Perhaps permanently dwarfed by cinema, television has often struggled to be considered in as serious cultural terms as film. Although television shows have received genuine critical evaluation and academic dissection, the medium of television itself has remained somewhat left behind.
David Thomson’s absorbing and authoritative read, Television: A Biography, gives plenty of evidence to suggest that this is true, as well as delivering a warm, readable account of television’s enveloping history. It’s a majestic book, in its physical shape and the content found inside, but as we’ll discover, it’s rarely pretentious. Television: A Biography pits the television viewer as a multi-faced creature, one who devours, embraces, rejects, and passively accepts what television brings to the sitting room, whichever channel the viewer may have on.
In the opening chapter, Thomson paints an eloquent picture of the television set as an unspoken hub of the contemporary family, an object that’s permanently switched on without demanding our attention in the same way that cinema does. Throughout the book, Thomson objectifies the medium of television as an entity that’s forever resting in the back of our minds whilst always placed in full view of its audience. In today’s age of just about every electronic device we own essentially being a small television set, his theories ring eerily resonant.
Beyond such ideas and concepts however, Thomson makes time to discuss the content of television itself. Such genres as documentaries, comedies and the news come under his microscope. With each chapter however, you realize that this isn’t simply an exhaustive account of decade’s worth of television and its contents. Instead, what he gives us is an exquisite account of television’s cultural impact, pieced together through cherry-picked shows, stars and genres of the medium.
In taking this approach however, the question of this book’s audience becomes readily apparent. Is it a book meant to gather dust in a university library, removed from its home once in a blue moon when a television studies student needs to scan a few chapters for their forthcoming essay? Or should it be on the shelves of keen academics and general deep thinkers, who have mastered the fine art of consuming and savouring popular culture?
Overall, Television: A Biography has the power to be devoured by both audiences, and anyone in general with a fascination for both the history and the impact of television. Thomson takes each genre and show from the world of television, no matter the era of its run, and universalizes them through his sharp-minded case studies. Masterfully handling television’s variety of genres, sub-genres within genres and audiences, he crafts a rather intimate picture of television itself, both as a transmitter of message and as a literal object.
Thomson writes with a confident stride, with each chapter itself containing a vast wealth of ideas and concepts that could really work better as entire books on their own. Thomson’s compact, fluid writing style is at odds with the amount of ideas and concepts he pushes into the reader’s view, allowing them to think a little deeper about the cultural implications television often comes with, but always ties together the loose ends into a satisfying conclusion.
Oddly however, Thomson’s various hypothesizes of television’s impact never feel dictated to the reader. They’re never forced down our throats as ideas that we must accept as the outcome of television’s outcome in its multitude of genres and eras. Instead, Thomson places concepts for us to indulge in ourselves, but still maintains an authoritative touch that keeps the book chugging along at a brisk pace.
Television: A Biography is a definitive read on the subject of television, but not without a degree of caution. In the introductory chapter, Thomson elaborates on how television, whatever its physical definition, is a growing object that can’t be stopped. “Television, or something like it, will outlast us.” In television’s seemingly infinite state of growth, Thomson’s book is definitive, but only for now. As he suggests himself, the state in which television will find itself in the future is difficult to comprehend. When we examine how television has evolved since its inception, both literally and culturally, it boggles the mind to think where it might be in 100 years’ time, and where we might be with it as a society that consumes more television today than we ever have done before.
If only Thomson could write an equally absorbing account of that far-flung future of television as he has done here, it would be a most welcome work.