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John Fiske and Television Culture

In his book, Television Culture, John Fiske said he faces the problem defining both television as well as culture. He defines television as a bearer/provoker of meaning and pleasure and culture as the generation and circulation of the variety of meaning and pleasure within society. “Television- as culture is a crucial part of the social dynamics by which the social structure maintains itself in a constant process of production and reproduction: meanings, popular pleasures, and their circulation are therefore part and parcel of the social structure,” he says explaining the relation of television and culture. He devised certain codes that he believes are essential in television. These codes are subcategorized into three levels.

The Codes of Television

An event to be televised is already encoded by social codes such as those of:

Level One: REALITY

Reality is already encoded by social codes such as dress, makeup, speech and gestures; it is the product of cultural codes. Fiske gives the example of a tree reflected in a lake may be the setting for a romantic scene. Appearance, dress, makeup, environment, behaviour, speech, gesture, expression, sound, etc. are encoded electronically by technical codes seen in level two.

 

These social codes go through a subtle change, which goes unseen. They can only be identified when compared to older shows. Take for example the popular sitcoms from the 80s like FullHouse and The Cosby Show, the dressing in these shows are influenced by that decade. The lingo is different from that used today. Similarly, the speech and dressing in a show like Modern Familyreflect the lingo used in present times. Thus we see how dressing and speech help add to the realness of the show.

Environment is important in television. The audience is introduced to the locality during the title credits usually or through transition scenes. Take for example; we know Suits is based in New York City by the emphasis on the skyline in the credits and the outdoor scenes showing the famous yellow taxis. However, a fun trivia is that the show is in fact shot in Toronto, as it’s cheaper to shoot there as the city provides subsidy on filming. It is a conscious effort on the part of the production team to make the surroundings look like busy New York streets by adding prop street signboards and yellow cabs. All of this adds to the reality portrayed in the show.

Level Two: REPRESENTATION

Representation is encoded by technical codes to convey reality. Camera movements and the adjustments of angles, framing and focus can be used to give the desired effect. The usual camera distance in television is mid-shot to close-up, which brings the viewer into an intimate, comfortable relationship with the characters on the screen.

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Villains are usually shown in extreme close-up. The lighting of objects and people can affect the mood in which they are perceived. Villains are often shown in a harsh lighting. We can see this in NBC’s Hannibal, wherein the titular antagonist is always seen in low key lighting with tight frames. We see Dr.Lecter occupying almost three-quarters of the frame (above) with one side of his face in complete darkness.

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Heroes are shown in softer, yellowish light. This is eminent in BBC’s Sherlockwhere most often his flat is lit with natural light from the window or a yellow lamp in case of night.  In the scene above we see how the natural light from the window gives an almost halo like an aura around his head. Editing is a way to adjust the rhythm and continuity of a scene to give it more of a natural flow, making the average shot about 7 seconds.

Music can also suggest changes in mood and emotions. For example, background music may drop from major keys showing a program’s heroes to minor keys for scenes with villains. This is one of the most dominant features in daytime soap operas in the western world. The music is especially very in-your-face in the case of Indian soaps. The jazz used in Homeland parallels with the Carrie Mathison’s complex psychological state and keeps up with the suspense.

Similarly, the opening titles for shows cue in the audience as to what they can expect from the series. The opening title of Breaking Bad tells the audience of drama almost like a country western stand-off while the opening to BatesMotel chills the spine with the anticipated mystery around the Bates Family.

Camera, lighting, editing, music, sound, which transmit the conventional representational codes, adds to the narrative, conflict, character, action, dialogue, setting, casting, etc.

Level Three: IDEOLOGY

Ideologies which are organized into coherence and social acceptability by the ideological codes, such as those of individualism, patriarchy, race, class, materialism, capitalism, etc.

Ideology is shaped by representation. Fiske uses the example of the show Hart to Hart when the criminal is caught or prosecuted, the ideology of law, and the victory of good over evil is coded. This means that viewers of altering social positions may interpret the programs differently.

Take for instance Arrested Development, the plot of the show revolves around the financial ruin of the materialistic Bluth Family, but the humour arises from the fact that they, in fact, get what they deserve. Here the audience doesn’t sympathize with the family in anyway. In the criminal shows like NCIS and Criminal Minds, the audience wants the criminal to be caught and imprisoned. It’s always the triumph of good over evil that the audience roots for. Patriarchy is predominant in almost all shows be it The Sopranos or My Wife and Kids. Race, social class and feminism are seen in Ugly Betty where a Mexican-American plane-Jane from humble backgrounds finds herself in the midst of a women’s fashion magazine run by white people.

 

Lena Dunham’s Girls is a female centric show catering to an audience of twentysomething single career oriented girls similar to Sex and the City while Desperate Housewives on the other hand catered to suburban women. The similarity of these shows is that they are women centric but they differ where ideology is concerned.

So we can say that John Fisk’s Codes of Television are still valid in today and will continue to be followed in the future. A show cannot run without the representation of some form of reality this is established with the popularity of reality shows. Although such shows are scripted, the audience relates to the “raw” feel of the show which they feel is more relatable. Technical codes are essential to representation and television cannot do without it. Lastly, nothing is free from ideology, either on a conscious level or unconscious, the ideology of the writer manages to seep through the screen. Whether the audience is influenced by such ideologies or not is up to the individual but it certainly reflects on the popularity and viewership of the show.

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Categories: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Media Theory, Television Studies, Translation Studies

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