Shakespearean scale and reach
September 2006 was the 50th anniversary of television broadcasting in Australia. This year is also TV’s 70th anniversary in Britain, which launched the world’s first continuous broadcasting service on November 2, 1936. Since then we’ve seen a lot of television.
To get an idea of its scale and reach, think about the viewing statistics for the Football World Cup. In 2002, over 40,000 hours were televised to 213 countries (did you know that there were 213 countries?), with a cumulative audience of nearly 30 billion. For this year’s FIFA World Cup, no doubt boosted by Australia’s involvement, however brief, the cumulative audience exceeded 32.5 billion. That’s a lot of citizens.
Watching television remains the most popular pastime the world has ever known. However many of them there are, no country does without it - the last bastion was Bhutan, which introduced television in 1999. It’s now an integral part of that nation’s “Gross National Happiness” policy.
It is important to remember the scale and reach of television when tackling the topic of the creative citizen because it shows what can be achieved, despite TV’s reputation for stifling rather than liberating creativity among viewers.
As someone whose early training was in the study of Shakespearean drama and Elizabethan audiences, it has always seemed appropriate to look for contemporary examples of popular drama without making advance judgments about quality. After all, Shakespeare is reckoned by some to be the greatest creative artist that there ever was, but he was also a shareholder and manufacturer of commercial entertainment services, competing with rival outlets to attract the popular paying audience.
In his day, the distinction between popular culture and high art was not one of antagonism, not least because the audience for the public theatres was not socially segregated - they were frequented by all classes and by women as well as men, from aristocrats to apprentice boys, princes to prostitutes.
Alfred Harbage, pioneering historian of Shakespeare’s own audience, followed Walt Whitman’s dictum that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences too”. Harbage put it this way:
Shakespeare and his audience found each other, in a measure they created each other. He was a quality writer for a quality audience. … The great Shakespearian discovery was that quality extended vertically through the social scale, not horizontally at the upper genteel, economic and academic levels.
In our anxious age it seems that creative quality and popularity are somehow opposed. We don’t believe in the greatness of our audiences and the bigger they are, the more pejorative labels we have for them.
There’s a ritual vocabulary for denigration of scale: more means worse; dumbing down; lowest common denominator. Arts educators are especially prone to this bleak calculus; and where mass media are seen as creative, it is more likely that their dark-side talent for manipulation and marketing is noticed, as something to be critiqued and resisted, than that their storytelling prowess is tested for Shakespearean qualities. It is their dangers rather than their delights that we’re enjoined to teach in schools.
Any attempt to equate Big Brother with Shakespeare is denounced in The Australian (on September 23-24, 2006) or, more curiously, on A Current Affair last year (May 20, 2005), when I got the full treatment from Ray Martin for daring to suggest that his own audience may be getting more out of telly than is usually admitted.
In its inimitable way, ACA refuted my argument by getting contrary opinions from some comedians and a 13-year-old schoolgirl. The hapless academic didn’t stand a chance! Not surprisingly then, attempts to compare TV and Shakespeare are rare. When conversation among people with an interest in the arts or education turns to creativity, television is not the role model that comes most readily to mind.
This is an edited extract from John Hartley’s Keynote Address to the annual conference of the Association of Internet Research (AoIR), held in Brisbane on September 27-30, 2006.
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