Modern Bardic Function of Television
Over the past seventy years, we have overlooked the predominant intellectual cultural medium in our society, the television. The effect of television on society’s norms, spanning across the globe, is so subtle that it has gone unnoticed for the first forty or so years of its existence. The introduction of the television to households across the world has molded our “culture” more than any other medium, and sociologists are now beginning to hypothesize as to the means by which television achieved this; John Fiske and John Hartley recently coined the term “bardic television” to describe how television has forged our society since its creation. In medieval European culture, a poet, referred to as a bard, was charged with the task of commemorating his patron’s ancestors or achievements through lyricism. Fiske and Hartley’s concept of “bardic television” embodies the idea that the underlying duty of broadcast television is that of a bard.
Bards, possibly in an effort to entertain their patrons, often used such methods as mythology, rhetoric, riddles, and allegory to tell stories. The result was that the events of the stories might not follow a logical sequence, or certain events might be hyperbolized. In our class, the science fiction group is especially familiar with this aspect of television. In Game of Thrones, the fantasized aspect of the show is constantly apparent, given the nature of science fiction and fantasy. The entire show takes place in a nonexistent world where such things as magic still exist, but these fantasized elements allow the show to not only entertain the masses, but also to emphasize the underlying meanings behind the events of the series. Simply altering the reality of the world in which the show takes place can offer an arguably easier-to-understand perspective on issues that afflict society.
The second aspect of television that gives it a truly bardic function is its constant relevance to popular culture. In other words the subject matter of television programs never fails to evolve with what people consider popular. Not only does television not fall from public interest, but it also has the power to pull some things back into public interest, which Fiske and Hartley refer to as “claw back.” This is apparent in many teen dramas. Many teens today will argue that the behaviors they see in a teenage drama program are outdated, but these behaviors do not seem odd to us as we watch. It just looks like a normal day in the life of a teenager. This is because television seems to put its content on a pedestal and make it relevant again. As a result of its resilience to cultural change, television never falls, and probably never will fall, out of its viewers’ interest. By design, television will always have programming that engrosses somebody. This aspect of bardic television is not quite as apparent in the science fiction genre. Clearly it would be unreasonable to say I empathize with the struggle of the Starks in their quest for power in the medieval, fictional world of Game of Thrones; however, television producers understand that a great percentage of television viewers enjoy historical and fictional programming. By combining the two, they create a series that is destined for astronomical ratings. In this way, television cannot fall from power and concede its influence to another cultural medium.
The final prominent aspect of television that lends it such a bardic function is its verbal and auditory transmission as opposed to textual and literate transmission. Unfortunately, this characteristic of television often earns it discredit; however Fiske and Hartley contest this point, using William Shakespeare as an example. Shakespeare, whose method of transmission to his audiences was oral, is always revered as a creative genius and master of the English language. Thus, “we should not mistake an oral medium for an illiterate one,” (Fiske and Hartley 16-17). The authors also make the case that an oral medium “can be as demanding… as the most profound works of literature” because the information is fleeting as it passes. Game of Thrones undoubtedly abides by this characteristic of bardic television because the viewer must pay undivided attention to the programming in order to comprehend the story and not be lost in the complex web of plotlines. The bard of old did not and could not record his art for his audience to review later. The nature of his job was to be spontaneous. If his listener turned away for a moment, vital information was lost. We have all watched a television program before and hesitated to leave the room to get a refill of your drink, or to get a snack from the fridge because we do not want to miss out on the action. This demand for complete focus and attention puts television in a powerful position because its information is rarely ignored, giving it control over many of societies norms.
Given the commonalities between bards and television, and the examples taken from Game of Thrones, it is clear that television does indeed serve quite a bardic function in today’s society. Television holds an incredible amount of influence over its viewers’ interests via claw back and other techniques. Much like that of the bards, its content becomes fact regardless of its credibility. People actively respond to the glorifying effect of television, making it the single most influential cultural medium of today’s society, and giving it a truly bardic function.