Afterword: The Time of the Television City has Come

Channel 4 ident (UK, 2017)
Charlotte Brunsdon reflects on recurring themes in the Television Cities dossier and discusses the enticements and challenges of studying television and cities together.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on television cities.]

Apart from loving television, and always feeling that the medium gets a bit of a poor deal — somehow particularly in the new “golden age of television” rhetoric — my main concern in writing about television cities was to challenge the way in which the scholarly accounts of the encounter between the city and the audio-visual have to tended to ignore television. The essays in this dossier, touring Berlin, Istanbul, Coventry and New York, show how rich how the encounter between television and the city can be, while also demonstrating the complexity of the topic of media place.

Within the broader field, television city scholarship tends to cluster either toward a “media capital” or a “representation” pole, but here the juxtaposition of these short essays together shows how these perspectives are necessarily bound up with each other.1Michael Curtin, “Media Capitals: Cultural Geographies of Global TV”, in Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, ed. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 270–302. Indeed, methodologically, the television city may provide a privileged site through which to explore the imbrication of structural and textual factors, to learn how, in each particular case, the flows of capital and the flows of images run together and against each other.

As the strength of the dossier lies in its variety, and the way in which it enables readers who are experts in particular national territories, or particular approaches or genres, to sample  a range of engagements with television cities, in this short afterword I will draw out some ideas which run across, or are provoked by, the essays rather than discuss individual arguments.

The first idea that runs across this work, although expressed in rather different ways, is what I’ll call the “layering” of the television city.  Layering encompasses the different temporalities and histories that persist, and are rendered visible, in the television city. It can include both the different modes of nostalgia that Helen Morgan Parmett identifies in the New York of Mrs Maisel and the echoes of Weimar that Kim Wilkins identifies as ever present in recurrent Berlin nightclub scenes. Ipek Celik Rappas identifies the paradoxical interplay of temporary sets and disappearing built heritage in televisual Istanbul, while Kat Pearson documents the uncovering of an archival Coventry and the exploration of the memories of present-day audiences. While there has long been a thread of work in relation to the cinematic city which tracks the layering of pasts and presents in relation to the cinematic image and questions of memory, history and archive, the television city inflects these concerns slightly differently. There are two principal aspects here, one to do with feelings, the other the fabric of the urban. If a particular tv city — which may involve the same iconographic elements that would be found in film — becomes familiar through repetition, this is, for the viewer, often an intimate experience, a private engagement with a chosen programme. Intimacy, one of the key characteristics of the medium identified by early theorists of television, has been given a twenty-first century resonance in Amy Holdsworth’s On Living with Television which reveals the role of television in sustaining psychic and familial ecologies.2Amy Holdsworth, On Living with Television (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2021), and see also Anna Cristina Pertierra and Graham Turner, Locating Television: Zones of Consumption (London: Routledge, 2013). The places of television—the London of the news, CBeebies’ Night Garden (In the Night Garden 2007-9) , or the Boston of Cheers—are both a refuge from the everyday and integrated into it. Elsewhere and here at the same time. This potentiality of television cues the complexity of television places, which is not a matter just of the tonality in which a city is presented, or the production backstory, but also entails questions of how viewers apprehend their place in these urban worlds, and how these cities are incorporated into the rhythms and spaces of viewing.  Matching this aspect of the television city is a more external, often infrastructural role. As Parmett has demonstrated in earlier work on New Orleans, or Celik Rappas and Kayhan on Istanbul, long-form series television production itself affects the locations in which it is made.3Helen Morgan Parmett, “Media as a Spatial Practice: Treme and the Production of a Media Neighbourhood”, Continuum 28, no. 3 (2014): 286–299. Ipek A. Celik Rappas and Sezen Kayhan, “TV Series Production and the Urban Restructuring of Istanbul”, Television and New Media 19, no. 1 (2018), 3–23. While the Belfast in which the production of Game of Thrones was based may not have reaped quite the benefits promised in the securing of tax incentives, it is nevertheless a city on which this extended international production has had some effect.4Ipek Celik Rappas, “From Titanic to Game of Thrones: Promoting Belfast as a Global Media Capital”, Media, Culture and Society 41, no. 4 (2019): 539–556; see also Brunsdon, “The New Northern Ireland as a Crime Scene”, Journal of British Cinema and Television 20, no. 3 (forthcoming 2023).

A second discernible topic could be indicated with the question “whose city?” This is a long-standing concern within urban studies — mobilised particularly through ideas such as gentrification — and the representation, or lack of representation of particular groups in television cities has been one of the primary ways in which textual analyses of the television city have been organised. Parmett notes the nostalgia for a Jewish Manhattan in Mrs Maisel, while Pearson mentions the willingness of some of her viewers of archive television to address directly difficult questions round race in the city. The question of who has which types of mobility when and where in a city has preoccupied many scholars of the urban, from the investigators of the night-time economy to studies of informal segregation. For the television scholar, questions of genre must intervene in these concerns, as it is generic convention which so often governs which characters can plausibly appear where in which city spaces. A couple of the essays here engage with the woman-finds-self-in-city narrative which appears to be one of twentieth century feminism’s inheritances, an opening up of some cities to (white) women as places for independence and self-realisation. While this story has no single generic home, it must be counterposed, within a broader televisual landscape, to the repeated figuring of the modern female cop in the mean streets tracking the killers of dead girls, the girls for whom the city turned out not be a place for self-discovery. The flexibility of genres, and their accentuated volatility in a streaming environment provides an audiovisual equivalent to the making and remaking of the urban fabric which has always been a characteristic of cities.

Finally, the essays demonstrate the importance of historical, textual and empirical specificity, as opposed to theory-led approaches, in analysis of the television city. This isn’t a point confined to the television city – the anthropologist Danny Miller makes an enjoyable version of this argument in his discussion of the role of theory in smartphone research, and, like him, my point is not anti-theoretical per se.5Daniel Miller, “A Theory of a Theory of the Smartphone”, International Journal of Cultural Studies 24, no. 5 (2021): 860–876.  The city – like new media – is a topic which has been subject to a great deal of speculative generalization. Here in this dossier though, the short-essay juxtaposition of Istanbul, Coventry, Berlin, and Manhattan makes the argument very evident. Yes, there are common questions that can guide any particular enquiry, generally encompassing the interplay of production determinants, city images, national histories, urban policies and dramatic/narrative/generic demands. However, this interplay, the particular ways in which different factors come together to determine the sort of television city which finally the viewer watches on screen, can only ever be understood in particular, historically specific ways. This can involve interviewing production workers and funding bodies, tracking particular images across a programme grouping or exploring the ways audiences make sense of their own city. It can require site and studio visits, long hours in archives and attempting to map the mobility of media financial entities. As we have seen with Covid-19, and as Myles McNutt argues in his description of “spatial capital”, the question of the production of television place is volatile, and subject to determinations which may be far from evident on the screen. The attraction, and the excitement, of the study of television cities, is the way in which it demands a complex apprehension of what is entailed in the study of both television and cities. This dossier enticingly demonstrates some of what might be at stake in this endeavour.

Notes[+]

Brunsdon, Charlotte. "Afterword: The Time of the Television City has Come." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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