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TV gets its PhD

Academics say it's a legitimate discipline, but the scholar tribe lacks consensus.

June 15, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

Cambridge, Mass. — Cambridge, Mass.

For millions of TV viewers, "Survivor" is part escapism and part game show, a chance to watch attractive, scantily clad contestants battle physically and psychologically in beautiful, contrived settings, and guess who will be voted off the island each week.

Who knew that it was also about "self-reflexivity"? Or that it was a metonymy of global capital and a great case study in ignominy, or the "audiovisualization of shame," which "challenges long-held assumptions about the boundaries of genre and representation"? And just why do viewers tune in each week? Turns out it's the "mathematical processes of prediction and the narrative processes of textual pleasure" that compels the audience.

Academia has tuned in to television, and it's TV's most of-the-moment shows that are garnering much of the interest, part of a broader, not universally lauded trend in cultural studies that is pushing pop culture front and center.

Gone are the days when academia and television were from opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum. Instead, TV studies are now enjoying a newfound respectability and prominence in the academic world. The maturing of the medium, recording technology that has allowed previously ephemeral TV work to remain accessible in archival form, and students' comfort level with video texts rather than written ones have all come together in the last few years to give new impetus to a discipline once derided as not serious enough to merit scholarly study.

It's a rich vein for study, offering a virtually unlimited terrain due to the sheer amount of TV programs on screens, something film doesn't offer. So vast is TV's purview, it offers something for everyone of every academic interest, from looking at gender roles as played out in soap operas to scholarly research into how voters are influenced by late-night comedians. As reality TV formats jump international boundaries, there's been more interest from foreign scholars and a new way to study TV's impact on global cultures. And now that TV is already more than half a century old, the medium has taken on a "historical artifact" element that some find compelling.

But like the medium it studies, it's a fast-changing discipline, an "embryonic stew," says MIT professor of literature David Thorburn, one of the first U.S. academics to study television years ago. As TV studies have reached a point where they're not simply championed by a few pop-culture iconoclasts but are a staple on campuses around the country, "It's a discipline really searching for its own voice," adds Ron Simon, curator of television at the Museum of Television and Radio and a teacher at New York University and Columbia University.

Ghen Maynard, the CBS executive who first championed "Survivor" at the network and now oversees it as senior vice president of alternative programming, remembers well the disdain with which his Harvard University professors only recently viewed TV. As a social psychology major, graduating in 1988, Maynard was interested in exploring the pro-social effects television could have on a culture, as opposed to the prevailing views of TV as a corrupting influence. Most of his professors just sniffed. "I was told I was just trying to justify my own viewing habits," Maynard, now 36, recalls. "Whether it was because of snobbery or elitism, they just didn't think it was worth the time."

How times have changed. The first weekend in May, Maynard was back in Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard, but he was down the street at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as one of several guest speakers at a three-day Media in Transition conference on the state of television.

MIT has long been a home for scholars concerned with the effects of media on society; Ithiel de Sola Pool developed his pioneering work here on communication technology and its global social and political impact, and the MIT Media Lab is the home of cutting-edge research into the use of digital technology. But this conference, which drew some 225 scholars from around the world, had a very different tone, reflective of some of the trends in TV studies.

In Maynard's session, one Cal State Fullerton academic wanted to know whether a "Big Brother" Internet rumor she had read was true. Another scholar was interested in how CBS feels about "spoilers" who try to leak or alter the results of unscripted shows. Just a few questioners challenged the concept of the shows: One complained about the cultural insensitivity of the contestants on the "Amazing Race" while another said he found "Survivor" and the like boring.

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