British Universities Film & Video Council

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Screening Socialism: TV and Everyday Life in Socialist Eastern Europe

The Screening Socialism project is the first comparative, transnational study of television cultures in socialist Eastern Europe. Dr Sabina Mihelj, Reader in Media and Cultural Analysis, Loughborough University, provides an overview of this innovative project and discusses some preliminary results.

SabinaAbout the Author: Dr Sabina Mihelj is a Professor of Media and Cultural Analysis at Loughborough University and sits on the editorial boards of several international media and cultural analysis journals. Recent publications include Central and Eastern European Media in Comparative Perspective: Politics, Economy Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), Media Nations: Communicating Belonging and Exclusion in the Modern World (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011), as well as contributions to the European Journal of Communication and the European Journal of Cultural Studies. Sabina is currently working on a major comparative project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which examines television cultures across five state socialist countries.

Screening Socialism was launched in August 2013 and is funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2013-025). Led by Sabina Mihelj from the Communication Research Centre at Loughborough University, the project team comprises three full-time Research Associates – Dr Alice Bardan, Dr Simon Huxtable, and Dr Sylwia Szostak – and draws on the help of local experts including Dr Marijana Grbeša, Dr Ivan Kozachenko, Dr Aleksandra Milovanović, and Mila Turaljić.

At the core of the Screening Socialism project lies a deceptively simple question: What is television? We often tend to think of television in universal terms, as if the simple existence of a shared technology means that its basic forms, content and uses were the same everywhere. Yet, do we know enough about the various forms of television globally, and through history, to offer a universally applicable definition? Being part of a political, economic and cultural system that self-consciously set out to develop an alternative form of modern society, socialist television offers a particularly apposite basis for addressing this question. Along with other modern media, socialist television was inevitably drawn into the Cold War contest between two rival versions of modern society: one premised on liberal democracy and market economy, the other on communist rule and planned economy. As a consequence, its formats, content and uses were different from those familiar from western television histories.

One of the key differences was, of course, the close involvement of the Communist Party, and its attempt to use television as a means of propagating its political vision, and vilifying its opponents both at home and abroad. Yet, as Screening Socialism seeks to show, the distinctiveness of socialist television cannot be reduced to propaganda. As the preliminary results indicate, explicit propagandistic content was extremely rare; the vast majority of socialist television programmes was aimed at entertainment and education, and only obliquely tied to ideological messages. Furthermore, the tastes and preferences of socialist audiences were often at odds with the intended uses of the medium envisaged by the elites. Socialist television therefore could not function as a seamless conveyor-belt for the dissemination of ideological messages; rather, the forms and content broadcast through the small screen gradually turned into an arena of negotiation, however unequal in terms, between communist leaders, television producers and audiences.

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