Buscombe, Edward, ed. (2000). "British Television: A Reader." Oxford. Oxford University Press. 348pp. ISBN 0-19-874265 [paperback]
Reviewed by Prof. Mike Richards, Department of Media and Communication, University of Central England, United Kingdom
This is a collection of fifteen papers, which, though captured within a volume entitled "British television," is actually limited to terrestrial television in Britain and is, therefore, something other than "television in Britain," or "the experience of British television." It is prefaced by Buscombe's introduction, which provides a brief commentary on the contributions, as well as a useful overview of the theoretical and conceptual approaches to media and cultural studies that have influenced analyses of British television.
In part one there are five contributions which focus on aspects of the history, structure, and economics of television. The remaining ten, which comprise the second part, are concerned with analyses of program genres, which range from the news to crime fiction, drama series, and various examples of popular entertainment. The numerical distribution between the two parts, paradoxically, seems to attach great importance to the specificities of particular programs as defining the characteristics of British television, while it is an aspect of media policy which constitutes the recurring theme of most of the pieces in the collection. The book strives to operate within an overall sense of broadcasting history in Britain, for as Buscombe rightly points out, historical analysis is, with a few exceptions, an area neglected by scholars writing about British television.
However, this particular contribution is often more deja vu than a sustained historical analysis, for it is a history that largely lacks a sense of the contemporary against which the history it presents can be judged. In this respect it is significant that all but three of the contributing pieces have already been published elsewhere, and most have been widely available for over a decade. More significantly, they are reproduced here without amendments or additions and, in the absence of more extensive and detailed editorial interventions, are left to speak for themselves. All of this leaves the reader with a somewhat eclectic and disjointed sense of television history.
But, as suggested above, the book does have a driving force, which is undoubtedly its main contribution to the field. The sustained discussion of the public service ethos rightly identifies and explores what is really the defining characteristic of British broadcasting. Inevitably, this focus leads to an emphasis on the role of the BBC, as the traditional "guardian" of public service broadcasting. But this comes with costs, most noticeably in the treatment of independent and minority broadcasters. While it is true that there are numerous references throughout the collection to ITV, the main independent terrestrial broadcaster, whose Channel 3 consistently attracts a larger share of the audience than the BBC's flagship Channel 1, discussions of ITV in this volume are frequently framed within a public service agenda—so much so that the international reader might conclude that British broadcasting is uniquely the BBC.
By the same token, minority terrestrial provision is somewhat neglected. True, one very interesting chapter is dedicated to the, possibly unique, minority Channel 4, established in 1982, and now regularly attracting in excess of 10 percent of the audience. But, strangely, there is no reference in it or elsewhere in the collection to the Welsh language version of Channel 4, S4C, and none to the more recently introduced Channel 5. Likewise the importance of the different roles in the television landscape of the "majoritarian" BBC1 and the minority focus of BBC2 attract little sustained analytical attention.
The book as a whole has a quite marked inward look about it, perhaps a result of the fact that most of the contributing pieces were almost certainly written with an assumption that the reader would have some familiarity, whether as consumer or analyst, with British television output. For example, programs are frequently referred to only by title, with few qualifications as to genre or structure. More importantly, with one exception, contributors to the volume have not addressed the question of the place of British television in an international or global context.
The tantalizing prospect of redressing this omission, which is suggested in the title of the final contribution, which was specifically written for the collection, is somewhat undermined by the author's occasional reliance on data which is almost twenty years old.
Despite these reservations, however, some readers will derive satisfaction from the scholarly and interesting case studies of moments in British broadcasting contained in this collection. But those seeking a more coherent, sustained, and contemporary historical analysis of British television will need to search elsewhere.