Critical Perspectives on Television from the Frankfurt School to Postmodernism

Paul Lazarsfeld, one of the originators of modern communications studies, distinguished between what he called a "administrative research," that deployed empirical research for the goals of corporate and state institutions, and “critical research,” that he associated with the Frankfurt School. Critical research situates the media within the broader context of social life and interrogates its structure, goals, values, messages, and effects. It develops critical perspectives by which media are evaluated and appraised. Since the 1940s, an impressive variety of critical approaches to the media and television have developed. In this study, I will first present the Frankfurt School as an inaugurator of critical approaches to television studies and will then discuss how a wide range of theorists addressed what later became known as the politics of representation in critical television studies, engaging problematics of class, gender, race, sexuality, and other central components of media representation and social life. Then, I discuss how a postmodern turn in cultural studies contested earlier critical models and provided alternative approaches to television studies. I conclude with some comments that argue for a critical approach to television and media culture and in this text sketch out a comprehensive critical model that embraces production and political economy of television; textual analysis; and investigation of the effects and uses of television by audiences. As this study will indicate, such a multidimensional approach to critical media and television studies is found initially in the Frankfurt School and was developed by many other television theorists in diverse locations and from often conflicting perspectives, ranging from British cultural studies to critical feminism
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