Genre, taste and discursive regulation
The structure of this book is based around genres, with each chapter focused on a single or closely related group of generic categories within which specific issues around sexual representation are explored. Indeed, it is a central assumption of my approach that genres are a key form of discursive regulation of sexual representation on television. They are defined in the history of the relationship between the industry and television audiences.
Genre, in this perspective, is best conceived not as a fixed set of endlessly reproduced textual conventions, but as a dynamic network of discursive connections that work to regulate aesthetic forms and their circulation. ‘Defining the genre is a process of connecting the various discourses shaping the genre, of constantly going out from the text to other discourses and their institutional sites’ (Juffer 1998: 28). Genre as a system legitimates certain ‘uses’ and ‘pleasures’ for an imagined community of taste (Altman 1999). Social hierarchies that serve to define these communities are thereby linked to a finely differentiated hierarchy of genres and aesthetic conventions (Bourdieu 1984). These cultural distinctions are in constant flux and renegotiation. Moreover, as Mark Jankovich (2001: 7) points out, drawing on Bourdieu, ‘sexual tastes are not only amongst the most “classifying” of social differences, but also have “the privilege of appearing the most natural”’. This is reinforced by the often visceral reaction of disgust that is provoked by the taste cultures of groups to whom we do not belong. For broadcasters, therefore, it isn’t simply a case, as is often asserted, that ‘sex sells’; instead it is a case of customizing sexual discourse to particular social groups in the audience in order to maximize their pleasure while minimizing the offence to others. This customization process is enhanced by the shift to multiple channels so that, in the digital era, whole channels can now be branded around a single generic category, whether it is documentary (Discovery Channel) or pornography (Playboy Channel). While mainstream networks still have to accommodate a range of taste cultures, their generic mix is crucial in establishing a brand identity for a channel. Mixed genre channels can become identified with a small part of their output. Channel 4’s upmarket, youthful brand, for example, is strongly linked to its promotion of imported US ‘quality’ drama (McCabe 2000; Jankovich and Lyons 2003) and Channel 5’s with downmarket ‘soft porn’ (see further discussion in Chapter 3).
Television production and its critical reception are also regulated by these ‘quality/ trash’ distinctions in taste that work to legitimate the tastes of the more powerful. In the American system ‘quality’ is determined by the economics of the market. ‘Quality’ television is profitable television addressed to affluent niche markets, as defined against the mass market (Feuer 1995). But even in the mass market there has always been a commercial incentive to present ‘aspirational’ images of middle-class life to encourage consumer buying. Charlotte Brunsdon (1990) demonstrates how in the UK, in discussions about the need to protect ‘quality’ television from the ravages of the free market, different assumptions are made about what television is for, and more particularly what certain genres are for. Public service ideals have been based on the assumption that television could improve the tastes of the masses and thereby encourage middle-class values and behaviour. Within the general injunction that public service television should educate, inform and entertain, Brunsdon shows how these functions are also ordered in a hierarchy of taste linked to class and gender. Factual genres that inform and educate are regarded as intrinsically more worthwhile than fictional genres whose main purpose is to entertain. The same hierarchy operates within fictional genres, so that drama which is intellectually demanding or in some way educational and informative in a realist mode is more worthwhile than popular melodrama that works on the emotions. Mass market television is often dismissed and reviled as ‘trash TV’ among an intellectual elite who don’t share the tastes of the majority. Popular tastes, and women’s preferences, reverse this hierarchy of value.
Within the industry, different quality criteria will come into play depending on the context, especially the balance between commercial and political pressures. In the 1990 Broadcasting Act in the UK, for example, the regulatory pressure to maintain middle-class criteria of quality was still a force to be reckoned with, despite the free market rhetoric of the Thatcher government, backed up as it was by a panoply of statutory measures. This included a ‘quality threshold’ for the allocation of commercial franchises, and the setting up of the Broadcasting Standards Commission to monitor standards of taste and decency. By the time of the 2003 Communications Act legislation, however, priorities had shifted towards the profitability of the commercial industry in a global market, although public service ideals remain in the rhetoric of ‘citizenship’ and ‘diversity’. Along with other cultural influences there has been a loosening of restraint and a greater desire to appeal directly to ‘popular’ tastes, dispensing with normative values to address a culturally more diverse audience. This has had a major impact on the way that sexual discourse is handled.