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Television Aesthetics

Sarah Cardwell

‘Television aesthetics’ is a relatively recent innovation in the broader field of tele- vision studies. When I began teaching my television aesthetics course in 2000 I struggled to compile a recommended reading list. It seemed that very few scholars were interested in tackling the medium from a primarily aesthetic approach. Preparing and planning this now-established course for the academic year 2005–6, I find there is far greater scope. Without overt collaboration, an increasing number of voices have contributed to the proliferation of work that fits broadly within tele- vision aesthetics. Unsurprisingly, these voices do not sing in unison; they offer very different arguments in response to key questions. However, there is some agree- ment about the questions to be asked, and one can pinpoint sufficient commonal- ities of vocabulary, concerns and methodology to support the view that the field is becoming established as a stand-alone area of television studies. 1 Some of the commonalities exhibited include:

a) The use of vocabulary that is unusual and distinctive within television studies. Within television aesthetics, one regularly encounters words previously shunned by television scholars, such as: evaluation, judgement, criteria, achievements, accomplishments, discrimination, art and, of course, aesthetics.

b) As this lexicon implies, more frequent and explicit evaluation of programmes, and a more vocal debate about what ‘good’ television is.

c) An asserted recognition that the field needs more textual criticism and a stronger understanding of what ‘close textual analysis’ means, where the latter is understood to focus on thematic, formal and stylistic elements rather than simply on content or ‘representation.’

d) A movement away from approaches that ‘use’ television to study something else (for example, society, ideology, gender politics) and towards a recognition of television as a medium of expression first and foremost, and of programmes as specific artworks.

e) An interest in conceptual and philosophical questions that arise from attention to specific television texts.

Television Aesthetics


I have previously offered a broad definition of television aesthetics as a way of

studying television that draws upon ‘a generalised understanding of the key foci of philosophical aesthetics: the criticism and evaluation of art, and the raising and tackling of questions that arise from our engagement with works of art. 2 This is a rather catch-all description, but the deliberate use of vocabulary drawn from philosophical aesthetics, rather than media or cultural studies, implies connections with an alternative tradition and its accompanying priorities and emphases.

What does this mean in practice? The methodology I have proposed moves

from a close analysis and critique of thematic, formal and stylistic qualities present in

a particular televisual

to explore some of the questions that arise from the

peculiarities of a single work. [The aim is] to capture something of the individuality and distinctiveness of the programme, evaluate its achievements and also address the more ‘theoretical’ questions that the programme raises. 3

It is important to note that the ‘theoretical’ questions referred to arise secondarily,

from the critical analysis of artworks rather than preceding that critical analysis; that is, the aim is not to ‘apply’ a theory to a text, using the text as case study, but to examine and explore the text in itself, and to investigate what broader questions arise from that process of examination and exploration. Moreover, on reflection, I would term these questions ‘conceptual’ and ‘philosophical’ rather than ‘theoret- ical,’ in order to distinguish them from the far-reaching theories that dominate media and cultural studies. (I proffer some elucidation of this later.)

Close textual analysis

Other scholars have similarly proposed a methodology that moves from close textual analysis outwards. Jason Jacobs, in his 2001 seminal article ‘Issues of Judge- ment and Value in Television Studies,’ draws on Stanley Cavell, to argue that one can only determine the possibilities of a medium by looking at instances of works within it:

As with the analysis of all art, understanding that involvement [our involvement with specific texts] requires above all concentrated study: minimally, the close observation of texts in order to support the claims and judgement we may wish to make about them. Criticism is a way of articulating why television programmes matter to us and the nature of that significance. Only in this way can we develop meaningful criteria for specific instances of television that may then be applied more generally. 4

Opponents of this kind of focused approach to television programmes express familiar fears that close textual analysis is nothing more than dry formalism – and indeed this is a risk when it is undertaken as an exercise of analytical skills rather than an exploration of our own engagement with a text. Yet as Jacobs notes, propo- nents of television aesthetics, far from proposing the possibility of an objective deconstruction of texts, aim to revalue our initial, powerful connection with programmes – or as he puts it ‘why television programmes matter to us and the nature of that significance.’ 5 Perhaps then one should place even before attention


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to the details of texts, a sincere and fulfilling engagement with them. A programme that inspires powerful responses in us gives rise to the need to understand it more fully and to understand why it has affected us thus. This need is met by a sustained and committed investigation of the programme’s aesthetic qualities. The need and the meeting of it should be intertwined in our critical writing. While making our motivation for textual analysis explicit has historically been uncommon within television studies, philosophical aesthetics has long understood its importance. Colin Lyas, an aesthetician whose work on interpretation and eval- uation can be valuable when considering television, 6 underlines the importance of encouraging students to apprehend and appreciate a work fully before analysing it. Otherwise, they are ‘reduced to mumbling about the publicly observable aspects of a work with no idea how these relate to the value of that with which they are confronted, and no idea, even, wherein that value may reside.’ 7 Employing the example of the analysis of poetry, Lyas observes that ‘the place to start is with the attempt to grasp such things as the expressive quality of the poem: Is it mawkish, glib, ironic, witty, sad? If sad, is the quality of the expression of the sadness, for example, too excessive or too commonplace?’ One may then move from this initial apprehension to an observation of how formal and stylistic details, ‘the rhyme scheme, the stress pattern, the vowel sounds, the alliterations contribute to the achievement of that effect.’ 8 Scholars of television aesthetics would recognise these tenets of good criticism, which moves beyond the competent, descriptive observa- tion of textual details, towards a personal and powerful response to a programme and consequent detailed analysis.


David Thorburn, in his article ‘Television as an Aesthetic Medium,’ argues for the ‘crucial enterprise’ of ‘evaluative criticism aiming to disclose the thematic and formal excellence of particular programs.’ 9 He thus neatly discloses that television aesthetics is concerned not only with interpretation but also with that rather more contentious matter: evaluation – and with the connection between the two. Charlotte Brunsdon’s 1990 groundbreaking work on quality television threw down the gauntlet with a powerful argument that ‘most academics involved in television studies are using qualitative criteria, however expressed or repressed, and that the constitution of the criteria involved should be the subject of explicit debate.’ 10 It was only towards the end of the twentieth century that a handful of fellow television scholars took up her challenge, and argued for greater reflection upon evaluation in both scholarship and teaching. 11 Christine Geraghty is one of those who consider that ‘television studies would, I think, benefit from academics being more explicit about the evaluative judgements that we inevitably make.’ 12 Importantly, Geraghty adds that ‘while recognizing the social dimensions of any discussion of evaluation, I want to argue the importance of a textual dimension to this question.’ 13 Thus evaluation is understood as inextricably linked to (arising from) interpretation, something she

Television Aesthetics


underscores when she asks for ‘an approach that emphasizes analytic description and evaluative discussion across a range of programmes.’ 14 While to any outside observer this may seem uncontentious, it is the case within television studies that, historically, programmes have been evaluated more often on the basis of their representations and effects, their ideological and social impli- cations, rather than their artistic achievements. Yet developing a more compre- hensive and astute awareness of television programmes’ aesthetic qualities, and a greater willingness to make critical discriminations, is vital. As Thorburn notes, a scholar must understand the ‘literary or aesthetic dimensions’ of a programme ‘for the basic work of historical and cultural interpretation;’ 15 he demonstrates how one particular scholar ‘radically misreads these texts [1960s American spy series] because he does not grant sufficient weight to their aesthetic qualities,’ especially their tone and atmosphere. 16 Furthermore, Geraghty foresees wider consequences if evaluation continues to be sidelined within television studies: ‘in much teaching of television in higher education questions of aesthetics are being neglected in ways that can only be detrimental to future programming and audiences.’ 17 Television is one of the primary sources of artworks in Western societies today, and television aesthetics opens up to the television audience valuable skills of discrimination and evalua- tion that are ultimately empowering. To avoid critical judgement, to deny it to our students, is to deny them an essential critical education; it finally ‘impoverishes the capacity of human beings to perceive the value-qualities of works and so deprives them of sources of joy.’ 18 One of the most common objections mounted against increasing the role of evaluation within television studies is that it will lead to a narrow ‘canon’ of ‘good television,’ eliminating too many programmes as unworthy of study. Within tele- vision aesthetics, this understandable and legitimate concern is recognised as an important focus for ongoing debate; views on the matter are diverse. Brunsdon and Geraghty maintain that programmes usually considered ‘popular’ or ‘mass’ televi- sion need not be excluded from analysis: both have undertaken extensive work on soap operas, for example. Importantly, though, they argue that discriminations can be made within such genres – both between quality and non-quality television, and between good and not-so-good television. They argue then for a pluralistic, but not relativistic, approach. Others offer different perspectives. Robin Nelson, in his analytical account of the difficulties of critical judgement within contemporary television studies, tenta- tively suggests a basis for future evaluation which recognises diversity but also prioritises ‘common meaningfulness.’ 19 John Caughie goes further, defending his decision to delineate a category of ‘serious drama,’ which both delimits the genre in question and then makes further discriminations within it, maintaining the capacity of some programmes over others for sustained analysis. 20 Jacobs recog- nises the ‘different aspirations of different kinds of television,’ 21 and notes that we may regard any programme as a ‘pleasant casual distraction’ but that some instances of television elicit ‘strong engagement, intense viewer proximity and


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concentrated attention,’ and ‘many will be able to withstand the kinds of critical pressure that we normally apply to other artworks.’ 22 He thus cautiously implies that some programmes are likely to reward sustained analysis better than others; some are richer, more complex and more enduring. Television aesthetics does not assume any particular hierarchy of texts or agreed canon, but it does address questions of value, critical judgement and the selection of criteria for evaluation. There is a healthy diversity of perspectives on evaluative criticism within television aesthetics (as a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of British Cinema and Television, ‘Good Television?’ will reveal). 23

Television as an art

Despite their differences, these writers share a belief that some television is worthy of sustained scrutiny and critical attention for its aesthetic qualities. And this view has become increasingly popular. 24 This is a marked shift in the way in which television is regarded. Thorburn asserted the validity of an aesthetic approach to television back in 1987, arguing that such an approach recognises that television programmes are comparable with other arts, sharing with them ‘representational or artistic’ and often ‘fictive or imaginative’ qualities. 25 Yet it is only since the late 1990s that a significant number of scholars have expressed similar views. Jacobs puts it concisely when he describes television as ‘a medium for artistic expression.’ 26 The implication of this view is that one of the main roles of the television scholar is to explore and assess the artistic accomplishments exhibited in various programmes. For too long, television has been considered primarily in terms of its communicative, not artistic, functions. Television aesthetics recognises that television is an art, and examines it accordingly. Of course, television is a distinctive art. It has a specific history, and particular and unique forms. Recognising these specificities is by no means incompatible with recognising its identity (and status) as an art form alongside others. Indeed, the exploration of medium-specific traits is the final area of television aesthetics that I wish to outline here.

Theorising: Conceptual and philosophical questions

At the start of this article, I mentioned those ‘conceptual’ or ‘philosophical’ ques- tions that are raised by our critical engagement with television texts. If one is engaged in the close, evaluative study of ER (Constant Productions/ Amblin Enter- tainment/NBC, 1994– ), for example, then one is likely to be drawn to consider the importance of genre and episodic structure to the programme. These are concerns that arise from the aesthetic qualities of the text itself (rather than the pre-existing preoccupations of the scholar). 27 These two issues (genre and episodic structure) are often addressed within tele- vision aesthetics, arising as they do fairly frequently from the object of study. 28 Notably, television aesthetics scholars are usually concerned to reveal how their

Television Aesthetics


theorising enhances our understanding of the programmes themselves. Taking genre as an example, Jacobs proposes that the most appropriate technique for dealing with generic programmes such as ER is to undertake detailed analysis of the text in question, and compare it with other members of the same genre in order

to evaluate it in relation to its peers. Geraghty offers a similar view, arguing that it

is vital that we categorise a programme correctly, in generic terms, in order to offer

a fair evaluation. 29 The expression of such a motivation is similarly present in my work on television adaptations. 30 Geraghty extends this perspective when she entreats us to reconsider common- place evaluative hierarchies within television studies, such as that which places realism above melodrama. 31 This is not an unfamiliar plea in itself. But what makes her request distinctive within this field is that she asks that we do so, not on the basis of ideological criteria, but with respect to formal and stylistic specificities – through sustained analysis of, for example, visual organisation, performances, writing and dialogue, stylistic innovation and so on. 32 It is in this emphasis on aesthetic features, rather than broad theoretical perspectives that treat programmes as ‘case studies,’ that television aesthetics finds its specific voice. Time after time, theorising – the asking and addressing of conceptual questions – is dependent upon and returns to the programmes themselves and our concentrated engagement with them. Finally, television aesthetics includes an attention to philosophical matters such as the question of what values or criteria should be employed in criticism. In this, it comes closer to philosophical aesthetics as defined by Monroe Beardsley: ‘We shall think of aesthetics as a distinctive philosophical inquiry: it is concerned with the nature and basis of criticism – in the broad sense of the term – just as criticism

itself is concerned with works of art.’ 33 Nikos Metallinos, in his book Television Aesthetics, primarily advocates an empirical research methodology. But he also notes that

the analysis and examination of an art form leads to the establishment of the appro- priate value judgments or criteria that evaluate the art form – criticism. However, when art critics question the value judgments pertaining to an art form and engage in discussions regarding taste, harmony, unity, and balance, they further progress beyond criticism, to a higher level of scholarly activity that Beardsley (1958) called ‘philosophy of criticism, or metacriticism.’ 34

Metallinos considers that if one begins with the study of the arts, and then engages in the study of criticism, the result is the establishment of the field of aesthetics, which sustains strong connections between its constituent parts. Applied to televi- sion, if one begins with the study of television art, as outlined above, and then adds a reflective consideration of criticism (metacriticism), one ends up with the field of television aesthetics. Crucial to this enterprise is the kind of work being undertaken by television scholars such as those cited in this article. In addition, further development is needed to take advantage of potentially useful work in philosophical aesthetics. Aestheticians such as Noël Carroll have already shown


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that philosophical perspectives can contribute greatly to our understanding of mass media, yet television scholars rarely cite his work. 35 Moreover, the medium of television problematises and challenges many long-held perspectives in aesthetics, and allows us to re-examine these and revitalise familiar debates. 36 There is great untapped potential here for those who are willing to recognise the benefits that an aesthetic approach might bring to the study of television.

Rediscovering television

Above all, television aesthetics refigures our potential relationship to the programmes we know and love. Thorburn entreats us to consider television programmes as art, not just as artefacts. He acknowledges that such a view is diffi- cult to sustain because so many programmes ‘are partial achievements, arresting and powerful intermittently, but lapsing into incoherence or easy stereotypes or mechanical formulas of plot and character.’ 37 Nevertheless, he feels that the notion of television programmes as artworks is potentially transformative. Thorburn concludes: ‘Insisting on this distinction between art and artifact, I am clinging, I recognize, to an outmoded humanism, which wants still to believe that there is a significant difference between art and entertainment, art having value for us not only as a cultural artifact but also intrinsically, because it is beautiful and wise.’ 38 Thorburn’s comments echo Diané Collinson on aesthetic experience: ‘aesthetic experience at its highest and best is arresting, intense and utterly engrossing:

.when fully achieved it seizes one’s whole mind or imagination and conveys whatever it does convey so vividly that the result is delight and knowledge.’ 39 If we do not believe that television may sometimes offer such experiences, then perhaps we ought not to spend our time examining its aesthetic qualities. If on the other hand we do believe that such experiences are possible, however sporadically, then surely the most appropriate response is to approach television programmes mind- fully as expressive works of art, replete with significant aesthetic properties?


1 Although I have previously classified my own work as ‘television aesthetics,’ this article goes one step further in bringing some of the work of other scholars under that umbrella. Some of those scholars have used the term ‘television aesthetics’ themselves; others might, of course, object to their inclusion within this nascent field. To clarify, I do not mean to imply that those mentioned herein work only within the field of televi- sion aesthetics, and I am aware that a synoptic overview such as is offered here risks understating the scope of their work and/or misrepresenting their persuasions. However, I am confident in observing trends and continuities in terms of vocabulary, concerns and methodology; I have also sought to cite others’ work that I find most sympathetic or complementary to my own approach, and most useful on my television aesthetics course (though I have not included every source, such as John Corner’s excel- lent overview of television studies; Corner, Critical Ideas in Television Studies, Oxford University Press, 1999).

Television Aesthetics



Sarah Cardwell, ‘“Television Aesthetics” and Close Analysis: Style and Mood in Perfect Strangers (Stephen Poliakoff, 2001),’ in Douglas Pye and John Gibbs, eds, Style and Meaning, Manchester University Press, 2005, p. 180.




Jason Jacobs,‘Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies,’ International Journal of Cultural Studies, 4:4, December 2001, 431.




Lyas did not intend that his work be applied to television, but I have found it valuable both in teaching and in my critical work such as my latest book on Andrew Davies; Sarah Cardwell, Andrew Davies, Manchester University Press, 2005.


Colin Lyas,‘The Evaluation of Art,’ in Oswald Hanfling, ed., Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishers, 1992, 361.




David Thorburn, ‘Television as an Aesthetic Medium,’ Critical Studies in Mass Commu- nication, 4:2, June 1987, 163.


Charlotte Brunsdon,‘Television: Aesthetics and Audiences,’ in Patricia Mellencamp, ed., Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Indiana University Press, 1990, p. 69.


Brunsdon also proposed a valuable distinction between quality and good television, which encouraged further work on ‘quality television’ (see for example Simon Frith, ‘The Black Box: The Value of Television and the Future of Television Research,’ Screen, 41:1, Spring 2000, and a forthcoming edited collection from I.B. Tauris on defining contemporary quality television, edited by Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, which follows their conference on ‘Quality American Television,’ held at Trinity College, Dublin in April 2004).


Christine Geraghty, ‘Aesthetics and Quality in Popular Television Drama,’ International Journal of Cultural Studies, 6, 2003, 40.


Ibid., 26.


Ibid., 41–42.


David Thorburn, ‘Television as an Aesthetic Medium,’ p. 163.


Ibid., p. 164.


Geraghty, ‘Aesthetics and Quality in Popular Television Drama,’ p. 26.


Lyas, ‘The Evaluation of Art,’ p. 361.


Robin Nelson, TV Drama in Transition, Macmillan, 1997, p. 228.


John Caughie, Television Drama: Realism, Modernism and British Culture, Oxford University Press, 2000.


Jacobs, ‘Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies,’ p. 430.


Ibid., p. 431; Jacobs notes that at this time such programmes are likely to be dramas and documentaries, although the viewer may choose to watch other programmes with this level of concentrated attention.


Issue 6 of the Journal of British Cinema and Television, forthcoming in 2006, is co-edited by Steven Peacock and myself.


Jacobs suggests that this recent interest in close analysis might be in response to recent trends within the medium itself: ‘The continued sense that the television text is mostly inferior to the film text and cannot withstand concentrated critical pressure because it lacks ‘symbolic density,’ rich mise-en-scène, and the promotion of identification as a means of securing audience proximity, has to be revised in the light of contemporary television’; Jacobs, ‘Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies,’ p. 433. I would add that this shift in emphasis is just as likely to be indicative of the changing interests of scholars as of changes in the programmes they study.


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25 Thorburn, ‘Television as an Aesthetic Medium,’ p. 162.

26 Jacobs, ‘Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies,’ p. 427.

27 I refer implicitly here to Jacobs’ exploration of ER, which he followed with a book-length study of medical dramas, as Jacobs’ work exemplifies how television aesthetics is differ- entiated by its focus on aesthetic qualities. Contrast this with an approach that utilises ER as a case study for representations of race and gender, or for postmodernist theories. Here, the study arises from an engagement with the programme first and foremost;

theorising follows. See, Jacobs,‘Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies,’ pp. 427–447; and Jason Jacobs, Body Trauma TV: The New Hospital Dramas, bfi Publishing,


28 Scholars who have dealt with the issue of episodic structure (referring here simply to the existence of a series of individual episodes) include John Ellis and, more recently, Jacobs. The latter, drawing upon the Romantic conception of the Fragment, postulates that episodes may be regarded as fragments – both formally complete in themselves and yet forming part of larger content or whole. He then reveals how this might illuminate

the episodic structure of ER. See, Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, Rout- ledge, 1982; and Jacobs, ‘Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies,’ pp.


29 Geraghty states her desire to think ‘more broadly’ about aesthetics, so that television is not regarded as utterly distinct from other arts but is instead considered in relation to, for example, film; simultaneously, she wishes to think ‘more narrowly about the object we are trying to analyse,’ by considering different programmes in relation to their particular generic categories (for example, drama): Geraghty,‘Aesthetics and Quality in Popular Television Drama,’ p. 29.

30 Sarah Cardwell, Adaptation Revisited: Television and the Classic Novel, Manchester University Press, 2002.

31 Geraghty, ‘Aesthetics and Quality in Popular Television Drama,’ pp. 32–33.

32 Ibid., pp. 33–35.

33 Monroe Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, Harcourt Brace, 1958, 6.

34 Nikos Metallinos, Television Aesthetics: Perceptual, Cognitive and Compositional Bases, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1996, p. 4.

35 See, for example, Noël Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art, Oxford University Press, 1998.

36 For example, episodic structure seems to challenge that familiar criterion of value, coherence. Yet we need not abandon such a criterion peremptorily; instead, we might consider how it might be reworked and reshaped – such as in Jacobs’ notion of the frag- ment.

37 Thorburn, ‘Television as an Aesthetic Medium,’ p. 170.

38 Ibid., p. 169.

39 Diané Collinson, ‘Aesthetics Experience,’ in Hanfling, ed., Philosophical Aesthetics, p.