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Transient and Intrinsically Valuable in Their Impermanence:
Television’s Changing Aesthetic Norms

Tom O'Regan


Up in the Air

Two years ago, I saw Fawlty Towers (1975, 1979) as in-flight programming. Many on that flight were too young to have seen the series when first broadcast. Some were revisiting it after a long break. Their visceral response was palpable: with the only sound the belly laughs of passengers listening through their headphones, watching with a mix of incredulity, awe and shock (‘Ohmigod he’s not going to, is he? Yes, he is!’). But for all this response, it was also striking just how dated and substandard Fawlty Towers looked compared to today’s high definition TV norms. There was its static camera; the shots that went on excruciatingly long; limited multi-camera set-ups; the uncluttered ordinariness of its set design; and its limited spatial depth. Everything about it suggested 1970s television: the TV of the PAL and NTSC era, and the rhetoric of 1970s BBC comedy.


What enabled it to overcome these limitations and still speak to us was the manic and bravura performance of John Cleese and the ensemble cast. This made Fawlty Towers, a thirty-plus-year-old program, acceptable in-flight fare able to stand alongside the ‘higher standard’ news broadcasts, newer sit-coms and recent release movies. As more and more old TV fills back channels, the aesthetic standards of particular times and national production systems are becoming more visible to viewers. They are providing viewers with a more pronounced sense of the differences between today’s TV aesthetic norms and those previously operating. In such circumstances (as Jason Jacobs observes), when we ‘look at old TV, it doesn’t just look different; it looks different in different ways’. (1)


This article is about these historically changing aesthetic norms – those qualities of image, sound and presentation which allow us to recognise a TV program as contemporary or dated, and identify its particular aesthetic system. Such aesthetic norms are the outcome of a combination of the collective standard-setting processes of the industry and audience expectations. They are normative, in that it is the craft of the TV producer to work within, extend and test their limits. Part and parcel of the ‘art’ of professional TV producers is to know what is in, what is out, what is emergent and what is on the way out – regardless of whether they are working on a shoestring or large budgets. Past aesthetic standards and programs look inferior to producers and audiences alike, because these are not our current ways of doing things, and should not be attempted. But, contrary to this experience, previous standards are not the lesser for failing to conform to today’s standards. They are their own invention of TV, with their own sense of excellence and value worthy of reconstruction by TV studies critics and cultural historians.






1. Jason Jacobs, ‘Television, Interrupted: Pollution or Aesthetic’ in James Bennett and Niki Strange (eds), Television as Digital Media (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 265.

Furthermore, many of the features we associate with making aesthetic judgements are present when producers and their audiences share norms about what is a good television image, how it might be optimally produced, what kind of presentational and other techniques it might be best realised through, and the technical constraints of its production and reception. Indeed, aesthetic considerations are integral to the very definition, business, operations and viewers’ experience of and active engagement with TV.


But a lot of TV – such as sport, news and current affairs and informational programming – is not normally seen as a worthy candidate for aesthetic consideration. In public discourse, it would be morally dubious, for instance, to call attention to the ‘great pictures’ and terrible and sublime beauty of the TV coverage of the 2011 Japanese Tsunami and its aftermath. However, there is a lot of other TV – such as drama, reality TV, magazine and cooking shows – where we comfortably talk of the program’s aesthetic qualities of scriptwriting, image-making and presentation. Both kinds of TV are subject to what, at any one time and place, make up an acceptable TV image and sound.


Because broadcast aesthetic standards are a fashion for doing things in particular ways, they also police what can be broadcast. Networks regularly justify passing over programs and new program proposals on the basis of these sorts of broadcast-standard grounds. In Australia in the 1970s and ‘80s, for instance, a variety of independent output that had been produced with Federal film funding agency support did not get TV screenings on just these grounds. It was not until the advent of the multicultural broadcaster SBS, after 1980, and the formats it has developed for accommodating one-off independent programming, that this content appeared on TV schedules.


My argument in this paper comes in two parts. First, historically changing notions of what is and is not an acceptable broadcast quality image and sound provide a material basis for clarifying what Stanley Cavell called ‘the aesthetic interest of TV’. (2) Second, these aesthetic norms form the foundation for a historical aesthetics which would focus on what, at any given time, constitutes acceptable and innovative TV.


Television’s Aesthetic Interest

Comparing TV with fine art and architecture provides a useful starting point for clarifying TV’s aesthetic interest as an art form. Unlike fine art, TV programming does not travel well over time. A Caravaggio is not diminished in value through time’s passage. Indeed, a desire to see his work has arguably increased over time and, with it, the painting’s value. We have procedures, sometimes controversial, for Caravaggio’s re-touching and restoration. His paintings appear to us today with such vividness that they might have been painted yesterday. Such fine art operates with an insistent presentness to its pastness. It invites our attention again and again. It stands not only as the best that is from what was, but as that which is of continuing relevance today.



2. Stanley Cavell, ‘The Fact of Television’, Daedalus, v. 111, no. 4 (1982), p. 85. Reprinted in Cavell, Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes (University of Chicago Press, 1984).  




But outstanding TV is not like outstanding art. TV programming, no matter whether it is the best of its kind or just another run-of-the-mill program, operates inversely for its public and those who commission it alike. Its value decreases over time, sometimes exponentially. Large slabs of the TV schedule – news, current affairs, sport, reality TV, variety, infotainment – are mostly ‘used up’ in their initial screening, no matter how good. And those formats which do last longer – like TV drama, comedy, feature films and some documentary – have a much more limited shelf life than does fine art. Not only do programs quickly appear dated, but their imaging standards contrast unfavourably with those of today. Their datedness is a problem, and is related to a sense of their inferiority.


Furthermore, the DVD box sets, iViews, Internet downloads and proliferating back channels on free-to-air and pay-TV are intensifying this process. Audiences now repeatedly view new programming, particularly drama programming, over shorter time frames than they did previously, ensuring that TV audiences can now be with such programs longer over shorter periods than ever before. Where previously, subsequent rebroadcasting could take several years, today’s semi-permanent availability of programming is ensuring greater timeliness and presentness across all formats. As Jacobs has described it, ‘our augmented ability to control our consumption of TV’  in today’s digital environment is ensuring that ‘the social and cultural present tense strongly [still] adheres to its output’. (3) And this is the case regardless of whether this viewing is via traditional broadcast transmission in a schedule, or some other means. (4)


Paradoxically, programming is being ‘used up’ more quickly just as it is persisting over longer time periods, as more of television’s past becomes available to us through DVD release, YouTube and back channels. Audiences can also now be with programs over longer periods. But as with DVD rental, this is a minor stream of viewing and attracts small audiences. The availability of this ‘long tail’ should not obscure the extent to which TV remains constitutively a present- and future-oriented medium. The TV of the day is what the industry and audiences mostly value. The new release of old TV titles can create some new value – critically and economically – particularly when today’s high definition TV screens ensure that series shot on 35mm and digitally remastered, such as Colombo, look better now then when first screened on NTSC and PAL TV sets. But the exceptional TV of Colombo, Fawlty Towers and Twin Peaks is not foregrounded in the manner of a Caravaggio. It is always going to be the more recent classics like Mad Men, The Wire and Deadwood which take precedence.


3. Jacobs, ‘Television Interrupted’, pp. 257, 266.  

4. There is a body of thinking which sees this ‘now’ as the moment of a program’s first broadcast transmission, and the consumption of programs outside the TV schedule as a different, alternative experience of TV – see Millie Buonanno, The Age of Television (Bristol: Intellect, 2008), p. 69; also Jacobs, 2011, passim. By contrast, I contend that these additional windows allow programs to be viewed and re-viewed in an even more timely fashion than previously possible. From this perspective, new media provide further support to TV’s long-term orientation towards presentness and simultaneity, rather than undermining this orientation. Given the increasing importance of viral marketing to TV’s marketing of its new programs, and the availability of DVD box sets, our ‘first experience of a new cultural product’ need no longer be the broadcast schedule – see John Caldwell, ‘Worker Blowback: User-Generated, Worker-Generated, and Producer-Generated Content within Collapsing Production Workflows’, in Bennett & Strange, p. 307. These new configurations are producing different sorts of aesthetic experiences for audiences, and different work practices for producers. But these are not radically discontinuous with respect to what preceded them, and can be assimilated within a historical aesthetics interested in TV’s changing standards of imaging.

The contemporary means different things in contemporary art and contemporary TV. Contemporary art covers a period variously from the 1960s or ‘70s to the present. Contemporary TV is no more than the TV of the last one to three years. In some programming genres, it is measured in hours, not days. TV’s ‘freshness’ turns on its simultaneity, ubiquity and presentness, famously identified by Raymond Williams as its ‘flow’. (5) This aspect led early theorists of the medium to propose that it might be best thought of as one, big, undifferentiated text. For Cavell it was a ‘current of simultaneous event reception’ (6) in which, as Jacobs observes, ‘the nature of the medium forces its formats to participate in this continuous current’. (7) While this flattens TV’s intrinsic and messy diversity – what John Hartley once usefully called its ‘dirtiness’ (8) – it does point to how standards of imaging at any one time persist across formats, allowing diverse programming to participate in this continuity. (9) This ‘freshness’ is not just the new programs and new episodes of programs. It lies in the ways that, over a long run, TV programs find new ways to sustain and renew the attention of their audience, without altering or contradicting the programs’ established identities. And it lies in the new formats and incremental innovations attached to the ways that TV presents itself to us. Freshness continues to define TV’s shaping of its schedules, and how its back channels pedal their endless re-runs, in an era of personalised TV viewing where audiences are able to construct their own ‘flow’. It is doing so in a digital environment which has proliferated opportunities for first and subsequent viewing through DVD box sets, Internet downloads, pay-TV exclusives or a free-to-air screening.


TV is also unlike the fine arts in that it is chained to the course of progress in its form, its presentation and its standards of shooting, scripting, lighting. In the fine art tradition, as Max Weber has noted (he was thinking of painters and Goethe), the work of art that ‘has worked out new technical means’ or new ‘laws of perspective’ does not stand ‘artistically higher’ than those earlier works which were ‘devoid of all knowledge of those means and laws’. (10) But this does not hold for TV.


In TV, producers and audiences know that what has been accomplished today will soon be superseded. They know that the angels are on the side of the new technical means, new perspectives and new personalities. The new productions and the refreshed programs utilising the latest technology and techniques stand higher than works which did not access these means –whether because they were not invented, or because they were previously too costly to use. Although the revival of shows like Fawlty Towers and M.A.S.H. suggests ways in which some programs can last longer, the fate of old TV is rather like that of Old Science in Weber’s analysis:


5. Raymond Williams, Television (London: Fontana, 1974).  

6. Cavell, p. 85.  

7. Jacobs, ‘Television Interrupted’, p. 265.  

8. John Hartley, Tele-ology (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 21-43.  

9. This is a point central both to Cavell’s argument and Jacobs’ revision of it. See Cavell 1982, passim; Jacobs, ‘Television Interrupted’, p. 265.  




10. Max Weber ‘Science as a Vocation’, Daedalus, v. 87, n. 1 (1958), p. 115.  

  Every scientific ‘fulfillment’ raises new questions; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated. … Scientific works certainly can last as ‘gratifications’ because of their artistic quality, or they may remain important as a means of training. Yet they will be surpassed scientifically – let that be repeated – for it is our common fate and, more, our common goal. We cannot work without hoping that others will advance further than we have. In principle, this progress goes on ad infinitum. And with this we come to inquire into the meaning of science. For, after all, it is not self-evident that something subordinate to such a law is sensible and meaningful in itself. Why does one engage in doing something that in reality never comes, and never can come, to an end? (11)  




11. Ibid., p. 116.  

Substitute TV for science in the above passage, and we have a way of describing how TV aesthetic standards work – especially in their restless orientation towards innovation, mostly incremental, but sometimes large scale and dramatic, as with the advent of colour TV, electronic news gathering, digital post-production, and high definition. Each episode, each program, each broadcast settlement asks to be ‘surpassed’ and re-negotiated. TV producers work to make their own aesthetic standards outdated. The TV producer’s work is only as good as it is currently, and might be in the future. We do not rate a program or program maker because they were the first to develop a particular style. Later ‘more sophisticated’, more mannered and successful presentations always take precedence.


Furthermore, TV producers not only expect their work to be surpassed, but understand that it must be surpassed. What will be gratifying is that their work comes to be regarded as having been a quality popular production, or a model of its type, or a scene-setting work inaugurating a whole new turn in TV production as the ‘go-to’ model of its time. The TV producer’s standing lies in their office. It does not persist outside of, or last much beyond, their tenure in this office.


Television’s Evanescent Character

If, as Donald Sassoon has shown with respect to the Mona Lisa, (12) the fine artist can occasionally aspire to a certain perdurance as their work is invented, rediscovered, renewed and repositioned (however anachronistically and inaccurately) over time, it is the fate of TV to be evanescent and contingent. Cavell makes the telling point that TV comes with different aesthetic satisfactions for the producer and the critic, for the audience and the curator of the audio-visual record. (13) To borrow a phrase that Macarthur and Stead reserve for architects, there is a certain kind of ‘unreflected timeliness’ to TV production and the work of the TV producer. Their judgement of and use of the past lies in the work that constitutes their practice – and these are acts which do not ‘even require the recognition of a historian, but only a kind of ekphrasis or ritual praise that compares it with precedent’. (14)


When working, TV producers are, like architects, in media res. They are in the middle of formulating and incrementally extending the standards of imaging and sound that make up TV’s unfolding aesthetic system. Professionally, they see practice of the past as a resource for their contemporary innovation. This past practice can justify what is being proposed in TV now. When practitioners do reflect on TV’s past, they typically reflect on the distance between what is now able to be done and what was previously done, what you could ‘get away with then’, but you cannot now. The past is a means of reflecting upon, clarifying and intimating the contours and limits of today’s aesthetic standards.







12. Donald Sassoon, Becoming Mona Lisa (New York: Harcourt, 2001).  


13. Cavell, p. 78.  


14. John Macarthur and Naomi Stead, ‘The Judge is Not an Operator: Historiography, Criticality and Architectural Criticism’, OASE, no. 69 (2006), p. 130.

TV professionals constantly adjust, calibrate, then re-position and reformat their shows. For them, TV is always in the present and in the near future. They therefore enact an empirical aesthetics which naturalises the currently organised norms and standards of imaging and sound, while anticipating and carrying the seeds of the changes and reformulations which will modify practice in the future.


The cultural historian of TV is in a different relation to her object than current professionals. Our problem is to not to recover past practice in the light of present norms, but to see TV as an event needing aesthetic reconstruction. Jason Jacobs’ Intimate Screen  is exemplary in this regard. (15) He reconstructed the ‘presentational world’ and standards of sound and image of early BBC drama. In Howard Becker’s  terminology, Jacobs reconstructed its ‘art world’. (16) He finds it made up of different assemblages. There are script development and annotation protocols, staging practices, technological constraints and artist contracts. He finds that the practitioners and audiences for the BBC TV drama of the period had their own sense of what was a ‘quality presentation’, a good script, what it was that TV drama was good for, and what they could usefully borrow and plunder from adjacent media. Jacobs did this not (as have others) (17) in order to lament the passing of TV’s ‘theatrical moment’ of the live play with all its deadlines, improvisation and performance,  but to reconstitute a way of thinking, producing and being with TV in its historical specificity. Jacobs’ historical BBC actors knew and recognised what was excellent and what was merely competent TV. They had, in short, different – not inferior – aesthetic standards to today’s professionals.


TV’s evanescent character gives rise to another observation. Those aspects of TV that are transmitted through time are less the particular series than the practices, procedures, norms (and so forth) associated with previous programs and series. To be sure, we do have an efficient adaptation system here. Some stories are recycled with a metronomic quality, like British TV’s regular revivals of classics of Dickens, Austen, et al. But this is not TV’s predominant form. What is transmitted through time is an orientation, a sensibility, and a set of dynamic considerations. This is a kind of adaptation, akin to the transformation of a format, from iteration to iteration. It is imitation by emulation and incremental adjustment, evident in police procedurals, talent shows, cooking and quiz shows and current affairs formats.


There is a precedent for this kind of emulation in what French novelist Eugène Sue did for mid 19th and 20th century fiction. Although Sue was among the great literary innovators of the 19th century, subsequent authors did not (as Donald Sassoon tellingly observes) ‘adapt his work’, and nor was it republished. Rather, he created ‘worlds’ that writers could enter and inhabit, erasing their relation to him because they were enacting him, doing as he did. It seems to me that TV specialises in just this kind of adaptation. Sassoon takes up the story in this way:


15. See Jason Jacobs, The Intimate Screen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).  

16. See Howard Saul Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008; originally published 1982).  

17. See Erik Barnouw, The Image Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), passim.






  Nowadays not many people read Sue …. Yet his influence was remarkable. The two aspects, not being read today and being influential, are related. Some writers are influential and inimitable. Each generation rediscovers them. Others – and this is the case with Sue – are influential and eminently imitable. Their influence consists in being imitated, and imitated successfully. The prototype can be discarded in favour of more recent updating and refinements. Who needs to read Sue when we can choose every year from television serials and assorted printed blockbusters? (18)  


18. Donald Sassoon, The Culture of the Europeans (London: Harper Press, 2006), p. 383.

Indeed, in the 148 episodes of Les Mystères de Paris published in the 16 months between June 1842 and October 1843, we can see the same quotidian rhythms of TV viewing and audience anticipation of new episodes. This is a storytelling whose settings, characters and premises are still explored in much of today’s TV crime fiction. We can also witness in Sue’s story the fate of the TV producer, as the prototype is discarded in favour of the more recent, updated and refined contemporary program.


The similarity between TV and architectural practice is striking. For Macarthur and Stead, the ‘basis for actual, everyday architectural practice is the disciplinary one of precedent – what architects know is what other architects did’. It is on this basis that ‘it is possible to say that things are "true" or "false" to the discipline’. As a consequence, architectural practice becomes ‘aesthetic in the last instance’: that is, ‘buildings are beautiful if they have been hallowed by reference and used as precedent, therefore a lot of people must have liked them’. (19)


There is much that is analogous to TV here. What TV producers know is what other TV producers do, are doing now, and have done in the past. It is what their network clients and audiences find beautiful, or simply ‘fit for its purpose’. We do not say that this-or-that TV program is more true or false to TV. The test is whether or not people liked it, and subsequent producers used it as a precedent. Just as the architects’ reflection on their practice and learning is in ‘their next building’, (20) so too, for the TV producer, it is their next program.








19. Macarthur & Stead, p. 132.  




20. Ibid., p. 136.  

How Do Aesthetic Standards Develop?

TV’s aesthetic standards of imaging, presentation and sound are principally enacted through incremental innovation from episode to episode, program to program. Standards can, therefore, be ‘settled’ in their innovation pathways for long periods. (21) However, different parts of TV experience different speeds of standards-innovation, and the nature of this incremental alteration varies significantly. From time to time, standards can be subject to significant system-wide, disruptive transformations. The quick changeover from black-and-white to colour in Australia in 1975, for instance, lifted presentational and imaging standards across the range of locally produced TV with new cameras, lighting and editing, and art direction reconfiguring sound-stages and outside broadcasting alike – almost overnight.



21. Jacobs makes just this point in ‘Television Interrupted’, pp. 434, 439.


Thirty years later, the advent of high-definition TV is perhaps producing comparable transformations globally. Similarly, intermediate steps like the advent of videotape editing, electronic news gathering technologies, satellite and cable distribution, digital production and post-production methods, have each had stark consequences for production practices across a range of TV programming. They have also dramatically increased viewer expectations of each format. There are, in short, many such ways in which technological limitations and innovations play a major role in determining what constitutes an acceptable, aesthetic standard for the coverage of an event, a drama scene, a news and current affairs program, how programs are distributed nationally and internationally, and the circumstances in which viewers receive TV.


But technology is only part of the story. At the start of TV, for instance, the studio required camera operators with some facility with, and training in, electronics. But after this new norm was bedded down, the ‘standard’ was incrementally improved in ways that would not foreground the technological so much as the scripting, format development and presentational practices utilising these studio specifications. By the same token, some TV genres like situation-comedy seem to have standards which rely more on innovations in scriptwriting, performance and series development than in their technical realisation. This helps explain the continuing circulation of Seinfeld, Fawlty Towers and even I Love Lucy so long after their initial screening.


Sometimes, innovation in TV’s aesthetic standards might be driven by changes in the cultural marketplace. Sports broadcasting standards, for instance, have been transformed by the redevelopment of sporting arenas, and the reworking of the game’s rules for TV interruptions like ad breaks and TV viewing rhythms. This has provided a more enhanced TV spectacle for audiences and those attending at the game alike. So, too, the advent of additional channels is another driver of innovation. TV programs changed in continental Europe over the 1970s and ‘80s as single state-owned channels gave way to a multiplicity of channels. (22) So, too, the lifting of ceilings for TV ownership in the late ‘80s in Australia created, almost overnight, nationwide, simultaneous networking for commercial TV and public broadcasting, transforming aesthetic standards across program genres. (23) Nationally designed programming required new ways of being national and new forms of national address across the TV schedule. It also reconstituted what regional news and other TV variety and current affairs activity ‘looked’ like.


Finally, programs of quite different aesthetic standards have long been a characteristic of TV schedules. High-budget and low-budget programming have always mingled on the schedules. Also, in large parts of the world, aesthetic standards vary within prime-time and off-prime-time alike, between the usually lower-budgeted national and the higher-budgeted international components of the schedule. In smaller and less wealthy nations, local content producers work with lower budgets and rely on cultural proximity to make their local TV drama and other programming competitive against higher-budgeted and higher quality international programming. It is part of the art and craft of TV to know which programming can have ‘lower’ and which can have ‘higher’ standards; and what can be done with which resources, in which part of the schedule.



22. While many have made this point, Sassoon usefully frames it within his historical ‘cultural markets’ perspective. See Vassilis Fouskas, ‘The Culture of the Europeans: an interview with Donald Sassoon’, Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 8 No. 3 (2006), pp. 271-8.  

23. Tom O’Regan, Australian Television Culture (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1993). See especially chapters 2 and 3.

TV’s Aesthetic Innovation System

What kind of aesthetic innovation system characterises TV? Some constant themes emerge. First, as we have already observed, and even when apparently settled, TV incrementally innovates as it is re-invented anew on a daily basis, although subject to greater or lesser system-wide changes of varying degrees.


Second, TV is an intermediate space – not only constructing itself with reference to itself, as it hybridises its genres with great ‘promiscuity’, (24) but also drawing innovations from adjacent cultural fields, and reorganising these fields and events to better suit the medium. This last aspect is central to TV’s ongoing commitment to ‘liveness’  in large parts of its schedule, as televised events and programs are staged before studio audiences, crowds and concert audiences. (25) In this way, TV creates new live events, continuously reformulates existing events, and is susceptible to transformations in the protocols for the staging of live events. This is a symbiotic relationship leading to a mutual restructuring of each party.


Third, TV is a medium in which those involved in its production are engaged in a self-reflexive and iterative process that is analogous to the processes of ‘critical reflection’. TV has a highly developed and self-conscious way of making sense of, and producing knowledge about, its programming – projecting its trajectories and acting on this information with audience measurement providing a stable knowledge currency, and a backdrop against which other knowledges are developed and assembled, and decisions taken. (26) Notably, TV spreads its decision-making on programming beyond producers: to diverse professional knowledges and audience preferences expressed by ratings.


Fourth, TV is a medium that is known through its displacements – whatever is the current version of the format and presentational norm – rather than a medium which is apprehended with respect to any original, generative moment.





24. See Jason Jacobs, ‘Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 4, no. 4 (2001), p. 429.  

25. John Ellis made TV’s liveness the basis for his distinction between TV and the cinema: Visible Fictions (London: Routledge, 1982, revised edition 1992).  



26. See Philip Napoli, Audience Economics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003) and Mark Balnaves, Tom O’Regan and Ben Goldsmith, Rating the Audience (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).  

Fifth, it is an innovation system whose characteristic unit of innovation is not the individual episode, but the unit of the program and its season. As Cavell puts it: ‘What is memorable, treasurable, criticisable, is primarily the program, the format, not this or that day of I Love Lucy, but the program as such’. (27) This is also how such programs are approached by their producers and commissioning agents. Cavell seems correct in suggesting that, in TV, ‘value is a function of its rule of format’. (28)


Sixth, TV has a fundamental and exemplary commitment to communicability, whether in its feedback loops (embodied in audience research), or its rhetorical orientation. As a ‘mass art’ in Noël Carroll’s terms, it is that art which is most ‘intentionally designed to gravitate in its structural choices (for example, its narrative forms, symbolism, intended affect, and even its content) toward those choices that promise accessibility with minimum effort … for the largest number of untutored (or relatively untutored) audiences’. (29) This points to the role that the audience and its tastes play in shaping and organising TV standards. (30) Unlike other art forms, TV programs are rarely based on what producers – steeped in producing and reflecting on TV – would want to do if their ‘audience’ were only fellow producers and creatives, rather than these kinds of ‘mass’ audience.


Seventh – and this aspect captures many of the previous characteristics, as well as needing more extended elaboration – TV is a collective medium shaped by many different actors acting in concert. There are instances – and David Milch of Deadwood fame springs to mind here – where an individual creates, evaluates, produces and closely superintends his TV dramas. (31) But mostly, TV is an outcome of a ‘community-of-practice’. This community – the production community, the investors, the schedulers, network executives, the ratings providers and the audiences – interact and intermingle to facilitate the making and evaluating of TV through their myriad calculations and understandings.


The philosopher Fred D’Agostino gestures to some of the benefits that more generally accrue to communities of practice:


27. Cavell, p. 77.  

28. Ibid., p. 78.  



29. See Noël Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 196.  

30. For a discussion of this point see John A. Fisher, ‘High Art versus Low Art’, in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIvor Lopes (eds), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 2 (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 534.  


31. See Jason Jacobs, Deadwood (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

  [O]nce we understand that it is the community, rather than the individual, which makes and evaluates knowledge, we are in a position to understand how individuals working together in a community setting can be more efficient and effective makers and evaluators of knowledge than individuals conceived of as working alone and isolated could possibly be. (32)   32. Fred D’Agostino, ‘Natualizing the Essential Tension’, Synthese, no. 162 (2008), p. 280.

Maintaining a balance between ‘conservative and innovative dispositions’ within a community-of-practice is, for D’Agostino, an ‘essential’ and constitutive ‘tension’. (33) It is also an essential tension for the producers working within the cultural markets that emerged first in Europe and then around the world after 1800, as Sassoon describes:

  33. Ibid., p. 277.

  [Producers] must not run ahead of the consumers too much … and yet must offer something new. And there are, of course, different markets. Consumers of cultural products want to revisit the pleasure they have felt in previous consumption, but they do not want the same goods, they do not want to re-read the same novel again and again. They want something different but not too different. Producers are therefore compelled to be both conservative and innovators. (34)  



34. Fouskas, p. 275.

For Sassoon, we have an industry organised in this way because of what we want from, and want to do with, culture. We re-read the same novel; see the same film; see a play over and over while it is running; now, courtesy of DVD box sets and off-air recording, we can do the same for TV programs. But mostly, we want something more, something different – yet not too different. One of the important ways in which TV has responded to this desire is to formulate the episode and the season as important units. These extend (sometimes indefinitely) the initial story or premise. Episodes permit viewers to be with stories in intense, extended ways, sometimes over considerable periods. It is a way of thinking with ‘story worlds’. TV is thus part of larger cultural patterns that allow the revisiting of pleasure in previous consumption, viewing and reading. It re-familiarises and re-positions, providing us with something different but not too different. It corrals ‘innovation’ along efficient pathways.


TV’s innovation system invites collective evaluation, and requires constant renovation and refreshing by producers and networks alike. Their work is simultaneously constrained and enabled by audiences that play a shaping role through the ways in which they are measured – thus supplying a final purpose and orientation for this most recipient-designed of all aesthetic forms. Producers are always negotiating the limits of what an audience might bear, and what TV’s gatekeepers think they and the channel can bear. They seek to not run ahead too much, while offering something new.


Let It Burn

Cavell asked where we should locate TV’s aesthetic interest. I have proposed that it be situated in TV’s historically changing aesthetic standards of imaging and sound. But the evanescent character of TV’s aesthetic standards cuts across a long tradition of aesthetic thinking, in which perdurance is foregrounded. It is important to recognise that the evanescence so constitutive of TV also has an aesthetic history in many traditions and art forms. Balinese religious art, for instance, is painstakingly created over several months, to be ritually and ceremonially burnt at an appointed day. There are, as Richard Shusterman contends, strong justifications for this art. By ‘regarding our entire universe as a realm of flux with no absolute permanence but only relative stabilities’, we can (as he suggests) appreciate ‘beauty and pleasure all the more because of its fragile, fleeting nature’. Furthermore, by ‘refusing to equate reality with permanence’, we can recognise that ‘most pleasures of beauty, art, and entertainment are not only valuable without being everlasting, but are more valuable because they are not’. (35)


TV’s aesthetic standards are likewise transient – and intrinsically valuable in their impermanence. The subject matter for the historical aesthetics I propose here is the empirical, quotidian and historically contingent aesthetics of TV producers and their audiences. These intersubjectively-shared cultural tastes become the objects of systemic inquiry, to better clarify the constantly innovating art worlds (in Becker’s sense) in which TV operates.






35. Richard Shusterman, ‘Entertainment: A Question for Aesthetics’, British Journal of Aesthetics vol. 43 (2003), p. 307.

from Issue 3: Masks


© Tom O'Regan 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.