It’s award season: the BAFTAs have just been celebrated at the beginning of June, and in America, the Emmys will be handed out in September. Did your favourite programmes win? No? Some of them? You are not sure?
Your potential lack of knowledge is not all that surprising. This is the industry celebrating itself and letting us in via the ceremony. But what that means is that there might be a bit of a disconnect between what we as audiences value about television and what the industry celebrates for itself.
The BAFTAs, for example, largely celebrate television as if it were film: awards go to writing, best performance (in different genres), supporting actors, and then best programme in genre categories – as if they didn’t know what to do with all the rest of television. I don’t know about you, but it’s the rest of television plus drama that I love so much: it’s its variety, and the fact that there are some incredibly clever people who manage to bring them together so I can just watch one programme and see what’s on next.
But there are other things about television that we can and that we do value: for example, you might watch lifestyle programming so that you learn about interior design trends, or The Repair Shop (BBC, since 2017) for its heart-rendering stories of loved possessions and family loved and lost, or Love Island (ITV, since 2015) for how ordinary young adults connect with each other, but really care more about their families. Value, in other words, lies in many places in television, and often the things that we value have more to do with our everyday lives than the glamour and glitz that awards based around filmic categories suggest.
The problem with awarding television as if it were film is that it does what so much of television’s history has done: it undervalues television as a medium. Television scholarship has spent a lot of time and effort on trying to critique the basic value systems with which it has been judged. Television has been denigrated because it is a medium connected to the domestic sphere and is hence often perceived as feminine. It has been looked down upon as a mass medium because the ‘masses’ are usually conceptualised as working class. Thus, the value systems with which we judge television as a medium, but also much of its genres, are those of a middle-class patriarchy. At the same time, the people who make the biggest decisions in television are precisely white, middle-class and male, and have therefore often looked down on the medium itself. A particularly notorious figure in that regard was William Haley, director general of the BBC between 1944 and 1952, who made his preference for radio very clear.
While television scholarship has been brilliant at critiquing the implicit biases of much of the value judgements made about television, it hasn’t yet been able to really offer alternatives. The Television Studies Research Group at Edge Hill University, in collaboration with Critical Studies in Television, the Production Guild, the Institute for Social Responsibility and Love Wavertree now want to do something about this: they are introducing the CATs: the Critical Awards in Television which will celebrate television in the way that we think matters. And I don’t know about you, but this year, I really valued that it kept going. So this year, we are celebrating television that gave us comfort during Covid, that dealt well with the new health and safety guidelines, that came up with ingenious writing or production design so that it could be made, and that our students made despite the pandemic.
And we invite you – the public – to nominate your favourite programmes. To find out more, and to nominate the programme you think did best in those categories, please visit the CATs website.
Dr Elke Weissmann is Reader in Television and Film in the Department of Creative Arts at Edge Hill University. Her research is focused on television, transnational relations, and gender and the media.