The structure of the industry in Europe is changing in order to maximize competitive economic pressures and to reduce state regulation of content. At the same time, ratings and market research have become the legitimizing technologies through which to evaluate the ‘quality’ of programming, just as they have been in the USA from the start. If public ownership is a diminishing component in the face of the expansion of wholly privatized, commercial services, will the fears expressed by the defenders of public service broadcasting be realized? What impact will these trends have on television’s contribution to sexual citizenship? Will the increasing emphasis on pleasurable enter­tainment undermine or enhance the democratic functions of television as a public sphere? The wider debates over the purposes of television as a public service and global business, which I introduced in Chapter 1, include those who see increasing sexualization as a dubious outcome of companies seeking to make profits from titillating entertainment, and a threat to the public service remit to inform and educate (Herman and McChesney 1997; Winston 2000). On the other side are those who see it as a vindication of the democracy of the market, in its ability to overcome paternalistic controls in the service of popular tastes and pleasures to produce a ‘democracy of desire’ (Hartley 1999; McNair 2002). A less polarized understanding emerges, in my view, with a more careful look at the regulatory effects that each of these systems produces.

Debates over the relative advantages of each system have intensified in the run up to planned regulatory changes for a converged digital media environment and in the context of European initiatives to harmonize the regulatory structures of the member states (Harvey 1998; McQuail and Siune 1998; Steemers 1999; Jones 2001). Free trade agreements designed to promote a global television market overseen by the World Trade Organization and by European legislation on transfrontier television (in 1989 and 1997) are potentially in conflict with the protection of public service broadcasting. Regulation in this context is moving from being based on the social functions of the media towards addressing technical and economic policy issues (Ostergaard 1998: 93). Technical convergence, although in practice this has been slower to emerge than was predicted (Kelly 2003), means that media-specific content regulation becomes problematic. Where the same content may be delivered via a computer or a television set, the distinction in regulation between the Internet and broadcasting becomes harder to sustain. This is certainly true of OfCom, the new regulatory body in the UK from the end of 2003, which covers all of the digital media. This was conceived as a ‘light touch’ regulator whose primary concern is with facilitating the British industry’s place in the global market by adapting the rules on foreign and cross-media ownership. It has been designed ‘as a framework for a period of free market consolidation, with an emphasis on commercial robustness rather than cultural protectionism’ (Bell 2003). The government claims, however, that it will ‘ensure access to a choice of diverse services of the highest quality and that the interests of citizens and consumers are safeguarded’ (Hewett and Jowell 2002).

It is important, I think, to understand that the development of digital means of distribution and the fragmentation of the market as channels proliferate are not simply the product of technological advances. There is a deliberate attempt to adapt television to the emergent conditions of postmodern culture in order to make more profits. That is to say, digital media are a means to develop new markets in conditions of rising affluence in a consumer society. The abundance of television channels made possible by digital technology has been legitimized through rhetoric of choice in which the mass audience is reconceived as an aggregate of selective individual consumers.

In postmodern culture the discourse of choice has expanded exponentially – it is a discourse in which the rhetoric of the liberatory benefits of personal autonomy and individual self-determination has become hegemonic. No longer tied to ‘tradition’ or the restrictions of class, gender or race, subjects in the postmodern world are now impelled to constantly reconstruct and reinvent themselves; in pursuit of happiness, life is defined as the ability to make an ever-increasing number of choices. The concept of ‘lifestyle’ articulates this particular post­modern predicament. Lifestyles are the fluid and changeable popular aesthetic formations of identity produced through self-reflexive consumption and disembedded from stable social networks.

(Ang 1996: 13)

A central question for this book is whether the digital era has allowed television to contribute to this process of self-realization through consumption as a result of its increasing diversity. In his book Seeing Things: Television in an Age of Uncertainty, John Ellis (2000: 63) argues that ‘Commodity production is increasingly aimed at providing people with the means of establishing their distinctiveness from each other rather than their communality with each other.’ Its role is no longer to provide a definitive way of understanding the world, in Ellis’s view, but to provide a range of materials for audiences to work through in the process of reaching an understanding for themselves (ibid.: 78-81). In so doing it both contributes to ‘the divisions that come with differences’ (ibid.: 72) and it works to ameliorate them by offering us programmes that act as a ‘witness’ to life-worlds for which we are only ever spectators. ‘This process never comes to a definitive conclusion because none are available’ (ibid.: 85). In this context, Ellis argues, public service broadcasting is redefined as providing a space to explore diversity, replacing older agendas of social improvement or rituals of national unity as in the Reithian ideal. Nor is it implicated in the ideological processes of defining the typical and marginalizing minorities, as it was criticized for doing by the new social movements (ibid.: 87). In Ellis’s view, the fragmenting effects of this diversity are compensated for by television’s potential to be a cohesive force, creating better understanding between different social groups. If this is, indeed, the case then it could be a positive influence in gaining legitimacy for previously marginalized sexualities.

This faith in the commercial media to deliver a form of democratic pluralism is subject to challenge from Marxist writers who are sceptical of the equation between

media ‘visibility’ and political emancipation. As Ellis (2000: 66) acknowledges, market­ing is ‘interested in social movements only to the extent that they will influence consumer choices and create new market opportunities’. In Rosemary Hennessy’s (1995) view the emancipatory effect of sexual consumerism is illusory because it is disconnected from the social movements that were essential to the political success of the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In ‘lifestyle’ politics sexual liberation has become a ‘style’ or ‘performance’ rather than a set of political demands for sexual equality and citizenship rights. Emphasis on the politics of representation has allowed social and economic issues to be marginalized. However, as David Bell and Jon Binnie (2000) point out, this sets up a false dichotomy between social and cultural citizenship. Citizenship includes the right to representation as a form of ‘recognition’. These representations can also contribute to the efficacy of campaigns for rights claims in the social, political and economic spheres, although it will always require other forms of political organization beyond the media sphere, as the campaigns for legal reform for gays and lesbians exemplify.

The more convincing aspect of Hennessy’s critique derives from Theodor Adorno’s analysis of ‘the culture industry’, which highlights the gap between the market’s rhetoric of choice and diversity and the countervailing pressures towards ideological conformity and homogeneity in a market system. The main point of his argument is that the cultural industry pretends to be answering people’s needs and therefore people welcome rather than resist it, whereas in fact it functions in the interests of the owners, not the consumers. It is dedicated to making profits above all else, and to ideological support for the capitalist system of which it is a part. The public is made to fit into predetermined categories devised by marketeers; market differentiation is just a tech­nique to make sure no one escapes from consuming products. Whatever the superficial differences between these products, capitalist ideology is the unifying content. For­mulaic genres offer consumers ‘recognition’ of their everyday lives, merely reproducing life as it is or appears to be on the surface, rather than exposing the real suffering that ‘truth-telling’ involves. This requires, in Adorno’s view, the forging of new shapes out of conventional forms, the true individuation of ‘style’, instead of conformity to a pre­existing genre that produces a unified culture obedient to the social hierarchy of the status quo. Nor does it offer the satisfactions it promises: its pleasures are those of distraction from the sufferings produced by an exploitative society. Real satisfaction would require the ‘austere delights’ of truth-telling that could bring about social and political change (Adorno 1993).

From a contemporary perspective Adorno’s analysis operates at too general a level of analysis to be directly applicable. He was writing in a different historical era, the 1940s, when the mass production of culture was less differentiated. There isn’t a singular ‘cultural industry’ nowadays, indeed there never was, but multiple cultural industries that operate according to quite different economic, technological and political logics and in response to varying historical circumstances (McGuigan 1996: 74-94). To assess the impact of current changes in the television industries on their ability to deliver ideological diversity requires looking at the characteristics of tele­vision markets in relation to historically specific cultural and political conditions. But I think that Adorno’s perspective is valuable in prompting us to think beyond the democratic rhetoric of market consumerism to examine its ideological functions in a class-divided, capitalist economy. It invites attention to the impact of industrialized production on the forms of culture. What kind of commodity is a television pro­gramme and how does this limit and enable particular kinds of meanings and audience pleasures? It also raises the question of what we mean by ‘pleasure’ and whether some forms of pleasure are more ‘emancipatory’ than others. Are the forms of pleasure that are proliferating in consumer culture a realization of the ‘good life’ sought by the various new social movements in their campaigns on media representation? And even if they are, at whose expense are these pleasures enjoyed? In consumer utopias which social groups remain excluded?

I examine these questions in detail in subsequent chapters, in relation to specific programmes and genres. This next section provides a more general analysis of how the discursive practices of television are shaped by the rhetoric of the market.