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 János Petöfi.

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)

Whether commercial television and advertising can actually cause audiences to become less "knowledgeable" remains to be proven, a task which lies beyond the aims of this study. Still, Postman, like Chomsky, Halliday, et. al., points to commercial broadcasting’s discourse style as being in some way "different." Postman attributes this difference to the "philosophy of television commercials," and also points out that this style of discourse is taken for granted by Americans and considered to be "a normal and plausible form of discourse." Postman offers some interesting insights into the search for the components which combine to create this American commercial news style. For instance, he points to the discourse strategies incorporated into argumentation in commercial television programs, strategies which cannot generally be used in print. These discourse strategies include the utilization of "vivid visual symbols," or images, which are combined with sound to create "short and simple messages" that do not engage the viewer in "wondering about the validity of the point being made."It is indeed interesting to consider the possibility that the arguments contained within the style of discourse are able to influence the viewer to the degree that a statement’s accuracy and precision become totally irrelevant. The "truth or falsity" of claims made on television "is simply not an issue," claims Postman, and the interconnectedness of events and relevance of such things as history or economics are left unclear because of the arduous demands of this particular format. The discourse style used on commercial television is one which proceeds "without context," and even argues the "irrelevance of history," and explains nothing.Concision: A closer look

Chomsky’s claims originate from a term which he adopted from Jeff Greenfield of ABC’s Nightline. Greenfield, in a radio interview, has explained how television producers choose their guests to appear on commercial news programs. According to Greenfield, it is essential for guests "...to be able to talk on television... That’s a standard that’s very important, to us. If you’ve got a 22-minute show, and a guy takes 5 minutes to warm up, now, ...he’s out. "Greenfield’s program, Nightline, has also been the object of a detailed study made by Fair and Accuracy in Reporting. In FAIR’s study, it was found that most of Nightline’s guests were government or corporate professionals, the overwhelming majority of whom were white men. It is significant that Nightline’s guests appear on multiple occasions, which is not exceptional among other American news-oriented talk programs. More significantly, and also typical of other political affairs programs in the United States, Nightline draws from a pool of "regulars," including such "experts" as Henry Kissinger who, FAIR has discovered, appears on the program several times a year. Concerning the criteria used when choosing guests to appear on American commercial television programs, Greenfield explained that:...one of the things you have to do when you book a show is know that the person can make the point within the framework of television, and if people don’t like that, they should understand it is about as sensible to book somebody who will take eight minutes to give an answer as it is to book somebody who doesn’t speak English. But, in the normal given flow, ...we also need concision...Greenfield is, therefore, describing the phenomenon which he has named "concision." Concision, according to Greenfield, means that guests appearing on commercial television must also be endowed with certain capabilities, which include the ability to "make the point within the framework of television." That framework is what he calls the "normal given flow" of television. American commercial television requires, therefore, "that ...you must meet the condition of concision. You’ve got to say things between two commercials, or in 600 words." The "given normal flow" of a commercial television news program requires that all guests be in the possession of the verbal competence to make their point within the time assigned, between the commercials, and in a few hundred words or less. Often, as Chomsky explains, it is rare that anyone would be in the possession of such communicative competence:...that’s a very important fact, because the beauty of concision...is, that you can only repeat conventional thoughts. Suppose you say something [on television] which just isn’t regurgitating conventional pieties. Suppose you say something that is the least bit unexpected, or controversial...people will quite reasonably expect to know what you mean. ‘Why did you say that?’ ...’If you said that, you’d better have a reason.’ ...You can’t give evidence if you’re stuck with concision...Cued spontaneity

One may therefore define concision as a strategy used in public discourse, particularly in commercial television, which constrains the speaker in such a way that he/she must concisely express an idea within a very limited time frame. If Chomsky is correct, however, there is more to this concept than just the ability to make your point and beat the clock. Primeau mentions the "rhetorical arrangement" of the words spoken on "high-priced air-time segments" of commercial television. Concision, therefore, is much more than just being concise, it is a way of talking which "seems to be spontaneity," and at the same time allows "a precise allocation of expensive time frames that must produce ratings to warrant the cost." For example, CNN’s popular political affairs program, Crossfire, has adopted a format which skillfully illustrates concision as a style of discourse. Crossfire can also be used to demonstrate the functioning and consequence of concision. Concision, as it is used on Crossfire, is a discourse style which is no longer the exception, but is becoming more and more the rule for television talk shows and other public affairs programming in the United States. It is becoming implicitly accepted by American audiences to be a style of television discourse which is used in television talk, and it is a style which is not difficult to accept because it has been used in commercials and is now applied to other programs as well. Although we are discussing talk shows and public affairs programs, visuals and music definitely play a major role while camera functions are successfully exploited, using such expressive techniques as close-ups of faces to emphasize emotions, or long shots to show group interactions. Crossfire’s "television talk" is designed to be as attractive to living room audiences as a party with friends, and lonely or bored viewers are made to feel as if they were invited to join in the fun. To be able to entertain and "get your point across" within the "given normal flow" of commercial television—and say everything before the next commercial break--demands many of the same skills which are used in cueing. The ability, or talent, to express oneself successfully and entertainingly within this seemingly informal format is understandably a valuable and, in regards to the market for television guests, a much sought after skill. Television talk and "cued spontaneity," to combine Fowler’s and Primeau’s terms, has been unfavorably contrasted by Postman with what he terms "the typographical mind," which according to his definition was a common and even "natural" state among Americans, one which existed before there was commercial journalism. Postman’s contention is, in essence, that American culture, in contrast to some other cultures, is dominated by an implicitly accepted style of public discourse in which public discussions are modeled after those used in commercial television. For example, "In a culture dominated by print," he explains, "public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas," a process which "encourages rationality." Truth, however, "Is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression." Since "entertainment" has become the "supra ideology of all discourse on television," it is largely aimed at "emotional gratification," a "visual delight" to see, and has made "entertainment the natural format." "Entertainment," therefore, is the main goal, according to Postman. "There is no conspiracy," only "good television."Confronting Finnish expectations

Finnish audiences are not yet accustomed to American commercial television's "flow," and when confronted with this style of television presentation, as seen on satellite and cable, Finns react to the more obvious structural differences. These differences, sometimes perceived by audiences as pace and rhythm, can be a result of verbal expression or other paralinguistic and kinesic phenomena, such as the lack of pauses, interruptions or simultaneous talk, shouts, music, exotic or attractive images, as well as other editing phenomena. "In Finnish culture," according to authors Laaksovirta and Farnell," silence is an act in itself." To consciously permit periods of silence in a conversation demonstrates wisdom and reflection on the topic. In Finland, one "comprehends" silence as a linguistic "act." In college seminars, the authors point out, it would be a sign of "impoliteness" for listeners to make unsolicited comments during the professor’s presentation. Silence "is an everyday thing; there is no mystery in silence" and, for the most part, the "meaning" of silence, in Finnish culture, is "mainly positive. "Our investigation attempts to benefit from the fact that Finnish television audiences are, for the time being, implicitly accustomed to a television format which uses a form of discourse closely related to written Finnish. Public discourse in Finland therefore, because of traditions more firmly rooted in the written word, tends to be more "formal" than the public discourse used in commercial television news programs in the United States. Finnish society, as far as its use of discourse in the public sphere is concerned, for the time being and with many exceptions, resembles Postman’s concept of a culture "dominated by print." Although the actual effects of this style of discourse are difficult if not impossible to measure, this study assumes that on Finnish public television (YLE) discussions of a serious and national relevance can be (as Postman describes it) "characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas." Using this implicit understanding and expectation of style in public discussions as a basis, the Finnish interpretation of Greenfield’s "given normal flow," and thus a clearer picture of the meaning of "concision," should be forthcoming. 

The Finnish audience

To construct a cross-cultural definition of "concision," the assistance of forty Finnish university students was obtained from the Faculty of Education at Turku University. The object for viewing was CNN’s Crossfire, which can be seen live on cable or satellite in Finland five times weekly. The students who consented to be a part of this study had successfully completed at least ten years of English in school and had taken one or two courses in English comprehension and conversation at university level, as provided by the faculty. As in our previous study, information was elicited by means of a series of intensive interviews in which each participant was queried individually and asked to comment on as many aspects of the broadcast as possible. Participants in this study were interviewed in groups of twos and threes, with each interview lasting from 15 to 25 minutes. The object, as before, was not only to elicit individual replies from participants, but to view Crossfire together with the group and then allow the group to describe for me their impressions, while giving as much information as possible.

In this study, as before, the use of a Finnish audience provides a useful opportunity to discuss cross-cultural differences with people who have had limited exposure to American commercial news. Reliance on public-service broadcasting, and its style of discourse, for public information made this possible.

Participants in this study were also attending the obligatory English oral skills course within the faculty of education, which made the use of longer interviews in English possible, as a part of the students’ language studies. Later, other students in subsequent semesters reviewed these responses and were asked to make comments as well concerning the validity of the observations.Participants in the initial viewing were encouraged to draw independent conclusions about Crossfire and its style of debate. It was requested that participants discuss the program with others in the group during the class meeting only. The interviews had few constraints, other than the ability of the students to offer information.

The students were attending their second and third years as full-time students, and the average age was 25 (equivalent to graduate-level study in the United States). No one had actually seen Crossfire before. This can be explained by the program’s late scheduling and the fact that, although the majority of students do have access to basic cable, CNN does cost extra. After the viewing, most stated that they had "only minor problems" understanding the talk on Crossfire.This particular edition of Crossfire was hosted by Michael Kinsley, who is presented as representing the "liberal" position on the topics presented for debate, and Pat Buchanen, best known for his "conservative" views as well as his political aspirations in the Republican Party. On this particular program, however, John Sununu, a well-known member of the Bush administration, was taking Buchanen’s place as the representative of the conservative side. The program’s guests were Kim Gandy (introduced as this edition’s "liberal" and "feminist"). Gandy is also spokesperson for the National Organization for Women (NOW), America’s largest and most prestigious women’s organization. Janet Parshall appeared as the "conservative" guest, a representative of Concerned Women for America. Both guests were obviously experienced and able when it came to expressing and defending their opinions within the "given normal flow" of Crossfire, and both were considered therefore appropriate examples for giving more substance to our cross-cultural definition of "concision. "Crossfire’s format, as with most programs of this type which appear on commercial television, consists of a teaser, which trails the last part of the preceding program, just before the half hour, followed by commercials and, in the United States, possibly a break for station identification (if the program is carried by a local station, or CNN’s logo is shown). There were also commercials on CNN International, but during the "station break," Finnish viewers mostly saw advertisements for CNN (in this case Sumo wrestlers) demonstrating that Japan is "one of 210 countries and territories where you can watch CNN International."


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