Assaulting orthodoxies in screen studies:
Journalismo, scopophobia, and semiologos

A review of John Thornton Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

By Jeremy G. Butler, Semiotica 116:2/4 (1997), 373 - 380.

Within academe, the critical study of television is still in its infancy. Most would date it from the publishing of Raymond Williams's influential Television: Technology and Cultural Form in 1975 and the first edition of Horace Newcomb's anthology, Television: The Critical View in 1976. And yet, as John Thornton Caldwell's provocative book Televisuality argues, this young field has already developed some fairly rigid canonical principles (many of which evolved from critical studies' desire to dismantle the established, social scientific study of TV). Caldwell assaults this canon through 437 pages of vigorous, detailed case studies which enthusiastically smash the 'master paradigms' and 'privileged assumptions' of screen studies (pp. 158, 334). Indeed, his comments are often quite barbed. He notes several unflattering ironies in the new ethnography of the 1980s and characterizes it as a 'desperate intellectual attempt' (p. 249); and he frequently snipes at postmodernist criticism - branding Jean Louis Baudrillard an 'international high-theory trendsetter' (p. 337), presumably little better than Euro-trash. Televisuality is not a mean-spirited book, but it is an argumentative, perhaps even irascible, one. As Caldwell humorously muses in one footnote, 'Although the field of critical theory is typically contentious, no lives have been lost over the issue of television style--yet'(n. 3, appearing on pp. 336, 397).

Why is Caldwell so annoyed with the fragile orthodoxy that has evolved in television studies, with what he somewhat mockingly calls 'high theory'? Caldwell contends that the field has grossly neglected two significant and signifying components of the television apparatus: the TV industry and televisual style. Instead, television studies has emphasized (1) the over-arching structure of broadcast television, its flow; (2) individual TV texts as narrative engines; and (3) the function of the viewer in 'decoding' those texts. What is missing from the standard semiotic

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equation of 'sender-message-receiver' is analysis of the sender (the TV apparatus, including the industry) and the visual structure of the message (the TV image). Caldwell attempts to rectify this imbalance by analyzing a 'new aesthetic sensibility' that arose in the 1980s, when several visually stylized programs were broadcast (p. 21). He labels this sensibility 'televisuality' and approaches it from many angles, frequently stressing the discourse of the TV industry. In this, Caldwell is almost unique. Few television scholars have so successfully braided together screen theory, industry discourse, and aesthetics -- a trail that was originally marked by John Ellis's Visible Fictions in 1982.

Caldwell's use of the terms 'televisuality' and 'televisual' does allow for a certain amount of confusion. Many scholars have come to use 'televisual' as merely the adjectival form of 'television', but Caldwell wishes to narrow that meaning. At his most succinct, he uses 'televisuality'

... to describe an important historical moment in television's presentational manner, one defined by excessive stylization and visual exhibitionism. ... [T]elevisuality has become an active and changing form of cultural representation, a mode of operating and a ritual of display that utilizes many different individual looks. (pp. 352-353)

Televisual television, historically speaking, does not truly exist until the 1980s when it becomes evident in the diverse programs and televisual phenomena that Caldwell probes in individual chapters:

Each of these, then, is emblematic of an aspect of 'the new television', according to Caldwell (p. 149).

His analysis leads him to contest several tenets associated with the orthodox factions involved in screen studies - which he arrays as postmodernism, "deindustrialized" cultural studies [i.e., cultural studies that neglect the TV industry], "glance theory", and the "ideology of liveness" myth [i.e., many critics' fascination with TV's constant illusion of liveness,

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of "this is is" rather than the "this is was" presumed to operate in the cinema and still photography]' (p. 22). One by one, Caldwell challenges key concepts in screen studies. He virtually picks a fight with Williams, taunting, 'For all those who thought that television was defined by the flow, think again' (p. 264). Caldwell's argument against flow theory is one of the most successful parts of the book. He discusses the ways in which new technologies (the videocassette, the TV/VCR remote control, cable/satellite delivery systems) have given viewers different ways to use television: 'Increasingly, television has come to be associated more with something you can hold, push into an appliance, and physically move around with a controller' - instead of a medium in which one bobs along in the flow of network broadcasting, mindlessly accepting whatever comes next (p. 264). How could flow theory have foretold what these new technologies would offer? After all, the remote control was not nearly so ubiquitous and the domestic VCR did not even exist when Williams wrote Television in the early 1970s. And so it would appear that flow theory badly needs to be updated in the face of technological evolution.

Caldwell does not rely solely upon technology to discredit flow theory, however. In his chapter on the miniseries, he maintains that the 'excessive narrative and historical exhibitionism' of War and Remembrance militate against the notion of television programs being borderless, flowing into one another with little distinction (p. 164). In flow theory, the viewer does not watch a specific television program; rather, he/she watches television. But miniseries are predicated upon the notion of special television events, or what Caldwell cumbersomely calls 'event-status programming' (p. 160). Typically, networks lose money on miniseries, they are 'loss-leaders', in a sense. They are thought to distinguish one network from another, to facilitate product differentiation which is the basis for all advertising. War and Remembrance, Caldwell contends, establishes its differentiation, emphasizes its borders, through narrative/historical excess. It does not blur into the overall flow of television; rather, it and other miniseries 'underscore and illuminate their textual borders' (emphasis in original, p. 163). The narrative form of the miniseries, in collusion with new technologies and other elements of televisuality not summarized here, call into doubt Williams's theory of flow as it was originally propounded. As persuasive as Caldwell is, though, he overstates his case when he calls for the elimination of flow theory as a 'master paradigm' of screen studies (p. 158). There are still many instances (ironing clothes, drinking in a bar, doing homework, and so on) in which viewers 'simply' watch television, effortlessly crossing the borders between programs. The new television is not nearly as pervasive as Caldwell argues.

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A second, even more significant component of Caldwell's discontent with orthodox screen theory is its denigration of the visual, its inability to integrate stylistic analysis into narrative interpretation or audience research. Television studies is castigated for its inability to cope with 'the problem of the image' -- as he titles the three-chapter Part One of Televisuality. Caldwell himself is well suited to mounting a global theory of the televisual image. He holds both a Ph.D. (Northwestern University) and an M.F.A. (California Institute of the Arts), and has worked professionally as a video producer. Indeed, the cover of Televisuality features a photo-montage he himself designed. Few scholars are equipped with the practical expertise Caldwell possesses; and few video practitioners have his grasp on screen theory. His work integrates theory and practice in a bipolar approach that is often espoused in TV/film graduate programs, but seldom exercised in actual theory production.

In the 'Postscript' to Televisuality, Caldwell outlines the critical forces, the 'prejudicial paradigms', that 'denigrate or conspiratorialize the image' (pp.337-350):

Caldwell passionately disputes these paradigms and, for the most part, wins the reader over to his perspective.

Surmounting the barriers to image analysis is the central project of Caldwell's case studies of televisuality. As he contends, 'The new television does not depend upon the reality effect or the fiction effect, but upon the picture effect' (emphasis in original, p. 152). In Caldwell's view, televisual texts -- be they fictional or documentary programs, commercials or station promotional materials -- eschew the illusion of reality in favor of the pleasures of the illusion. In the picture effect, '... images become

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artifactual objects and pictures, not replications of the real. Production strategies aim to produce an impression of the picture rather than an impression of the real' (p. 241). Like all modernist visual arts, the televisual text invites the viewer to revel in the pleasure of the image, in the delirium of stylistic excess. Moreover, the televisual text undermines the orthodox screen-studies principle of the inattentive, glancing viewer by demanding an attentive, even visually obsessive viewer. In Caldwell's terms, these are televisual 'images that spectacularize, dazzle, and elicit gazelike viewing' (p. 158).

The picture effect is best exemplified in the television texts that have been heavily processed in post-production -- that is, texts containing images manipulated through digital/analog special effects, computer-aided graphic design, and editing. Commercials and music videos, which Caldwell awkwardly terms 'postdependent genres' (not genres that come after dependency, but rather ones that depend upon the resources of post- production; p. 157), receive his scrutiny in a chapter that illustrates the strengths of his approach. Pulling together the discourse of the industry itself and a knowledge of video production, Caldwell charts the basic videographic modes: '(1) the painterly, (2) the plastic, (3) the transparent, and (4) intermedia [a.k.a., intertextuality]' (pp. 139-157). There are at least two benefits to this classification scheme. First, it focuses attention on a component of television that is often overlooked in television studies: the interstitial material between narrative/informational segments that comprises a good 10-15 percent of every hour of commercial television. Second, it provides a categorization of videographic effects that does not rely upon any one specific technology for its rationale. It is not digital vs. analog or video vs. film. Instead, this classification depends upon the semiotic function of the effect and thus should continue to be useful as new technologies are developed.

Even though Caldwell underscores the importance of visual style, he should not be mistaken for a formalist or even a neo-formalist. He does not expend all of his energies on a stylistic examination of the text and thereby ignore the work of the television viewer. In the chapter, 'Televisual audience: Interactive pizza,' he attempts to account for the shift in viewer participation that has been precipitated by the camcorder 'revolution'. Despite his aspirations, however, he comes up a bit short in this regard and eventually side-steps the issue of spectatorship by claiming, '... a more in-depth study of the audience for televisuality is beyond the scope of this book ...' (p. 261). This seems a bit disingenuous, considering the prickly criticism he aims at audience studies of the 1980s.

Televisuality is an admirably pugnacious book and should prove to make screen studies healthier in the long run, but there are some problems

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with it. Caldwell's incorporation of the television industry's discourse into semiotic analysis begins well, but runs afoul of the evanescent quality of that discourse. He states that his main goal is to discuss how the industry's 'favored televisual semiotic modes ... are organized and perpetuated as semiotic systems ...' -- which he expertly ferrets out of 'the hype and verbiage of marketing brochures, corporate ads, and equipment data sheets' (p. 138). In his discursive analysis, Caldwell raises many interesting points and analyzes significant texts that are normally omitted in television analyses. Occasionally, however, there are slips in which Caldwell presumes that secondary texts such as articles in American Cinematographer are not themselves highly processed and semiotically encrusted texts -- as if these artefacts revealed the true motivations and raw intentions of the production personnel. It is a common enough problem in ethnographic research as well, where researchers often mistake the comments of their subjects as unvarnished, unmediated truth.[3] Indeed, Caldwell himself makes this point while criticizing social scientists who disregard the fact that 'all forms of data -- surveys, statistical findings, and experimental results -- can only be accessed and understood as texts' (p. 351 ). To his list of data forms one feels tempted to add trade media reports of the motivations of industry practitioners and the financial data of TV corporations. Although Caldwell's slips are rare they exemplify the need for caution in the interpretation of industry texts.

Second, there is one remarkable gap in this rather lengthy and heavily annotated book. Caldwell has conspicuously little to say about excesses in television sound style of the 1980s-1990s -- though he does offer the ugly neologism of 'teleaural' to screen studies (p. 285) and makes the occasional comment on TV sound. But still, sound receives less attention than it deserves in Televisuality. After all, the televisual era (the 1980s- 1990s) was also a particularly significant time for sound innovation in television. It saw the introduction of 'excessive' sound mixing in television texts such as MTV and Miami Vice (called 'MTV cops' by some), as well as the popularization of copyrighted music in soap operas and the technological shift to digital sound editing. Moreover, sound has played a significant role in screen studies' analysis of television -- with Stephen Heath and Gillian Skirrow arguing, for example, that the visuals on television are almost vestigial (1977). Sound hooks/hails the television viewer and provides most of the narrative information in genres like the sitcom. Indeed, in soap operas the visuals are almost unnecessary -- as the popularity of the radio soap opera proves. In many regards, TV is just illustrated radio. Given the preeminence of sound in television, Caldwell's occasional references to it are insufficient. Just as he criticizes

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screen studies for being prejudiced against the image, so could Caldwell be indicted for being prejudiced against sound.

Finally, it seems appropriate in a review of a book on style to conclude with a few comments upon the style of the book itself. Televisuality contains a wealth of frame enlargements, for which Caldwell (who is credited with creating them himself) and Rutgers University Press are to be commended, but the visual quality of these images is often below the meager standards the publishing world has for video frame enlargements. In Film Art, Kristin Thompson illustrates just how good film frame enlargements can be and how necessary they are for substantive stylistic analysis (see Bordwell and Thompson 1993). Let's hope, as Caldwell pleads in the concluding pages of Televisuality, that new, probably digital, technologies will enable better methods of 'visualizing theory' (p. 355); or, at the very least, that video frame enlargements can come to equal those made from film.

More worrisome than the inadequate frame enlargements is Televisuality's careless copy editing. Typos pepper the text. Trademarks are capitalized improperly ('teleprompter', instead of 'TelePrompTer'), proper names are misspelled ('Tienamin Square', instead of 'Tiananmen'), and one misplaced homonym has an unintentionally amusing result: 'A view back on the early critics of Metz might elicit the response "of course, film-and-language is a mute [sic-moot] issue"' (n. 42, from p. 345; p. 402). 'Data', 'stigmata', and 'media' are incorrectly used as singular nouns. Only one of the three acute accents in 'cinéma vérité' appears when it is first cited, and in subsequence references the lone accent capriciously appears and disappears.

Sadly, this sloppiness is to be expected in an era of decreased support for university presses. One tries not to judge the quality of the author's argument on these stylistic details, but there are several points in Televisuality where the details do indeed obstruct the argument. Difficult concepts are obscured by tautologous sentence structures such as, 'One of the central working concerns in television production in the 1980s concerned the formal potential of the television image ...' (my emphasis, p. 83). Supporting citations are missing or misplaced. And Caldwell twice quotes a graphic in the body of the text while the frame enlargement of the same graphic does not match the quotation (pp. 118-119, 124-125). More specifically, in a segment on Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, one frame enlargement contains the graphic, 'A FAIR TRIAL FOR NORIEGA?' In the text, this is rendered instead as, 'Can Noriega get a fair trial?' This may seem like niggling, but I would argue that the change in sentence structure affects the rhetorical impact of these

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sentences. Moreover, imprecision such as this can only make the reader wonder if the author has been similarly inexact with other examples.

In sum, Televisuality is an audacious piece of agit-prop for the stylistic analysis of television images and the incorporation of industrial discourse into screen study. It is blemished slightly by its presentational style, but it remains an important book that may cause major repercussions within the field.


  1. Caldwell makes a point of distinguishing Saussurian 'semiology' from Peircean 'semiotics' (pp. 345-346).
  2. Writing in late 1993 and early 1994, Caldwell could not have been aware of the Internet's immanent evolution into a graphical medium; Mosaic, the first visually rich World Wide Web browser, was given limited release in June 1993 and began to make an impact on the broader Internet community several months later.
  3. For a discussion of the hazards of ethnographic research, see Ellen Seiter, 'Making distinctions in TV audience research: Case study of a troubling interview', in Newcomb 1994 [1976]: 387-410.


Jeremy Butler (b. 1954) is a Professor in the Department of Telecommunication and Film at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His principal research interests include television criticism, film and television stylistics, and genre study. Among his publications are 'Imitation of Life Style and the domestic melodrama' (1987); "'I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV": Characters, actors and acting in television soap opera' (1991); Star Texts: Image and Performance in Film and Television (1991); and Television: Critical Methods and Applications (1994).

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