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Bolin: Questioning Entertainment Value

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Bolin, Göran (2013): ‘Questioning Entertainment Value. Moments of Disruption in the History of Swedish Television Entertainment’, pp. 263-283 in Monika Djerf-Pierre & Mats Ekström (eds): A History of Swedish Broadcasting. Communicative Ethos, Genres and Institutional Change, Göteborg: Nordicom.
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  261 Chapter 12 Questioning Entertainment Value  Moments of disruption in the history of Swedish television entertainment  Göran Bolin Introduction In the early 1920s John Reith, the first General Director of the BBC, summarised the goals that the organisation still adheres to today: ‘To enrich people’s lives  with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain’. 1  This tripar-tite credo has since been the leading light for all public service broadcasters, but also for those commercial broadcasters that have aspired for political and cultural legitimacy. When the European public service broadcasters met with commercial competition on a large scale in the 1980s, some of this competition took the form of ‘hybrid companies’ such as Swedish TV4, Danish TV2 and Norwegian TV2 (Syvertsen 1996). These companies were ‘hybrid’ insomuch as they were commercially financed, but obliged through license agreements  with the state to uphold a certain ‘public service ethos’: to reach all parts of the population, to have balanced news reporting and to provide high quality entertainment. However, already then, and increasingly over the years, both Swedish public service Television (SVT) and its commercial competitors have been accused of privileging entertainment over information and education. It is often argued that the dominant trend in television in the past few decades has been towards more and more entertainment (e.g. Furhammar 2006: 19), and, implicitly, towards a more commercial output in Sweden (Jönsson & Strömbäck 2007) as well as the rest of Europe (e.g. McNair 2000) and the US (McManus 1994). In Sweden this has also been the main conclusion drawn in, for example, the yearly reports on the balance between information and entertainment in television content, empirically based on content analysis of the television output in its totality (Asp 2012). At least this is true if one observes the totality of the television output. The public service channels, however, have always had a relatively balanced mix between information, education and entertainment. But all in all the increased volume of programmes has created a distinct entertainment dominance. Monika Djerf-Pierre & Mats Ekström (eds.):  A History of Swedish Broadcasting. Communicative ethos, genres and institutional change  . Nordicom, University of Gothenburg, 2013, p. 261-281  262 GÖRAN BOLIN Taking as the point of departure of this study the credo for public service television production to inform, educate and entertain as formulated by the BBC, but then implemented in other national settings, it can be argued that informa-tion, education and entertainment correspond to three value spheres, in this case formed around the value of (societal) information, the value of educated knowledge and the value of entertainment. Now, it is obvious that the first of these values – information – has received much more scholarly attention by media researchers than the other two, where the quality of information has been related to the abilities of media users-citizens to act in a politically informed  way. 2  Much less attention has been devoted to the other two areas despite the fact that entertainment has always been highly valued by the audiences, who have devoted much time to this broad category from the very earliest days of television (Gahlin 1985). This chapter will try to make a small contribution to remedy this relative neglect by focusing on some formative moments in the entertainment history of Swedish television. These formative moments, I will argue, are those where the value of en-tertainment has come under debate. Such debates are also the sites where  value is produced through social interaction and negotiation (cf. Bolin 2011).  We arrive at value through evaluation. In cultural production, this means that  value appears in its most visible form when it is contested, when there is con-troversy and when cultural, moral, aesthetic or political norms are challenged. Many of these debates are formed around questions of quality. Accusations of ‘commercialisation’, for example, often imply a negative correlation between high quality and commercial value. Although most would agree that it is ex-tremely difficult to define exactly ‘high quality’ in television production, there are nonetheless doxic beliefs among those involved in both public service and commercial television production as to which programmes represent high qual-ity, and which do not. These evaluations are often ramified by concepts such as ‘srcinality’, ‘moral integrity’, ‘social or political interest’, ‘formal complexity’, ‘inventiveness’, ‘experiential depth’, etc. (Furhammar 1997: 19ff). I will call these instances of debate ‘moments of disruption’. They are ‘dis-ruptive’ in the sense that they touch upon and make an intervention into some basic moral, ethical or aesthetic aspect of cultural life, and thus provoke debate and ultimately change our ways of relating to television as a cultural form. They are very seldom revolutionary moments, but rather smaller destabilising disturbances that sharpen our sensitivity for the specific value debated over in the continuous flow of television output (cf. Williams 1974/1979).The aim of the chapter is thus to analyse a number of moments of disrup-tion where the value of entertainment has come into question. By doing so I intend to contribute to an understanding of how television entertainment is formed, and the dynamics of the constitution of entertainment value. The examples I will rely on might seem regional as they are Swedish, but I argue  263 QUESTIONING ENTERTAINMENT VALUE that the analysis can also shed light on other national television histories. In fact, Swedish television history has been shaped by trends similar to the rest of Western Europe, as the broadcasting systems have undergone comparable changes, first marked by dominating public service institutions and then suc-cessively growing to become dual systems with strong public service as well as strong commercial broadcasters. By focusing on these moments of disruption I also intend to bring some insights into some of the dominant entertainment subgenres. As space does not permit a more exhaustive overview, this is also a way of introducing a wider understanding of subgenres for an international readership.  Value and television  As Swedish radio and television was institutionalised within a public service system, just as in many other European countries, the foundational values of education, information and entertainment were explicitly formed in opposition to commercial value. Success was not to be measured in terms of economic return on investment, but according to the degree to which the output con-tributed to cognitive stimulation, recreational amusements and informational enlightenment of the citizenry. It was thus formed in opposition to economic  value, and thus this specific cultural value was formed in an ‘economic world reversed’, to paraphrase Pierre Bourdieu (1993: 29). Furthermore, in both public service and commercial television entertain-ment production, as a special section of a wider field of cultural production (Bourdieu 1993), value is produced as a result of struggles over what is good entertainment (and good television more generally), and appear in debates on traditional aesthetic and narrative components, production values, thematic seriousness, srcinality, etc. This value is produced as a negotiation between those involved in the actual production, distribution and administration at the broadcasting companies (and today also in freestanding production units), as  well as cultural critics in newspapers and journals, those that train television producers within the academy, and in other educational programmes, other cultural experts, and the general audience members, who could at least make their voices heard through telephone calls and letters to the broadcaster. One of the formal instances of evaluation is Radionämnden, the self-regulating body that see to that the broadcaster does not violate the regulations stipu-lated in the agreement with the state, and where questions of what is ‘good entertainment’ frequently has been debated (e.g. Swahn 1982: 57ff). In short,  values are produced by the interested parties, those who claim to have a say in questions about what is – and what is not – good entertainment (cf. Bolin 2002a: 187ff).  264 GÖRAN BOLIN Television production is a form of media production that is relatively com-plex: it involves high investments in studio space and equipment and other means of production, complex organisational efforts, and a high degree of  work division. All of this means that many people with different skills and backgrounds will be involved. These people bring with them specific ideas of  what television production is about, and what it should aim at. In such highly collective cultural production, intense debates and struggles over the field’s common value often arise, as a result of someone, or some production, radi-cally introducing something that threatens the fundaments of this value (e.g.  what is good entertainment). When on Boxing Day 1966 the famous actor Per Oscarsson gradually undressed, removing an item of clothing one by one, while giving the audience sex education (the way in which parents introduce chil-dren to the mysteries of sexual behaviour) on the immensely popular Saturday evening family show  Hylands hörna  (1962-1983), this produced reactions from ordinary viewers, and resulted in an all-time low appreciation for this specific episode of the series (Gahlin 1985: 16f). Oscarsson had with this move trans-gressed the line of what was then considered proper behaviour on live televi-sion entertainment. Furthermore, when six distinguished gentlemen in a series of four programmes in the late Autumn of 1963 sat around a table discussing how to make a TV programme while smoking and using foul language (quite mild by today’s standards, though), this, it is also believed, produced a ‘storm’ of protests from viewers (Sjögren 1997: 215ff). Also, following Sweden’s – and  ABBA’s – victory in the  Eurovision Song Contest   in 1974, when Sweden was to arrange the competition in Stockholm, there were fights within the public service broadcaster, and a wider cultural debate that eventually resulted in Swedish  withdrawal from the competition in 1976. And when  Bingolotto , broadcast by commercial station TV4, challenged public service broadcaster SVT in the early 1990s, this produced debates on entertainment quality, as well as on increased commercialism and consumerism, and the value of public service. Likewise,  when SVT produced and broadcast  Expedition: Robinson  in 1997 (the format developed by British company Castaway and later to make international suc-cess as Survivor  ), this led to massive criticism of the public service company for having sold out to commercial forces, seeking cheap entertainment, etc. (Furhammar 2006: 141). Public service broadcaster SVT faced similar criticism  when it chose to broadcast the internationally successful soap  Dallas   in 1981 (-1993) (incidentally reappearing with new episodes in 2012, but now on com-mercial TV4) (Nordmark 1999: 313). The criticism was repeated also when SVT later developed its own soap formats. The question of what entertainment really is, then, results from these struggles over the value of entertainment. These struggles, formed around the evaluations of interested agents, are naturally argued in relation to genre characteristics. Quite early in the history of Swedish television three such genres or general
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