Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1991
Television and ...
Edited by John Hartley

Desperate diversions: the snowy, the Gulf, and populism

Norm Leslie

Jessica: It changes so suddenly doesn't it? One minute it's like paradise. The next it's trying to kill you.

Jim: That's how it can be up here. But if it was easy to get to know, there'd be no challenge. You've got to treat the mountains like a high spirited horse. Never take them for granted.

Jessica: It's the same with people too. (The Man From Snowy River)

On the evening of the day that Australian naval forces sailed for the Gulf in August 1990, Channel 9 News closed their bulletin in a serious and reflective vein. Bob Hawke, in romantic silhouette, waved farewell to the ships and the men onboard, against a backdrop of picturesque Garden Island. Underpinning these images the theme from The Man From Snowy River played; a stirring tune which became an upbeat version of Waltzing Matilda. The music caught my attention, momentarily distracting me from washing the dinner dishes, and holding me for time it took for the credits to roll. My children were also being drawn to watch Charles in Charge, part of the banal everyday ritual of family life in our home. But this evening was slightly altered by the reflection invited by the close of the news. Instead of raving at the children, I was raving at the television. My initial Pavlovian response to the music juxtaposed with those idealised images was anger at the deja vu they evoked: Vietnam; All The Way With LBJ; American nuclear warships regularly anchored less than two kilometres from where my family act out our mundane lives. This thirty second filler had brought all of that past, present and future home, quite literally. It wasn't the images by themselves - they'd been used earlier in the bulletin to cover the navy's departure - it was the choice of music in conjunction with those images. The ABC also closed their evening news with images of the romantic Bob Hawke waving farewell to the ships, but they used a more traditional rendition of Waltzing Matilda, possibly played by a military band live at the event. What angered me was Channel 9's almost desperate appeal to populist support by gilding the lily with The Man From Snowy River theme.

The Man From Snowy River is a film which has particular currency as an expression of Australian nationalist mythology, if for no other reason than its commercial success which is second only to Crocodile Dundee. While Crocodile Dundee inflects its version of Australian nationalism with more than a touch of parody, in the character of Paul Hogan, The Man From Snowy River is stridently serious in its populism. Audiences stood to applaud its expression of national pride. My anger stemmed from the articulation of that sentiment with the politically fraught action of once again being first in line to support the United States' administration in another overseas 'policing action'. Channel 9 had presented Bob Hawke with a public relations coup, more successful than the one that had been staged (accepting that The Band Played Waltzing Matilda on the day). Why did the news producers decide to forego the live version for the film version? The question is rhetorical, like so many questions of intentionality. But they did, and in the choice lies meaning, inadvertent perhaps, expedient, but certainly opportune in the sense of articulating expressions of national identity with a specific foreign policy objective of the government.

Questions of motivation can be reduced to the most general level by claiming that the purpose of the change was to invoke a populist discourse structured around nationalism in this instance. As Hartley 1 points out, populism provides the common ground between the desire of the news to 'strive for clarity' and the desire of politicians to establish consensus, so allowing the news's populism to be 'colonised or captured' by Hawke's populism. My anger at the montage stemmed from the ease with which this conflation had been achieved; those who seek to exercise political power should have to struggle for their hegemony, not have it handed to them on a plate.

In this paper I wish to take up the notion of populism and its relationship to television, particularly commercial television. I also wish to suggest that populism underpins much critical writing on television, especially within the discourse(s) of Cultural Studies, and to characterise both appeals to populist discourse as having a desperate edge, in the sense of being linked to insecurity and crisis. Two out of three commercial TV networks in Australia are in the hands of receivers, at the time of writing, and survival depends upon trading their way out of the financial crises into which they have drifted. Meanwhile, the currency of Cultural Studies in the academy and in the general intellectual fabric of the community has been, and still is, a case of a struggle for legitimation and recognition. For some, the appropriation of populism has been a means towards the integration of everyday discourses into academic discourse. Just as Bob Hawke seeks to transform populist discourses into political discourse to secure his position, so too do many writers in the area of Cultural Studies. However, the process is not without risks, which gives it a desperate edge.

Desperation at the level of TV production is structured into the institutional framework in the form of the ratings. The profitability of commercial television, and the marketability of any program, depend on the exchange of an audience-as-commodity between the television broadcaster and the advertising industry; in Australia an exchange worth a total of $1,500m per year split three ways. 2 Unlike print media, where readerships are measured in qualitative terms (expressed as belonging to one of five quintiles) as well as in quantitative terms, television audiences are measured quantitatively, expressed as a market share of sets turned on at any one time. The desperation of maintaining a viable market share is acutely felt in the Australian commercial television industry because the total market, being small, cannot be divided beyond a critical number of players and still maintain the viability of the industry as a whole. This edge has been reached within the Australian commercial television industry, precipitated and exasperated by the level of indebtedness of all three networks. Share values in mid-1987 were $1.55 for Bond Media (Channel 9), $4.00 for Northern Star Holdings (10) and $4.50 for Quintex (7). By January 1990, these shares had fallen to $0.25, $0.45 and $0.16 respectively. Such massive losses to shareholders were despite a 15% to 20% growth in revenue annually. Only the Channel 9 Network appears able to maintain a viable position, bolstered by staff cuts and program cancellations. Channels 7 and 10 are insolvent, with 7 maintaining some hope of being able to trade its way out of bankruptcy, under new ownership. Channel 10 represents the desperate edge of Australian television, having enjoyed a share of 28% in 1987/88, but falling to less than 18% in early 1990, representing a loss in revenue in excess of $130m. Various schemes are being aired as to what to do with the licence for Channel 10. Phillip Adams wishes to set up a 'Channel 4' (on the model of Britain's successful minority commercial channel), operating as a production 'clearing house' for independent producers and minority audiences, financed by advertising. Other schemes envisage Channel 10 as a screen for films (an idea already rejected by the government as a violation of the terms of the license agreement) or as a re-run channel, while Channels 9 and 7 question the viability of the small market being able to sustain three networks, which leaves Channel 10 a blank screen. All of this is against the backdrop of paranoia and suspicion that the sampling procedures of the rating agencies, A.C. Nielsen and AGB McNair, have distorted the reality of the audience size anyway, as peoplemeters give different results from previous sampling techniques - generally more favourable figures. 3 On the face of it this would appear to benefit the industry, but it is also evidence for suspicion of the validity of figures in general. 4 This is a critical factor for the advertising industry, which negotiates fees in advance, based upon projected figures taken from previous ratings. George Paterson, the largest buyer of television advertising time, places $400m at a time. With the ratings-figures in doubt, the commitment of such sums becomes fraught with its own desperate edge.

The crisis at the periphery of Australia's television network structure, characterised by Channel 10, is evidence of tensions at the core of the commercial television industry, and in the non-commercial sector as well, as evidenced by the ABC's push towards so-called economic rationalism in programming. The only relief to this tension is via access to a quanti-fiably large audience which can then be sold to advertisers. A principal strategy adopted to achieve this audience is to appeal to notions of populism. Giltin puts it succinctly :5

Nothing can dissolve the networks' dependence on certification by a mass audience. The trick is not only to read the restless public mood, but somehow to encapsulate it in a show.

Populism, however, is a vague, contradictory notion at best. It assumes that the position adopted will somehow be convincing as a view from the bottom up. Populism celebrates the forces which are seen to be common to 'ordinary folk': notions of family, struggle, love, fair play, spirituality. Populism requires a scepticism about power and authority, tempered with the contradictory forces of envy and suspicion, compliance and resistance. These contradictory forces of 'hostility, resentment, and insubordination, as well as deferment, consent, and respect', 6 provide the fabric out of which national mythologies are woven. In Australian culture, the little Aussie battler, and the cutting down of tall poppies, articulate the contradictions of striving and struggle with populist notions of egalitarianism and reward. At a more general level, Laclau locates populism between the contradictory forces of the 'masses and the State', 7 , and he suggests that populist discourse is likely to be evoked in times of crisis to mobilise and articulate elements from everyday discourse into political discourse:

...the emergence of populism is historically linked to a crisis of the dominant ideological discourse which is in turn part of a more general social crisis... a crisis in the ability of the system to neutralise the dominated sectors... a crisis of transformism. 8

According to this view, the raw material of national mythologies must be disarticulated from prior interpellations and rearticulated into a new configuration which will suit the hegemonic interests of the power bloc. The troops on the ships departing to participate in a potentially unpopular foreign action must be characterised as Little Aussie Battlers, not Tall Poppies. That role is constantly held in reserve for Bob Hawke himself. The location of populism between the binaries 'people : power bloc' highlights the excessive potential it contains, in that seeking to contain and direct populist sentiments can generate a spill, as it were, of the potential meanings that populism holds latent and in tension. 'It is' says Laclau, 'precisely this abstract character of "populism" which permits of its presence in the ideology of the most varied of classes'. 9 Gitlin points out that the process of articulating these contradictory sentiments into the Now, is always a political act, and that television is implicated, both latently and manifestly.

What comes across the small screen amounts to an entertaining version of the world - to ideology, in a word.... The networks generate ideology mostly indirectly and unintentionally, by trying to read popular sentiment and tailoring their schedules toward what they think the cardboard people they've conjured up want to see and hear. If this is cultural tyranny, it is a soft tyranny, operating through stripped down formulas that networks selectively abstract, via other media, from mass sentiments. 10

The most common structural element underpining those 'stripped down formulas' is expressed in the binary 'us : them'. At the most general level, in order to speak with voice of the people, television must define what and who constitutes those people. Hartley demonstrates how this binary underpins the construction of news, and concludes that:

the news is active in the politics of sense making, even when the stories concern matters not usually understood as political... Populist discourses and popular idioms are mobilised to make sense of both the world and those who represent different social and political constituencies within it (e.g., both the world and such groups are sorted into WE/THEY categories). 11

Who might 'we' be? Certainly at the most general level, 'we' are constructed as nation - where what constitutes the characteristics of the national 'we' is a constant play of difference, as what we might be is measured against what and who we are not. This can be a dangerous activity, as demonstrated by the notorious Australian Navy videotape, made by sailors on standby in the Gulf, but officially released; sailors acting out the roles of arabs, dressed in bed-sheets and bath-towels to to give the nightmare fantasy of rehearsing for war a realistic but parodic edge. This does more than inflame Islamic outrage; it also reveals the racist logic underpining the binary strategy. Once the facade has been stripped off, a more sinister, and perhaps more accurate 'we' is revealed. Even when the facade is left intact, and the racism remains concealed, the strategy can have its ironic moments: The Man From Snowy River constructed a national 'we' by structurally defining Australian difference from America, as represented in the character of Harrison, the rich capitalist landowner who seeks to convert 'our' sun-drenched plains into cattle fodder. Hence Channel 9's use of the theme music for this film, played against the Australian government's urgent rush to support the US administration in its role as global watch-dog and policeman, echoed with a faint dissonant ring.

The resonance of discord is reduced by the double strategy required in the mobilisation of the 'us : them' binary. Not only must we be identified and defined through our difference from the other, we must simultaneously be constituted as a 'populist unity', 12 devoid of internal divisions and antagonisms. The social 'us : them' must be displaced and reconstituted as a national 'we'. In The Man From Snowy River, the potentially disruptive, independent feminism of Jessica, for instance, is neutralised and tamed, along with the wild horses. Also, the disruption to the Harrison brotherhood caused by the imagined infidelity of Jessica's absent mother with Spur, Harrison's twin brother, is resolved in order to establish a unified community of Australians, fit to live in the High Country.

Bob Hawke, in his haste to engage in foreign adventurism alongside the United States, must extend his national 'we' into an international one, where Australia is constructed as part of a unified, Western community. In the lead up to war this task largely fell to the Foreign Affairs minister, Senator Gareth Evans. The issue of who would actually command the ships in the exercise of their policing role, and their role in the eventual war, necessitates the construction of a unified, international identity exercised by the Australian 'People'. In fact the command of the ships in their deployment as part of a war was in the hands of the United States field commanders, relegating Australia to a subordinate position. Populism constructs, even demands, that our position within the fiction that is 'our' nation, is subordinate. Ellis characterises this position as that of the 'normal citizen'. Television, in its desperation to interpellate citizens into audience, adopts the populist position:

The viewer is constituted as a normal citizen... uninvolved in the events portrayed... a position of impotence. This is a position constructed for the viewer by the process of broadcast TV. 13

However, the notion of a 'normal citizen' is itself contradictory. Ang points out that:

On the one hand, it is a position of entering the world, a position of knowledge (of being informed), but on the other hand it is at the same time a position of withdrawal from the world, a position of 'sceptical non-involvement'... Real viewers will never take up the position of 'normal citizen'... (for both feelings of sympathy and anger are forms of involvement). 14

Within a democracy citizenship carries with it notions of power (however illusory). Ellis's construction of the 'normal citizen', however, sees the role as a powerless one, and in doing so, reduces television to a unified discourse which ignores those forces of community and emotional involvement which are part of populist sentiment. These forces may be suppressed in an attempt to position the audience, but they cannot be ignored.

The subordination of the fictive citizen is also ensured in the construction of the citizen as child. Gitlin cites Marvin J. Chomsky, director of the miniseries Holocaust. 'We're going for the eighty million who will watch something. An infant in the cradle likes to watch things that move. So, there you are.' 15 Based on these observations and others like them, Hartley characterises television as 'paedocratic' in its address:

The institutional needs and purposes of the television industry are survival and profitability, to be achieved (hopefully) by audience maximisation and by minimising risks and uncertainties... Audiences are paedocratised to serve these needs. For the industry, television is a paedocratic regime. The audience is imagined as having childlike qualities and attributes. Television discourse addresses its viewers as children... There may be a law which states: the bigger the target audience, the more it will be paedocratised. 16

Just as children are difficult to control, and must be disciplined to fit into the rational adult world, the anarchy of the audience must also be tamed. However, just as parents can only guess at what motivates and constitutes their children's outlook and actions in the world, so television producers, like Chomsky, can only express frustration and uncertainty by adopting the child metaphor, casting themselves in the role of the adult. The metaphor simply points to the frustration at the core of the problem facing those who are charged with speaking to and on behalf of what amounts to a fiction, a singular notion somehow representing an aggregate of competing groups, interests, demands and desires. Hartley suggests that in order to deflect the precipitation of the contradictions inherent in the notion of a singular audience, broadcasters appeal to pleasure as the interpellating factor, avoiding the necessity for a dialectic process:

...broadcasters tend not to insist on allegiances and identities that might be constructed on other sites (e.g. class, ethnicity and gender), but on the contrary, to persuade audiences to abandon any such allegiances and identities... broadcasters paedocratise audiences in the name of pleasure. They appeal to the playful, imaginative, fantasy, irresponsible ... common personal ground that unites diverse and often directly antagonistic groupings among a given population. 17

If the manufacture of pleasure is the semiotic means to the economic end, broadcasters produce it in excess, yet contain it within discourses, genres, and formats which suit corporate constraints - cost, profitability, legality and the illusion of civic responsibility:

...television is a pleasurable institution, but one offering a complex of channelled, disciplined pleasures which are driven towards corporately achievable forms; television operates regimes of pleasure. 18

This controlled system of over-production is of course fraught with risk, desperation and uncertainty, as the commodities produced to serve economic needs are consumed in an economy relatively autonomous from that of production. Fiske suggests that television and cultural commodities in general circulate within two related but distinct economies, the financial and the cultural. He characterises the financial economy of television as a high risk, leading edge of entrepreneurial activity, where 'twelve out of thirteen records fail to make a profit, TV series are axed by the dozen, expensive films sink rapidly into red figures...(the) failure rate is enormous'. 19 The cultural economy is characterised as being 'harder to control' because the production of meanings and pleasures which constitute the 'currency' of the cultural economy, 'circulate within it without any real distinction between producers and consumers'. 20

The economic origin of the cultural commodity cannot account for the cultural use-value it may offer in its moment and place of reception and can neither control nor predict the variety of meanings and pleasures it may provoke. 21

For Fiske, the commodities produced within the financial economy of television are 'not containers or conveyors of meaning and pleasure, but rather provokers of meaning and pleasure ... what Garnham calls repertoires of products'. 22 Within this context, the power of the consumer becomes significant. TV populism must be tempered by the contradictions within populist sentiment and by the suspicion that blatant appeals to populism will be read cynically:

Thus broadcasters have to maintain an uneasy equilibrium; without being too populist or too nationalistic, they must strive to be popular, and speak to, for and about the nation... their popularity is organised not around citizenship or jingoism, but primarily around pleasure. 23

Pleasure of course, is the flip side of anger. My initial anger at the playing of the theme from The Man From Snowy River with the visuals of a hasty military commitment to a dangerous diplomatic situation is evidence of the dangers inherent in the dilemma faced by producers as they negotiate the mediating role between the financial and cultural economies. The creation of excess necessarily involves the likelihood of a spill; the hoped for result spilling over into its opposite. I can only hope that other viewer-citizens similarly spilled over into anger.

In order to secure ground in the financial economy, television producers and broadcasters negotiate a path around notions of (tempered) populism, and hope, in the final analysis (the ratings), that they have somehow managed to speak for and with the people, (or enough of the people to secure a viable market share). But if there are dilemmas for broadcasters, there is also a dilemma for those who reflect on what broadcasters do. The appeal to populism also characterises much writing on television, some of the views being expressed by cultural critics echo those of producers and broadcasters.

Gitlin characterises the 'logic' of television as catering to the 'least common denominator'. 24 The child/audience metaphor is accepted by Giltin as not only productive in his analysis of producers' notions of audience, but productive in his notion of television as well. He seems happy to proceed with the working assumption that if television organises itself paedocratically, then viewers will relate to its messages paedocratically as well:

...the bulk of commercial television reminds us to think of ourselves as consumers first and foremost. [The networks] are not trying to stimulate us to thought, or inspire us to belief, or remind us of what it is to be human and live on this earth late in the twentieth century; what they are trying to do is 'hook' us... The predicament of American television is the predicament of American culture and politics as a whole... 'To have great poets there must be great audiences, too'. 25

For Gitlin, the 'failure' of American television is the failure of its audience. The child-audience metaphor has currency for him because his relation to that audience is structurally the same as that adopted by the broadcasters he interviews. He casts himself in the role of the Father, who is the custodian of liberal, democratic ideals held in trust on behalf of the distracted children. Gitlin does not enter into analysis of just how the output of the American networks might be read by the audience, let alone diversify his conception of audience beyond the singular to audiences. The position adopted by Gitlin is strictly modernist, in the sense of maintaining a direct relationship between representation and consciousness, sign and referent.

Modernist ideology is fundamentally based on the assumption that forms not only dictate responses but that they also directly determine effects. 26

Within this position, the operative equations are: '"active" readers = active citizens and "passive" consumers = passive citizens'. 27 This position leads Gitlin to be most dismissive of those television series which can be characterised as postmodern; those he calls recombinants. For Gitlin, the success of recombination is the success of capitalism over the cultural sphere and signals the end of the creative imagination.

It is the creativity of the least resistance, a managerial way to navigate the flux of incessant stimulus. Recombination conserves the mind's powers under the unrelenting pressure of the new that modernity has opened up. 28

The success of recombinant forms on television is the cause for deep pessimism, for modernist writers like Gitlin. Postmodernism is cause for anxiety and a rising sense of desperation as the authority of his critically detached position is eroded and forced to declare a position:

If it is true that deep social forces have been at work for a long time to produce the present cultural anaesthesia, then postmodernism is not going to fade easily. Writers will have to do something else. They will have to cease being stenographer of the surface. They will have to decide not to coast down the currents of least resistance. 29

Gitlin's stand is not likely to be based on notions of populism, given his distance and disdain for the expressed tastes of television's childlike audience. From 'within' postmodernism, however, similar positions to Gitlin's are expressed, evoking the same metaphor of audiences as children:

The child resists on all levels... To the demand to be an object, he opposes all the practices of disobedience ... a total claim to subjecthood. To the demand to be a subject, he opposes ... with an object's resistance ... a total dependence, passivity, idiocy... This is the resistance of the masses: it is equivalent to sending back to the system its own logic ... meaning without absorbing it. 30

Baudrillard and Gitlin share common ground, despite the gulf that exists between them. They both position themselves outside of the populist domain, preferring to remain aloof and detached. Audiences (or the masses) remain the other, which can only ever be spoken for (just as broadcasters do). And, like the broadcasters who evoke the audience as child metaphor, the audience/mass is characterised in the negative.

Fiske evokes populism in the positive. His audience, or more accurately audiences, demonstrate an almost infinite capacity to negotiate the spaces opened up by the excess of semiotic potential in television, and construct readings of television programs which are characterised by resistance and subjective interpretation in relation to the dominant ideological, consumerist spaces offered them in most commercial television. Fiske does distance himself from the residual notion of 'the People' as a somehow authentic 'voice'; however he constructs his notion of the people/audiences around the notions of contradictions and tensions inherent in populism.

We need to think of the people as a multiple and constantly changing concept, a huge variety of social groups accommodating themselves with, or opposing themselves to, the dominant value system in a variety of ways...The term 'people' refers to social groups that are relatively powerless and are typically interpellated as consumers, though they may not respond in this manner. They have cultural forms and interests of their own that differ from, and often conflict with, those of the producers of cultural commodities. 31

He invokes Foucault's notion of power as a 'two way force' where pleasure can be derived from the exercise of 'bottom up power', expressed in the 'travesty' of the 'top down power', 'showing off, scandalizing, resisting'. 32 For Fiske, the exercise of power is a dialectical process and a constantly waged hegemonic struggle to contain the semiotic power of the people to be different.

The power to construct meanings, pleasures, and social identities that differ from those proposed by the structures of domination is crucial, and the area within which it is exercised is that of representation. 33

Fiske suggests that in order to facilitate power in the financial economy (the accumulation of profits), broadcasters must structure television as to 'serve and promote the diversity and often oppositional interests of its audiences (and) contain within it the opposing but linked forces of capital and the people if it is to circulate effectively in both financial and cultural economies'. 34 If Gitlin can be characterised as adopting a position structurally similar to broadcasters, Fiske is structurally aligned with the audience(s).

This alignment with the 'people', inflected with idealistic notions of populism, expressed in multiple semiotic resistances, does not sit comfortably with some. Meaghan Morris accuses Fiske of adopting a populist position as a mask for his complacent position to the politics of representation:

So against the hegemonic force of the dominant classes, 'the people' in fact represent the most creative energies and functions of critical reading. The people are also the textually delegated, allegorical emblem of the critic's own activity. Their ethos may be constructed as other, but it is used as the ethnographer's mask. Once 'the people' are both a source of authority for a text and a figure of its own critical activity, the populist enterprise is not only circular but narcissistic in structure. 35

However, Morris does not wish to fall into either side of the binary 'elitism : populism', 36 but rather calls for a more aggressively resistant subjectivity which expresses itself forcefully and publicly. She evokes de Certeau's concept of the tactical raid on the strategic terrain(s) of the dominant ideology, in order to construct a 'space' from which the academic may speak as an active participant in the formation of 'popular'.

The event of this change is what de Certeau calls 'banality': the arrival at a common 'place', which is not (as it may be for populism) an initial state of grace, and not (as in Baudrillard) an indiscriminate, inchoate condition, but on the contrary, the outcome of a trajectory where the ordinary is no longer the object of analysis but the place from which discourse is produced. 37

What appears to be at stake here is conflict around the efficacy of analysts (particularly those on the Left) to speak for, with, or on behalf of those who are seen as their constituency: the marginalised and subordinate under capitalism. The academic response to conflict is always already to theorise. As David McKie points out 'the so-called "problem of the popular" is actually the problem of the academic', 38 which is itself what Graeme Turner calls 'the John Singleton' construction of the academic, 'which sees academic, theoretical knowledge as useless, profitless, and of little value to those who live in the "real world".' 39 More specifically, Turner sees this problem as growing out of a struggle for legitimacy for the role of Cultural Studies within the academy: in establishing a 'licence to practice', Turner suggests, things 'may well have been overdone', in that the public have been left out of the enterprise, except as the fictions of discourse(s).

Marginality is a desperate position to occupy, especially if the slip has been towards the edge rather than away from it. The appeals to populism appear as attempts to anchor the discourses constructed by providing them with a referent. In the final analysis, the appeal is always a political one. Andrew Ross signals the need for academics to address the popular and concludes with a desperate appeal.

A politics that only preaches about sexism, racism, and militarism while neglecting to rearticulate the popular, resistant appeal of disrespect will not be a popular politics, and will lose ground in any contest with the authoritarian populist languages that we have experienced under Reaganism and Thatcherism. But the challenge of such a politics is greater than ever, because in an age of expert rule, the popular is perhaps the one field in which intellectuals are least likely to be experts. And in an age of radical pluralism where the politically unified guarantees of past intellectual traditions no longer hold sway, the need to search for common ground from which to contest the existing definitions of a popular-democratic culture has never been more urgent. 40

At the beginning of this paper, I left the banal space of my family gathering for Charles In Charge. That night's episode was about the election of a freshman representative to the school council. Charles was standing against a rich candidate whose election strategy was to buy pizzas and stage parties with the conviction that this would ensure his success. Charles was assisted in his campaign by his young, female charge who acted as campaign manager. Because of his responsibility to the family for whom he works, Charles was unable effectively to get his message across. He lost the election, but the rich kid lost too. The people voted for the young campaign manager. Democracy worked, and the cynical exercise of power by the rich kid failed, because of the ability of the people to make the 'right' choice, even when it was not offered them.

However, Charles in Charge is a fiction, and an idealistic one. Its idealism is the myth of the meritocracy, which promises that ability recognised will result in a position won; the right to live in the High Country. If politicians' power depends upon the maintenance of this myth, so too does broadcasters' viability and academics' credibility. Populism provides one expedient discourse to tap, but in doing so, what must be considered is the desperate position of the back-bench, receivership or irrelevance. The consensus achieved by appealing to the generalisations offered by populism will be short lived as the contradictions held in tension spill out. Appeals to populism can be, and are, read cynically. But, as Jim says in The Man From Snowy River, 'that's how it can be up here'.


1. John Hartley, Tele-ology: Essays in Television Studies (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), chapter 5.

2. All figures are taken from ABC Four Corners, November, 1990. The accuracy of the figures used in this program must be seen as questionable in terms of simple arithmetic, but nevertheless they provide a useful metaphor for the state of the television industry.

3. The ABC and SBS-TV are perhaps the networks which benefit most from the figures gathered by peoplemeters, squeezing the commercial channels further.

4. Access to the figures compiled by rating agencies has always been restricted, and they remain the property of the channel commissioning the survey.

5. Todd Giltin, Inside Prime Time, (New York, Pantheon, 1983), p.203.

6. Andrew Ross, No Respect (London: Routledge, 1989),p. 231.

7. Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London: New Left Books, 1977), p.169.

8. Ibid, p.175.

9. Ibid, p.194.

10. Gitlin, p.203.

11. Hartley, op cit, chapter 5.

12. Stuart Hall, 'The Great Moving Right Show', in Hall, S. & Jacques, M. (eds.), The Politics of Thatcherism (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983), p.31.

13. John Ellis, Visible Fictions (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), pp.169-170.

14. Ien Ang, 'The Battle Between Television and its Audience: The Politics of Watching Television', in Drummond, P. & Paterson, R. (eds.) (1986), Television in Transition (London: BFI, 1986).

15. Gitlin, p.188.

16. Hartley, op cit, chapter 6.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. John Fiske, Television Culture (New York and London, Methuen, 1987), p.313.

20. Fiske, p.313.

21. Fiske, p.321.

22 . Fiske, p.313.

23. Hartley, op cit, chapter 6.

24. Gitlin, p.325.

25. Gitlin, p.334-5.

26. Ross, p.116.

27. Ross, p.116.

28. Gitlin, p.78.

29. Todd Gitlin, 'Style for Style's Sake', Weekend Australian, January 21-22, 1989.

30. Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), p.108.

31. Fiske, p.310.

32. Fiske, p.314-315.

33. Fiske, p.317.

34. Fiske, p.326.

35. Meaghan Morris, 'Banality in Cultural Studies', in Mellencamp, P. (ed.), Logics of Television (London: British Film Institute, 1990), p.23.

36. Morris, p.25.

37. Morris, p.35.

38. David McKie, 'Optimism of the Economic, Optimism of the Popular: John Fiske's Television Culture', Continuum, 2:2 (1989), p.203.

39. Graeme Turner, 'Well-Kept Secrets: The Public Role of Media Studies', Keynote Address to ATOM [Australian Teachers of Media], State Conference, Murdoch University, Western Australia, September 1990.

40. Ross, p.231-232.

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