Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 2, 1990
Communication and Tradition: Essays after Eric Michaels
Edited by Tom O'Regan

A model of teleported texts (with reference to Aboriginal television)

Eric Michaels

Introduction: on the utility of literacy models

It has become fashionable in certain academic discourses to apply the term literacy not just to books and print, but also to people's use of electronic information systems, by which is meant the entire range of recent inventions which encode and transmit messages by means of electrons. The point, I take it, is to emphasize that these new media also are conventionalized modes of inscription - and so, one must learn how to read and write them. In the case of, say, computers, this is self-evident. But the term is applied also to media we think of as entertaining: video and TV. One learns to read and write these as well, it is claimed.

Immediately upon applying the metaphor of 'reading' to broadcast TV we encounter an analytic problem: just what is the TV text - and where is it? Is it the performance that occurs in a TV studio in front of a camera, or the radio waves that circulate from the transmitter, or the picture that appears on any given home TV? The technology and economics of this medium generate many texts diverse in space and time, sequentially or simultaneously. Which is to be taken as the unit of analysis? Perhaps the institutional and technological environments which distinguish print from electronic media are so complex as to make pursuit of the analogy pointless. But there is a growing awareness in literary studies that printed texts should no longer be considered unitary transparent productions of creative authors either; conditions of distribution and readership may create additional texts. 1 The case may be only more dramatic for TV textuality.

In my own work, these questions have arisen in the unusual context of the introduction of TV to Aborigines in remote Australia. In the case of Aboriginal Australia, the application of an electronic literacy model may prove useful for understanding what is happening now that video and TV are irrevocably entering the life of even the most remote and traditional communities. Two aspects of this situation which are generally considered to be 'problems' in a development context may be clarified by thinking of TV by analogy to books and print.

First, the hermeneutic questions of understanding and interpretation are highlighted by current literacy models. How are people with minimal experience of European language and culture making sense of the more unfamiliar Hollywood genres? No claim to understand or predict the 'effects' of TV on Aborigines - or anyone for that matter - can bypass this critical if thorny stage in the communications process.

Second, the inequity of mass broadcasting is highlighted: what does it mean to invite people to 'read' a medium, to become audiences, without providing an opportunity to produce programs, that is, to write it as well? These are issues that attracted my attention during four years of field studies, policy research, and experimentation associated with the introduction of video and TV to traditional Aboriginal communities in the remote Western Desert.

I have described the results of these investigations already in terms of different models and to address various issues. 2 My choice of a literacy perspective (rather than developmental, linguistic, culture change or effects) is explored in this essay for the reasons just mentioned, but also because literacy has proved a particular problematic for traditional Aborigines. Despite generations of literacy training, remote Aboriginal functional reading rates remain under 25%. Yet home video recorders penetrated the Aboriginal outback in 1982, and by 1984, penetration was effectively total in the community where I worked, at an estimated annual cost of $600 per viewer for hardware, software and maintenance. Yet income in these impoverished communities rarely exceeds $5,000 per capita annually and are mostly welfare based. 3 The motivation to achieve video literacy here must be extraordinary. These facts posed a challenge to state policy, which considers reading and writing a pre-requisite to Aboriginal development, but, as I shall describe, is uniquely ambivalent about the value of electronic literacy. This conflict provides a poignant sub-theme to the matters considered in this paper.

To embark on a discussion of TV and video literacy, we need some greater precision about just how these media are produced and reproduced, and greater specificity about the creation, distribution and interpretation of media texts. As I mean to demonstrate, it is not sufficient to attend only to an isolated, analytically abstracted interaction between some ideal text and some imagined reader. The contribution of my project for a discussion of visual literacy will be to specify the media production processes so as to situate TV's 'readers' and 'writers' in their actual institutional relationships. That my 'reading and writing' subjects include Aboriginal Australians will not be critical to the argument. Rather, I employ the ethnographic rationale - that subjecting familiar problems to unfamiliar populations may provide useful insights.

Methodological Issues

TV is not any one, self-evident thing. Undertaking a four-year fellowship from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies "to assess the impact of commercial TV on remote Aboriginal communities" posed conceptual and definitional problems from the very start. We did not yet know just what programming (i.e., commercial or public) would be made available, through what distribution systems (i.e., single or multiple channels), or what the opportunities for local participation and control might be. Many remote Aborigines had been viewing films for a generation. Already video was penetrating remote Australia. How do we distinguish these media for analysis and prediction? Is video analytically equivalent to TV? or, can natural histories of film usage be used to predict TV effects? The media research field lacked a properly holistic model of TV as a system of production and reproduction of texts and meanings in social life which could distinguish TV as a medium and into which the Aboriginal experience could be fitted.

One may not need to go to the furthest reaches of the Central Australian desert to make such a discovery. Previous work in a small Texas city with media protest groups 4 had identified at least one population whose atypical readings of TV could not easily be accounted for within the assumptions of message transmission efficiency encountered in traditional models of TV effects. More recently, studies of the international audience for Dallas have described other highly "discrepant" readings 5 and seem to confirm Eco's claim that the characteristic of TV as a mass medium is its inefficiency of message transmission. 6 To locate the Texas protest audience within rather than outside the circulation of meanings that characterizes the TV medium, I formulated a tentative model of the system of TV textuality which I have expanded to suit the subsequent Aboriginal data reported on here.

The Aboriginal study was performed over a four year period (1983-86) best described as ethnographic fieldwork with an interventionist bias. Mostly, it concerned the Warlpiri-speaking people of the Yuendumu community, a 1,000 person government settlement (or reserve) 300 kms northwest of Alice Springs in Australia's Northern Territory. Despite a nearly hundred year contact period, these people have remained isolated from most modern communications systems, and still practice traditional language and customs, as described by anthropologists. 7 But it would be quite false to see this community as a pristine cultural isolate, unaffected by innovations, notably colonialism and dependency, and no 'pre-post' treatment methodology was employed. The study was based instead on general observations of media use in the community - both traditional and introduced - and on data that flowed from the realization of certain community members' objectives to become media producers and run their own local TV station, which began daily low-power broadcasts in 1985. This experience demonstrated perhaps more dramatically than any previous study the potential diversity of things which we call TV.

For Warlpiri producers and their audiences, TV may involve distinctive relations of production and viewing, generating quite different texts and discourses from those expected from Hollywood or London or Sydney TV. Warlpiri readings of programs imported from these alien production centres rarely conform to any 'preferred readings' producers may assume western audiences will attribute to their products. If we seek to relate audience response/behaviour to TV texts, we obviously cannot treat TV as an invariate constant, an independent variable, or regard human response as a dependent variable - an effect. This critique is now so familiar in academic media studies as to have become a commonplace of the newer literature. 8

The issue also can be overstated. We likewise cannot treat electronic media as neutral and transparent channels whose characteristics affect neither their contents or their uses - phenomena more like nature than culture or technology, a tree, fallen in the forest or a sunset, awaiting the ascription of meaning, but carrying or privileging none in themselves. In fact, TV and mass media produce and reproduce socially constructed texts whose intents are meaningful, even if the realization of such intent proves unpredictable, misconstrued, or insidious in historical or social terms. The media engage unprecedented numbers and classes of people in coordinated, if not efficient, signifying activity which is as likely to be having real effect on contemporary and future global culture as it will have on the Warlpiri, other Aborigines, and isolated indigenous people everywhere. It is not sufficient to say that people read TV differently and thereby imply no consequences for the technology.

I propose below a model of the intrinsic structures of the TV medium as a negotiation of texts between producers, technology and audiences which intends to identify some significant features of the social organization of meanings involved in this signifying activity. First, the model is developed from a description of western TV production and use, and then it is contrasted with the Warlpiri TV station and its situation in the Yuendumu community. This may make it possible to distinguish different kinds and aspects of TV texts and so become more precise in any subsequent ascription of causalities. The model I use is in many studies, and its assumptions can be detected in recent work by Katz, Fiske, Newcomb, Hirsch and others. 9 The advantage of spelling out the model in discrete terms also could have been demonstrated with reference to these more familiar studies and subjects.

TV's Hermeneutic Circle: a Proposal

It is conventional to start an analysis of texts at the production end, presuming that media involve a one way transmission of an idea/symbol (Saussure's sign) coded into a language/image/text (signifier), transmitted over space (or time), and unpacked by some audience/reader/viewer at the receiving end. In fact, the following analysis intends to demonstrate that meaning production in TV transmission is ideally a continuous and cyclical process, and one could choose any position on this 'hermeneutic circle' to begin analysis. As this circle also describes a system, one can even analytically reverse the forward direction of information flow. But as this perspective may only become clear in the completion of the argument, I will begin at the conventional beginning, intending to prove this beginning false at the end.

The Conceived Text

Let us imagine that a commercial TV 'text' begins as a creative idea on the part of an identified, institutionally situated individual - in a producer's or a script-writer's mind. In many Western (e.g., British, American or Australian) production houses such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this initial Conceived Text will enter into an institutional discourse even at this very early stage. Its author(s) may present it at story conferences or other meetings as a spoken idea, or perhaps a brief outlined 'treatment'. The author(s) may have a more or less detailed idea of what they envisage as a final outcome, either as a produced program or as an audience response (as in the production of advertisements). But the protocol and authority structures of the corporate TV industry usually require that this Conceptual Text be presented as a flexible and negotiable 'property'.


The Production Text (Script)

In the evolution of the text from this initial concept to an approved script, almost every element is subject to change. The folklore of Hollywood is rife with tales of authors whose ideas were so transformed in story conferences that they did not recognize the property they themselves had sold. The conditions governing such transformations are of considerable interest. 11 We need only note here that this first Conceptual Text is likely to be radically different, from any perspective, from what is finally developed as a script for production in the studio or elsewhere. Thus, we have already distinguished two quite separate texts, the Conceived Text emanating from creative authorship, and a Production Text (script), the result of an industrial process at work on the first text.

The Produced Text

Anyone familiar with TV production knows that the shooting script is never realized exactly in its transformation to an actual TV program. In the best of worlds, actors, directors, cameramen, editors and other participants are expected to contribute interpretations, which is to say, elaborations on the intended meanings of the text. In the worst of all worlds, these same people may be unable to deliver what is intended for various reasons, including economic and technological constraints and the intrusion of the predictably unpredictable - equipment failure, illness, bad weather, bad temper, etc., etc. The Production Text may be considered professional to the degree that it anticipates the alterations that the medium itself and the production process will necessarily perform on an essentially literary script. But these can only be anticipated in part. What is finally produced as program in the editor (in the case of tape or film) or at the mixing console (in the case of live transmission) is likely to be a quite different Produced Text from the Production Text.

The Transmitted Text

It would be a mistake (often made in experimental media research) to treat the Produced Text as what the audience actually views. In fact, the text as it is transmitted may be again radically different, depending upon the economic infrastructure and the distribution technology of any given TV system. For example, commercial TV typically inserts advertisements at several points in the program. TV writers/producers have become skilled at shaping the dramatic structures (i.e., soap operas) to anticipate and even exploit these interruptions, but rarely can the content of the interrupting material be predicted. Sponsors, newsbreaks, 'stringers' ads for other programs), station identification and other brief texts will be mixed into these breaks, often differently at different local stations. Raymond Williams 12 identifies this "flow" of heterogeneous texts as a unique characteristic of TV's narrative form, and Newcomb and Hirsch 13 have cited the failure of research and criticism in TV studies to acknowledge or account for its rhetorical peculiarities when describing audience effects. 14

The Received Text

TV receivers are designed to reproduce as faithfully as possible the text as it is transmitted. If this were a discussion of technology only, it might be adequate to ignore very occasional reception failures (unless you live in remote Australia) and characteristic, if minimal (and not so minimal), variations in individual receivers which alter framing, picture resolution and colour, intensity, etc., and pretend that the TV set receives the same text as is transmitted. But here we are discussing the cybernetic interface between humans and machines, and from this perspective yet another text requires identification.

The Received Text distinguishes what any given TV receiver displays, and is attended to, by any specified audience. It will differ from the Transmitted Text depending on the viewer's attention, other competing simultaneous information sources and any manipulation of the set itself which affects the text. The last factor is easy enough to describe; most viewers have several or many channels to chose from and may switch channels at any point, interlacing two or more discrete transmitted texts. Data from interactive cable systems, the most reliable indicator of channel switching, indicates this happens with remarkable frequency, typically several times during a single program slot. The viewer may also turn the sound off, and use the set as a background to other audio input, or listen only to the sound, watching something else while listening. These latter behaviours are revealed by recent 'ethnographies' of viewing to be quite common. 15 In fact, visual disattention to TV is so usual, some researchers refer to TV as "illustrated radio." All media ethnographers report that many, many other things are going on beside TV in almost all viewing settings - talk, handwork, household chores, social interaction - that must be computed in describing viewing, and its effects. These studies have opened to severe criticism the laboratory experiments of TV viewing and attention which presume the equivalency of the Transmitted and the Received text. It is an issue that the TV hardware industry already knows well; many models of TV sets today are equipped with a remote control option which is designed to make it even easier for viewers to tailor unique Received Texts.

The model, up to this point, contradicts the usual academic and popular idea that TV is a mass medium which allows the same thing to be in many places at once (an apparent violation, McLuhan reminds us, of Aristotelian logic). The model suggests instead that it is many things which are in many places at once. Yet we know that this must be an overstatement; generally, there is some agreement that when people discuss watching TV, they presume that they have had a common experience, that they have 'seen' the same thing. It must be, then, that the experience of TV includes some further processes by which the diversity of Received Texts is reduced.

The Perceived Text

The first of these processes must be a psychological one in which the stimulus of TV is perceived, decoded and interpreted in the viewer's mind so that an internally coherent text is created and may be recalled. The problems of describing the production of this text are considerable. These problems are not confined to TV studies, but concern all communications in which semiotic codes are employed: graphic art, music, reading, and even discourse itself. How does anybody understand anyone? What is the purposive, intellectual 'efficiency' of any medium? The question appears difficult because it concerns perception and thought which are believed, in Western cosmology at least, to be internal activities of the individual mind, and questions of language and semiotics which are believed to be external and shared social creations. To complicate matters, mental operations pose methodological problems in that they are not subject to direct observation and description, being, by definition, subjective states. 16

As interesting and as critical as these questions may be for a semiotic theory, they cannot be solved here. They have consumed the attention of other scholars 17 and have proved interesting if so far unresolvable. This does not prevent a description of some conditions of this hypothesized Perceived Text.

The problem for the viewer must be a creative one: somehow to assemble out of the fragmented resources of the received text a suitably coherent relationship of meanings. Although this process is mentalistic and individual, it relies on a history of socially constituted discourse and experience. Aspects of this process may be directly observable: there are those who may be watching alongside the individual viewer. In this case, subtle and overt interactions may serve to mediate the individual interpretations with social action: commentary on the received text, subtle kinesic signals and synchronies, etc. On a less overt level, there is the social text of prior experience, from the auto-biographical to the requisite cultural knowledge of linguistic competence and expectations for performance partly realized as conventions of narrative, genre, and other appropriate semiotic codes and metacodes for interpretation. The viewer may in some sense share these with the producers of the received text, or impute different conventions and meanings to the producer's intention, or devise wholly different, even idiosyncratic ones. 18 Here is where the interest in cross-cultural audience research arises: the obvious interest in readings produced by contrasting cultural systems.

It may be easiest, and not inaccurate, simply to say that the Perceived Text is a story that individuals tell themselves about the story they have seen. We cannot determine precisely the basis for this story, or determine its congruence with some essentialist, privileged reading of the text which was conceived, produced, transmitted or received. We only note here that it is again likely to be different from these.

The Social Text

Following 'the story that people tell themselves about the story they have seen', the media process continues to reverse the direction of deconstruction and fragmentation which the machinery of electronic mass technology imposes on the social settings of the text in transmission. To the (unknown) extent that any two households received the same or similar texts to each other, and to the extent that any two audiences (or their members) shared social experience and semiotic rules for interpreting TV, a step has been taken towards commonality of meaning - the negotiation of a Social Text. But this may be a small step. It seems more likely that the proliferation of texts and the variable angle from which any individual is able to regard them, would still produce a staggering number of idiosyncratic readings. Yet when people speak about a TV program or event, they generally assume, and rarely discover otherwise, that they have 'seen' and 'mean' the same thing.

A solution to this conceptual problem resides in just this observation - that people do talk about TV programs. In so doing, they presumably negotiate and revise, within some limits, the meanings they have ascribed to what they have seen. In fact, not only do people talk about TV, they read about it (in newspapers and magazines); they imitate and repeat certain elements; children add its characters and actions to their free play, the public may even hold meetings and demand community response, censorship, etc. Indeed, the capacity of a program to generate such interactions, to become discourse resources and topics beyond the time and place of transmission, has become a valued commodity in the economy of TV serials as much as in manufactured media events.

Rarely is the cross-checking of meaning explicit; it seems more likely to be contained in the discussion of preference - like or dislike or some program or character. But in all these activities, a kind of cross-checking of interpretation can be observed, weeding out obviously deviant meanings and privileging certain others. Thus, the social text moves from variability to commonality.

There may be at least two constraints on this movement towards common meaning. First, there is the extent to which social discourse itself has or requires apparati for exact, efficient information exchange. To accomplish the work of a 'speech act', participants are expected to share certain rules of discourse, and behave in ways deemed appropriate (otherwise, the act may 'fail' - its 'work' isn't realized). One of these rules, in most settings, seems to be the presumption that the participants 'understand' each other. But the degree to which this understanding in fact takes place must be variable, and the opportunities to cross-check inaccuracies are limited in different settings. Goffman demonstrated that there are surely many speech events in which people do not, or should not, 'understand' each other too well, or the event will break down and its functions will not be achieved. Thus, the degree to which cross-checking of TV meanings may produce equivalent texts in different people is limited by these conditions of any social discourse. But there are further constraints to common meaning.

Sociolinguists (cf. Bernstein, Labov, Volosinov 19 ) have paid particular attention to classes of asymmetrical speech events in which interpretations are not efficiently shared. These are communications across class boundaries or between persons of unequal status. Here especially it is presumed that interpretations of an event and of the meanings conveyed there will differ for differently socially situated actors - if in fact they engage in discourse at all. This suggests the second constraint on the commonality of meaning: social stratification. Social structures (class, gender, ideology, associational divisions) are not just abstract matrices; they imply conditions for who is likely to speak to whom (when, under what circumstances, via what channels, etc.). It is my thesis here that the general limits to shared meanings of TV (and perhaps much else in the modern world) conform with associational groupings, consequences perhaps of the relations of production (and consumption?) in society which may be described, with varying accuracy, as social or class structures. Thus, an Aboriginal extended family, or a group of auto mechanics, an office of executives or a congregation of Pentecostal Christians, or an ethnic community, who work together, socialize together, etc., will tend to evolve similar interpretations of, for example, a TV program. But between groups who do not meet in symmetrical social discourse, interpretations may continue to vary. The 'Global Village' that McLuhan imagined may prove to be 'Balkanised' in a manner not so unfamiliar to contemporary sociologists. What we need to describe, ultimately, will be the capacity of global broadcasting, and the texts it carries, to encourage new forms of association to arise, and to discover whether these associations require a sharing of meaning or simply common semiotic resources. In short, does TV bring its viewers together, pull them apart, or maintain existing boundaries?

This thesis is supported by research performed on TV both by academic critics and the industry itself. We know that the most successful shows (largest audiences) are those which appeal to several kinds of audiences, but for different reasons. The prototype of this program (and of this research) was the American series "All in the Family" modelled after the British "Till Death Us Do Part". As Vidmar and Rokeach 20 first described, the serial was popular precisely because part of the audience thought the hero was a fool, and saw his conservativism, racism and malapropisms as parody, while the other half was sympathetic to these traits and regarded his ideology as normative. Even in this gross distinction, at least two radically different readings can be observed, suggesting additional ones as well. Presumably, people were able to confirm their preferred readings with those they talked to about the program, but remain comparatively insulated from alternative readings. From this lesson, American TV evolved a highly complex rhetorical stance which makes it quite difficult to say what the intended meaning of many programs might be. Recent studies of Dallas's cross-cultural audiences reveal the social, cultural and spatial organization of varied interpretations. Dallas is criticized by some viewers as being overly materialistic (it was banned in Egypt for presenting an unfavourable view of capitalism), but some politicized semioticians (e.g., Kellner) see it as creating a nation of armchair Marxists. Alternatively, some viewers mostly criticize Dallas for its sexual innuendo. The differences, I submit, become purposely (if not necessarily consciously) emergent in the text, and demonstrate an implicit sense among producers of the multiplicity of Social Texts.

The Public Text

If TV's producers develop some conception of how their audiences are reading their programs as suggested above, then another text may be proposed which makes this interaction possible. The commercial infrastructure of electronic mass media demands increasing sensitivity to audiences; audiences, not programs, are the commodity of TV - its use value is a capitalization of the attention of the audience, captured by the program. This is what producers sell to their sponsors, who exploit that attention to sell their own messages.

Anecdotal literature suggests that in the early days of commercial TV, producers apparently relied on their own social contacts for evaluation of audiences. Not only does the multiple text model reveal the flaw in this, but it represents an unverifiable, imprecise measure, inadequate to the increasing value of the TV minute.

'Ratings', based on sampling, surveying and statistically correlating the viewing patterns of some sample of viewers, arose to bring increased precision to the matter of evaluating audience attention. Although the methods were demonstrably flawed (i.e., the degree of error typically was greater than the difference between audience sizes for competing shows), the ratings served an adequate "coin of the realm" function, providing a system of valuation, no matter how spurious, on which advertising sales could be based.

Recent growth in consumer media choices (cable, satellite, VCR's) have enormously expanded the media menu so that more precise measures of audience attention are now required. In particular, ratings failed to account for why particular programs were popular, what would be required to create a popular program, or why certain programs might be popular at one time and not another. Ratings failed to anticipate that an entire generation of 'blockbuster serials' would languish for a year or more with low ratings before developing their mass audience. This was the case for Dallas, Hill Street Blues, Mash, All in the Family and a number of other properties which would prove very valuable after they had 'found their audience' in subsequent seasons. Clearly, in the furiously competitive media market, more information was required, information on how audiences read and appreciate TV texts. Today, ratings are agreed to have limited utility, and the techniques of the once radical cultural theorists are entering the research mainstream.

This superficial gloss of media research techniques is offered only to suggest that there has always been some means of establishing the Public Text which returns the message back to the producer, whether the impoverished readings of a Morgan Gallup or Nielson rating or the richer ones provided by literary critics and by recent cultural studies theorizing. But these 'official' readings are only one example. Audiences themselves recognize their power to varying degrees and lobbying and pressure groups have arisen over the years, notably with regard to children's TV, but also fundamentalist Christians, sports enthusiasts, anti-smoking, drinking, violence lobbies, and so forth. These groups develop particular readings of the media and may develop ingenious ways to privilege these in the eyes of producers. 21 In Australia, the last few years have seen Aborigines develop preferred readings of TV, and assert to the government that these readings must be taken into account in the provision of services. 22 All these, as well as letters directly to newspaper editors, TV columnists, star gossip, and Entertainment Tonight are examples of public texts which a successful producer considers in his creation of a program. Let me turn now to the Aboriginal case, and consider what the model reveals about their apparently unique situation.

Applications to Aboriginal TV

Traditional Aborigines, inhabiting remote Australia, pose special, but not necessarily unique, problems from the perspective of this model. Clearly, the texts perceived by a non-western culture in a language other than their own are apt to produce highly discrepant Perceived Texts compared to readings attributed to audiences which share the language and culture of the producers. This is an obvious claim of the sort which has generated the recent cross-cultural audience studies cited above. But the model here predicts that this may be more a matter of degree than kind; all perceptions of TV are apt to exhibit unaccountable idiosyncrasies.

At Yuendumu, the Warlpiri Aborigines with whom I worked and watched while watching video, produced casually and in structured interviews, remarkable readings of Hollywood videos, best explained with reference to traditional oral performances and inscriptive practices. But when I claim that Aborigines produce highly atypical readings of TV and video programs, readings which people from Western culture are unlikely to predict, I don't mean that Aborigines don't know how to read TV. Rather their readings are just one example, if a particularly dramatic one, of a more general rule anticipated by Rokeach and Vidmar's research: people's readings of media are based as much on their lived experience, historical circumstances and cultural perspectives than any inherent instructions in the text itself on how something ought to be interpreted. The implications for my Aboriginal research were that to account for Aboriginal readings of TV it would be necessary to investigate also Aboriginal social experience, history and culture. In these were discovered traditional rules for communicating, for example, story form, ritual performance, speech avoidance and secret/sacred restrictions. Understanding these helped to account both for Aboriginal interpretations and also their concerns about the new media.

The 'problem' of introduced media (if it is to be called that) for Aborigines is equally in the construction of the consequent texts predicted by the model, I will argue. The capacity to negotiate Social Texts and the political power to advance these to Public Texts so as to become full participants in the 'hermeneutic circle' described here is in question. The sources of any potential disenfranchisement reside not only in the TV system, but in the overarching racial and political structures which enmesh and oppress remote Aborigines as an effect of administration and relations of enforced dependency, as well as the physical isolation of remote traditional communities.

The essential challenge that the new media pose for Aboriginal tradition will be in the very massness of modern broadcasting. By contrast, Aboriginal modes of communication are extensions of the oral and face-to-face nature of that society.

These allowed, even required, that information be owned, a kind of intellectual property at the heart of what I understand the traditional Aboriginal economy to be about. Knowledge in the form of stories and songs) is the prerogative of senior men and women (elders) and the rules governing its transmission are highly regulated. Violating speaking constraints and rights here is treated as theft, and recognized to be highly subversive of the traditional gerontocratic social structure. From these basic facts of information ownership flow the essential conditions governing Aboriginal expressive media. Modern mass media is based on a contrasting and subversive principle - that information is made to appear ostensibly free - TV program costs are hidden to the audience so they can masquerade as freely accessible common property available to huge publics simultaneously.

In terms of Aboriginal objectives for power and prestige, this contrast between the old and the new media poses a difficult challenge. Aborigines now demand the right to 'write' as well as 'read' the new media. If Aboriginal people wish to use the new technology to gain power, evoke prestige - to gain a voice in the media - they will have to become both producers and subjects of the media, participants at all stages of the hermeneutic circle. Much of my fieldwork concerned a collaborative project which became Australia's first public access community TV station, producing daily broadcasts in the traditional language on local issues and events. This provided a basis for analyzing indigenously Conceived, Produced, Transmitted and Received texts, as well as observing their entry into the community as Social and Public texts. Here is where the most worrying problems arose.

My research findings posed the curious contradiction that the major threats to Aboriginal tradition do not arise from the problems associated with viewing imported TV. The social effects of 'passive' viewing, although potentially damaging, may be partly mediated by Aboriginal interpretation, selection and viewing habits, the capacity for counter hegemony implied by a hermeneutic model. The effect on traditional culture is likely to be indirect, perhaps more related to program schedule and its influence on local activity than a result of one or another kind of content. I think it must be admitted that, at worst, these indirect effects will be less oppressive than the direct material attacks which have been, and still are, perpetrated on Aborigines under European domination.

But when Aborigines attempt to participate in the media, when indigenous content is produced and mass broadcast, the potential for direct and irrevocable damage to the tradition is raised, even assured. Oral tradition does not allow for such widespread and public access to its texts and the consequences of poorly conceived Aboriginal broadcasting will assuredly be sacrilege and desecration. Because Aborigines have always been appropriated as media subjects by European Australians, this danger always existed. But until now, traditional Aborigines remained outside of the mass media market, isolated from books by illiteracy and from broadcast media by distance and isolation from the electronic communications network. Now that this isolation is breached and remote Aborigines see the texts Europeans produce about them on TV, great damage is being done and great anger is growing throughout remote areas. The only national network, the publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation has a near criminal record in the matter to date. It is not unusual to view programs containing restricted secret rituals and other violations of Aboriginal copyright. The Corporation simply has no existing policy on the matter.

I proposed in my project report, somewhat optimistically that the solution here lies in extending video and TV literacy as 'writing', not just 'reading', to traditional Aborigines. They can themselves take responsibility and control the construction of their own images. This proposal emphasizes control of TV transmission every bit as much as production. In varying ways, the growth of community TV stations in remote Central Australia, the belated government recognition of these, and perhaps the awarding of the central zone commercial satellite licence to a regional Aboriginal media cooperative give grounds for optimism. Certainly, these have provided opportunities to articulate the problem and for Aborigines themselves to devise solutions. But it has also identified communications as a major fundable resource, and, in a resource - scarce population, this leads to unanticipated competition in which culture risks becoming seen by Aborigines themselves as a commodity to be bartered for these resources. The course of the struggle for media autonomy for traditional people remains uncertain.

Recommending that Aboriginal people take control of their own media, both to protect and to empower their culture and their lives, is easily stated. But is it a welcome and practical suggestion? I do not mean here whether the government or private enterprise or anybody else will allow, fund or license such activities. That is a daunting question and would require another format to develop fully. I note here only that the new availability of home video recorders, coupled with comparatively cheap low-power transmitters poses possibilities which Aborigines are now exploring, but which media researchers and development planners have yet to take fully into account. You can build a TV station today at minimal expense and go to air without anybody's permission, as we did at Yuendumu. But when I ask if the suggestion is practical, I mean it from an Aboriginal perspective; is there enough interest, skill and motivation in traditional communities to undertake media production? Or is this one more 'Aboriginal Advancement' project some clever adviser inflicted on Aborigines, the discarded skeletons of which litter the remote countryside?

The Attractions of Television

This brings us to a final issue introduced earlier in this discussion, the observed rapid adoption of video and TV by traditional people who largely rejected print. The commonest explanation for the popularity of new media is not by analogy to literacy and information seeking but by analogy to disease and addiction. The drug/disease analogy has no difficulty accounting for how a depressed community will take to TV in epidemic proportions. But as I have already suggested, a literacy model poses a different perspective. The fact that people learned how to read and write TV with greater motivation, speed and ease than they did books and print requires different evidence to pose a different explanation. In the following, I want to consider some aspects of what Aboriginal interests in accessing TV as viewers and producers might be.

The interesting thing about Aborigines' first use of video is that unlike other introductions, especially writing and books, the acquisition of video recorders was largely unplanned and unanticipated by European advisers/educators and government. In fact, while government was developing fairly elaborate long term plans for introducing TV and radio via the satellite - the eyes of the state firmly fixed on the heavens - remote Aborigines were pooling resources, travelling to Alice Springs, Darwin and the service towns up and down 'the Track' (the Stuart Highway service corridor) and returning home with VCR's and rental tapes.

I submit that part of the interest in videos here was simply the desire of isolated people to get an alternative view of western society, different from what had been available through the cast of neo-colonial characters with whom they had become familiar. As skewed and artificial as Hollywood makes the world out to be, it may prove a better insight (and more demographically accurate in Gerbner's "Cultural Indicators" terms) than the very odd assortment of preachers, teachers, researchers, administrators and service workers who find their way into remote Australian communities. We are probably an odder and more atypical lot than the cast of Dallas or even a Bruce Lee movie. But the conditions of the Received/Perceived Texts must be accounted for as well. It is important that Aborigines had the control, to some extent, of these VCR's and could watch what they pleased, when they pleased and with whom they pleased. Cinema, by contrast, had been in the community for thirty years, but choice of program and venue remained with Europeans during the entire time.

Remarkably, when some form of institutional intervention was offered with video, through the introduction of cameras by the school system and research projects like my own, enthusiasm remained high. I take the success of such projects to be in direct relation to how minimal these interventions were. Where skilled video and film makers tried to teach Aborigines how to script, shoot and edit proper Film and TV School style, enthusiasm quickly flagged. Where adult education instructors, equally new to the medium, tried to figure it out alongside Aboriginal people, the results were more satisfying. In my own case, my disinterest in making video personally, and my research agenda - to have Aborigines use the camera to teach me by demonstrating unique properties of their perspective - seemed most appropriate, in retrospect, as a training strategy.

Video production proves the best way of learning how to become TV literate. In a Frierian sense, people can discover for themselves the truth and the lies that the medium is capable of. Instant replay can be exploited to make this largely a matter of self instruction, an issue of considerable importance where the only available 'expert' trainers are all from outside your own culture and society. Video's success in Aboriginal Australia - people's rapidly coming to video literacy - is contrasted to books and print not only because of inherent properties of these media themselves, but because there simply wasn't much interest and intervention from Europeans. Preachers and teachers do not just teach reading and writing. They teach it alongside, and as an integral part of, a moral and social order. If Aborigines reject that order, or feel oppressed or manipulated by it, surely they are going to have difficulty with the medium of instruction as well. It is precisely the point that Aborigines found themselves able to escape the paternalistic moral straitjacket that books implied for them, and to watch violent, exotic, pornographic, subversive and Black video that must be so appealing as an antidote to the pro-social, morally correct, educational and otherwise uplifting texts that Europeans had been selling them until now. These justify not only a particular view of the world, but the Europeans' own presence and oppressive role in these communities.

Electronic media prove particularly appealing because they permit the tailoring of sub-cycles of TV's hermeneutic circle to local needs. Community TV, for example, intervenes mostly in the initial stages of the model; there is a collapsing of texts in the first stages of the sequence. Community participation in the steps from Conception to Reception means less of a division of informational labour (and in fact allows traditional divisions based on gender and kinship to be maintained). 23 There is what I have called elsewhere a Brechtian violation of the producer/audience boundary made possible both by widespread participation and reduced production costs associated with 1/2" home video source technology. It is not entirely clear how this addresses the problem that competing channels of satellite-delivered alien Transmitted Texts will pose. At Yuendumu and elsewhere, local media associations have demanded the right to position community stations as 'filters' through which the imported signal flows. This would provide the means of controlling the signal going out to the community, readjusting schedules and vetting programs, as well as providing a programming framework into which the local product can be inserted. This would allow the community's Social Text to take precedence over alien Produced Texts, and in fact, tailor the hermeneutic circle to local demands as a whole.

One example, among many possible ones, of the consequences of constraints on Received and subsequent Social Texts illustrates the importance of these in understanding the Aboriginal experience. Traditional societies, where kinship networks remain highly structured integrative social agents, would seem to be fertile settings for the generation of appropriate Social Texts. Indeed, the video viewing groups assembled in Aboriginal camps today are highly active interpretive bodies, capable of producing consensual readings of even the most unfamiliar video texts. These assemblages result from private ownership of inexpensive video technology, although their sources are in the traditional household and ceremonial activity. Prior to the availability of VCR's, mass media (e.g., cinema) on communities were available only through European intermediaries, notably the church and the school. When these institutions sponsored films, they actively intervened in the creation of the Social Text in explicit and implicit ways. Explicitly, films were often shown as parts of lessons - school or bible - and a preferred interpretation usually preceded and followed the showing. Implicitly, the social structuring of the audience was manipulated by the settings, school or church halls, in which these films were shown. Here, large groups, larger than Aboriginal life would encourage except for ceremony or warfare, were assembled. It was very difficult to maintain the traditional restrictions on association. Mothers-in-law would be seated too close to sons-in-law, and young 'promised wives' would be apt to be accessible to too many inappropriate and unauthorized suitors.

It may prove that the romantic/erotic content of some of the media displayed here resonated with this socially subversive congregation to produce the criticism by older Aborigines that Western media subvert the traditional marriage system and jeopardise the society as a whole. Certainly, these assemblages posed a difficult challenge to the authority of the elders in controlling marriages. The proxemics of the setting often encouraged flirting, fighting and developed into dramatic confrontations. Hollywood's thematic emphasis on personal romantic choice without establishing what for the Warlpiri would be 'correct' kin relationships is a problem in even the most chaste of Western narratives. A kiss here is not 'just a kiss'. If, from an Aboriginal perspective, the wrong people are kissing, a kiss may be a culturally subversive act.

With the introduction of VCR's, personally owned and located in Aboriginal camps, the possibility to assemble more socially appropriate audiences apparently enhanced the work of social interpretation and negotiation. Not only could elders reassert to some extent their control over the groups and act to varying extents as interpretative authorities, they faced no competition from Teachers and Ministers dictating preferred readings. 24 In these settings, they were free to interpret and negotiate alien media texts, and less likely to regard them as unacceptable. The lesson here is that the problem of sexuality (as with other topics) in the media for Aborigines may have less to do with contents of the Produced or Transmitted Texts than with the conditions of the Received, Perceived and Social Texts.

The more dramatic problem for remote Aborigines is that there exist limited means for their Social Texts to become Public Texts so that Aboriginal interpretation, readings or preferences are unlikely to be considered in the creation of subsequent Conceived and Produced Texts. Their participation in the whole of the TV system is fragmented; their experience in the hermeneutic circle is reduced to an arc.

To an extent, they share this situation with other groups who represent marginal or inconsequential markets. It could be argued that the evolution of the media economy has increasingly identified and incorporated marginal audiences, either as targets for narrowcasting or as audiences to be hegemonised into the mass public. Remember, the differences in rating points between program is apt to be very small, and it is this modest differential that certain groups, like fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., have exploited as a source of influence. Australian Broadcasting policy also identifies responsibilities to marginal audiences, best evidenced by the wholly government subsidized Special Broadcasting Service (a full channel for ethnic minority programming), by policy within the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and as a license condition for commercial TV broadcasters. But European assessments of Aboriginal viewing through inappropriate research models which treat TV viewing as a disease lead to protectionist agendas which cannot help populations whose problems stem from enforced dependencies. The structurally (and technologically) biased incapacities of the national Australian communications systems further assure disenfranchisement of remote Aborigines from the social and public discourses surrounding TV. Currently, urban decision makers are not equipped to hear what remote Aboriginal people are saying about TV.

It is in this lacuna that the imperative for the local community station arises. But the isolation and political marginality of the remote Aboriginal population which makes these facilities necessary also affects their chances of success. The Yuendumu TV station, despite a considerable initial flurry of interest (spurred by its illegal, 'pirate' status) has been effectively insulated from further interest. None of its productions has been broadcast to the rest of Australia. The only distribution is via tape copies through Aboriginal networks. This is not mere disinterest; the tapes are judged by national broadcasters to be of "insufficient technical quality" for national attention. The national broadcasters prefer to send in their crews to make TV about the Aborigines making TV. But the conduct of European producers who appropriate Warlpiri media for "higher quality" productions has led to a general ban on such activity in the community. Thus, Australia's first Public Television, and its counterparts in at least a half dozen other Aboriginal communities, remains essentially unknown, and its output has no audience beyond the local one.


The applications of a hermeneutic model of TV textuality to questions of Aboriginal visual literacy can now be made clear. We will not be able to retrieve the pertinent data, to 'see' the Aboriginal experience through any of the usual research protocols which link media texts abstracted from one position in the circle, as stimuli, with audience response at another position, when the intervening transformations of the text are not accounted for. Experimental simulations of viewing and questionnaire/survey methods which create new and unaccountable textual positions, are revealed to be inadequate and misleading for any audience. For audiences who negotiate their texts in unique and unfamiliar cultural settings, findings so produced are not only misleading; they may contribute to the problem of completing the circle of interpretation, further isolating and fragmenting the voice and experience of particular audiences.

Recent Aboriginal responses to this created and enforced silence have been to intercept the technology and engineer sub-networks of production and transmission attempting to link their own local interpretative circles to the national system, as well as to maintain filters for alien media. Aboriginal media organisations' bids for TV licenses both locally and in competition with regional suppliers, seek to create 'Aboriginal Media for Aboriginal People' connected to, but textually independent of European media systems. Two results are possible. Either licenses will be awarded and these unique sub-networks will have to incorporate aspects of this system into their own, as special programming 'windows' for limited local insertion or increased participation of independent Aboriginal producers in mainstream media.

Of these options, the former seems most attractive, allowing as it does for Aboriginal producers and audiences to tailor media services to emergent needs on the local and regional level. From the perspective of the model, this assures an intimate correspondence between Aboriginal producers and viewers capable of developing over time a system for the creation and circulation of culturally appropriate texts. But it is unclear whether this will promote cultural separatism, a kind of electronic apartheid, which some would argue is unacceptable. The question which must be raised, but cannot be answered here is which option poses the most potential not only for cultural maintenance, but for the achievement of political power.

The system of TV textuality described in this essay may serve to interpolate pluralistic audiences by describing a common pool of semiotic resources while identifying sub-cultural distinctiveness in the diverse readings negotiated in more discrete face-to-face associational groups. Until we can be more precise about the consequences of sharing symbols, but not meanings; sharing texts, but not interpretations, the full social and cultural significance of the electronic text cannot be assessed.


1 See J. Radway, Reading the Romance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

2 Eric Michaels, "Constraints on Knowledge in an Economy of Oral Information", Current Anthropology, v. 26, n. 4 (1985); Michaels, The Aboriginal Invention of Television (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1986); and Michaels, "Hollywood Iconography: A Warlpiri Reading", in P. Drummond and R. Paterson eds., Television and its Audience (London: British Film Institute, 1987).

3 Eric Michaels and L. J. Japanangka, "The Cost of Video at Yuendumu", Media Information Australia, n. 32, 1984, pp. 17-25.

4 Eric Michaels, "TV Tribes", PhD Dissertation, University of Texas, Austin, 1982.

5 Ien Ang, Watching Dallas (trans. Coutling) (London: Methuen, 1983); and E. Katz and T. Liebes, "Mutual Aid in the Decoding of Dallas: Preliminary Notes from a Cross-Cultural Study", in P. Drummond and R. Paterson eds., Television in Transition (London: British Film Institute, 1985).

6 Umberto Eco, "Towards a Semiotic Inquiry into the TV Message", WPCS, no. 3, 1972, pp. 103-126.

7 M.J. Meggitt, The Desert People (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962); N. Munn, Warlpiri Iconography (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973).

8 c.f. Journal of Communication, "Ferment in the Field", v. 33, n. 3 (1983).

9 See Katz, "Mutual Aid in the Decoding of Dallas; John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987); H. Newcomb and P. Hirsch, "Television as a Cultural Forum: Implications for Research", in W.D. Rowland and B. Watkins eds., Interpreting Television (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1985), pp. 68-73; and others.

10 From Michaels, "TV Tribes", p. 208.

11 H. Powdermaker in Hollywood, the Dream Factory (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951) found the issue of Hollywood production of ethnographic interest; Gans, Arlen, Gitlin, and Newcomb and Alley, devote recent books to case histories. See H. Gans, Deciding What's News (New York: Pantheon, 1979); M. Arlen, Thirty Seconds (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980); Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), Horace Newcomb and R. Alley, The Producers' Medium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

12 Raymond Williams, Television, Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Schoken, 1974), p. IV.

13 Newcomb and Hirsch, "Television as a Cultural Forum".

14 One might exempt non-commercial stations from this citation. But note that the non-commercial Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently developed a kind of pseudo-advertisement for insertion especially into its evening news program, on the grounds that audience attention and viewing styles have become habituated to these breaks, so that they are now required to conform to the kinds of attention given to TV at certain hours. This unique Transmitted Text exists differently in different locales, residing, as it does only in the ether; its constituent units are electrons.

15 T. Meyer, P. Traudt & J. Anderson, "Non-traditional Mass-Communications Research Methods: an Overview of Observational Case Studies on Media Use in Natural Settings," in Nimins, ed., Communications Yearbook, n. 4 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1981).

16 An earlier formulation identified the text as recalled as a distinct text from the received one; while this served to identify the influence of experimental and interview demand characteristics, accounting for some problems of the research literature, it does not seem so useful a distinction to maintain for the present purposes, except to illustrate that the number of texts identified in the process could be legitimately expanded at several points as required. Another example would be the distinction I raise earlier, but do not formalize, between the Production Text and the Produced Text.

17 See especially Worth and Adair's analysis of Navajo film which anticipates the Warlpiri study. Sol Worth & J. Adair, Through Navajo Eyes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972).

18 See Sol Worth & L. Gross, "Symbolic Strategies", Journal of Communication, v. 24, pp. 27-39. 1974; and Jay Ruby, "Ethnography as Trompe D'Oeil: Film and Anthropology", in J. Ruby ed., A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982).

19 B. Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control, v. 1 (London: RKP, 1971); W. Labov, "The Social Stratification of English in New York City" (Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1972); and V. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. L. Matejka and I. Titunik (New York: Seminar Press, 1973).

20 N. Vidmar and M. Rokeach, "Archie Bunker's Bigotry: A Study in Selective Perception and Exposure", Journal of Communication, v. 24, n. 1 (1974).

21 Michaels, "TV Tribes".

22 Michaels, "Hollywood Iconography".

23 C.f. E. Michaels and F.J. Kelly, "The Social Organisation of an Aboriginal Video Workplace", Australian Aboriginal Studies, n. 1, pp. 26-34 (1984).

24 In many cases, European authorities are loathe to yield these functions. Not only do they condemn home video recorders (while maintaining "approved" videos and venues), but they continue to assert authority over introduced media. In all cases that I have observed, satellite dish/transmitter systems installed in traditional communities have their controls located in European households, typically school principals', occasionally in church facilities. In some cases, "correct" TV reading is taught in the schools. In others, the authority simply chooses the schedule for the community, sometimes for explicit pedagogic purposes, with censorial intent, sometimes simply because their own preference is for a particular program.

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