Television Conventions

By William Uricchio
Professor of Comparative Media Studies, MIT
16 September 2001

A few thoughts follow on conventions of the televisual sort - formats, genres, and recurrent patterns in form and content. I learned about the attack on the WTC while calling the US Embassy in the Netherlands. "Aren't you watching television?" asked my incredulous speaking partner. "There's been a horrible accident at the World Trade Center." I tuned in and sure enough, during those first uncertain minutes before suspicion was even possible, it seemed as if a passenger jet had somehow crashed into the tower. And then, before my eyes, a second jet hit and the penny dropped: this was indeed a calculated act of terrorism, one moreover, with the eyes of the world focused upon it. The news about the attack on the Pentagon followed; then reports (now discredited) about a car bomb at the State Department; the Pennsylvania crash (or was it an in-air explosion?); a phantom fifth passenger jet; and reports about staffers running from the White House...

Before long, CNN was sporting a new graphic - "Attack on America"; the image of the jet penetrating the second WTC tower was in heavy rotation; and a nation (and probably a good bit of the world) watched in horror as the towers collapsed. Within the course of a few hours, the unthinkable had occurred and news coverage shifted from responding to uncertain events to imposing form and meaning upon them. Graphic form, rhythmic form (the footage of the jet smashing into the second tower repeated up to 30 times per hour), and increasingly, narrative form - all gave coherence to events that were still difficult to comprehend. As if a story set in Batman's Gotham, a simple narrative of good versus evil emerged, and as in Batman's universe, evil could be embodied in only a limited number of characters. Bin Laden quickly (and perhaps appropriately - but at the time it was anything but clear) helped to complete the narrative, providing evil with a face and name.

The quick transformation of unpredictable live events into familiar narrative patterns, it can be argued, produces a certain comfort; but it also frames the event, establishing specific ways of thinking about the situation, together with an inclination towards narrative resolution. The framing of the story as an "Attack on America" and the insistence upon almost exclusively domestic coverage was a choice. It precluded other sorts of framing such as "an attack on the West" which might have appeared had we seen the spontaneous street demonstrations of shocked and saddened people in Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris, London, and other parts of the world. The "world" part of the WTC accounted for over 1000 now missing "foreigners", and the functions of many of the businesses within it were emphatically global. But ours was an American story. And the choice of an antagonist who embodies the antithesis of our values (a multi-millionaire who has rejected consumerism, a terrorist who seems deeply religious) helped to mute the complexity of the 18 or so terrorists who destroyed themselves along with their helpless victims. Bin Laden's casting helped to keep narrative causality elegantly simple: evil. While I am not in a position to dispute this attribution, the point I want to make is that this sort of narrative inscription comes easily to our culture's use of television, and it brings with it a simplicity (or is it clarity?) of narrative logic that is muddied, even spoiled by complex questions about history, foreign policy, or representation that yield real insight. By September 15, news coverage carried the graphic "America at War" accompanied by subdued martial theme music (an element conspicuously absent for the first two days or so). And although we are being prepared for a long and difficult war, the image of finding 'em, smoking 'em out of their holes, and running 'em down has the same elegantly simple appeal as the original framing of the story.

Conventions can be understood in numerous ways. They embody work routines, allowing television production staff to turn from the stress of covering live events to the predictability of recycling taped sequences. They embody micro-narratives common to the larger culture, whether the battle between good and evil, or moral balance through retribution, or the ultimate transcendence of the good guy. And they effectively contain complex and unruly details, in the process encouraging us to suppress unnecessary questions (but in the process, blocking us from insight and understanding). They frame issues in terms of the known and familiar, and in the process, direct our thinking (and our actions) in predictable ways. The dangers of this organizing strategy, particularly when confonting complex issues or when dealing with the unknown are profound indeed.

This is not to say that all program conventions are dangerous. Indeed, some can be quite useful. As TV anchors and hosts of breakfast shows interviewed survivors, replayed telephone messages spoken by now dead WTC office workers, and asked how it felt when they learned that their partners or parents were dead, one could see the familiar imprint of the "confessional" television genre. OK - many of the questions seemed poorly chosen, and the construction of emotion moments somewhat contrived. But the episodes worked their charm like the best of talk-TV. Although not to everyone's taste, programs such as Oprah help people to come to terms with a variety of difficult issues. Those exposing their souls as well as the viewing public seem to benefit. The formula has traveled well, and most European countries have national variants of these programs (there is a body of literature on these programs - see for example, Sonia Livingstone and Peter Lunt, Talk on Television, Routledge 1994). The point is that they provide a vernacular, a way for people to work through complex emotional issues, and in the case of the attack on the Pentagon and WTC, a way to humanize and make felt the abstraction of numbers. The banality (and downright stupidity) of some of the questions notwithstanding, this use of a broader televisual convention has helped a public feel the enormity of the loss caused by the attack.

The pain of losing loved ones remains a trauma that few of us will escape. But the vicious and arbitrary way that so many died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania is horrifying in a very different way. Carried by a medium so often filled with simulated images of death and destruction, horror of this magnitude easily reads as spectacle. Flattened on the small screen and consumed in our livingrooms far from the sounds, smells and dust of lower Manhattan, the images seem fantastic, even surreal. Somehow it seems only appropriate that talkshow conventions, televisual forms designed to embrace the most banal of human situations, be used to puncture this distance, and move us from gawking spectators into a more empathetic mode of engagement.


Originally published on the re:constructions website (

In accordance with The Copyright Law of the United States of America, Chapter 1, § 108(b)(3), this work may be protected by copyright.

Home  |   Program Guide  |   Search  |   Your Account  |   Help
About the Television Archive: General Information  |   News  |   Resources
Copyright © 2001, Television Archive  |   Terms of Use  |  Privacy Policy