Cultural Value and Economics

Posted Friday May 20, 2011 by John Gunders in |

Last night I went to a lecture by Kim Dalton, director of television for the ABC and Chair of Freeview. The lecture was recorded and hopefully the audio will appear on the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies website in the next days.

The lecture might not have been as “provocative” as some members of the audience suggested, but it was a carefully considered and well argued piece about the role of public service television in the age of convergence, and finished with the familiar and well-rehearsed statement that both of Australia’s public broadcasters are underfunded. Well, no argument about that from me.

But one thing in particular struck me. Dalton spoke briefly about his time in Adelaide in the mid-1970s. He had just finished a degree in drama in the context of a nascent film industry and a growing television industry. The only topic of conversation was Australian culture: what it was, how to develop it, what the role of the media was. He managed to convey the sense of enthusiasm and possibility that he remembered from that time. The enthusiasm of a young country finding its feet and its identity.

Later, in questions, he was asked to justify his position on cultural value versus economic value, and he seemed to me to (perhaps deliberately) misunderstand the question. To Dalton, if I am not mistaken, there is no need to justify cultural value: it is a given, as much as any financial bottom line, and it is important to pursue and to fund it.

And I started wondering, when was it that as a nation we stopped talking about cultural value? When did we abandon conversations about identity for sterile debates about economics and politics? Why is it that discussions of Australian-ness now inevitably lead to claims about cost and benefit? Sure, politicians talk about nothing else, because political discourse has been reduced over the last 20 or 30 years to claims about who are the better economic managers. (I wonder whether this is why Australian politics has not been about to produce a statesman of the calibre of a Mensies or a Whitlam.)

But if economics is all politicians want to talk about, why do we follow suit? I have read very few cultural studies investigations recently that don’t—at least in part—draw of economic considerations as a way of demonstrating value (yes I know, I’ve done it myself).

Wouldn’t it be fun if we all started talking about cultural value, Australian identity, and artistic development as valuable enterprises of their own, and let the accountants worry about the funding?

ABC 24 - The Real Cost?

Posted Tuesday November 2, 2010 by John Gunders in |

I love ABC 24. I love that I can get real television news when I want it (FYI, CH7, 9, & 10: if it involves a celebrity, it probably isn’t “news”); I love watching Question Time; I think “The Drum” is actually quite good (and not just because Steve Cannane and Annabel Crabb are a bit hot). I can’t afford cable, so Sky News is not an option. I think it is quite amusing that Sky and the Murdoch Press are so threatened by the newcomer: and not a little ironic, given their ideological support of “competition” as an economic panacea.

Nevertheless, I share their concern that the already stretched ABC has launched this venture with no new funding. Unlike the Murdoch hacks I don’t see a problem with recycling and repurposing material from the ABC’s existing services (how much of The Australian is recycled from other Murdoch sources?), but the claim that the channel will spread already stressed journalists too thin has the ring of truth.

A piece in today’s Crikey by Jason Whittaker (paywalled, but you can sign up for a free trial) talks about the pressure on correspondents in foreign bureaus to provide original and quality reporting with fewer supporting staff. This stretching is affecting other ABC services as well, it is argued. This is in the face of mooted staff cuts in selected overseas bureaus.

Journalist and academic, Margaret Simons, has a proposal on YouCommNews, the subscriber-supported journalism site, to fund an FOI request into ABC 24’s budget: again, with concern that resources are being spread too thinly.

I think I might offer Margaret a crisp $20 note to help her with that investigation, and I would encourage you to do so as well.

The End of Time

Posted Wednesday February 24, 2010 by John Gunders in |

In 1978 I remember reading an interview with (I assume) Richard Donner, director of Superman: The Movie, who pointed to the new superhero shows then popular on TV—things like The Six Million-Dollar Man—and said something like, “We can’t have Superman just picking up a car to save someone: Steve Austin does that every week.”

This was by way of justification for the film’s climax, in which Superman turns back time by spinning the Earth backwards on its axis—one of the most cringe-worthy pieces of anti-science cinema I’ve ever seen. The argument was that everything had to be bigger, better, and more spectacular than anything that had gone before. I think I preferred the end of Superman II, where the denouement was at a much more human level.

This interview dredged itself out of the depths of my memory last week when I watched the second part of “The End of Time,” the final Doctor Who episode for the tenth Doctor, David Tennant. Writer/producer Russell T Davies has a bad habit of wanting everything bigger and bolder than last time, and with the climax of season four involving whole planets teleporting across the galaxy (with bizarrely few negative consequences to the atmospheres or structures of the planets), I guess we all knew we were in for a challenge to our abilities to willingly suspend our disbelief.

The comments thread at Circulating Library live blog of the episode indicates the level of disapproval from even hard-core fans. I won’t rehearse the objections here, so go and have a look.

Such a pity for Tennant’s send-off, when he has been one of the most popular Doctors (I thought he was great, but Tom Baker will forever be my Doctor).

Anyway, we’ve got that young Matt Smith and scripts by Stephen Moffat to look forward to, so let’s hope the series regains a little sense.

TVLand Australia

Posted Wednesday November 18, 2009 by John Gunders in |

A group of researchers I know are building a website to gather personal recollections of Australian television. The site is currently small, but growing, and they would like your input.

Access is free (register to contribute) and the entries so far are very interesting. Well worth a look…

From the “About” page:

The project focuses on the popular experience of television and its role in forming national culture. As well as the usual academic sources, our research includes people’s memories and personal collections, and ‘ephemera’ like popular publications.

Australia – you’re looking at it

We’re using this site to build up an archive derived from interviews, oral histories, memorabilia, published materials, cultural institutions, fans and online sources. It represents Australian television from the point of view of those who have made and consume it. Once we’ve gathered sufficient materials, we want to use them to investigate questions around: the place of television in popular memory; and the versions produced by fan and ProAm memorialisations; the ‘insider’ perspective from people who have worked in the industry; and the collection of photos and stories about the significant television places, set design and TV-related objects; material that will help ‘map’ TV Australia. Last but not least how national icons and mythologies are produced (not least by audiences) through particular television programs and genres.

Professionalism, place, and authenticity in The Cook and the Chef

Posted Tuesday March 31, 2009 by John Gunders in |

Abstract: The ABC television production, The Cook and the Chef explicitly embodies a dichotomy that operates around a series of binaries including cook/chef, domestic/professional, and local/global. While the privileging of the domestic, and the female, over the professional and the male is a common trope in television food programmes, what is less common is a privileging of the local over the global. In this article I will examine the way in which the domestic, local cook (Maggie Beer) is portrayed in a valorised position, over the professionally trained, cosmopolitan chef (Simon Byrant).

The show positions Beer in her own place, the Barossa Valley in South Australia, but in a way that evokes an imagined Italy. On the other hand, Bryant’s place—the impersonal, commercial kitchen of the Adelaide Hilton—is rarely shown, and the chef is depicted as an aloof cosmopolitan figure, drifting through the world, but not at home anywhere. Through recourse to theories of place-identity and cosmopolitanism, the paper will demonstrate the way in which these themes of the local and the cosmopolitan are mediated by discourses of the natural and of community, creating a sense of authenticity, which privileges the grounded figure of the cook, over the mobile cosmopolitanism of the chef.

OK, perhaps a bit wanky, but I promised I’d talk about it again. The article seems to publicly available here (although maybe you need to arrive from a university site: I’m not sure).

Kings of Leon and Channel V

Posted Wednesday March 18, 2009 by John Gunders in |

Now it is official: Hill-billy rockers have more sensitivity than Australian television executives.

I just heard this on the radio, and can’t find independent evidence, so at the moment I’m taking it on faith. In an interview with which was aired on TripleJ this morning, Caleb and Jarrod of the Kings of Leon, the southern US rock outfit which donated their services to headline the Sound Relief concert last weekend, said that they had left their number one hit (and Hottest 100 winner) “Sex on Fire” off the playlist, because it seemed insensitive to play a song of that title at a fund-raiser for a bushfire appeal, and they didn’t want to offend anyone.

No so the cable channel V, which telecast the Melbourne event. According to TripleJ’s Lindsay McDougall, a film montage of the bushfire destruction shown in the lead up to the concert featured the song prominently.

I’m not a huge fan of Kings of Leon, but this morning’s interview showed a thoughtfulness that belies their hick image, and they went up a little bit in my estimation. My opinion of Channel V remains unchanged.

Top Gear Australia: A First Look

Posted Monday September 29, 2008 by John Gunders in |

The obvious first thing to say is that the producers were unable to bring themselves to move away from the winning formula: the opening titles, the staging, the set, and the photography are not just reminiscent of the British version, they are exactly the same. Same camera angles, same segments, same jokes. Even the same Stig! The car-porn photography in the review segments owes very much to the original, although it has been suggested that the editing is pacier.

But it is the choice of presenter that is most revealing. It is easy to map the three stars onto Clarkson, Hammond, and May: the lead presenter is older and opinionated; the little guy is excitable; and the boring one has a terrible sense of direction and drives slowly. They even dress the same.

All this leads me to suspect that the producers don’t understand why the original show works. It’s not the cars, or the photography. It’s not even the silly challenges: it’s the interactions between the presenters. As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes the show gets it wrong, but overall it makes for highly enjoyable television, and I’m not even remotely interested in cars.

In time the three Australians might develop the same sort of presence as their British counterparts, but it’s a tough ask, and the early signs aren’t promising.

Dexter and Spanish Dialogue

Posted Sunday July 13, 2008 by John Gunders in |

Much has been written about, and continues to be written about, Dexter, and it’s not my intention here to comment on the show’s premise or visual style: although I can’t resist pointing out that the former is as shockingly original as the latter is dull and clichéd. I should also admit that this opinion is based on my watching a total of two episodes. (Episode two, which screened in Australia last night progressed the narrative arc, and the character development, but in all other respects seemed pretty much a filler episode.)

Rather, I want to comment on a small, almost unnoticed, aspect of the show. As is familiar to us who live in TV land, if not the real world, Miami is as close to a multicultural city as the US can produce, with its significant Latino population and culture. As in other programmes such as CSI Miami (and possibly Miami Vice, although my memory doesn’t stretch back that far in any detail), the use of Spanish dialogue helps to convey this sense of difference. I recognise…

Food, Professionalism, and The Cook and the Chef

Posted Friday June 27, 2008 by John Gunders in |

I’ve just discovered a thread over at Sarsparilla on one of my favourite television shows: The Cook and the Chef. I came to the discussion a bit late, unfortunately, but I found it interesting because I’ve just finished writing an article that explores many of the problematics that the blog posting raises. The post focuses on the relationship between Simon and Maggie in terms of the amateur/professional dichotomy set up by the show itself…

Hick Baiting on Top Gear

Posted Tuesday January 29, 2008 by John Gunders in |

First a disclaimer: I absolutely adore BBC motoring show Top Gear. I’m not a petrol head, but the repartee between the three presenters is classic, and Jeremy Clarkson’s staunchly non-PC delivery is one of life’s guilty pleasures. Even the actual reviews—always of cars that cost more than I will earn in my lifetime (“Now we get quite a few complaints that we don’t feature enough affordable cars on the show, so we’re kicking off tonight with the cheapest Ferrari of them all”)—are beautifully, cinematically filmed: car-porn, even for the terminally disinterested.