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By Anikó Imre
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
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From Socialist Realism to Emotional Realism
Socialist Realism, Socialist Realities
We tend to think about reality-based TV programs as recent phenomena. In the considerable amount of academic writing on the subject, reality TV is generally discussed as the joint result of economic and ideological forces that have become dominant since the late 1980s: the increasing global integration of media, which favors the exchange of cheap television formats that can be customized to suit different national environments; and reality formats' structural and moral alignment with the discourses that underscore neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization, the weakening of state institutions, and the strengthening of corporations. Makeover and competition formats, in particular, didactically demonstrate how to help oneself in a cutthroat competition for the survival of the fittest, whether the backdrop is an exotic island, the workplace, the bridal salon, the weight room, or the living room. In the process, such formats naturalize the fraying of the social net and point the finger at individuals for their own failure.
Reality series are inexpensive to produce. But "cheap" is also how most of us tend to think about their cultural value, even if we happen to be avid fans. With their predictable narrative script, celebration of middle-class values and mediocrity, and tear-jerking display of sentimentality, they are generally considered the bottom of the television barrel — in contrast with "quality" fictional programs produced by HBO, Showtime, or the BBC.
Of course reality formats did not just burst onto the scene in 1992 following MTV's show The Real World. The Real World itself, often credited as the first reality program, was inspired by An American Family, a 1973 PBS documentary series about the everyday life of the Loud family in Santa Barbara, California. A similar program titled simply The Family was produced in twelve parts by BBC One in 1974 and was recently remade for Channel 4. While these predecessors grew out of the very different ethical ground of public service broadcasting, they share with contemporary reality formats a fascination with documenting real life in a fly-on-the-wall, unscripted fashion.
Television under Soviet socialism followed Western European broadcasters' commitment to realism and the ethos of public service. In addition, Soviet and Western European versions of socialism both drew on the values of cultural nationalism and a top-down intention to educate and enlighten all social classes. The differences were less evident in the principles than in the degree of dogmatism with which they were put into televisual practice. More precisely, while the letter of Marxist-Leninist imperatives continued to be rigidly repeated in the Soviet-controlled region into the 1980s, its spirit operated much more closely to the ideological principles of Western European socialist democracies. This discrepancy between letter and spirit enacted an ongoing, performative repetition of the socialist order in the East. In and on television, the discrepancy was particularly striking. The more elitist, austere, realistic, and educational television attempted to be, the more it was mocked and abandoned by viewers, who wanted fiction, humor, and entertainment. In essence, Eastern European socialist TV reproduced in more pure form and preserved well into the 1980s the educational principles and realistic aesthetic that Western European public broadcasters gradually abandonded under pressure from competition with commercial broadcasters.
This is why, in analyzing the popular "ghosts" that have haunted European public service broadcasting, such as game shows, stars, seriality, audience ratings, the influence of U.S. television, and voyeurism, Jerôme Bourdon speculates that much of his analysis can be applied to Eastern Europe — as well as to public service TV in some developing countries. I argue throughout this book that this is the case. But this first part provides the most substantial proof as it takes up the genres most closely associated with public service, which also happened to be in the center of socialist programming. These are genres that valued politically committed documentary realism above fictional representations. The aesthetic of socialist realism they adopted was supposed to support an overarching educational intention to teach viewers how to be good socialist citizens. This pairing of realist aesthetic with pedagogical intent is not unlike the self-professed profile of contemporary reality programs. The difference is that the latter are in the business of neoliberal citizenship education, as the channel brand TLC (formerly The Learning Channel) encapsulates. They teach us how to behave, dress, build, decorate, raise children, lose weight, and gain confidence. Much of postwar European public television was meant to teach its viewers how to read and write; to understand math, physics, and geography; and to appreciate fine national and European literature, film, and music, and Marxist-Leninist philosophical principles. But it also offered a broader educational program in how to raise children and navigate legal issues, in cooking, sewing, gardening, agricultural work, mining, and operating heavy machinery. It was anything but cheap in its intentions. It was driven by noble initiatives to democratize access to education, to create a level playing field among people of different class and educational backgrounds, and to socialize the individual as always primarily a community member. In this regard it was the opposite of contemporary reality shows, which isolate the individual and teach the virtues of self-help. Socialist television's contribution to the prehistory of reality-based programming is not only significant in itself but also offers a critical counterdiscourse to reality TV's ideological presumptions and academic assessments.
The prevalence of such programs on socialist TV is not a surprise: realism was the preferred aesthetic delivery channel of Marxist-Leninist ideologies in the Soviet-controlled region. However, to dismiss socialist TV's realist genres as mere propaganda devices not worthy of serious analysis would be hasty. First of all, as a mass medium charged with fostering national cohesion, much of television is didactic. What distinguished socialist television's approach was that it did not make any secret of its didactic intentions. It was supervised by government departments that had the words "agitation" and "propaganda" in their names, after all, even if these terms did not quite carry the nefarious connotations they have taken on in English.
But television, perhaps more than any other socialist institution, fell short of controlling the relay between the leadership and the citizenry. As I show in the accounts of realist-educational genres that follow in the next four chapters, the relay often worked the other way around: the leadership played catch-up with the citizenry, for whom the logic and capacities of television as a medium were much less mysterious. As a result, the rigid, aspirational aesthetic codes of socialist realism that one associates with giant Lenin statues, public paintings of robust peasant youth, and films about self-righteous factory workers denouncing capitalism never really took root in television. This was partly because television entered the scene in the late 1950s and rose to mass-medium status only in the 1960s. By then the postwar Stalinist purges were over and communism began to mellow into centralized socialism in most countries. The thaw rendered the cheery didacto-fictions of the 1950s laughable. Television, as a home-based medium, provided an outlet for this shared mockery from the start. Its relatively privatized reception greatly contributed to the confusion among socialist party leaders about television's mission, effects, and future directions. While the party leadership made TV an increasingly crucial piece of its cultural policies by the 1970s, once those policies translated into programs that became embedded in citizens' daily lives, their effects and interpretations proved elusive to control. Instead, television turned its antennae toward hybrid influences, including foreign ones, and foregrounded the very internal contradictions of the official ideology and rhetoric.
One of the most confusing points was socialist realism itself. Realism was both an essential principle and a stumbling block for TV. The official Marxist-Leninist worldview presumed and prescribed a clear-cut relationship between what John Corner distinguishes as "thematic realism" and "formal realism." Thematic realism is the relationship between a program's content and reality. Formal realism is the program's way of achieving "real-seemingness" through representation. This mediation is something socialist ideology had to downplay, since Marxist materialism considered reality to be objectively preexistent. Corner introduces this distinction because in British television studies, while realism had come to be regarded as television's central aesthetic and social project, its use has also remained ungrounded and confusing. This is because any notion of realism, whether it is a project of verisimilitude or of reference to the real, is based on a normative construction of "the real," whose existence is "disputable independently of any media representation."
Marxism presumed the existence of material reality and assigned representation a mirroring, rather than performative, re-presenting role. Idealist philosophies, while not banned, were taught to be simply wrong. The system's great seduction lay precisely in holding out the promise that it possessed historical truth and placed everyone on the road to its fulfillment, the perfect society. However, life under socialism was a far cry from this eventual good life. By the 1960s, as the grand promise appeared to be further and further delayed and as communist parties continually redirected and adjusted their truth-seeking ideologies to match the reality of economic lag and deficit of political trust, the gap between public Marxist rhetoric and its private translations grew increasingly wide. This is the gap in which television quietly performed its work of ideological fermentation. By the mid-1960s, socialist parties began to grab onto the new mass medium as a vehicle around which to consolidate their dwindling legitimacy. Because of its ability to link the private and the public spheres, television became an experimental kitchen in which to adjust the recipe for making an ideal, then an adequate, then at least a livable socialist society. The economic contours of this society resembled capitalism more and more with each reform, while holding on to the social protections and nationalistic cultural leanings typical of Western European socialist democracies.
Realism became a flexible ideological and aesthetic instrument in the course of these adjustments. While factual programming that "mirrored" reality such as news shows and documentary programs enjoyed priority and higher cultural value than fiction, most of it also contained an element of utopianism. Instead of depicting life as it was, factual programs shifted the emphasis to teaching citizens how to behave in an ideal socialist society. "Reality" thus functioned in two inseparable dimensions: the present as it looked and as it should look. The two dimensions were inextricably linked by television's educational mission.
Given the fundamental ideological primacy of the alliance among realism, socialism, and education, one could argue that all programming made by socialist state televisions falls under the umbrella of "genres of realism." In chapters 2, 3, and 4, I look at three particularly influential generic constellations around the preference for realism in factual television, all of which anticipate reality television in various ways. Chapter 5 offers a glimpse of the continuities and ruptures between socialist reality-based genres and postsocialist reality formats. I leave aside news reporting, which was most obviously and easily controlled.
"Not Yet": The Time of Educational Realism
In her wonderful history of Soviet television, Kristin Roth-Ey evokes Russian theorist Vladimir Sappak, who, in his book Television and Us (1962), argues that television should capture everyday reality in the spirit of Dziga Vertov's kinopravda. It should be not so much an instrument for staging reality but, rather, a force of democratization and truth. In a way, television was romanticized and "futured," along with its imagined audience. The operative term about television's temporality was "not yet."
A survey of the rhetoric of periodical assessments of Hungarian television by party officials and television professionals alike foregrounds a common script in these decades. They issue the same wishful-thinking reports year after year, driven by principles that drifted farther and farther into the past of nostalgia as the future drifted into utopia: they take a self-boosting count of the many hours of broadcasting devoted to news, education, factual and current affairs programming, documentaries, theater broadcasts, historical teleplays, adaptations of literary classics, and program exchanges within the Soviet camp. They express some carefully worded reservations about the "tentative" approach to teaching social sciences on TV caused by the many "unresolved" historical questions and the "inadequate courage" of some TV professionals. They also note "divided opinions" about popular entertainment programs, whether imported crime series or home-produced pop music talent shows or humorous programs, which are often deemed to be "in bad taste." Then they propose plans for the future: to increase the level of political awareness and expand political education. For instance, after the Tenth Annual Congress of the Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party, an article in the party newspaper states: "The hardest task for the leaders of our television is to find the right balance between providing cultural service and guiding the audience. Because this right balance has not yet emerged with reassuring certainty." Or, a prominent critic writes in the journal Rádió és TV Szemle (Radio and TV Review), "Society does not yet prescribe the mandatory behavioral models and achievement levels in the sphere of entertainment as it does in the sphere of education and the acquisition of higher culture."
The audience imagined by such assessments was always a bit disappointing: never quite sophisticated or enlightened enough, always falling slightly short of the standards marked out by high literature and art films, the true vehicles of aspirational Eastern European cultural nationalisms. The "not yet" paradigm ignored the fact that the majority of viewers preferred fictional and entertaining programming to tele-education according to audience surveys and letters. By the late 1960s, Eastern European socialist television broadcasters were fairly well established, provided at least six days of programming a week, in some countries introduced a second channel, and began to experiment with color. Socialist authorities tried to assert more control over television the more it was slipping away. This control manifested itself in the centralized planning of programming structures, directives for scientific research on television's effects, and efforts to fold television into the foundational mechanisms of a socialist society. The problem was that the ideological foundations were under continual reform along with the economic mechanisms. Particularly in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the rogue socialist country of Yugoslavia, the leadership gradually allowed capitalist features to mix in with centralized planning in the form of owning private property and small businesses, international travel, and competition on the global market.
Film and television were no exceptions to this. Increasingly throughout the 1970s and 1980s, programs were produced with international exhibitions and exports in mind. As media sociologist Tamás Szecsko wrote in 1971, while ideological control was increasingly tightened around the realist-educational television genres that were seen to be in support of socialism, fictional genres were often dismissed altogether as "just entertainment," not even deserving policy. These genres of entertainment were subject to the forces of the market, which increasingly impacted their consumption and distribution. Television was in the force field of conflicting influences from nationalistic policy and transnational markets, and it foregrounded socialist societies' characteristically stark division between mass and elite cultures.
Excerpted from TV Socialism by Anikó Imre. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments vii
Introduction. Why Do We Need to Talk about Socialism and TV? 1
Part I. Genres of Realism and Reality
1. From Socialist Realism to Emotional Realism 27
2. Tele-education 40
3. Crime Appeal 66
4. The Great Socialist Game (Show) 83
5. Postsocialist Ethno-Racial Reality TV 108
Part II. Genres of History
6. The Historical Adventure Drama 133
7. Postsocialist Nostalgia and European Historical Drama 155
8. Commercials as Time-Space Machines 173
Part III. Genres of Fiction
9. Women and TV 187
10. Socialist Soaps 199
Part IV. Genres of Humor
11. Socialist Comedy 227
12. (Post)socialist Political Satire 242
Afterword. Afterward 257
What People are Saying About This
"Cautioning us against simplistic uses of Anglo-American categories of television genres, Anikó Imre explains how the industry definitions of genre and audience expectations of genres evolved very differently in socialist societies. By defining genre as a 'transcultural form of expression' rather than as a given set of conventions, Imre demonstrates how the genric logic of television is embedded in the aesthetic, political, cultural, and ideological transformations in socialist and postsocialist societies."
“TV Socialism is a comprehensive and highly original contribution to television studies, and it will become indispensable in socialist/postsocialist studies. Anikó Imre’s scholarship is superior and her book is outstanding in its breadth and depth of coverage.”