It is hard to imagine life without television.
The variety of television formats–and the continuing fluidity of television genres within this social process–stem from programming’s status as a malleable form which can be developed for profit in often divergent ways. They stem, in short, from programming’s status as a commodity.
Yet television programming is a complex and expensive product, and profitability demands standardization and routinization as much as it requires entrepreneurial experimentation or market differentiation. Programming standards and routines–and the scope for innovation–depend intimately on the financial and political configuration of the medium at any moment. And so programming emerged as a fluid commodity form whose diversi-ty, mode of address and regularity are delimited, at any given time by television’s industrial underpinnings.
In the first five decades of television, for example, the difficulties of developing the new medium typically meant that television lay in the hands of institutions which could weather high start-up costs and which would benefit from cru-cial economies of scale in the medium’s use. The result was early broadcasting’s distinctive mode of address: wide audiences were typically exposed to a handful of channels centrally programmed by institutions seeking large audiences, institutions like national commercial networks in the United States, or the state in the Soviet systems, or to sets of certain cultural expectations. Programming had to conform respectively, to the dramatic expectations and financial investments provided by advertisers, to the ideological goals and prescriptions of government bureaucracies, or to the standards of cultural guardians and tutors.
Over the last decade, the nature of programming has been profoundly renovated. New institutions have put forward a different set of economic, technological, and organizational arrangements and seek to profit from television in ways that diverge from the centralized broadcasting model. The commodity of programming has accordingly been complicated and differentiated.
These developments suggest how specifically early television programming focused on wide, simultaneous presentation of a limited number of information and entertainment formats. And they suggest that programming is not a static collection of texts or conventions, but rather a flexible notion, a locus of potential commod-ities whose capacity to convey meaning or particular kinds of social exchange can be redefined as the institutions profit-ing from them alter their strategies.
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