Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 1

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Bennett, James. Television Personalities: Stardom and the Small Screen. London: Routledge, 2011. / Leah Shafer

<1> In Television Personalities: Stardom and the Small Screen, James Bennett argues that televisual fame needs to be addressed on its own terms, “distinct from the ”TV star’ and the wider milieu of television celebrity” (2). In order to forge this distinction, Bennett focuses his study on television personalities, those performers who host, announce, emcee, or otherwise facilitate programming in their own name, as themselves. Establishing the television personality as a legitimate figure allows Bennett to focus his analysis on specific modes of performance, performer labor, and an assessment of the economic and cultural values of that performer’s relationship to television’s personality system. In Parts I and II of the book, Bennett deliberately and systematically distinguishes the study of the television personality from that of film stars, television stars, and other media celebrities, citing “the apparent reluctance of film, television, media and celebrity studies to consider the television personality as worthy of extended attention” (190). This tactical rejection of the terms and concepts behind much recent film and celebrity study scholarship is explicitly motivated by the need to “reserve particular terms within the general field of celebrity for specific kinds of performers in order to better understand celebrity culture” (190) and the need to “move beyond film theory and an understanding of the term ”television personality’ as signifying a ”lack’ in relation to film stardom” (191). In Part III, Bennett frames recent shifts in televisual discourse by analyzing television personalities in their intertexual and multiplatform iterations and then links those modalities to a thoughtful critique of the ways that stardom bolsters conservatism and exploitative neo-liberal conceptions of labor.

<2> Throughout this rigorously researched volume, Bennett uses primary documents and industrial paratexts to stress the importance of reading the work of television personalities as a kind of valuable labor that functions within economic, social, and industrial systems. Because his is the first detailed study to address the television personality as a medium-specific iteration of celebrity and star systems, Bennett finds himself pressed to repeatedly substantiate the terms and historical presence of this category. In a series of chronologically arranged case studies, Bennett analyzes performers whose skill lies in their ability to perform themselves on television; the meaning and structures of the television systems that support those performers; and, the extension of those performers’ fame to television’s “political, economic, and ideological functions” (6). His keen ear for fascinating paratexts, primary sources, and provocatively chosen stills effectively shores up his key task: the forging of an ontological poetics. Bennett’s inclusion of these documents and images offer the book’s greatest insights and pleasures.

<3> The “ordinariness” of the television personality lies at the center of Bennett’s ideological and intellectual investments in his project, and he maps its resonance across historical, theoretical, and affective fields. As he says, “television personalities must be understood as actively involved in the promotion, and maintenance, of particular meanings about what it means to be ”ordinary’ across a range of identity formations: from national identity to race, sexuality to gender” (191). For example, in the context of British television, from which Bennett draws most of his major examples, ordinariness is associated with notions of “working-class-ness” and the BBC’s ethos of public service (27). Further, Bennett’s work is deeply invested in recuperating the term from within the historically prevalent scholarly binary that reads cinema celebrity as “extraordinary” and television celebrity as “ordinary” (28). There is value in the ordinary, he argues, particularly when it is read as a form of sensibility, demonstrated in the television personality’s “performance of vocational and vernacular skill ”which“ underpins how television personalities function in relation to cultural and ideological values” (29).

<4> As part of a larger discussion of ordinariness, the performer’s labor, and the celebrity self, Bennett cites a memo from British television executive Ronald Waldman, who in 1954 was BBC Head of Light Entertainment. In the memo to all BBC light entertainment producers, Waldman pushes for an improvement in the televisual qualities of presenters on light entertainment programs, saying,

…this is a highly skilled professional job … Points have to be made, tempo has to be established or varied, vital information has to be given, ”flow’ has to be maintained – all these functions have to be performed by the presenter. Skill and efficiency in this direction, when allied to a pleasing personality, can work wonders for a show. (53)
As Bennett notes, Waldman’s memo serves as an example of the way that the industrial press was establishing the discourse of the new medium around performer labor and the maintenance of flow. Also notable here is the way that the performance of personality can evoke wonder and pleasure, which Bennett identifies as the crucial element in the television personality’s affective relationship to the television audience. Bennett’s investigation of early television personalities, bolstered by examples like Waldman’s memo, establishes a conceptual “regime of fame” that has, he argues, deeply informed “contemporary conceptual understandings” of the televisual (45).

<5> Bennett supports his claims about television personalities by offering a host of examples, drawn from across television’s history. Some of his most vital and persuasive writing comes in the chapter about the way that female In-service announcers navigated between discourses of glamour and the BBC’s public service ethos. Bennett’s examples highlight the way that issues raised by female television personalities influenced both the material conditions of early television production and the discourses about those conditions that circulated in the popular press. According to an interview with Clive Rawes, cramped early television studios had to be at least large enough to allow a camera to pull back so that the length and style of an announcer’s gown could be seen in the shot (79). Bennett offers as evidence a letter from a viewer who is irritated that she only sees the shoulders of certain In-vision announcers’ dresses (80). His discussion of the ways that concerns about the announcers’ dresses were being framed (both literally and figuratively) touches on industrial concerns and fan culture in order to make an argument about the value of women’s labor in a system that sustained a complex discourse surrounding expectations of glamour and their relationship to issues of class and aspirational audiences. Likewise, Bennett’s clever use of stills to demonstrate varying modes of eye contact by Blind Date host Cilla Black and cookery expert Jamie Oliver augments his argument about the centrality of direct address to the television personality’s skill set. Perhaps most importantly, his discussion of the differences between Jeremy Clarkson and Jonathan Ross clearly illustrates the way that neo-liberal perceptions of entrepreneurial labor and the prevalence of global brands and performer branding strategies have radically altered the televisual landscape, the industry’s relationship to performer labor, and the social significations of the television personality.

<6> In the book’s final chapters, Bennett turns to the digital age, taking on “what many have argued are new, radically decontextualized forms of ordinary celebrity” (189). In a particularly evocative example, Bennett cites a The Guardian Weekend Magazine article about the raucous crowds that appeared in London to watch a live taping of the Internet television show DiggNation. In the article, Jim Louderbeck, chief executive of DiggNation’s network Revision3, says, “I wonder whether the intimacy of our handheld devices and computers creates more of a sense of intimacy and sharedness and companionship than just sitting back and watching TV” (177). Bennett is interested in DiggNation because the sense of intimacy and immediacy noted by Louderbeck links cybercelebrity to early modes of television production. Even though Louderbeck’s comment performs a turning away from the history that Bennett has assiduously established, it nevertheless engages the ordinary and the intimate, the shared and the authentic: key terms in Bennett’s poetics. In the forward-looking chapter, the everyday experience of watching Internet TV is situated within a larger discussion about televisual fame’s hallmark attributes: “ordinariness and its interrelationship with the discourses of authenticity and skill” (140). Kevin Rose, the compere and founder of weekly Internet television vodcast DiggNation, Bennett argues, provides us with an indexical example of web2.0 fame. Of Rose, Bennett says,

…he has deployed a level of vernacular skill to master social networking platforms so as to ensure people are watching and listening to him amongst the ”chatter’ of the web: an image that he himself has controlled, edited, tagged and filtered…. (178)
Rose’s controlling, editing, tagging, and filtering exemplify of the kind of multiplatform labor typical of web2.0 television personalities, while performing key characteristics of the television personality: “ordinariness, authenticity, intimacy, and skill” (189).

<7> Bennett links our current moment’s crisis of selfhood to what Su Holmes has called a “crisis in terminology” (191). This crisis of terminology about selfhood led Bennett to write this book. In the 21st Century, celebrity may be radically decontextualized, but it remains profoundly linked to the performed identities of its personalities. Television personalities, as performers of themselves, labor in a system that interpolates identity and surveillance. By defining the terms that characterize those performances, Bennett has opened a space for discussing the ways that issues of selfhood and celebrity raise troubling questions about “neo-liberal discourses of privatization, personal responsibility and consumer choice” (189). Ultimately, Bennett’s book argues that the careful study of television personalities will help us to better understand “the way television and its forms of celebrity function in our daily lives” (12).

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