wpe4.jpg (4565 bytes) PE02072A.gif (2034 bytes)

 "Finnish Views of CNN Television News" by Brett Dellinger
"Because of the structures of the various discourses within this broadcast genre, structures which were imposed by the pressures of its encompassing commercial objectives and design, it has an inherent inability to communicate information in the same way as the written word."

"CNN's format is a proven competitive broadcasting commodity while other formats, and discourse styles, are not competitive and will have more difficulty attracting audience attention in a predominantly commercial environment."

"Cueing ... as an artificial contrivance becomes a complex phenomenon, one which, after time, can develop into a formalized and familiar cultural experience whose frame becomes ritualized."

"The American public got what many critics and "conspiracy theorists" did not entirely expect: Instead of the "jackboot" and fascist-style propaganda, American television viewers got an endless stream of entertainment..."

"Stuart Hall ... sees the operation of the media within western capitalist societies as "all inclusive." The media shape our tastes and our desires--as well as our expectations. There is 'a shaping of the whole ideological environment ... a way of representing the order of things ... with ... natural or divine inevitability ....'" 

To Finns, it seems, American television news is read "with a gleeful smile and interspersed with laughter, punctuated by frowning--as if ... emotions were totally disconnected from the text.  American audiences ... expect "happy talk" and banter during a news broadcast. Finns, on the other hand, associate such behavior with clowns..."

This chapter also appeared in Mediapolis: Aspects of Texts, Hypertexts und Multimedial Communication under the title: "Concision in American Commercial Broadcasts." 

For more information: See Sam Inkinen, the editor, in Research in Text Theory Untersuchungen zur Texttheorie, a series edited by JŠnos PetŲfi.

Chapter 8: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

The Structural Constraint of "Concision" as it is Used in the Discourse Style of American Commercial Broadcasting

(Continued from previous page)

The commercial style of discourse has its origins in American broadcasting. During the 1950s sponsors and television executives discovered that the "magazine concept" in on-the-air television productions was a more effective way of using air time for selling sponsorsí products. In the earliest days of commercial television, the traditional means of on-the-air advertising consisted of on-the-air discourse strategies which were devised during radio days and therefore actually resembled more closely a stage production or, in the case of news, a Movietone newsreel. Usually there would be only one or two sponsors for a television play, variety show, or other program, and the sponsor would be identified, among audiences, directly with the show itself. The sponsorís commercial breaks, therefore, were inserted into the program at irregular and, most significantly, appropriate intervals. By "appropriate," we mean that commercials were timed to accommodate program content, and not the other way around. This system, known as the "gratitude factor," had the adverse effect, from the point of view of the sponsor, of making the sponsor appear to be directly responsible for the quality, the content and even the political inclinations of the show. Audience irritation over any matter concerning the content of the program, such as too many commercials in a variety show, or the political flavor of a particular television play, could appear in the form of letters sent in directly to the sponsor, lost sales in the marketplaceóor, even worse, through audience product boycotts. Gradually, as production costs for the growing television industry began to rise, the "gratitude factor" was abandoned for "alternating sponsorships," which became the norm. ABC was the first to use two or more sponsors within only one segment of a program.A new production concept which centered around the selling of spots, or inserted commercial messages in programs produced by the networks or some anonymous independent producer was gradually developed. Live television was able to exploit the "magazine concept" on two of NBCís most successful weekday programs during the 1950s, Today and Jack Paarís Tonight show. Jack Paarís "style" of interviewing several witty, entertaining guests on stage, then leading them through carefully coordinated periods of light conversation, with a touch of music, sandwiched in between two commercials, represented the discovery of a breakthrough formula for commercial televisionís new selling concept. Sponsors loved the new, fast paced, "upbeat" style which emerged and, as Barnouw expressed it, "flocked to television." Many fortunes were won, especially in the drug and cosmetic businesses. Today, Paarís style of television discourse, which he helped pioneer, remains the model for modern commercial television talk shows.One advantage, among many, of this new format was that it seemingly endowed the television production with more momentum. As Jay Rosen once observed, on American television, the most important thing is to enforce, as he described it, "a higher imperative than free speech," which is "to keep things moving." On American commercial television, silence seems to be the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part, the meaning of silence is a negative one.

Concision: "You canít give evidence if youíre stuck with concision. Thatís the genius of this structural constraint."Producers of talk-show discourse on American commercial television are indeed obliged to keep things moving, not because Americans necessarily dislike pauses or short periods of silence in television programming, but because of the competitive nature of television programs which function to attract and hold audiences. Television writers and producers are compelled to compete vigorously in many media markets, often second-by-second, for audience market share, which will then translate into advertising revenues. The competition can offer similarly designed programs during the same time slot on up to 250 other channels, all available to audiences at the press of a remote controlís button. It is therefore crucial, as Jay Rosen once put it, that TV programs be created in such a way that they "leave the recipient dumb struck by the force of the superlative as it rushes toward exhaustion." Commercial television, therefore, especially when competing in the marketplace with other commercial outlets, must arrange its style of discourse around attractive images which are designed to leave the program saturated with as much visual and verbal expressiveness as possible because, "where language falters in conveying the essence of the spectacular," claims Rosen, "the visuals take over."According to Columbia Universityís School of Journalism professors Bliss and Patterson, the writer for broadcast television must be able to present information "in the fewest number of words," which means, "boiling down a flood of information into a concise meaningful trickle." Other textbook authors have made the same suggestion. The all-important rule for the broadcast television writer is: "Be concise."Jeff Greenfield has labeled the style of talk used on many American public affairs television programs "concision." For Chomsky, however, concision has a much broader meaning than that suggested by textbook authors. For Chomsky, concision functions to "constrain" free speech by compelling television talk show guests to conduct themselves within certain prescribed parameters which are, for the most part, found within the commercial broadcasting environment and characteristically serve to measure and restrict a speakerís ability to speak freely. The parameters of the soundbite, for example, function as one measure, standard or criterion, among many, which tests the ability of politicians to "project" their chosen "images" to TV audiences.Chomsky has also imparted the term "concision" with a distinctly political dimension, one whose definition has yet to be explored. This political dimension of Chomsky's suggests that any discussion of discourse, when it comes to American television, must transcend a mere analysis of language based on discourse and grammatical rules. Chomsky is accusing American commercial television of purposely constraining free speech through its discourse style. Concision, so he claims, is a tool which can be arbitrarily applied by broadcasters to limit a broader discussion of ideologically charged issues.

Neil Postman is of the opinion that American television distorts meaning through its discourse style, but his concerns reflect more precisely those of an educator. Postman notes that Americans, on average, spend more time in front of their television sets than any other people in the world and the discourse strategies learned from television for acquiring knowledge and information have considerable influence over the kind of knowledge and the amount of knowledge Americans retain. Children, for example, learn from watching television and by doing what "viewing requires of them," says Postman. The reading of written texts, on the one hand, and watching television, on the other, are two activities which "differ entirely in what they imply about learning." The key element, however, according to Postman, is advertising. Postman goes so far as to claim that there is a "symbiotic relationship" between commercial television and advertising which has caused Americans to become "the least knowledgeable people in the industrial world."


Chapter 8: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

Please turn the page   

Join a discussion on CNN, Television, Broadcasting and New Media at CNNCritical Discussions.

Brett Dellinger lives in Finland.

Copyright © 1999 by Brett Dellinger. All rights reserved.

 Chapter 8's Go to chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6a | 6b 7a | 7b | 8 | 8b
Footnotes Discussion  Conclusion Bibliography