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Northern light

Independent television producer, and associate head of the media production department at Bournemouth University.

Francesco Bono & Ib Bondebjerg

(eds.) (1994) Nordic Television:

History, Politics and Aesthetics,

København: Sekvens, Special Issue.

’The book you hold in your hand’, the Foreword begins, ’is the first comprehensive book on the history, politics and aesthetics of television in the Nordic countries’. As it is written in (rather variable) English, it should bring to international attention the specific Nordic solutions to the problems that confront television throughout the world. These include how to provide a full television service with limited resources; how to reconcile commercial and licence-fee funding; the future of public service broadcasting in a competitive environment; and the adjustment of television to being, in the words of one contribution ’a medium like any other’. Many of these solutions are both extraordinary and intricate, and have been hidden from international attention by an undue, but typical, Nordic modesty.

Here we can see how in both Denmark and Norway, local (as distinct from regional) television was seen as a necessary corrective to the remoteness of the national broadcaster. Such aspirations to local television may not have proved financially viable, but they did succeed in giving a particular edge to the development of a multi-broadcaster environment, which is lacking elsewhere in Europe.

Here we find that ’infotainment’ has had a comparatively long history in Nordic public service TV. Politicians have long been willing to appear in programmes that mix satire, light entertainment and conversation both serious and trivial. In Norway, Lørdan showed Dan Børge Akerø making a seamless transition from political to personal issues. In the Sweden of the Sixties, Tage Erlander was able to increase his popularity by telling funny stories on Hylands Hörna. The British political scene still avoids humanising its politicians through such mixed formats; they do not have a regular place on British TV since the politicians would avoid them.

Here we find, too, that in Finland, commercial and public service television co-habited the same wavelength for many years, yet maintained their separate identities. This unique arrangement also involved a cross-subsidy of the public service YLE by the commercial MTV. In Sweden, a similar cross-subsidy provided the public service SVT with 8 % of its income in 1994 from the commercial TV4. I wish that I had known this when lobbying over many years for changes to the British structures of funding. It seemed like an impossible dream when proposed as a solution to Channel 4’s future when it was discussed in 1992.

The government had proposed that Channel 4 should begin to sell its own advertising and live off the proceeds.

This was regarded as a risk even by Channel 4. So the formula was agreed whereby ITV should provide a ’safety net’ which had a price. If Channel 4 lost money, ITV would make up the difference; if it made profits, a share would go back to the main ITV Channel. Channel 4 is an unexpected commercial success, so it has to give money every year to ITV. Had we known of the Swedish and Finnish arrangements, we would have been able to argue, probably successfully, that the Channel 4 ’safety net’ should have no such price attached.

This book contains other surprises as well. I had thought that Nordic television studies were characterised by the attitude behind the words I quote above:

’the book you hold in your hand … ’, that is a concrete and pragmatic approach mixed with a judiciously eclectic theoretical sophistication. Many Nordic scholars seem to have a matter-of-fact easiness with modernism and post-modernism and theories of all kinds. Anglo-saxon media studies still tends to polarise between ’theory’ and ’the concrete’, between ’principles’ and ’practice’, in a way that leads to an inevitable overemphasis of one at the expense of the other.

However, I was surprised at how little unity of approach is demonstrated in this collection. Whatever unity it finds is as a series of reflections on the notion of public service broadcasting. Otherwise, it is very diverse in its approaches. The four countries are each given two essays by different authors: one on history and the other on the current situation. Approaches vary from a slightly nostalgic view of Swedish public service television (Madeleine Kleberg) to a full frontal post modernist reading of current Finnish output (Veijo Hietala).

The Norwegian contributions exemplify what is best in Scandinavian media studies. The writing is subtle and sure. The historical account, by Henrik Bastiansen and Trine Syvertsen, integrates the necessary social and economic information so that from the beginning television appears within a broad media context. More recent developments do not come, as in some other accounts, as a sudden fall from a state of public service grace into an alien world. In Bastiansen and Syvertsen’s account, television is seen from the beginning as a site of social tensions rather than as a victim of censorship or as a device for targeting particular, abstract, social groupings. The result is vivid and informative history.

Their explicitly stated organising themes are a set of three contradictions (continuity-change, conflict-harmony, everyday-spectacular). These provide a simple and effective means of assessing the assumptions of the primary sources (the working ideologies of broadcasters and legislators) which tend to colour the accounts of Danish and Swedish TV respectively by Henrik Søndergaard and Madeleine Kleberg.

Empirical data may get the better of some of the writers, but others tend towards the opposite extreme. They seem to be using material to prove a theoretical point, rather than using theory to illuminate a material point. This is particularly marked in Maaret Koskinen’s examination of Swedish television today, which seems to be justifying a general argument about the nature of the television experience developed by Leif Furhammar by cataloguing relevant examples from contemporary Swedish television. We learn more about Furhammer than about the output of Swedish channels, though the piece does describe a wonderful example of Bergman’s aggressive use of TV. Similarly, a concern with ’top of the range’ post-modernist theory sometimes gets in the way of the otherwise excellent essay on contemporary Finnish TV by Veijo Hietala.

Hietala’s essay is nevertheless a very valuable examination of the ways that Finnish television is attempting to address a fragmenting audience, and in particular how public service television is being rethought in a new media environment. This important question is the central point of Espen Ytreberg’s contribution on recent Norwegian television. Ytreberg concentrates on a significant detail, the forms of address used in a relatively narrow range of magazine programmes. This key example demonstrates precisely and elegantly how NRK has attempted to reposition itself as a public service broadcaster from a channel of national unity to a channel which aims to address all sections of Norwegian society. Ytreberg’s use of a study of specifics to illuminate a general trend is a fine example of how studies of the modern media should be, but very often are not, written. Taken with Bastiansen and Syvertsen’s essay, this account of Norwegian television provides an elegant examination of the stresses contained within the dream of public service television.

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