PRIVATE TELEVISION, PUBLIC CULTURE: Politics of/ in Greek television fiction
(Writer’s note: The following text is a general description of a PhD project in progress at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication of the University of Gothenburg. I would like to take this opportunity to invite thoughts, comments and suggestions for literature and/or audiovisual material which the project could benefit from. What is more, it would be highly appreciated if this project could be communicated to people from the Greek television industry who would be interested in contributing in the form of interviews with the researcher. For more information about the project or for feedback, suggestions, etc., I can be contacted by email: email@example.com)
In December 2012, during one of the most difficult seasons for Greek television fiction, a public discussion took place with the title “The magnificent absence of television fiction from Greek television” organized by the Scriptwriters Guild of Greece (1). Indeed, the seasons 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 marked a record low for the production of domestic fiction, both in terms of public and private broadcasting. Up until then, and especially after the deregulation of broadcasting in 1989, fictional programmes held a very prestigious position within the programming strategies of the channels and were mostly shown during the prime-time slots. However, when the economic crisis hit Greece, fictional programmes were framed as one of the greatest victims since the channels had to cut down on costs, and fiction has always been an expensive programme to make. Hence, during the above discussion, people from the industry talked about the dangers of having a media landscape without fictional programmes, the importance of fiction for the audience’s social imagination, the function of fiction as a provider of guidelines for everyday life and the value of fiction as a cultural product associated with national culture.
At the same time, one could notice a certain disbelief in private channels’ willingness to support the genre because of their commercialized character, which – according to the participants of the discussion – did not encumber them with any particular obligation towards the production and broadcasting of fictional programmes (which was actually the case for public service broadcasting). As a result, the majority of the participants (directors, scriptwriters, actors, etc.) talked about the recovery of TV fiction as part of a responsibility on behalf of public service broadcasting. Surprisingly enough, it was actually private television stations which hosted this come-back (2). TV fiction has partly recovered and regained its position in the prime-time, providing viewers with stories inspired from familiar events, debates and situations, performed by recognizable types of people; sometimes in an entertaining manner, sometimes with a dramatic undertone, but most of the times – I believe – with a hint of a reflective mindset creating the conditions for a further negotiation with a certain idea, dilemma or topic which is recognizable from the everyday life.
Having as a general conceptual framework the recurring but never fully exhaustive debate regarding the relationship between fictional narratives and the various events/ conditions/ debates that we are familiar with by encountering them in our everyday life, these preliminary thoughts will be placed in a specific theoretical framework that describes the development of a research project. The main purpose of this research project is to identify the politics of fiction by studying the politics in fiction. The emphasis is placed on the questions of why and how issues, events and debates that take place in the “real” world find their way into the world of fictional television. The focus on Greek television fiction is not incidental; it is of course part of a media culture that I am familiar with through national and cultural bonds. However, it is also part of a media system that has certain characteristics, associated with the wider media and political context, which could help us to enrich our understanding of the complex relationship between politics and popular culture. What is more, it is a rather overlooked aspect of national media culture which can further our understanding concerning the wider socio-cultural role of television fiction.
Recent years have witnessed a strong interest in the study of television fiction in relation to politics. Journals such as Media, Culture & Society, the European Journal of Cultural Studies, Parliamentary Affairs, Popular Communication to name a few, have hosted numerous studies which have challenged the traditional segregation between information and entertainment and have proposed a reconsideration of the area of ‘popular culture’ as a valuable resource for an investigation of the complex relation between entertainment and political representations, messages and values. At the same time, a number of publications have appeared that bring together the study of television fiction with a discussion about political issues. Conceptually and thematically, the present project belongs to this tradition of scholarship which approaches entertainment and television fiction with the primary purpose of understanding “where exactly the politics in popular culture resides”, as John Street (2012) asks in an attempt to conceptualize the past and the future of using popular culture to communicate politics.
The story of attributing popular culture politically-charged features goes way back to Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, as well as the Birmingham School. It is considered important, however, at this point to provide an updated account of the relation between popular culture and politics and to explore how politics has been understood within recent approaches coming primarily from the areas of Television and Cultural Studies.
Many of the accounts that I have come across (3) during my preliminary literature research, in an effort to gather understandings of “politics” within the sphere of popular culture and television fiction in particular, provide an overview of the transition observed within the academic circles, indicating Robert R. Putnam’s work as a pivotal point. Admittedly, entertainment (one of the most commonly attributed features of television fiction) was not always welcome as a useful resource for politics. In fact, Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) –a key reference for the “television malaise” thesis, arguing that television could be considered as a principal factor for civic disengagement – cultivated a climate of renewed interest and curiosity about the types of representation, narratives and understandings of politics and the political reality; it was then argued that these could be brought to light through the study of the entertainment industry and storytelling mechanisms in particular.
Within this larger debate about the blurring of lines between information and entertainment, certain types of programmes attracted scholars’ attention and started to be discussed as legitimate sources for the discussion of politics. Satiric television, reality shows and television fiction were found at the forefront of such discussions investigated in a variety of approaches including their effects on political engagement, the representation of political matters, as well as their political uses, which mainly corresponds with Street’s understanding of popular culture as political communication, based on the assumption that the cultural forms in question are able to communicate politically by “register[ing] political thoughts and attitudes” (2012: 79). In an effort to map out the ways that popular culture engages with politics, Street developed a very basic typology:
The first way of linking popular culture with a discussion about politics is by means of representation. Street explains that the focus is placed on explicitly political topics. In terms of literature, this is translated in studies of specific programmes of television fiction such as The West Wing, Yes, Minister, Yes, Prime Minister etc.
The second way of approaching the political within popular culture is by means of revealing it. As Street explains, this time “the politics is read into the text” and it is communicated as ideology. This is a notion that resonates in the work of Douglas Kellner and his understanding of media cultural texts as “complex artifacts that embody social and political discourses whose analysis and interpretation require methods of reading and critique that articulate their embeddedness in the political economy, social relations, and the political environment within which they are produced, circulated, and received” (1995) (4).
The third way that Street identifies, in his attempt to conceptualize the complex relation between politics and popular culture, moves away from the close attention to the text and involves a consideration of how the audience is positioned politically. Basically, what we can find here is studies that are concerned with how reality is framed and the viewers are positioned. According to Street, this strand of literature is particularly engaged with the construction of collective identities, involving studies where the question of politics is associated with discussions about the nation and national identity.
Lastly, Street refers to another way of approaching politics within popular culture, which emphasizes its ability to dramatize political morality and to motivate political action. Although this understanding of politics will not be directly addressed within this research project, it is worth mentioning that it could include studies that range from addressing television fiction as a resource for political information and knowledge to studies where politics is addressed in light of the question of citizenship and the civic functions that television fiction fulfills.
Despite the fact that the above typology is in no way assessed as more efficient or complete in comparison to others, which have developed in order to address the problem of making the study of politics and popular culture more systematic (5), it was chosen at this point of the development of this research project in order to provide a preliminary cartography of previous literature. At the same time, it is used as a point of departure for a preliminary identification of some conceptual gaps.
First of all, and in relation to the presence of politics in popular culture by means of representation, it is important that we take into consideration the fact that a large number of studies discussing the depiction of political life and political issues on television fiction are dedicated to US and UK programmes. This provides a limited view of what can qualify as “political”, since the readings provided could be to a large extent associated with specific political cultures and events. The dominance of Anglophone fiction has already been discussed as a problematic situation. As a result, we can witness that entire media landscapes or aspects of them remain irrelevant to scholars. Brett Mills has described this phenomenon as the problem of “invisible television” (2010), which he defines as national television cultures which we know nothing about, because of the limited attention they have received from scholars, but also because of practical limitations such as the language barrier and access to the audiovisual material.
In relation to the above problem, it should also be noted that not all countries and national media landscapes have been particularly familiar with the sub-genre of political fiction, political comedies etc. Within these media landscapes, political narratives may appear within more “traditional” genres; in this case, the search for the political requires a “dramatic” expansion of our notions about “politically relevant entertainment media”, as Delli Carpini has argued (2012) (6).
‘Private television, Public culture’ - The project
The project in question approaches television fiction as part of what Jim McGuigan has described as “the cultural public sphere”; a forum for the discussion of issues of public interest, shaped by all kinds of generic forms and conventions in order to be compatible with the preferred formats of the medium. The core of these issues, however, is still there and this is not only to be attributed to a strategy of commodification and spectacularization (as Debord’s theory would explain it); I believe that national television fiction’s preference for ‘local’ public issues, goes further beyond the “cultural proximity” argument supported by for example Emil Castelló concerning Catalan television fiction and Alexander Dhoest regarding Flemish television fiction. People and audiences are not just attracted to familiar topics because they recognize in them themselves and their lives. They often turn to them when in need of a kind of negotiation such as the one that John Ellis has described as ‘working through’. I believe that within this kind of need for a negotiation, the political finds ways to infiltrate fiction especially when addressing issues of public interest.
But what kind of issues of public interest am I talking about? My research focuses on key moments of modern Greek society, between 1989 and 2013; moments that the local society went through a big change, or moments when it was facing a major dilemma, but most importantly, moments when it had to form an opinion on a matter based on processes of self-reflection. My research then is interested in examples of such ‘hot moments’ (a term originating in the work of Levi-Strauss and used by media scholars in order to describe moments that a society is called to assess its significance, to revisit the meanings it has given to certain situations and to make decisions regarding future actions) which have infiltrated the world of television fiction. These moments often take the form of the main theme of a television series or the general context against which all situations and events are set. In this sense, the first aim of this project is to investigate further understandings of the political, in terms of how certain ‘hot moments’ are represented (that would perhaps lead to a clearer idea about the possibility of identifying patterns and to enrich the existing typologies).
On the other hand, this expansion of the notion of the political can also be translated into an expansion of where it is to be found. When unfolding Street’s typology, the emphasis that was placed on the ‘text’ became evident, while the audience’s role was also been mentioned (even peripherally, as it will not concern this research project in its conceptual and methodological design). Although this project lies particularly favorable towards a close reading of texts (in the form of television programmes), it is worth arguing that the political can also be sought on the other end of the communication process – that is the production end. In this sense, the political should be thought of as a complex network of factors and conditions that determine why certain events become stories available on prime-time television. To talk in practical terms, I plan to interview TV professionals (directors, screen-writers, producers) who have an inside knowledge of the industry and should be able provide some insights about the creators’ inspirations and intentions.
Example of a case study
The multifaceted character of the late 2000s European economic crisis stimulated a lively debate about the role of media, which is manifested through numerous publications, surveys and special journal issues concentrating on various aspects of the European media culture. The common argument behind the strong interest in the coverage of the crisis is that the media framing of important economic and political events entails a diagnostic aspect which inevitably leads to the assumption that a highly ideological process is at stake here. However this is not an entirely new phenomenon; it has already been argued and repeatedly noted by recent analyses that the resolution of a crisis depends to a large extent on the identification of its character and on the factors that caused it. Consequently, the ideological role of the media with regards to the Eurozone crisis is built on the premise that the identification of causes, the evaluation of the character of the crisis, and the proposed solutions take place in such a way so that certain interests are served.
It has been argued that the political relevance of a popular text – in our case a fictional TV show – is not so much a derivative of the text as such; rather it is a by-product of the interaction between the text and its context (Street 1997) (7). In this case, the text under examination is Returning Home (Πίσω στο Σπίτι), a comedic TV series which was originally available to Greek viewers during the seasons 2011-2012 and 2012-2013. Broadcast on a weekly basis by one of the major national TV channels (MEGA channel), Returning Home has as its central theme the effects of the financial crisis on a Greek family. The self-explanatory context revolves around the topic of the crisis and its effects on Greek society. There is nonetheless a wider frame of reference which is addressed and which becomes the main research interest of this analysis; the role of TV fiction in the discursive construction of the crisis and its contribution to the production of ideologically-nuanced understandings.
The main hypothesis thus becomes that the framing of the crisis in the popular text in question should be approached as a political statement, producing interpretations of the situation, and politically positioning the viewer towards a specific societal crisis. Subsequently, the main research question that is negotiated here concerns the character of the proposed positions and their ideological foundation. The following sub-questions break down the analysis in three parts, with each of them examining a different aspect of the framing process:
- What are the causes and factors leading to the crisis which can be identified in the text?
- What kind of viewing positions are proposed and how are the circumstances morally evaluated?
- Which are the suggested solutions (and what kinds of solutions are omitted)?
With the emphasis placed on the study of mechanisms such as the discursive construction of cultural stereotypes and national identity, the function of comedy as well as the use of intertextual references, preliminary analysis suggests that, on the whole, the position proposed by the TV show is one of recycling and perpetuation of old “Greek” habits and therefore questioning the transformative potential of the crisis. Subsequently, this case study constitutes one of the ways that popular texts will be approached as an area of investigation in order to supplement the wider debate about the politics of/ in fiction.
(1) For more information, visit: http://senariografoi.gr/gr/news/stories/i598.
(2) We should keep in mind that the Greek public service broadcasting – ERT – was shut down in the summer of 2013 and is currently being re-structured and re-branded as NERIT.
(3) To be found for example in the work of Liesbet van Zoonen, Jeffrey P. Jones and John Street.
(4) Kellner, D. (1995), Media culture: Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. London & New York: Routledge.
(5) Street is not the only one who has attempted to come up with a typology of the relationship between popular culture and politics. In a study focusing on British soap operas, Stephen Coleman developed a three-dimensional definition of “the political” (2008). In addition to that, R. L. Holbert has come up with a nine-part typology based on content and audience expectations in order to promote a more systematic study of entertainment and politics (2009).
(6) Delli Carpini, M. X. (2012), ‘Entertainment Media and the Political Engagement of Citizens’. In H.A. Semetko & M. Scammell (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Political Communication. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
(7) Street, J. (1997), Politics & Popular Culture. Oxford: Polity Press.