Symposium 04

On Television. Under the thumb of the viewing figures.


I think that television poses a serious danger for all the various areas of cultural production – for art, for literature, for science, for philosophy, and for law. What's more, contrary to what a lot of journalists – even the most responsible of them – say (and think), undoubtedly in all good faith, I think that television poses no less of a threat to political life and to democracy itself. I shall try to explain these views.


So I would like to analyse a series of mechanisms that allow television to wield a particularly pernicious form of symbolic violence. Symbolic violence is violence wielded with tacit complicity between its victims and its agents, insofar as both remain unconscious of submitting to or wielding it. The function of sociology, as of every science, is to reveal that which is hidden. In so doing, it can help minimize the symbolic violence within social relations and, in particular, within the relations of communication.

Let's start with an easy example – sensational news. This has always been the favourite food of the tabloids. Blood, sex, melodrama and crime have always been big sellers. In the early days of television, a sense of respectability modelled on the printed press kept these attention-grabbers under wraps, but the race for audience share inevitably brings it to the headlines and to the beginning of the television news. Sensationalism attracts notice, and it also diverts it, like magicians whose basic operating principle is to direct attention to something other than what they're doing. 

Part of the symbolic functioning of television, in the case of the news, for example, is to call attention to those elements which will engage everybody – which offer something for everyone. These are things that won't shock anyone, where nothing is at stake, that don't divide, are generally agreed on, and interest everybody without touching on anything important. These items are basic ingredients of news because they interest everyone, and because they take up time – time that could be used to say something else. And time, on television, is an extremely rare commodity. When you use up precious time to say banal things, to the extent that they cover up precious things, these banalities become in fact very important.

If I stress this point, it's because everyone knows that a very high proportion of the population reads no newspaper at all and is dependent on television as their sole source of news. Television enjoys a de facto monopoly on what goes into the heads of a significant part of the population and what they think. So much emphasis on headlines and so much filling up of precious time with empty air – with nothing or almost nothing – shunts aside relevant news, that is, the information that all citizens ought to have in order to exercise their democratic rights. Television, which claims to record reality, creates it instead. We are getting closer and closer to the point where the social world is primarily described – and in a sense prescribed – by television.


The world of journalism in itself is a field, but one that is subject to great pressure from the economic field via audience ratings. This very heteronomous field, which is structurally very strongly subordinated to market pressures, in turn applies pressure to all other fields. I think that all the fields of cultural production today are subject to structural pressure from the journalistic field, and not from any one journalist or network executive, who are themselves subject to control by the field. This pressure exercises equivalent and systematic effects in every field. In other words, this journalistic field, which is more and more dominated by the market model, imposes its pressures more and more on other fields. Through pressure from audience ratings, economic forces weigh on television, and through its effect on journalism, television weighs on newspapers and magazines, even the "purest" among them. The weight then falls on individual journalists, who little by little let themselves be drawn into television's orbit. In this way, through the weight exerted by the journalistic field, the economy weighs on all fields of cultural production. Audience ratings – Nielsen ratings in the U.S. – measure the audience share won by each network. It is now possible to pinpoint the audience by the quarter hour and even – a new development – by social group. So we know very precisely who's watching what, and who not.

Even in the most independent sectors of journalism, ratings have become the journalist's Last Judgment: everyone is fixated on ratings. In editorial rooms, publishing houses, and similar venues, a "rating mindset" reigns. Wherever you look, people are thinking in terms of market success.

Only thirty years ago, and since the middle of the nineteenth century – since Baudelaire and Flaubert and others in avant-garde milieux of writers' writers, writers acknowledged by other writers or even artists acknowledged by other artists – immediate market success was suspect. It was taken as a sign of compromise with the times, with money . Today, on the contrary, the market is accepted more and more as a legitimate means of legitimation. You can see this in another recent institution, the best-seller list. Just this morning on the radio I heard an announcer, obviously very sure of himself, run through the latest best-seller list and decree that "philosophy is hot this year, since Le Monde de Sophie sold eight hundred thousand copies." For him this verdict was absolute, like a final decree, provable by the number of copies sold. Audience ratings impose the sales model on cultural products.


But it is important to know that, historically, all of the cultural productions that I consider (and I'm not alone here, at least I hope not) the highest human products – math, poetry, literature, philosophy – were all produced against market imperatives. The audience rating system can and should be contested in the name of democracy.

This appears paradoxical, because those who defend audience ratings claim that nothing is more democratic (this is a favourite argument of advertisers, which has been picked up by certain sociologists, not to mention essayists who've run out of ideas and are happy to turn any criticism of opinion polls – and audience ratings – into a criticism of universal suffrage). You must, they declare, leave people free to judge and to choose for themselves ("all those elitist intellectual prejudices of yours make you turn your nose up at all this"). The audience rating system is the sanction of the market and the economy, that is, of an external and purely market law. Submission to the requirements of this marketing instrument is the exact equivalent for culture of what poll-based demagogy is for politics. Enslaved by audience ratings, television imposes market pressures on the supposedly free and enlightened consumer. These pressures have nothing to do with the democratic expression of enlightened collective opinion or public rationality, despite what certain commentators would have us believe.


From the choices made by French writers under the Occupation can be derived a more general law: The more a cultural producer is autonomous, rich in specific capital from a given field and exclusively integrated into the restricted market in which the only audience is competitors, the greater the inclination to resist. Conversely, the more producers aim for the mass market (like some essayists, writer-journalists, and popular novelists), the more likely they are to collaborate with the powers that be – State, Church, or Party, and, today, journalism and television – and to yield to their demands or their orders. To reveal the hidden constraints on journalists, which they in turn bring to bear on all cultural producers, is not to denounce those in charge or to point a finger at the guilty parties. Rather, it is an attempt to offer to all sides a possibility of liberation, through a conscious effort, from the hold of these mechanisms.

Extracts from: Pierre Bourdieu, On Television, The New Press, New York 1998.