British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Screening Socialism: TV and Everyday Life in Socialist Eastern Europe

Sources and Methods

The project is original and innovative not only in terms of the research problems it addresses, but also in terms of its research design, which relies on transnational comparison. This design will enable us to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the diversity of national television cultures in the region, and investigate the different configurations of internal and external factors that gave rise to particular kinds of television culture in each country. The analysis spans five socialist countries (East Germany, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) which are characterised by different degrees of openness to East-West exchanges and different patterns of television infrastructure development – two of the key factors that are believed to shape socialist television cultures.

To address the questions outlined earlier, the following sources and methods are being used:

  • Archival sources and secondary literature: the focus here is on television policies and elite attitudes to television from a variety of aspects, as well as on perceptions of audiences and audience research from the period.
  • Television schedules: a sample of historical television schedules from each country is analysed using both quantitative and qualitative methods, investigating the proportions of domestically produced and imported content and well as the changing balance of information, education and entertainment and cultural programming.
  • Television series: particular attention is paid to domestically produced television series, which achieved top ratings in all countries and are often vividly remembered by audiences to this day; a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods is used to investigate, among others, the changing depiction of personal and public lives, and on the narratives of the present and the past.
  • Life history interviews: over 160 interviews have been conducted to date across seven post-socialist countries. These are being used to investigate past viewing habits and uses of television, but also to examine vernacular memories of everyday life with television in the post-socialist period.

Each of the four layers of data is examined first at national level and then comparatively, across the five countries. In the final step, the analysis will focus on identifying the constellations of factors that could help explain the patterns of difference and similarity and change over time.

Public viewing of television on the streets of Belgrade, 23 August 1958. Photo courtesy of the Television Belgrade Programme Archive.

Public viewing of television on the streets of Belgrade, 23 August 1958. Photo courtesy of the Television Belgrade Programme Archive.

Key Themes and Preliminary Findings

The key findings of the project can be mapped broadly onto two axes: spaces of television and times of television. The selected preliminary conclusions presented here are based on materials gathered from two countries only (Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union) and will be revised in light of material from the remaining three countries as the project develops.

One of the spatial aspects explored in the project is the changing relationship between television, personal life and the public domain. After Stalin’s death in 1953, improved provision of consumer goods, increases in leisure time, and a rise in living standards were seen as a means for legitimising socialist rule. Television is often regarded as an inherently intimate medium, prone to personal narratives and modes of address, and tightly intertwined with the everyday rhythm of domestic life. As such, it may have functioned as an important conduit for this ‘privatisation’ of politics in the socialist world. Yet, as our analysis of serial television fiction shows, this intrinsically personal character of television sat uneasily with the ostensibly public, collectivist nature of the communist project. Although the tightening of political control over public space in the 1970s was initially accompanied by a shift from public to domestic settings and personal matters – evident in the production of series such as the Yugoslav Theatre in the House (Pozorište u kuči, TV Belgrade, 1972-1984) and the Soviet Day After Day (Den’ za dnëm, Gostelradio, 1971) – this ‘retreat’ into domesticity was short-lived. By the late 1970s, attention shifted back to public narratives and settings, such as the epic struggle against Nazi enemies on the battlefronts of World War Two, or the troubles and achievements of working life in socialist factories. It was only in the 1980s, when the Party hold over the media started to soften, that serial fiction turned away from the public realm, and rediscovered its fascination with the domestic and the personal.

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