Looking towards the future
The transition to digital television is taking place across the globe, albeit in diverse local contexts. For those countries with a tradition in public service television fears of a rampant commercialism accompany these changes. The UK is developing its digital services ahead of many of its global competitors, making, perhaps, the British response to these changes of wider interest, especially in the way that new regulatory regimes are being tried out. At the start of 2004 the television industry moved into a new period of regulation, as OfCom took over as the new regulator for the converging communications industries. The emphasis is on economic regulation to promote competition and to oversee the transition to a fully digital service by 2010. OfCom retains the duty, however, to protect the public interest, promote plurality and protect audiences from offensive or harmful content, and from unfairness and invasions of privacy. What is not clear at the time of writing is how it is going to do this. In its first six months of operation it is planning to revise every industry code, as part of a more general review of the purposes of public service broadcasting, leading up to the renewal of the BBC’s charter in 2006. As part of this process a national consultation exercise is planned, instead of relying on a committee of establishment figures as previous reports on broadcasting policy have done (Brown 2003).
This is consistent with a ‘consumer’ model of citizenship. What is already apparent is that there is an inherent tension in this model of the citizen-consumer. When decisions have to be made, whose views will eventually prevail? How will the ‘public interest’ be decided? And how will this be balanced against the increased power of commercial interests as British terrestrial television is opened to foreign ownership? Nevertheless, there does seem to be an attempt to encourage ‘cultural citizenship’ in order to offset the potentially overweening power of the global media conglomerates to decide for us what we will watch. As Nick Stevenson (2003: 152) explains, ‘Cultural citizenship aims to promote conversation where previously there was silence, suspicion, fragmentation or the voices of the powerful.’ In using the language of citizenship, there is a concern for rights and responsibilities that goes beyond a simple reliance on consumer ‘choice’.
In thinking through the consequences of these changes for the way in which sexual discourses are regulated on television I want to focus on the figure of the child and the rhetoric that is emerging. The paternalistic approaches of the past, designed to protect the child audience from harm and their parents from embarrassment, shows signs of being replaced. The final report from the old regime of regulators shifted the policy agenda towards recognition of children’s citizenship rights as active ’self-regulating’ consumers of culture and to the support they and their families will need to exercise these responsibly (Buckingham and Bragg 2003). It provided a framework of research to support this transition based on extensive focus group interviews with children and their parents, supplemented by diary entries from the children on their viewing, and a sceptical review of existing ‘effects’ research from a cultural studies perspective (Buckingham and Bragg 2002).
Reporting on this research, David Buckingham and Sarah Bragg (2003) emphasize that television and the media more generally are an important source of learning ‘what it means to be sexual’ and can work to broaden the rather narrow contexts in which children learn about sex in their everyday lives. This research was conducted during the same period as this book, but starting from the other end of the communicative cycle in which audiences produce meanings from the programmes they watch. The extent to which the conclusions match mine is significant, I think. The viewing patterns of children differ from those of adults, of course, especially in their lighter viewing late at night when much of the less mainstream sexual content is shown, but the continuing force of ‘traditional’ ideas about sexual identity among this generation of viewers is evident. Calls by the report for education in ‘media literacy’ to empower children to be critical viewers are intended to enable them to deconstruct the normative discourses that make up the bulk of their viewing, if future generations are to look beyond the categories and boundaries that currently limit their sense of who they are and what they might become. I would endorse this aim and hope that this book might also contribute to its fulfilment.
Popular television needs to be taken more seriously as an important influence on identity formation and understanding of the ‘other’. To finish on this issue, I want to suggest how rethinking the concept of ‘cosmopolitanism’ might help towards this process. The ‘market-led’ definition of cosmopolitan identities is of affluent mobile consumers in a global market, for whom the self-fashioning images of postmodern television have been designed. Nick Stevenson (2003: 5) offers another way of defining cosmopolitanism that envisages a more egalitarian future to which television could contribute. Cosmopolitanism, he argues, is a way of viewing the world that:
dispenses with national exclusions, dichotomous forms of gendered and racial thinking and rigid separations between culture and nature. Such a sensibility would be open to the new spaces of political and ethical engagement that seeks to appreciate the ways in which humanity is mixed into intercultural ways of life.
Living together harmoniously in a globalized world, he argues, requires us to develop the emotional capacity to live with the ‘other’, within the self as well as ‘out there’. Recognizing the ‘stranger within’ – our own internal contradictions, unruly desires and emotions – while developing the ability to respect and learn from those who are different from us, is something television can help us to do, but only if we develop ‘an understanding of the discourses, codes and narratives that make such political understandings possible’ (ibid.: 5).
This understanding will only emerge out of an ‘informed citizenship’ to which formal education can contribute. It also requires a more developed ‘national conversation’, to which journalism could contribute if it moved beyond scandalized headlines in reaction to ‘explicit sex’, and developed a critical reviewing practice that engages with television as a complex cultural form. Despite its utopianism, I think this way of thinking about cultural citizenship has a value. It moves us beyond the twin poles of state paternalism and the narcissistic individualism of the market, and offers a model for balancing the competing demands of pleasure and responsibility in the formation of our sexual selves.