Reviews PerformanceReviews Published 8 May 2012

The Trouble with Television

ICA ⋄ 2nd May

A talk at the ICA.

Carmel Doohan

The place of television

To coincide with the UK’s digital switch over, the ICA presents Remote Control, an exhibition looking at artist engagement with the TV and its changing cultural impact. In the first event in a season of talks to accompany the exhibition, John Cussans chairs a discussion assessing the place of television in a world where Google makes more in advertising than Channel 4 and asks what the move from analogue to digital will bring. He is joined by documentary presenter and television producer, Jaques Peretti and Emeritus Professor of Film and Television at the University of Glasgow, Christine Garaghty.

Peretti is full of fascinating insider gossip and feels that TV, as a medium and an industry, sees itself as being in crisis. The internet is more immediate and responsive than television has ever been and as witnessed during the Arab spring, areas such as news are also becoming unable to compete with Twitter and You Tube. In a highlight of the exhibition, Simon Denny fills the gallery with the remnants of London’s decommissioned broadcasting equipment; a bank of monitors, wires, leads and gaffer tape foregrounds a wall sized diagram that tries to explain how it all works. These once crucial pieces of equipment are now comedic in size and startling in how completely anachronistic they are now.

In the face of the super -fast reaction speed and inclusivity of the web, what can TV now provide? The answer might be the very thing we condemn it for; escapism. TV can provide a respite from the tyranny of choice and this is obviously something still very much sought after, as on average Britons are still watching the box for four hours a day. Peretti speaks of the ‘funnel effect’ as something that acts as a counterfoil to the myriad of perspectives on offer via the internet. As the Murdoch Empire faces investigation our particular funneling choice may be questionable but our interest in having our world view selected and deciphered for us is not declining.

The growth of the second screening phenomenon produces an interesting mix of the two media and recently, for the last episode of Sherlock BBC ran live tweets along bottom of the screen- He is gorgeous (@juliefromColchester), being one of the highlights. This idea of a community of viewers is one that Cussan’s is very interested in. He speaks of TV as having a ‘spectacular immanence’ that we can’t get with any other medium. We are ‘immersed in a collective sense of the immediate moment’. This communality offers us a different kind of live-ness; it is not the event being watched that is live, but the nationwide watching experience itself.

Garghty speaks of the need we still have for TV. As the world around us transforms we want to watch soaps where such change appears to have a logic- we need to see the familiar moving in predictable ways. We still want Coronation Street and Dr Who after all these years because we look to TV for comfort; to repackage and re-tell us the myths we crave. Where the internet offers more and more options, TV’s simplified but graspable sense of certainty can offer respite from the eternally relative.

In some ways, TV seems to know that this is where its strengths lie. Peretti relates the response given by a commissioner at an unnamed channel following a new documentary proposal: “That’s all very well,” he said. “But will a woman ironing with the sound off be able to follow it?”

With its pre-chosen reruns and bite sized simplifications, television’s value is perhaps as an antidote.  In its failure to be cutting edge, it fills a hole much like Radio 4’s shipping news followed by the national anthem. It doesn’t really matter what is being said, for it is increasingly meaningless in the modern world. What matters is the conjuring up a picture or a mood; a feeling of a common ground and an idea of an ‘us’ that is still listening and watching together.

Read the Exeunt review of Remote Control at the ICA.


Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

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