New sounds on television

Old TV set on wood-effect casing, with aerial on the top and dials to change the channels and volume

© Santa Maria

Specialist music video channels such as MTV have played an important part in enabling new sounds to be heard, as have cable channels devoted to specific areas or styles of music (such as Black or country music), but what contribution has been made by the non-specialist television channels?

Popular music can certainly be heard on British television today with great regularity, much of it on non-music programmes. Songs crop up as soundtracks in documentaries, in advertisements, as title music, as background music in dramas, even as space-fillers between programmes. Little of this comes under the heading 'new sounds', however. Television has never had the same kind of close relationship with the record industry that radio has enjoyed. This is not to deny the importance of the many programmes centred around hit records that have been a feature of TV schedules in many countries (such as 'American Bandstand' in the 1950s in the US and 'Soul Train' from 1970 to 2006, and Britain's 'Oh Boy!' and 'Top of the Pops'). These programmes regularly played their part in providing young people with a musical culture they could think of as theirs. But as Simon Frith has pointed out, rock emerged in the 1960s despite, not because of, television, which was identified with bland ballad singers and teen idols. "Far from promoting new sorts of music", Frith goes on, "television since the 1960s has always seemed to be behind the times" (2002: 279).

We should not be surprised at this. Companies making television programmes do acknowledge music's important contribution to that medium and do commission a lot of music for particular programmes, especially title music, which is required by programmes as varied as the news and soap operas. Effective as this kind of music is, however, it is rare for it to be in a new style. Television tends to use what is already out there in terms of both styles and names of performers. Some styles of music have never featured on television to any great extent (except perhaps as part of this nostalgia boom) - punk and hard rock are good examples - and when they have appeared it has normally been some time after they had ceased to be new sounds.

If its track record in introducing actual new sounds is patchy, television scores highly in other related areas. From the time it began to dominate home entertainment in the 1950s, television has been very good at star-making. This ability is exploited to its maximum today in the numerous talent shows that have become a regular feature of the TV schedules, from 'Pop Idol' and 'American Idol' to those that seek stars for particular theatrical roles. In shows like these the public is not choosing between different new sounds, as almost all performers are constrained by a set of expectations regarding the style of their performance. But it is at least choosing between different new voices and personalities, or rather giving the appearance of choice, as the production of the programmes may subtly help guide an audience towards a narrow range of possible outcomes.

Television is also well practised in the skill of making an imagined environment seem real and has also used its ability very effectively. Studio-based music shows - 'Ready Steady Go', for example - gradually became a genre in their own right. Watching them became like being invited in to an event already taking place, with its own audience and its own conventions. Even though viewers in the television audience know the show is staged for their benefit, they still feel a sense of privilege.

Another type of programme that has influenced the way music is received is the historical show that takes an often nostalgic look back (often with fascinating accompanying film footage) at the music of previous eras. With titles such as 'The Rock 'n' Roll Years' these programmes are an important way that new audiences are introduced to the music of earlier times.