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July 20, 2005

Media Times Two

Just a quick pointer to Ken's insightful comments about my recent discussion of "Media Times," which he aptly defines as "the various types of temporality depicted within and derived from various media." He's right to note that I've primarily worked out this problem via film, but I've recently become more interested in the multiple temporalities of television. Because my dissertation advisor wrote about television and time, I've generally been interested in the topic, but because I couldn't afford cable and didn't have television reception for over five years, I rarely watched--or thought about--TV, although I did watch certain TV shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos, on DVD.

In writing about TV time, I've been thinking about the early history of TV and the number of early TV shows that featured time travel or other sorts of time twists, such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (Jeffrey Sconce mines similar territory in Haunted Media), but I'm also intrigued by TV's treatment of what Mary Ann Doane refers to as the temporal modes of information, crisis, and catastrophe, especially when it comes to major media events, such as the September 11 attacks.

Some of these issues are addressed in Lynn Spigel's fascinating essay, "Entertainment Wars: Television Culture after 9/11," which focuses not only on the coverage of September 11 but also the television programming in the weeks and months after the attacks. My specific interest in the essay (for now) derives from her discussion of "liveness," and to compare that with Nick's recent discussion of "real-time" cinema (and before continuing, I think it's important not to conflate these two modes).

In his discussion of real-time cinema, Nick argues that "by plugging us back into natural time, real-time movies reject the symbolic triumph over time that editing promises; in this regard, they are sweetly sorrowful reminders of The End." In short, real-time movies remind us of our own mortality. I found Nick's arguments persuasive (and still do), but Spigel's dicussion of live television broadcasts characterizes them in precisely the opposite terms. She argues that the live broadcast of the 9/11 funerals actually served to assuage our fears: "Like all televised funerals, this one deployed television’s aesthetics of liveness to stave off the fear of death. In other words, not only the “live” feed but also the sense of unrehearsed spontaneity and intimate revelations gave viewers a way to feel that life goes on in the present” (250). I didn't get a chance to watch the 9/11 memorial services because I didn't have TV reception at that time, but Spigel's comments remind me, to some extent, of my experience of watching Ronald Reagan's funeral a few months ago. While a state funeral is highly scripted--complete with network commentators who explain the script--there was a potential for the unexpected or the unscripted that haunted those images, something that may have been complicated by the fact of Reagan's public struggles with Alzheimer's Disease and the resulting difficulties of memorializing him.

I'm tempted to attribute this difference to the properties of the two media. TV's live, potentially infinite, transmission is inherently different than film's finite, temporally-bound, and pre-recorded "screening." But I'm not quite willing to attribute this difference solely to the technologies themselves, and it seems crucial to look at other test cases as well. Are there real-time films that don't have the effect Nick describes? Are there "live" TV events that don't conform to Spigel's account?

Spigel's discussion of "liveness" does remind me of certain reality TV shows, specifically American Idol and my new favorite guilty pleasure, Rockstar INXS (in which rock singers audition to be the new lead singer of INXS), which rely on highly managed forms of liveness, to the point that viewers are allowed to "participate" by voting for their favorite rockstar. Now, I don't see anything particularly "liberating" about this form of participation, but these shows do seem to tap into cultural desires that might be related to a greater sense of control over the passage of time.

Posted by chuck at July 20, 2005 1:06 PM

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