Television and Art – better, worse, or the same?

On reading Alan McKee’s article,“Why do I love Television So Very Much” I can’t help but agree with his overall sentiment. Television isn’t respected as a medium – at least not nearly as much as it should be – and television watching is generally seen as some sort of useless, vapid activity. However I did disagree with some of his more impassioned points.  

My central problem with McKee’s argument is in his statement that television “is a generous, warm, inviting, kind medium–defined by its desire to reach out and draw communities together.” I don’t really think that this is the primary agenda of television at all. I feel that a key difference between contemporary art (independent film, visual arts, and self-published literature for example) and television is that television is ultimately funded by a large bureaucratic enterprise hoping to cash in on the success of the show. While published literature, commissioned art through the ages and even theatre is also dependent on funding and commercial success, they are not quite in the same league as television – which is hugely commercial, heavily sponsored and wide-reaching.

My problem with this element of commerciality, apart from the obvious – that the artistic merit of the show is placed as secondary to the financial success the show – is that when companies and networks have primary control over what goes on the air, this of course leads to filtering, censoring, biased or manipulative programming (the most obvious example of this is the FOX network, which McKee found need to exclude – or in Australia, programs like Today Tonight ) and a preference for the reflection of the dominant groups in society. (How many non-white protagonists are there in television shows, for example?) So I’m not sure that his comment, “Television doesn’t want to put anybody offside” is really all that true.

McKee feels that one of the merits of television is that it “wants to bring everybody into the audience.” While I agree there is something nice about the accessibility of television, as appose to the elitism of art, I can’t help but think of When the Whistle Blows – Ricky Gervais’ fictional sitcom in Extras. Due to interference from BBC, When the Whistle Blows (which was intended as a real-life office comedy, akin to The Office) turns out to be a crass, low-brow comedy which is popular with the public but unpopular with critics. When the Whistle Blows serves as a kind of vehicle to explore the idea of ‘good’ or ‘artistic’ television compared to ‘popular’ or ‘broad’ television. I’m not sure that the artistic merit of the writer, or the television program should be secondary to public opinion and ratings.

However!  This of course is not an either-or kind of situation. An obvious example is Breaking Bad, which enjoys widespread popularity and critical acclaim. I get the feeling that people are yearning for that kind of ‘good’ television, which is partially social commentary as well as being entertaining. The US network HBO probably has something to do with this – or else cottoned on to that part of the market early. I feel another cause of this is – as McKee mentioned – The Simpsons, which is an early example of clever writing, social satire and most importantly – humour.

Ultimately I feel that broad television reinforces the gap between real society and the ideal whereas art, including ‘good television’ embraces real society. However I’m not sure that one is always inherently better than the other. Sometimes it’s fun to glorify the ideal – who doesn’t prefer a TV show with unrealistically attractive characters? There is a place for both kinds of programming on television – that which is ‘art’ and that which is just…television. And commercial aspect or not – really there’s nothing wrong with that.

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