Myths in Television, Myths on Television - Towards the "Rethinking Digital Myths" conference

TV test pattern
TV test pattern

Institutional Communication Service

20 December 2019

In view of the two-day conference on “Rethinking digital myths. Mediation, narratives and mythopoiesis in the digital age” organised at Università della Svizzera italiana on 30-31 January 2020, we are publishing a series of analyses on the myths of the digital age proposed by professors and researcher of USI Faculty of Communication Sciences. After the first piece on the fall of the Cyberspace myth (Paolo Bory, Philip di Salvo), and after the second piece on the myth of analog media (Simone Dotto, Simone Natale), we propose an analyses by Luca Barra, Alma Mater Studiorum - University of Bologna, and Giuliana C. Galvagno, University of Turin.


What is left of television in the digital scenario? In a perhaps counterintuitive way, once freed from the chains of the television set (the device, however present almost in every home), television (assumed here as a narrative, productive, distributive form) has never been so present. In the imaginary, where it helps to shape the myths of today, to read a digital environment. And in the discourses, where it questions many of the rhetorics of digital change with its stable popularity.

From a narrative point of view, contemporary TV seriality gives a great deal to the representation of digital technologies, although not always with appreciable results. One widespread approach refers to the myth of the superdatabase, fast and efficient computers that often determine the resolution of cases in many police procedural (CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds...), where the search algorithms are able to establish immediate connections between crimes and offenders. More interesting, though, is the point of view offered by television products which deal more specifically with the technological revolution and its consequences. The mythical dimension of the Eighties digital revolution is the setting for the cult series Halt and Catch Fire (AMC 2014-2017). The series reconstructs the evolution of a hi-tech company at first around the development of a personal computer, then around the creation of an online gaming community and finally in the competition among search engines. Set in Dallas, the Silicon Prairie that has not received the same media attention as the Silicon Valley, but is just as important in the creation of the mythology of digital innovation. Through a meticulous reconstruction of the period, Halt and Catch Fire (the mythical command that would put an end to the computer’s CPU) offers a new perspective on the digital revolution, underlining the role of outsiders as well as the often forgotten role of women.

The controversial TV experiment Bandersnatch, an interactive film belonging to the Black Mirror franchise (Channel 4 - Netflix), is set in those same years of construction of digital myths. Black Mirror is the episodic series that since its first episode in 2011 has offered points of reflection on a dystopic future to which we are destined, either thanks to (or no thanks to) digital technologies. If in the previous seasons the series often presented many digital myths (artificial intelligence, social networks, surveillance, augmented reality) in the key of grotesque and black humor, in Bandersnatch it approached the TV myth of overcoming schedules and consumption customization: control apparently passes into the hands of the viewer, who has the faculty not only to choose what and when to watch but also to determine the development of, in addition to, the end of the narration using the remote control. A relief for many, the future of television is still very far from the interactivity of Bandersnatch, which nevertheless represents an interesting game and which, as often happens in the issues addressed by Black Mirror, leads us to ask ourselves if this control is really what we want.

On the discoursive side, interactivity or personalization and fragmentation of TV consumption are exactly at the center of an already decades-long debate on the digital overcoming of television, a medium too trivial and stupid if compared to the (real and presumed) potential of “new media”. Following this interpretation, viewers are trying in every way to free themselves from the chains of classic broadcasting, looking for content to enjoy when and where they want. They do not want to wait for scheduling, but they like to see everything immediately. Serial narratives have to be watched with marathons and other forms of binge watching. Advertisers are looking for more and more profiled consumption, such as the online one. And the economic and creative models of production, distribution and viewing are revolutionized by the digital. Yet, on a closer inspection, these are myths: readings that record real phenomena, but widen and transfigure them, following on the one hand the promotional needs of some new players (including Netflix, which established the idea of disruption) and contributing to the too easy chatter of journalism and even parts of the media industry.

As often happens, the digital media environment is far more complex. Certainly it redefines itself, but rather than opposition it makes sense to read it as complementary: classic TV paradoxically reinforces its value as a shared event, a social synchronization, a generator of an imagery for everyone, a mass collector of viewers; meanwhile, the multiplication of channels and platforms widens the television contents and the possible access way to them. Beyond the rhetoric, in today's television there is much more space and more opportunities. Also to frame the digital change. And to model – in the complex seriality and more – the imagery (and myths) of the digital media. TV strikes back.