial networks, except in moments of crises when ratings might double from 2.5 to 5 percent of the viewing audience. However, it may be that FOX News has found the formula, not CNN. FOX seeks to be a global economic enterprise through its position as a powerfully conservative and U.S. nationalist news corporation.

It is also true and significant that entertainment formats are aiming for global audiences. But it appears that the more frequent case is that countries are borrowing formats from each other. An Australian television producer once told Carey how he got his ideas for work: for two weeks, he rented a hotel room in Los Angeles and watched everything he could on cable, and brought back ideas to produce as Australian programming. This is a kind of "indigenization" that is different from globalization.

Carey believes that in fact, the overwhelming tendency is for people to prefer news and entertainment that is national; that is addressed in tones of the national culture, and which appeals to and explores national myths. Indeed it may be that a program produced in one country will be of interest to audiences elsewhere. But there are surely limits to this sort of appeal. For example, Carey wonders what foreign audiences think of a show like The Sopranos, so deeply embedded in the texture of not only American, but also New Jersey life.

If "national television" means television of the network era, when a country was dominated by "single channels" (or three corporations, as was the case in the United States), then many aspects of such monopoly arrangements are finished. The era of high ratings, when one single program could attract up to 80 percent of the television audience, is over. The celebratory "media events" that Katz described have been replaced by transcendent or degenerate versions. America is no longer "One nation under television."

But that is not to say that television may not morph into something else beyond the network era that is remains deeply national, altogether different from what we have experienced. To say that national television is obsolete could imply something very controversial: that nations are obsolete, or that nationalism is a waning form of ideological bonding.

Nations are under powerful pressures from above; for example, transnational television companies aim to take sovereignty upward. Nations are also facing pressures from below, at danger of losing sovereignty to constituent groups. Such is the case in Spain, where the Catalan people wish to be a separate nation within the European Union. Whether the transnational or sub-national forces in the world will be successful is an open question. The politics of modern life will ultimately determine what happens to television in our highly contingent global environment.

WILLIAM URICCHIO began by complicating Katz's idealized notion of a single broadcaster unifying a nation. This may be a utopian ideal, but it was also an idea of media use deployed in Nazi Germany, where radio and television broadcasting was explicitly seen as constructing a "Volkskorper," or "body of the public." As this historical reality makes clear, the crucial question is who has access to the media system; who controls it. A single-channel broadcast system is not inherently democratic.

There is an even earlier idea of television, which may be reappearing today -- a highly atomized notion that television is something akin to the telephone, a privatized medium of point-to-point communication; and thus an extension of the self. The proliferation of channels and choices, and especially the advent of new systems for recording, archiving and replaying material may be returning us to the sense that television is a personalized and atomized technology.

National broadcasting may be under siege, but it is not at all obsolete; it is extremely vital. Like the nation, it is in a state of redefinition. We are now seeing populations shifting beyond the bounds of the territorial nation-state, and television systems are speaking outside those boundaries as well. The results are complex and contradictory.

At stake here are issues like popular memory and national narratives. The press played a key role in the emergence of European nationalism in the late 18th to19th century. As we enter the 21st century, the role of television is vital. We may have a de-territorialized nation-state and broadcasting system, but that is not to say that TV is denationalized.

Uricchio gave the example of Turkish populations in Europe. Turkish groups in countries like Germany and the Netherlands have been using cable and satellite television to stay attuned to events in Turkey. They are maintaining their links with their motherland through television. If we think in de-territorialized terms, this is a kind of national television.

CNN, which reaches across national boundaries to many audiences, is another interesting model of how this kind of national television might work. Its market share is often minute, but extraordinarily powerful. For example, in Amsterdam where cable broadcasters attempted to drop CNN from their menu of channels, the two percent of the market that watched CNN were the bankers, stockbrokers, and cultural elite. They were powerful enough to get CNN back on the air.

Only about twenty percent of the content on American and European versions of CNN are the same, which shows how a global extension of a nation can be highly attuned to local markets. CNN seems to be organizing itself in ways that can address both an American audience and a global audience of expatriates and others who are less interested in being enveloped by a narrowly national message.

It is also important to notice that in the European market, every nation chose its own technological standard for television. For example, British TV viewers cannot pick up French television. This was unlike radio, where a listener could receive broadcasts from other countries. This reminds us of how technology itself may be nationalized, a strategy at which the French have been adept.

In Europe in general the tension between national and transnational broadcast flows has been complicated. If we look closely at what people actually did with technologically nationalized broadcasting systems, we see a several interesting things.

First, there were a lot of low-level technological innovations. In the 1950s and 60s, people living in border areas, or small countries like Belgium, modified their televisions so that they could receive multiple national broadcasts. People themselves actively modified the technology to ensure transnational flow.

Next, ideologically polarized areas like Berlin, awash with messages from the British, French, Americans, Soviets, and East and West Germans, became extraordinary broadcast spaces. Berliners were acutely aware of the subjective nature of the news, and were forced to think about the nation as a constructor of different worldviews. There were multinational flows, but national understandings.

Finally, today there are media markets like the one in the Netherlands, which has a 30-channel cable system that includes Belgian, German, and Turkish channels among others. It is an environment that contains a plurality of national voices within a territorial space.

Today in European media there is a powerful debate or struggle between commercial elements favoring an unregulated market for TV and groups who support some form of governmental or public interest protection of minority and non-commercial voices. It is the old divide between the marketplace and the "public sphere." The public-sphere notion of broadcasting is central to a thriving democracy, and it is under siege today from many directions, including what might be called the market-driven, jingoistic culture of FOX News.

The history of public broadcasting in Europe is instructive in this debate. In the Dutch market, 97 of the top 100 most watched programs are from public broadcasters. But of those shows, 80% are sports programs. Twenty programs are about royal events, while only five deal with national news. Although the public broadcasters hold much power, the power lies in sports and media events, which are both highly contested by commercial broadcasters. Commercial forces argue that the state can preserve their public forums, but sports and media events should be the domain of the commercial sector, along with entertainment.

Finally, Uricchio reminded the audience that reality television shows are often used as evidence of globalization. But the actual evidence is complicated. Although the formats are globalized, each individual program has a regional identity, and its national character is often profoundly specific. For example, the Basques fought to get their own television service, and ended up doing versions of Wheel of Fortune and Big Brother in the Basque language. From one angle, this might suggest that a culture with such an interesting history was wasting its resources on such programming. However, the ways in which Basque TV reworked the formats to fit their own culture may indicated that some of these programs are functioning in the same way older literary forms and genres did.


NOLAN BOWIE, senior fellow and adjunct lecturer in public policy, JFK School of Government: When I read the title of tonight's Forum, I saw three questions instead of one: What are "national television systems"? Which nations in particular? And obsolete for what purpose? For example, in developing countries, television is still seen as a tool for development, propaganda, or maintaining the government. This is very different from the U.S. business model, where the national government allocates licenses, decides who has access, and how the airwaves will be used. For example, six megahertz of channel space can be used to allocate thirty FM channels or 600 AM channels. It is a decision of government that helps define scarcity.

URICCHIO: If you look at the U.S. market, the decision to favor VHF over UHF speaks to the way technology and culture can be fundamentally intertwined. The decision was made at the behest of one particular broadcasting company, and we have been forced to live with it ever since.

KATZ: Your idea is based on the assumption that multiplicity, or what I would call fragmentation, is desirable. I agree that we should give access to anybody who has something to say. But the only difference between us - and this has big legal and technological implications - is that I want there to be someone in the audience who disagrees.

I am aware of the potential dangers of one-channel television. But if the ideal is some sort of participatory democracy, there must be an arena or shared forum where one person listens to everybody else. I see the ideal society as having such a shared space, and how that can be achieved is my whole point.

BOWIE: I also believe that much entertainment content is being made for an international audience. It is significant that half the profit of entertainment programming is made in the U.S., and the other half is made elsewhere.

CAREY: There is an increasing international traffic in television programming. When I watch television from all over the world, most of what I see is constructed from a national point of view. When you look at British programming, there are aspects of it, such as its pacing and rhythm, which make it uniquely British. Programming made in one place can certainly be of interest somewhere else, but its original conception is within the framework of a national understanding. Even if there is great international traffic, the national origins are powerfully important.

URICCHIO: I think the real danger is in the issue of flow, or the ways in which certain corporations dominate distribution. A lot of American programming flows into Europe, but very little programming flows back to this market. There is a problem with the filter that allows the flow of transnational programming to go one way, but not the other.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I tend to believe that we are developing a larger community. When I saw The Sopranos for the first time in England, people there were talking about it as though it reflected the London equivalent of the New Jersey mobsters. And today I spoke to my children, who live in other parts of the country, over telephone about The West Wing. We are a self-proclaimed group of people watching together, even though we are thousands of miles apart. The fact that we can communicate so freely over the phone makes a big difference in how big the theatre and living room become. We may be forming a larger community in our imperfect ways.

QUESTION: Is there something akin to public access in other parts of the world, and is the presence of public access in America the polar opposite of the powerful national networks?

KATZ: Public access has been tried in many other places, but as far as I know it doesn't really succeed because nobody watches. We have better systems than public access to reach wider audiences, such as the Internet. I believe that the division of labor among the media will become clearer as television changes its role.

NICHOLAS HUNTER, MIT undergraduate: You mentioned how there is no clear successor to television as a mass communications medium. With the presence of devices like TiVo and DVD recorders, which take elements of television culture and redistribute them in various fashions, to what degree do such devices influence television? Does that decentralized nature of distribution prohibit the ability to create a new centralized media form?

URICCHIO: Such devices have definitely affected the broadcasting industry. There is a huge effort by the FCC to make sure such a scenario will not come to pass. One way is by embedding tags in content, which disables any attempt at repurposing. This is just one of many measures.

CAREY: I want to say something that cuts across a couple of the comments. It is important to ask: how and where is sovereignty migrating, and under what circumstances? You can certainly have a nation without having a television system, where a national identity is organized on a federal basis through different institutions. After all, there was plenty of shared culture in the 19th century. With the emergence of radio and television, sovereignty gravitated upward into national institutions from localized ones. The power of the federal government was asserted. Sovereignty is not located in international institutions now, though it may be at some point. It's a process of which the end point is unclear.

STANLEY LIEBERSON, Harvard sociologist: What kind of data exists to support some of these speculations on media? For example, has there been some evidence of the possibility that news coverage was more balanced when there were fewer channels? Also, we should be careful in suggesting that sports coverage is different from news. Sports are news for some people, and it's not for us to say that it isn't.

KATZ: Of course, there is lots of data on the media. We've just reached the moment where the audience for all of cable exceeds the audience for all the broadcast networks. There definitely seems to be fragmentation going on. There was a study done by a group at the University of Maryland that found that people who tend to believe there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or believe there is a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, also watch FOX News. Though the causality is unclear, and the sample may be self-selective, there still seems to be a problem.

BOWIE: I believe that Americans still get their information from television more than any other medium in communications. What is the appropriate role of government regarding television systems and individual broadcasters? Moreover, what is the obligation of broadcast licensees as public trustees?

The purpose of the Federal Communications Act of 1934 was to promote national defense, make the best use of radio, and to "serve the public interest and necessity," which government has defined over the years. It has mainly been used to promote localism, which is why broadcasters operate with limited power in their license to local communities. It also promotes diversity of viewpoints. It regulates by providing subsidies and structural regulations. But all of this is breaking down because of the multiplicity of channels. Government is abdicating its responsibility, while still giving away very valuable public properties. Some have estimated that the current value of the digital spectrum, which was given away in 1996, is up to 771 billion dollars. And there has been no giving back to the public, except for the rule providing three hours of children's programming a week.

CAREY: I agree with the implications of what you're saying. For those reasons I have opposed deregulation in many of its forms. The language that you're using, which is embedded in the Federal Communications Act, is a language of the public interest that has been destroyed in our discourse. The dominant discourse now enshrines individual choice. To say that you serve the public interest by widening the number of choices available is what the cultural transformation of American politics has been about. The language of individual choice is now the central political language of the culture. And therefore it has eaten away at the language of the public interest, which was embedded in the FCC act.

ALEX JONES, director, Shorenstein Center, Harvard: I disagree with some of the fundamentals stated here. In particular, I disagree with the idea that television is dead. I think television has never been more alive. It is by far the most important medium, and it continues to be vastly powerful in shaping opinion in this country and around the world. When you look at the most important political issues of our time, such as civil rights, gay rights, and women's rights - these issues are being debated across the globe, not necessarily in news broadcasting, but in popular broadcasting. If you look at the incredibly rapid acceptance of gay rights in this country over the last decade, you have to say that television made it happen.

Television is a medium that is fragmented in the ways you describe, but the programming offers a wide range of embedded messages, even in the commercials. I don't think news programming is the right place to look. Also, I believe that the debate about what "truth" is in the media is something that is both spurred and encouraged by the cultural diversity created by television.

KATZ: My position is officially one of provocation, and I'm glad for that comment. However, most of your examples are from a certain age of television that I argue to be over. Secondly, you're doing content analysis, or analyzing the diversity of opinion that's on the screen. I agree that there is a lot of diversity on television. But with content analysis, you're looking at output. I am more concerned with looking at intake, or the way the content is received. From this point of view, segmentation seems to be unhealthy for participatory democracy.

I do see a huge diversity that has merit. However, groups that have their own medium of expression are not coming together to share anything. Any society needs a shared arena in which people listen to each other. A channel can achieve this. People tend to make the mistake of thinking that a television channel is one editorial entity. A television channel can have five news programs, all of which differ. But the idea is that people should be exposed to each other. Otherwise, diversity is an illusion.

--Compiled by Lilly Kam
--Photographs by Walter Holland